So, Trump talked about serving 14 more years as president, in what seemed to be a very off the cuff remark: “Let me tell you. In six years – or maybe 10 or maybe 14, right? – in six years, when I’m not here, the New York Times goes out of business very quickly”. This would mean that he would have to amend the constitution and then either win or steal three more terms as president, then he would presumably retire at the ripe age of 87 and hand the reins to President Ivanka Trump. That’s a quite authoritarian tendency and changing the constitution to allow someone to remain in power has been the semi-final step in the methodology of many tyrants who strangled a democracy and took over, from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey to Vladimir Putin of Russia to Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. And it’s even not the first time that Trump has flirted with the idea.
So is this what Trump attempts to do? Well it is always risky to lack the epistemological humility to assume what’s going on in Trump’s mind, as humanity has rarely witnessed a more chaotic house of inexpiable anger and smut. Maybe he is suffering from his usual diarrhea of the mouth and this idea is another careless turd that he has left on America’s porch. But that’s not the point. The point is, whether he is following a strategic plan or he is bumbling toward dictatorship in usual oblivious staggers, he is taking the steps, he is meeting the requirements, and it’s quite obvious when you compare him with others who have been on the same path. Let’s take a look:
Step 1: Conquering the Party
I read a lot of profiles and articles about people in Trump’s administration or congressional Republicans who support him. There’s a certain narrative to all of them. First, they are quoted saying something nasty about Trump, then we are introduced to the fact that they have spent so much time probing his excellency’s regal anus with their tongues that they can guess what he had for dinner last night just by the texture of his leftover excrement. Like, this profile on Mike Pompeo in the New Yorker. It tells the story of how Pompeo was determined to stop Trump by any means and then ended up as someone whose main ambition in life is pleasing him. Or this one on Lindsey Graham. But of course, not all Republicans became mere sycophants, some left politics: Bob Corker was a major one. This is especially true about people in his administration from James Mattis to Rex Tillerson. But the point is, whether through resignation or capitulation, the Republican party is entirely Trump’s now.
This is a thing that happens with tyrants. Considering the previous two presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, they were obviously pretty much supported by their own party members and there was pressure to support them in the face of bipartisanship, but I don’t think either Obama or Bush expected to cleanse the party from their internal dissenters. There were occasional defections like Joe Lieberman and Lincoln Chafee, but they weren’t the norm for the “mavericks” to be removed. The reason is obvious: a tyrant is someone who defines the party based on personal loyalty and not principles, and therefore their first step is to drive out the critics.
As I’ve said, this is true about all tyrants that turning a republic into an autocracy. I don’t dare mention the Night of the Long Knives, but Erdoğan’s main enemy is now his former main ally, Fethullah Gülen, and the main personalities of AKP, Abdullah Gül and Ahmet Davutoğlu, are now also his main critics and not in power anymore. Igor Ivanov was the Foreign Minister of Russia from 1998 to 2004 and he was forced out by Putin who couldn’t start a cult of personality as long as someone like Ivanov remained in his orbit.
The same goes for Trump: Rex Tillerson remains the worst secretary of state in US history since the end of WWII but he had to go because he was an oil tycoon and a powerful man who didn’t suffer Trump, and he was replaced by Pompeo who had proven to be Trump’s number one sycophant. Mattis who refused to suck up to Trump had to go, and be replaced by an absolute nobody like Mark Esper. Nikki Haley was no moderate but she was a strong woman in her own rights and she was replaced with Kelly Craft who’s only known for phoning it in as the ambassador to Canada.
This is my point: the common constant between people are driven out is not that they were moderates or good at their jobs or adults in the room or whatever, the thing is that they were all powerful — the thing you can say about James Mattis or Rex Tillerson or John Kelly or Nikki Haley or H. R. McMaster or Bob Corker or Jeff Flake is that they wouldn’t be defined by how much they sucked up to Trump or be overshadowed by him. They didn’t have to go because they were good people or good politicians (although I personally admire Mattis) but because two kings cannot fit into the same kingdom.
