Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Trump Is Failing His Dictatorship Test

| Feb. 14, 2020

After impeachment, the president has been passing most of the checkpoints on the way to authoritarianism.

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, I wrote up a list of the "10 Ways to Tell if Your President Is a Dictator." I wasn’t saying Trump was in fact an aspiring autocrat; it was merely a list of warning signs to keep track of as his presidency preceded. In 2017, I offered an updated assessment and concluded that the danger of creeping autocracy was pretty serious.

Now that Trump has been acquitted by a Republican-controlled Senate that couldn't even be bothered to interview any witnesses with personal knowledge of his possible high crimes and misdemeanors, it seems appropriate to revisit my list once again. Spoiler alert: There are some flashing red lights on the dashboard.

1. Systematic Efforts to Intimidate the Media


This aspect of Trump's behavior has been a constant feature of his presidency, and it shows no signs of easing up. On the contrary, the White House's contempt for the press has gradually extended to other parts of the executive branch, most notably in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's childish tantrum against NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly and his subsequent decision to exclude NPR from the secretary's press pool on his recent trip to Ukraine, an all-too-obvious attempt at payback. Trump has continued his own efforts to degrade and intimidate the press, repeatedly referring to the media and journalists as "enemies of the people." Formal press briefings have become an endangered species across the administration, and there's no sign that any of this is letting up.

Not surprisingly, other U.S. politicians are beginning to adopt the Trump playbook, and foreign governments are using Trump's behavior to legitimate their own attacks on journalists. For anyone who understands that a healthy democracy requires well-informed citizens and therefore also requires a vigorous and independent press, this is deeply troubling....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Trump Is Failing His Dictatorship Test.” Foreign Policy, February 14, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt