Early last month, shortly after China’s Communist Party ended term limits on presidential rule — effectively making President Xi Jinping “president for life”– President Trump joked to donors: “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.”
In times past, with a president who hewed to democratic norms, the president’s wisecrack would have gone unnoticed.
But with a president who has openly displayed such strong personal affinity for autocrats – starting with Vladimir Putin – the remark got wide play not just in U.S. media but also abroad. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his desire to rid himself of the restraints imposed by constitutional checks and balances – and has frequently praised autocrats who don’t have to worry about such limits.
“Look at who he’s reached out to,” says Stanford University’s Larry Diamond, one of the foremost U.S. experts on democracy worldwide. “He has expressed admiration for [Hungary’s illiberal leader, Viktor] Orban, [Philippine President Rodrigo] Duterte, Xi, even Kim Jong Un, while the leaders he has displayed contempt for are prime minister of Australia and other democratically elected leaders, including the president of South Korea.”
In other words, Trump is suffering from a bad case of autocrat envy.
The real risk is that his impatience with democratic norms will strengthen some deeply troubling trends laid out in a survey report Diamond and two coauthors released last week. Titled Follow the Leader: Exploring American Support for Democracy and Authoritarianism, the report found this disturbing figure: Three in 10 Americans would prefer a more authoritarian form of government in the United States.
To be more specific, a July 2017 survey of 5,000 Americans found that a quarter of U.S. adults like the idea of having “a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections,” while 18 percent say that “having the army rule” would be a good or very good idea. Accounting for overlap, three in 10 Americans embrace at least one of these two authoritarian options.
Diamond and his colleagues recognize that, historically, there has always been a segment of Americans with such ideas. The difference now, he argues, is that there is a U.S. president whose own commitment to democracy appears shaky.
Diamond’s survey found Trump supporters are substantially more supportive of a “strong leader” (32 percent) than are supporters of any other candidate from either major party (all of whom favored that option at levels of 20 percent). “Our data suggest a close affinity between politicians who play the race and immigration cards and citizens, anxious about social and economic change, who opt to ‘follow the leader,’ ” Diamond writes in the American Interest.
“A growing proportion of voters feel threatened by changes they feel unable to control — increasing immigration and cultural pluralism, deepening income inequality and insecurity, de-industrialization, and other challenges to national sovereignty posed by globalization. Illiberal populist leaders claim that they are merely responding to these anxieties, but they are also irresponsibly stoking them.”
Including Donald Trump.
That new reality must also be viewed in a global context: A wave of illiberal demagogic populism is infecting many advanced industrial democracies and targeting immigrants as well as racial and religious minorities. Demagogues like Hungary’s Orban, or uber right populist parties in Germany, France, Austria, and Italy are boosted by social media that travels across national boundaries.
Mix into this witches’ brew the cyber tactics (and funds) used by Russia to encourage extremist parties in the West that will undermine democracies.
And add to the brew the open admiration expressed by Trump for undemocratic tactics used by autocrats he has praised. Struggling civil society activists in Hungary, or Poland – or Russia — noticed when Trump congratulated Putin on winning a rigged election (against the advice of White House advisers). They note when he congratulates Duterte on his (extralegal) success in killing drug dealers in the Philippines.
No longer is America seen as the symbol of an immutable democracy. “This cabal of autocrats sees there is disarray in the United States,” says Yevgenia Albats, editor of the independent Russian newsmagazine New Times. “No one expects anything of Trump.”
Yet, there is still some good news. Despite the core of Americans who seek a “strong leader” immune from democratic restraints, the public as a whole still overwhelmingly backs democracy as the best form of government, Diamond told me.
But he worries whether U.S. institutions can constrain a president with a soft spot for strongmen. “He will be as authoritarian as political constraints will let him be,” Diamond argues. “You wonder what would happen if he violates norms more boldly. The test may come with firing [special counsel Robert] Mueller.”
As of this spring, President Trump’s autocratic urges are still curbed by the institutions designed by our founding fathers. Their strength will be tested in the summer and the fall.