Experts on authoritarianism say Trump’s presidency ‘has gotten scarier’

A month of executive experience has not moderated the president’s anti-democratic tendencies.

President Donald Trump during a campaign rally Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017, in Melbourne, Fla. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara
President Donald Trump during a campaign rally Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017, in Melbourne, Fla. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

Donald Trump’s presidency began with a flurry of executive orders, many of which left experts on authoritarianism deeply concerned. A little more than one month into the administration, their concerns have only grown.

Trump’s relationship with the truth is deeply troubling.

Sheri Berman, a political scientist at Barnard College: I think Trump has gotten scarier in the sense he has become more divisive and more ensconced in his bubble and less willing to entertain alternative viewpoints or criticism.

This is a problem when you get to high positions of power, it’s very easy to surround yourself with aye-sayers. It’s very, very problematic when the president already has a proclivity for [seeking answers that fit his prior assumptions]. That is something extremely dangerous. Obama was not open to certain criticism, and that happens at the top of any totem pole, but it’s important to hear different sources of information and to accept and process criticism; but with a personality like Trump’s it is easier and easier to avoid and campaign.


This divisiveness could be taken to an extreme degree. The problem is there already, and it’s only gotten worse and worse as he feels embattled and feels unfairly treated by liberal voters, and the mainstream media. He’s retreated further by whipping up his own base and taking comfort from his support base. It’s really bad for the country, bad for his presidency, and bad for the American people.

Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia: Despite having access to hundreds of thousands of experts, he gets his news from the same old news sources, i.e. those news sources sympathetic to him, and neither checks nor reflects on the information, but spontaneously responds to them.

But I think the Bowling Green and Sweden comments point to something more fundamental, and dangerous: The reason Trump and his team throw these fake attacks around is that they are consistent with their world view, in which the West is fundamentally threatened by an aggressive “global Islam”. Consequently, it doesn’t really matter much to them, or their supporters, whether these specific attacks did actually happen. In their world, they are examples of the rule rather than the exception.

Trump’s description of mainstream media outlets as “the enemy of the American people” show how this administration is trying to reshape American democracy.

Berman: He uses classic Schmittian [politics by dividing the world] into friends and enemies. Clearly, he’s done that with the media as well, so he very much relied on a particular slice of the media; and not only promotes them indirectly by calling on them in press conferences, but by reading their stuff and listening to their radio stations and ignoring the stuff he doesn’t like, or by denigrating it. So, the fact he’s getting his information from a particular slice of media is him saying, look — “I will actively denigrate those parts of government, society, and the elite” and [he’ll do that] rather than build bridges, which is how democracy should work.

Trump’s comments on “what is happening in Sweden” show his vision of democracy is the same as that of Europe’s parties on the far right.

Berman: This is the probably the issue that’s elicited the most controversy and generated this fake news which is now a huge issue in Europe as well. Basically he says whatever will paint him in a good light — even without checking facts. It’s possible he says things without thinking or he’s purposefully spinning to gain support for his point of view, or it is possible he misunderstood what happened in Sweden.


It’s just an attempt to spin everything that supports his particular views or policies whether or not its truthful, he simply just doesn’t care. He has a tenuous relationship with the truth and that is something that is particularly problematic for democracy. While spin has existed for a long time, we’ve clearly crossed some kind of line — and it’s not an easy line to define — what we are in here is something very tenuous or ignored entirely.

Mudde: Related to the Sweden remark, [this] points to another deeply disturbing point, namely that President Trump’s view of Europe is profoundly shaped by that of the Islamophobic right, in which Europe is weak, doesn’t stand up for “western values,” and is transformed into “Eurasia” by fanatic and violent Muslim immigrants and refugees. Sadly, this view of Europe is not just limited to far right Islamophobes like Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, but is prevalent throughout U.S. conservatism, including Fox News and (the opinion page of) the Wall Street Journal.

The quick turnaround on the “Muslim Ban” was to be expected. This is one of his signature issues, together with the wall, and it is very popular within his base and the broader Republican base. It is also of vital importance to Bannon, and provides a great way to rail the base against “the establishment,” including the courts. It is a test of power and loyalty. How far can the executive go vis-a-vis the courts, and who within the GOP dares to oppose the administration?

He’s trying to delegitimize the opposition by calling them “paid protesters”— a very common tactic.

Mudde: The argument of the “paid protesters” is, unfortunately, not unique to Trump or the right. This claim was very popular among liberals during the time of the Tea Party revolt. At one level, it is relatively harmless and mainly self-serving: the point is to claim that there is no real opposition to you. But hidden in that is a more nefarious aspect: namely, it delegitimizes the opposition. As they are paid protesters, they are not “real,” and therefore not legitimate. This excludes people from the democratic realm.

There’s a thin silver lining in that he hasn’t accomplished all that much yet.

Berman: It’s not clear how much he’s actual already done. A lot of the executive orders remain unimplemented. The most obvious one is the [immigration] ban on the seven countries. He has turned out more populist, less of a bridge builder, and more authoritarian than we might have even thought, but it’s unclear how much he’s going to be able to do. Even on some appointments — notably with [former National Security Adviser Michael] Flynn’s replacement H. R. McMaster.


He’s a heck of a lot better than Flynn in that he’s less radical and more mainstream — much more acceptable to the national security community. So we’re in a period where it’s not 100 percent clear how much [Trump’s] own inclinations will matter policy-wise. He’s so divisive, and so pushing, and so willing to entertain what we call fake news, which is of itself incredibly problematic for democracy. But what he will do is less than his rhetoric.