BERLIN (Project Syndicate) — With November approaching, i’m becoming ever more nervous about the U.S. presidential election. While my American friends specialise in Joe Biden’s lead over President Donald Trump in opinion polls, believing deeply in U.S. democracy’s capacity for self-renewal, my very own perspective as a British citizen and think-tank director has me worried.
As a Briton, I can remember watching a 20-point polling lead for “Remain” become a victory for “Leave” within the Brexit referendum four years ago. And as a think-tank director, I work closely with scholars who study how authoritarian leaders manipulate democratic systems to remain in power, as went on in Turkey, Russia, Hungary and Poland.
Like other authoritarian leaders, Trump is deploying a replacement antidemocratic politics that has yet to be fully comprehended.
In fact, it often seems as if Trump has studied the tactics pioneered by other aspiring strongmen more closely than anyone. supported recent conversations with experts on each of those countries, I even have compiled the subsequent catalog of dirty tricks that Trump seems to borrowing.
Weaponization of history
The first is that the weaponization of history. Populist leaders promote their political platforms through polarization and social division. they are doing not mind alienating and insulting some voters if doing so will energize their own base. By posturing because the champions of national greatness, they need to work out who counts as authentic citizens — and who doesn’t . This practice inevitably brings history to the fore.
Whether it’s Russian President Putin invoking the Soviet victory in war II, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan harking back to the Ottoman Empire , Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán fixating on the Treaty of Trianon or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson looking back to Pax Britannica, each leader has advanced a highly partisan historical narrative.
Another, related approach is what could be called post-truth politics. These leaders prefer direct communication with voters through professional propaganda videos and social media, because this enables them to dismiss the inconvenient facts offered by experts.
In this media ecosystem, fact checking gains little purchase, because the people that got to hear it aren’t listening, or refuse to believe anything the “liberal” media says. In many democracies, fake news is now commonest at the local level, where political operatives have filled the vacuum left by the decline of traditional city and regional outlets.
Run against the ‘deep state’
A third tactic is to run against one’s own government. The term “deep state” is claimed to possess originated in Turkey within the 1990s, but now features prominently within the lexicons of Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan, Johnson and Poland’s de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński. By blaming nameless shadowy, faceless characters behind the curtain and undefined cabals, of these leaders have a ready excuse for all of their own failures.
It often seems as if Trump has studied the tactics pioneered by other aspiring strongmen more closely than anyone.
A fourth element within the playbook is voter suppression. Like Erdoğan’s constant attempts to disempower Kurdish voters, Trump and therefore the Republican Party are wanting to disenfranchise African-Americans. For an incumbent would-be strongman, the necessity to tip the electoral scales opens the door to all or any sorts of attacks on democratic processes.
Hence, before Poland’s election in May, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party tried to limit all voting to mail-in ballots, effectively transferring control of the election from the independent National Electoral Commission to the PiS-controlled mail . Though this plan ultimately saw resistance, it showed that there are countless ways for authoritarians to meddle in or subvert the voting process.
Not surprisingly, mail-in voting and therefore the politicization of the U.S. mail became major issues within the U.S.’s upcoming election, too.
Another related device is “political technology,” a term for the dirty tricks commonly related to post-Soviet politics. Such methods include Russia’s covert backing of third-party candidates like Jill Stein within the 2016 U.S. presidential election; kompromat, or compromising material (epitomized by the look for dirt on former vice chairman Joe Biden, and his surviving son, in Ukraine); and easily declaring victory before the votes are counted.
In the case of the us , if Trump declares victory before all postal mail-in ballots have arrived, Republican-controlled legislatures in key states could end the counting early to lock therein outcome.
An incumbent authoritarian also can engage in various sorts of “lawfare,” using enforcement or compliant courts to facilitate gerrymandering, voter suppression, coverups and other violations of the democratic process.
Here, one among the most important advantages is that the ability to regulate the timing of events or the discharge of politically damaging information.
Many people still believe that then–FBI Director James Comey’s announcement of a replacement probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of email just days before the 2016 election tipped the result in Trump’s favor. Now, the Department of Justice is travel by Attorney General William Barr, a person who has shown no compunction about politicizing independent law-enforcement agencies on Trump’s behalf.
Law and order
Another common authoritarian tactic is to play the “law and order” card. By tarring the Black Lives Matter protests as an outpouring of violent “urban” hooliganism, Trump is reprising the racial politics employed by former Republican presidents since Nixon , but by Erdoğan more recently, during the Gezi Park protests in 2013.
The problem for the Democrats within the U.S., and democrats everywhere, is that each one these techniques tend to become simpler the more they’re called out.
Fact checking fake news can inadvertently spread misinformation more widely. Warnings about voter suppression can become self-fulfilling prophecies if enough people conclude that the method is rigged and not worth participating in. Challenging violations through the courts creates the impression of an sweep around democracy.
To avoid these effects, the project of corrupting democracy must be clearly identified, named and analyzed through a replacement lens.
There is a world of difference between the political subterfuge outlined above and therefore the outright falsification of election results, as happened last month in in Belarus. Nicu Popescu, a former Moldovan secretary of state who is now at the ecu Council on Foreign Relations, contends that autocracy isn’t the proper term to explain the phenomenon. Rather, “it is that the “degradation, corrosion and deconsolidation of democracy.”
In any case, if Trump were Moldova’s president, one assumes that the ecu Union would be calling him out for his dirty tricks. Any such criticism from abroad in his case would almost certainly be counterproductive. But it’s going to help to place the present American experience during a wider context, in order that democratic forces can see Trump more clearly.
Ultimately, the sole thanks to defeat Trump is thru politics. The task for the Democrats is to remind Americans what democracy is for — and, one hopes, to counter Trump’s tactics effectively.