And those who remain are of three kinds: those who are too weak and mediocre to challenge the king, like Ben Carson, or those who are corrupt and are profiting off their proximity to the tyrant like Elaine Chao, or extremists who are so bent down on achieving their nefarious goals that they’d tolerate anything, like John Bolton (even though I’m willing to bet he’s on the way out too), or better yet, Mike Pence.
Will these people challenge Trump if he decides to start a movement to amend the constitution and remain in power? No, they won’t. They’ll be too weak or too corrupt or too radical to stick their necks out for democracy. You could reasonably think in 2016 that the Republican party might stop Trump, but not now. Trump has already finished step one, he has remade the Republican party in the image of his own cult of personality.
Step 2: Conquering the Press
No one can deny that Trump has a contentious relationship with the press. Also almost no one is oblivious to the political implications of this issue. There’s a reason that the Washington Post changed its slogan to “Democracy dies in darkness” and there has been lots of analyses about the worrisome aspects of the relationship between Trump and the press. It’s obvious why you’ve heard about this thing in particular a lot. The press is naturally more sensitive about what is happening to itself, so it tends to report it.
Also, this is really something done by other people in Trump’s position. Turkey was either number 1 or number 2 as the world’s largest prisoners of journalists and Putin is famous for his penchant to poison and kill them, but that’s not really the main thing, that’s the end of the road, not the road itself. The road is creating a media monopoly.
For example, you can read this Guardian article how Putin gradually overtook Russian press. This was basically his main political struggle in his first and second term in his presidency. This Atlantic article tells how Erdoğan did it. Look, another article about how Chávez did the same thing. Here’s one about how Viktor Orban is killing free press in Hungary, and here’s one about Poland under the Law and Justice party rule. This is a constant among all fledgling tyrants, they first destroy the free press, then they replace it with state propaganda press.
Well, you can say Fox News basically functions as a semi-state TV for Trump. Parts of it certainly are. No one who has lived in a non-democracy can recognize people like Sean Hannity, Fox and Friends, and Jeanine Pirro for anything else. Of course, even Fox News still reports the actual news, and it’s not 100% like what we see in nations like Iran. Of course, Trump also has Breitbart and other right wing media mostly in his pocket.
But even if Trump is slowly turning conservative media into his propaganda apparatus, I’d venture that his progress in the other column has been zero. The media reports on Trump, exposes him, never allows the voice of dissent to be silent. This is obviously because Trump has fewer tools to deal with the media in a democracy. American media is independent from the state and is not funded by it, doesn’t rely on governmental permits, and American provisions of free speech are far more powerful than those of Turkey, Russia, Hungary, or Poland. So the media remains completely untouched by Trump.
But that doesn’t matter. He might not be able to conquer the media, but he wants to. His lovely phrase — FAKE NEWS! — reveals his desire to shape how he is covered, he has called the press “the enemy of the people”, he has gotten into multiple feuds with media personalities, and he’s obsessed with how he is portrayed in the media. So we can go ahead and check this box too. He shares this with the likes of Putin too.
Step 3: Conquering the Streets
Another thing these people all share: a bunch of thugs and hooligans who scare your enemies and are totally not connected to the government guys, why don’t you believe that these are spontaneous acts of beating up and disrupting speeches and defecating on cars. These completely spontaneous and totally not organized random youth always happen to attack the regime’s enemies, but whatever.
The reason for this is clear. You are a tyrant in the making, and like that Britney Spears song, you’re not a Democrat so you can’t just tolerate dissent, but also you’re not yet a full blown autocrat, so you can’t just easily rely on the police and the intelligence apparatus to take care all or any of your dirty laundry. So you create a group of dashing young men who are going to partake in the constructive entertainment of scaring people so that they are a little oppressed but not too much.
This technique goes back to the modern daddy of all democracy killers, Benito Mussolini, and it was used by his disciples such as Adolf Hitler, Oswald Mosley, and George Lincoln Rockwell. But this is by no means limited to the outright fascists. The Iranian basiji did this for the Islamic Republic before they completed their take over, and Putin has an extensive network of such people as mentioned in the link above. In recent years the fascist movement Grey Wolves have allied with Erdoğan and play this role for him. If you happen to know German, this video explains how it happened.
