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Dirty tricks of the autocrats

by Mark Leonard Tuesday, Oct. 06, 2020 at 10:56 PM

Donald Trump tries to get re-elected with partly illegal tricks. This is undemocratic and dangerous for the USA and its allies. Defending democracy is becoming the challenge of our time.

Dirty tricks of the autocrats

Donald Trump tries to get re-elected with partly illegal tricks. This is undemocratic and dangerous for the USA and its allies. Trump's role models, however, are already further along: they decompose and weaken democracy until there is nothing left of it. Defending it is becoming the challenge of our time.

by Mark Leonard

[This article published on 9/8/2020 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Donald Trump is standing at the top of the stairs to enter the presidential aircraft. He holds up his right fist.

Following the example of autocratic rulers, Donald Trump uses all kinds of more or less legal measures to secure his re-election, even if he has no chance of a majority. DGB/White House/Community Free

November is approaching and I can feel my growing nervousness about the US presidential election. While my American friends are aware of Joe Biden's lead in opinion polls over President Donald Trump and deeply believe in the capacity of US democracy for self-renewal, I am concerned from my own perspective as a British citizen and director of a think tank.

Authoritarian leaders manipulate democratic systems to stay in power

As a Brit, I can remember how in the Brexit referendum four years ago a 20-point lead in the polls for "Remain" turned into a victory for "Leave". And as director of a think tank, I work closely with scholars who study how authoritarian leaders manipulate democratic systems to stay in power, as has happened in Turkey, Russia, Hungary and Poland. In fact, it often seems that Trump has studied the tactics of other emerging authoritarian leaders more than anyone else. Based on recent discussions I have had with experts from each of these countries, I have compiled the following list of dirty tricks that Trump seems to have adopted.

Trick 1: History as a weapon. Populist leaders promote their political platforms through polarization and social division. They do not mind alienating and insulting some voters if it strengthens their own base. By posing as champions of national greatness, they want to determine who counts as an authentic citizen and who doesn't. This approach inevitably brings history to the fore.

Whether it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who conjures up the Soviet victory in World War II, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who looks back on the Ottoman Empire, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who sticks to the Treaty of Trianon, or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who looks back on the Pax Britannica, each of these leaders has brought a highly biased historical narrative to the fore.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka stands in the middle of an empty street, behind him security guards in black clothing.

Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka has three decades of experience in voter oppression - and it is about much more than the tricks Trump tries. But this time the citizens* are protesting so strongly that Lukashenka's end may be near. DGB/Screenshot

Trick 2: Postfactual politics. Autocratic leaders prefer to communicate directly with voters through professional propaganda videos and social media, because this way they can hide uncomfortable facts. In this media ecosystem, fact-checking offers little support because the people who should know about it do not listen or refuse to believe anything that comes from the "liberal" media. In many democracies today, fake news is most prevalent at the local level, where political actors have filled the vacuum created by the decline of traditional urban and regional newsrooms.

Autocrats want to control elections and their outcome - whether in Poland or the USA

Trick 3: Apparently fighting against your own government. The term "deep state" is said to have its origins in Turkey in the 1990s, but plays an important role especially today in the handbook of Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan, Johnson and Poland's de facto ruler Jarosław Kaczyński. By blaming nameless, opaque, faceless figures behind the scenes and mysterious machinations, all these leaders have an excuse for all their own failures.

Trick 4: Suppressing the voters. Just as Erdoğan is constantly trying to incapacitate Kurdish voters, Trump and the Republican Party are desperate to disenfranchise African Americans. The would-be dictator in the White House wants to manipulate the democratic process in the elections to such an extent that it ultimately turns out in his own favor.

Prior to the parliamentary elections in Poland in May, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) attempted to limit voting to postal votes and transfer control of the election from the independent National Election Commission to the PiS-controlled postal service. Although this plan ultimately met with resistance, it showed that there are countless opportunities for authoritarian rulers to interfere in or undermine the process. Not surprisingly, postal voting and the politicization of the U.S. Postal Service has become a major issue in the U.S. election as well.

Erdogan during a speech at a lectern with a microphone in front of a Turkish flag.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already quite gutted democracy in his country. DGB/Archive

Another means in this context is "political technology," a term for the dirty tricks commonly associated with post-Soviet politics. Such methods include Russia's covert support of third party candidates - such as Jill Stein in the 2016 US presidential election; searching for compromise, i.e. compromising material against unpopular candidates, such as dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter in Ukraine; or announcing election victory even though not all the votes have been counted. If Trump declares victory before all the postal votes have arrived by mail and been counted, Republican-controlled parliaments in key U.S. states could end the counting early to ensure that result.

Democracy cannot be saved from the outside

An acting authoritarian head of government can also engage in various forms of legal warfare ("lawfare"). He uses law enforcement or obedient courts to suppress voters, manipulate constituencies for his own benefit, or restrict basic democratic rights. Here, one of the greatest advantages is the ability to control the timing of events or the publication of politically damaging information. Many still believe that the announcement a few days before the 2016 election by then FBI Director James Comey to open a new investigation against Hillary Clinton influenced the outcome in Trump's favor. Currently, the Department of Justice is headed by William Barr, a man who has no inhibitions about politicizing independent law enforcement agencies in the interest of Trump.

Another widespread authoritarian tactic is to play the "law and order" card. By discrediting the Black Lives Matter protests as an outbreak of violent "urban" anarchism, Trump revisits the racial politics pursued by former Republican presidents since Richard Nixon, but more recently during the 2013 Gezi Park protests of Erdoğan.

The problem for Democrats in the United States and for Democrats everywhere is that all these methods tend to become more effective the more they are used. By checking fake news, false information can be unintentionally spread further. Warnings about voter suppression can become self-fulfilling prophecies if enough people come to the conclusion that the process is rigged and not worth participating in. Resisting violations by court gives the impression that democracy is being circumvented. To avoid these effects, this corruption of democracy must be clearly identified, named and analyzed with new eyes. There is a world of difference between the political tricks outlined above and the blatant falsification of election results, as happened last month in Belarus. Nicu Popescu, former Foreign Minister of Moldova, now a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes that autocracy is not the right term to describe the phenomenon. Rather, it is the "disintegration, erosion and deconsolidation of democracy".

If Trump were President of Moldova, the European Union would confront him for his dirty tricks - at least that is what we should assume. Such criticism from abroad would almost certainly be counterproductive, but it could help to put the current American experience into a broader context so that democratic forces see Trump more clearly. Ultimately, the only way to defeat Trump is through political content, which is decided by voters. The task of the Democrats is to remind Americans of what democracy is for-and hopefully effectively counter Trump's tactics.

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