Scholars on authoritarianism have been sounding the alarm on President Donald Trump since before he took office, pointing to his sweeping executive orders, aggression towards the media, and willingness to play with the truth.
Now, following Trump’s removal of FBI Director James Comey, those same scholars are more disturbed than ever.
“Democracy is threatened in drips.”
“It constitutes a shock event,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Professor of History and Italian Studies at NYU, said of Comey’s firing. “When he was inaugurated, there was a slew of legislation, including the travel ban. [Trump] want[s] to uproot the system.”
Still, the move wasn’t necessarily a jolt to those who have been following Trump’s first months in office, and Ben-Ghiat said she wasn’t particularly surprised. Trump has been exhibiting authoritarian tendencies since he took office, she noted, and this latest move fits into a larger pattern. Much like his failed attempt to curtail Muslim travel to the United States, Trump’s decision to fire Comey puts stress on U.S. democratic norms and the rule of law.
“Democracy is threatened in drips,” Ben-Ghiat said. “You have drips and drips….then you have these [huge] events.”
Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, drew parallels between Trump and leaders like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Both Erdoğan and Orbán have slowly chipped away at democratic institutions, undermined civil society, and slowly increased their own power. This, Berman said, seems to be the approach Trump is taking.
“[Trump has] made it clear that he has no patience for people who disagree with him,” said Berman. “However, there’s a difference between that and doing something that is undemocratic.”
But Comey’s firing marks a shift. While the president has the right to fire and hire the FBI director, Trump fired the main actor responsible for investigating him. “In the context of an ongoing investigation of the president’s own activities…then yes, this would be undemocratic,” Berman said.
Her thoughts were echoed by Ben-Ghiat. “[Comey’s firing] was an anti-democratic maneuver,” she said, one that “shows his lack of respect for democratic norms and the culture of democracy.”
“It’s an aggressive work of self-defense,” she said. “It’s not illegal, but the motivation is highly suspect.”
Tom Pepinsky, an associate professor at Cornell University, observed that the link between Comey and the ongoing investigation concerning Russia is one that should alarm everyone.
“This clearly suggests that there is something that the investigation will uncover,” Pepinsky said. Leaders who are afraid of being investigated, he said, follow a number of strategies. One is disempowering institutions — like, say, the FBI. “[This is] something a head of state would do if there was something to be worried about,” Pepinsky said.
Others made the same connection, narrowing in on the Russia investigation.
“Given that fact that the firing comes just as the investigation into the collusion between Russia and the Trump camp [is] becoming real, and after Trump has openly and repeatedly criticized Comey for his statements in Congress, this looks personally and [politically] motivated,” said Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia. “On top of that…Jeff Sessions, who said he would recuse himself from the Russia investigation, asked for the evaluation, seemingly looking for [an] excuse to fire Comey, through which he directly interfere[d] in the Russia investigation.”
Key to assessing the fallout from Comey’s firing, several scholars agreed, will be the reactions from all corners of society. Whether or not Republicans in Congress will call for a special prosecutor is particularly pressing, but reactions from the media and general public will also be critical.
“You want to look at both what Trump does and what the reaction is,” Berman said. “How far he’s able to go depends on what other actors do. What happens in Congress, what happens in civil society, what happens in the press…that determines how much he can get away with.”