Now it’s a bit harder to say whether this is true about Trump or not. Trump definitely has a group of dedicated followers and he likes to encourage violence as we have seen in his rallies, and as some violent events have shown he definitely has supporters who are happy to go the extra mile and send bombs to his political opponents or shoot up places or drive cars into people. But he’s still missing something — they’re not really organized, and no one really thinks that these people were directly ordered by Trump or his allies to carry out these attacks, and they are not systematic attempts at silencing Trump critics but dispersed acts of stand alone terrorism.
The thing is, Trump just needs to extend his hand and pick this fruit off the tree. His base has the size, enthusiasm, radicalism, and propensity toward violence, it only lacks the organization, and that’s not something that Trump himself has to do, it’s enough for a far-right activist to do it for him. Imagine what Bikers for Trump or Chancellorsville protesters could do if they were better organized on a national level. So I’d say this is not a check, but it has a very high potential of becoming a reality in the near future.
Step 4: Conquering the Institutions
This is most often the last step and if it is done, it will ease you into the fifth and final step. The institutions mean all of the major ones: courts, the police, the military, the courts, political establishments, and the rest. The goal is to take away the independence of these institutions and transform them into an apparatus that does your bidding.
This is usually a slow process. We know that right now Russia is basically an oligarchy controlled by a network of corrupt rich people who are in Putin’s pocket and Erdoğan used the 2015 as an excuse to speed up taking over Turkish police and courts. This is a very major step because these institutions can keep you in power even if you lose your popularity, and they can be more efficient in making sure others cannot speak against you.
Again, this is something Trump really wants to do. He has threatened the independence of the US Federal Reserve, he has attempted to fill governmental positions with political lackeys who will prioritize loyalty to him rather than their job, and at least in the State Department there has been a purge of career diplomats and obliviously, he’s been replacing judges left and right, although one cannot say if that’s for his personal benefit or just conservative agenda in general. Trump also seems to have a worrying following in the police and to a lesser extent in the military.
I’d say Trump hasn’t made much progress in this regard, although he has made more progress than what I would have predicted in 2016. But I don’t think anyone can say American institutions are ready to put Trump’s rise into power above their own agenda. That said, I don’t think any person who is not a Trump diehard can claim that Trump is not actively perusing this, so I’d still say that this holds true for Trump.
Step 5: Conquering the Laws
This entry is going to be short. It’s the last and very obvious step. As a fledgling tyrant, you already have your own party and major institutions in your pocket, the press is silent, and you have an unofficial army to do the dirty job, and the press is not going to raise too much fuss, so you’re ready to tie the knot and have the nation commit to you for life. So you hold a phony referendum and either remove term limits, or change the system from parliamentary to presidential, or just extend the terms. And then the mission in complete.
And of course Trump is nowhere near that. His single legislative accomplishment is a lousy tax bill. He couldn’t even kill Obamacare, let alone democracy. Still, does he want to? I think he does. He hasn’t made much noise about it, but he has.
The nightmare scenario is possible but not probable. One can imagine Trump winning reelection in 2020, this time winning the popular vote too, and someone like Richard Spencer or someone has the idea to organize his violent fans and insure that people fear criticizing him, and then he uses his four more years in office to purge the institutions and set the stage for amending the constitution. An assassination attempt or a war might enable him to speed the process.
But Trump will most likely never become a tyrant. Even if he wins in 2020, he is far more likely to get weaker and weaker as years go by. I’d bet on him getting impeached more than on him becoming a tyrant. He is a weak president with 41-42% approval rating despite good economy and in a nation of very strong institutions. I doubt he’d manage to — for example — get enough state governments to cooperate with him, and I’m very sure that no matter how conservative people like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are, they won’t be recruited in that final battle, although I am far less optimistic about Congressional Republicans.
But, again, that’s not the point. The question is not about whether Trump will be a tyrant, but that he wants to. Trump wants to be a tyrant, his behavior shows he’s behaving like other tyrants, he speaks like other tyrants, and he thinks like other tyrants. And I hope this is not a controversial statement, but the US shouldn’t have a president who wants to be a tyrant.