Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The World's Weakest Strongman

| June 06, 2020

Donald Trump's use of violence and division isn't a symbol of authority—it's a sign of desperation.

If you know where the continuing wave of public protests in the United States is going to lead us, you're smarter than I am. In fact, figuring out what is going to happen when mass protesters go up against the coercive apparatus of the government is inherently difficult to predict and maybe impossible.

Part of the reason, as Timur Kuran explained in a seminal article (and subsequent book), is that an individual's propensity to rebel (or, in this case, join a demonstration) is a form of private information that is impossible to ascertain in advance, even in a democracy. Even today, it is hard for outside observers to know what might be the final straw that would provoke more people to go out into the streets or what sort of government response might lead them to stay home. And as Susanne Lohmann and other theorists have argued, protests also benefit from "cascade effects": You might not be willing to be the first person out in the street, but you might be willing to be number 5,000. In this way, protest movements can grow larger over time and especially if the government reacts in ways that reinforce the initial burst of popular anger.

President Donald Trump (and other violence junkies like Republican Sen. Tom Cotton) seems to think that all that is needed to make the demonstrations cease is a ruthless show of force. He should think again. Overwhelming force sometimes works, especially when there is a genuine threat to regime stability, the public at large is supportive, and one can count on the security forces to obey orders and respond brutally. But as the Shah of Iran and other autocrats have discovered, wielding the mailed fist can also turn peaceful protests violent, drive more people into the opposition and onto the streets, and eventually cause the security apparatus to switch sides or dissolve. Even if a tyrant ultimately "wins," the country may be but a hollow shell (see: Syria).

More importantly, we are nowhere near the level of public disorder that would justify all-out repression of the sort that Trump and Cotton seem to want. Yes, there has been some criminal looting; those responsible for it should be roundly condemned, arrested, and tried. But preliminary data from the Crowd Counting Consortium suggests that the overwhelming majority of the demonstrations have been remarkably peaceful, with violent incidents being the rare exception rather than the norm. Moreover, in several cases, it appears that overreaction by local police forces triggered the violence, not the other way around.

Most important of all: The protesters are not trying to destroy public institutions or upend the constitutional order....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The World's Weakest Strongman.” Foreign Policy, June 6, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt