When President Donald Trump was asked about new reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently had opposition leader Aleksei Navalny poisoned, he predictably refused to condemn the Kremlin and cast doubt on the evidence. “We haven’t had any proof yet, but I will take a look,” Trump said, seemingly open to the idea that Putin’s chief critic just happened to coincidentally be poisoned by Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union.
It was yet another stark reminder of the president’s odd fealty to Putin, and even his admiration. “I do get along with President Putin,” Trump added.
With the 2020 election in sight, the president’s continued refusal to call Putin to account should increasingly disturb us. Not just because of what it means Moscow can get away with — it continues to insert itself into American electoral politics, with no pushback from Trump — but because of what it tells us about Trump. For whatever reason, Trump likes Putin and thinks he’s a good leader. There should be little doubt that he’d like to emulate the former KGB officer, if he can.
In a recent piece for the New York Times, Russian dissident and activist Nadya Tolokonnikova a penned dark warning about what happened to her country as Putin’s grip on power tightened.
The closing paragraph stood out, shared by observers such as Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes, as a well-crafted and thinly veiled omen for American readers:
Our president has only just recently had the law changed so that he can stay in power until 2036, but his program of repression didn’t start out this blatantly. These things happen in pieces, bit by bit, small acts. And each one may even seem relatively benign at first, perhaps bad, but not fatal. You get angry, maybe you speak out, but you get on with your life. The promise of our democracy was chipped away in pieces, one by one: corrupt cronies appointed, presidential orders issued, actions taken, laws passed, votes rigged. It happens slowly, intermittently; sometimes we couldn’t see how steadily. Autocracy crept in, like the coward it is.
With Trump’s admiration of Putin and his demonstrated autocratic tendencies, this is exactly the wake-up call Americans need.
In circles critical of the president, there’s long been a fierce debate over how to understand the threat Trump poses. While many have argued that he poses a genuine risk of authoritarianism, others, such as Corey Robin, have argued that these fears are overblown. Trump is too weak and incompetent to be an authoritarian, they argue, and those who claim otherwise are exaggerating the danger.
But these dismissals have always seemed too quick and optimistic. Trump is indeed weak and incompetent in many ways, but autocratic rulers need not be strong tactical geniuses. What they need is people and institutions around them that prop them up and holes in the existing political structure that they can exploit. Trump has both in a pliant GOP and an outdated American political structure.
And the slow march toward autocracy Tolokonnikova describes is eerily familiar. A leader slowly extends their power, and an all-too-complacent public slowly lets it happen.
How could it happen in the United States? We’re already seeing a slew of signs of how the November election could be tampered with: postal ballots delayed, voting rights challenged, voters intimidated, chaos inspired. It seems the census is being undermined. Trump is actively encouraging distrust in the integrity of the 2020 vote count, declaring any result in which he loses to be de facto illegitimate. When and if Trump tries to take legal challenges to the results before the Supreme Court, he’ll find two of his own appointees and a conservative majority that is dismissive of voting rights. Meanwhile, Florida Republicans have maneuvered to prevent people with felony convictions on their records from voting, despite a popularly approved ballot measure. Even if Trump were to win without extreme acts of duplicity, he almost certainly would only claim victory in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote once again. This anti-majoritarian mechanism would allow him to defy the will of most voters once again, giving him and the rest of the GOP more opportunities to lock in their unfair advantages at keeping and gaining power.
It’s hard to imagine the United States becoming a fundamentally different form of government. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The anti-majoritarian features of our Republican could become entrenched and almost impossible to eradicate. We’re not immune from autocracy and democratic backsliding — no one is. Just ask Nadya Tolokonnikova.
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