Much has been made of Donald Trump’s desire for close relations with Vladimir Putin of Russia. And they do have a lot in common, starting with an authoritarian attitude toward democracy. Putin, operating in a country with the shallowest of democratic traditions, has been able to keep himself in power by a mix of rule manipulation, intimidation and open repression, even while formally competing in periodic elections. Just yesterday he confirmed that he would run for reelection for a fourth term; he has good prospects of winning.
Even though Trump is operating in a country with a far deeper democratic political culture, he seems to aspire to Putin’s domination through manipulation and intimidation.
Trump has said that he views Putin as a better leader than Obama. Even though Trump is operating in a country with a far deeper democratic political culture, he seems to aspire to Putin’s domination through manipulation and intimidation. That Trump is far less successful than Putin can be partly attributed to the deeper democratic traditions and institutions in the United States, and party to Trump’s own incompetence.
Comparing Putin with Trump is like comparing Hitler with Quisling (the Fascist leader of occupied Norway). I do not draw a comparison with Mussolini: Mussolini was a good deal sharper than Trump.
Trump has also developed warm relations with several other authoritarian democrats. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has built a successful career by appealing to Hindu nationalism, rejecting the secular pluralism of that country’s early leaders, Gandhi and Nehru. He has countenanced mob violence against Muslims and other religious minorities, and has repeatedly won elections. He and Trump are kindred spirits.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has used Islamic traditionalism as a weapon against the secular establishment to win election first as Prime Minister, then as President. Following an attempted coup, he has become increasingly authoritarian in jailing alleged opponents, restricting freedom of the press and speech, and controlling elections. He and Trump have cordial relations, even as other leaders from the Middle East and Europe view him skeptically.
President Rodrigo Détente of the Philippines was elected as a ‘law and order” candidate, and his tenure has been marked by thousands of killings by police, armed forces, and death squads, of people alleged to be drug dealers. Most of the world treats him as a pariah; Trump has gone out of his way to praise and support him.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has better democratic credentials than these other leaders (though his tenure has been marked by persistent corruption charges). But like the others he has tacitly ignored violations of the law that benefit him, such as the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestine. The basis of his long tenure as Prime Minister has been his appeal to the narrowest chauvinistic prejudices of Israelis. Netanyahu openly campaigned for Trump in last year’s election, and Trump has just rewarded him by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (even though it is also claimed by the Palestinians).
These leaders don’t necessarily get along with each other, but they all get along with Trump. There is a tacit authoritarian democratic Axis with Trump at its center. What they share (unlike traditional dictators) is an adept manipulation of democratic procedures to get and keep power, even as they have little or no commitment to the obligations of democratically elected leaders to respect the rights of their critics to criticize, of their opposition to oppose, and of the voters to vote them out. On the contrary, once they have gained election, they all use the levers of power to stay in power by any means necessary.
How much kinship does Trump have with these men? Just recall that he was prepared to contest last November’s election, if he hadn’t won under the arcane and archaic rule of the Electoral College. Without serious evidence, he would have refused to recognize the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton’s election, and sent the country into a prolonged political crisis.
In contrast, Al Gore, with a much stronger case in 2000, chose to accept the 5-4 Supreme Court decision that handed the presidency to George W. Bush. That’s the difference between a democrat (no adjective) and and authoritarian democrat.