1. Politicizing the prosecution of political opponents. In countries like India, it is not uncommon for politicians in power, or their allies, to bring cases against opposition politicians. Even if a court ultimately dismisses these charges, these prosecutions drain the resources of one’s opponents and cast them under a veil of suspicion. Trump’s declared intent to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue a criminal investigation against Hillary Clinton and “lock her up” over her email server fits this pattern. It is not a stretch to imagine that Trump will use politicized investigations or prosecutions against political opponents in the future.
2. Selective application of the law to the media and civil society. In India, Narendra Modi’s government has audited civil-society organizations critical of his government for their taxes or for not complying with regulations around accepting foreign funding. Such actions keep these organizations on the defensive and undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of the broader public. Similar selective application of the law to shut down critics could also be used in the United States. Indeed, after being angered by the Washington Post’s coverage of his campaign, Trump threatened he would order the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to bring an antitrust action against Amazon in retaliation (both the Post and Amazon are owned by Jeff Bezos).
3. The use of libel laws to attack critics. Even before running for office, Trump was involved in a number of libel actions and he says he will bring litigation against the women who accused him of sexual assault during the campaign. Peter Thiel, who helped fund the lawsuit that ultimately bankrupted Gawker, is one of his primary supporters. Even if Trump ultimately loses the libel cases he brings, the threat of prolonged and expensive litigation can silence both those who wish to speak out about Trump’s less savory behavior and the media outlets that dare to report such stories.
4. Undercutting non-partisan government institutions. After a recent coup attempt earlier this year in Turkey, President Erdoğan replaced thousands of civil servants with loyalists. The Turkish example is dramatic, but leaders can also more gradually undermine the non-partisanship of the state. For instance, in June the Reserve Bank of India’s well-respected leader Raghuram Rajan was forced into resigning by the Modi government after he expressed concern over rising intolerance in the country.
In the United States, there are many non-partisan positions to which Trump might appoint loyalists or attempt to push out those who do not toe the line—this might be in the Department of Justice, FBI, Federal Reserve, or even the judiciary. Trump has already expressed a desire to “fire” the country’s top generals, which he legally could do, thereby turning the military into a partisan entity and reducing its ability to act as a check on Trump’s potentially extreme or dangerous orders.
5. Silence in the face of violence. Perhaps, however, the most powerful discretionary tool of an authoritarian-inclined leader is not any specific action, but rather his or her silence or inaction in the face of violence or intimidation undertaken in their name. In India, Modi has effectively sat on the sidelines when allies in the media like Arnab Goswami of Times Now (think Sean Hannity on steroids) have branded rights advocates and critical journalists as “anti-national,” or when Muslims have been attacked in the name of the Hindutva ideology that aided his rise to power.
In the United States, we have already seen minorities, journalists, and university spaces attacked in the name of “Making America Great Again.” The dramatic rise in hate incidents and crimes since the election has been startling in its breadth. Trump did not order these attacks, but in refusing to clearly condemn them and continuing to scapegoat minorities, he encourages more such crimes. In a constitutional democracy extreme elements of the public can frequently do far more to intimidate and wear down critics than the government itself. Authoritarian-minded leaders know this and use it to their advantage.
The above is not an exhaustive list of strategies. There are many others, including tactics that are illegal, but difficult to detect—such as leaking damaging secrets about political opponents (Trump, after all, will now have access to the most sophisticated intelligence agencies ever created).
Trump is not Modi or Erdoğan, or, as some suggest, Hitler—each of whom themselves sit on a wide spectrum of authoritarianism. Trump’s leadership will have its own pathologies that reflect the man and his context. We should not be surprised, though, to see him use any of the strategies discussed here, and should anticipate their potentially long-term effects: they may not only allow him to stay in power for far longer than four years, but could also do irreparable damage to the country’s political fabric and create an environment in which future American presidents may feel less constrained to use these tactics themselves.
When identity politics rule, racism and polarization thrive. It is no coincidence that we are seeing a resurgence in outright white nationalism — embodied in the so-called alt-right — at the same time that America’s leftist cultural elite are decisively rejecting Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that Americans be judged by the “content of their character” and not the color of their skin.
If we don’t respect our neighbors because they belong to a different political tribe, we’re not going to respect their vote.
Americans have always hated and mistrusted our politicians. That’s normal. What’s not business-as-usual is for us to trust a politician (or a political party) more than our neighbors and friends. When we do that, we’re not just losing our democracy, we’re losing our essentially American pragmatism, the knowledge that unity is strength.