President Donald Trump has only had a few days to govern so far.
In that time, he staged a press conference where his press secretary blatantly lied to the media, told the National Park Service not to tweet, and met with an American intelligence agency in an “uncomfortable” meeting. One of his senior advisers introduced the worrying concept that the Trump administration’s lies will be considered “alternative facts.”
ThinkProgress surveyed a group of political theorists and scholars of authoritarianism and asked them to evaluate the new president. Trump is already trying to rule in the style of a populist authoritarian, they said.
Sheri Berman, a political scientist at Barnard College, said that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s invocation of “alternative facts” was particularly alarming.
“Former scholar of fringe politics. Current scholar of mainstream politics.”
“It’s one thing to bash journalists but when you start talking about facts not being facts, and bar people from access to information, major red flags are going up,” said Berman.
“There is no doubt he is an authoritarian, which is completely logical because he has always worked in a structure in which he has absolute power and to me that is clear in his understanding that he sees politics as a business,” said Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. “He sees democracy as ‘I have won, so I can do whatever I want or whatever I think is best for the country and I’m allowed to do that because I’m the CEO of America, Inc.’”
(Mudde’s Twitter profile reads: “Former scholar of fringe politics. Current scholar of mainstream politics.”)
But while Mudde and Berman said that Trump undoubtedly displays authoritarian tendencies, they were careful to note that he is not a fascist or totalitarian. Totalitarian regimes tend to control every facet of society, including culture, politics, and media. Fascism is a form of right-wing totalitarianism which tends to be nativist, nationalist, and anti-individualist. Authoritarians, on the other hand, demand a strict adherence to authority at the expense of individual liberty.
“I don’t like conflating populism with fascism,” Berman said. “Both are on the spectrum but there are critical differences. We’re certainly not there yet.”
“I will not call him a fascist,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University, told ThinkProgress. “He’s not trying to have a one party dictatorship.”
Trump has exhibited certain personality traits shared by authoritarian rulers, including a tendency toward nepotism, a fragile ego, and an unwillingness to gracefully accept criticism. But he will have a hard time consolidating power, so long as there remains political opposition, a free press, and checks and balances in government. Experts in authoritarianism said his movement also lacks the organization that would allow it to fully supplant existing institutions.
Totalitarian regimes of the past, like Communists in the Soviet Union or the Nazis in Germany, rose to power after incredible organization and could call upon hundreds of thousands of members. Despite already having an intricate structure in place, “even they achieved a totalitarian regime after a long time,” Mudde said.
Compared to those regimes, it’s staggering how unorganized Trump’s movement is, Mudde said. “While I worry about autocratic tendencies, I don’t see ideology or structure for anything that is comparable to fascism.”
But there are certain moves Trump could make that would suggest a line had been crossed.
“If he started passing laws or trying to use his influence to hinder CNN’s ability to report or broadcast [that would cross a line],” Berman said. “Not talking to members of the press you don’t like is bad, but to use the power of the presidency or government to actually stop parts of the media doing their job would be clearly crossing a line.”
Other triggers would include using the government to “pass laws that impinge on certain citizens of ethnic or religious backgrounds,” said Berman. “Characteristics that are not just un-American, but antithetical to precepts of liberal democracy.”
The fact that Trump isn’t there yet doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to fear. Vigilance is important going forward, as Trump’s ascension to the presidency shows that a considerable portion of Republicans accepted the more radical aspects of his candidacy.
“The main concern is the flexibility of the GOP,” Mudde said. “We have seen in the last couple months that GOP leadership has a remarkable tolerance toward Trumps illiberal tendencies as long as he lets them get a pro-market, anti-regulation program.”
“Vulgar populism might not be shared, and some of his economic nationalism isn’t shared, but the nativism is shared,” Mudde said, “both towards Mexicans and Muslims, and so those parts of the agenda can be very easily pushed through.”
The toleration, or in some cases radicalization, of the GOP establishment is more threatening than Trump’s presidency on its own, said Ben-Ghiat.
“Formally, we have checks and balances. I’m of the school that those things are not going to stop him,” Ben-Ghiat said. “We put all the blame on Trump but the GOP has seen in him a kind of vehicle to get certain radical things they want done and [to push] a certain cultural shift in the nation.”
“The only thing between Trump and autocratic and illiberal democratic rule might be the GOP and I’m not sure how much that is going to do for us,” Mudde said. “I don’t think there is reason to panic. There is reason to organize.”