With November approaching, I am becoming ever more nervous about the US presidential election. While my American friends focus on Joe Biden’s lead over current president Donald Trump in opinion polls, believing deeply in US democracy’s capacity for self-renewal, my 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” in 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 stay in power, as has happened in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, and Poland. In fact, it often seems as though Trump has studied the tactics pioneered by other aspiring strongmen more closely than anyone. Based on recent conversations with experts on each of these countries, I have compiled the following catalogue of dirty tricks that Trump seems to borrowing.
The first is the weaponisation of history. Populist leaders promote their political platforms through polarisation and social division. They do not mind alienating and insulting some voters if doing so will energise their own base. By posturing as the champions of national greatness, they want to determine who counts as authentic citizens and who does not. This practice inevitably brings history to the fore.
Whether it is Russian President Vladimir Putin invoking the Soviet victory in the second world war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan 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 might be called post-truth politics. These leaders prefer direct communication with voters through professional propaganda videos and social media, because this allows them to dismiss inconvenient facts offered by experts. In this media ecosystem, fact-checking has little purchase, because the people who need to hear it are not listening, or refuse to believe anything the “liberal” media says. In many democracies, fake news is now most common at the local level, where political operatives have filled the vacuum left by the decline of traditional city and regional outlets.
A third tactic is to run against one’s own government. The term “deep state” is said to have originated in Turkey in the 1990s, but now features prominently in the lexicons of Trump, Orbán, Erdogan, Johnson, and Poland’s de facto ruler, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. By blaming nameless, faceless characters behind the curtain and shadowy cabals, all these leaders have a ready excuse for their own failures.
A fourth element in the playbook is voter suppression. Like Erdogan’s constant attempts to disempower Kurdish voters, Trump and the Republican Party are desperate to disenfranchise African-Americans. For an incumbent would-be strongman, the need to tip the electoral scales opens the door to all kinds of attacks on democratic processes.
Hence, before Poland’s general 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-directed postal service. Though this plan ultimately ran into resistance, it showed that there are countless ways for authoritarians to meddle in or subvert the process. Not surprisingly, mail-in voting and the politicisation of the US Postal Service have become major issues in the US election, too.
Another related device is “political technology”, a term for the dirty tricks commonly associated with post-Soviet politics. Such methods include Russia’s covert backing of third-party candidates such as Jill Stein in the 2016 US presidential election; kompromat, or compromising material (epitomised by the search for dirt on Biden in Ukraine); and simply declaring victory before the votes are counted. In the case of the United States, 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 in that outcome.
An incumbent authoritarian can also engage in various forms of “lawfare”, using law enforcement or compliant courts to facilitate gerrymandering, voter suppression, cover-ups, and other violations of the democratic process. Here, one of the biggest advantages is the ability to control the timing of events or the release of politically damaging information.
Many people still believe that then-FBI Director James Comey’s announcement of a new probe into Hillary Clinton just days before the 2016 election tipped the outcome in Trump’s favour. Now, the Department of Justice is run by Attorney General William Barr, a man who has shown no compunction about politicising independent law-enforcement agencies on Trump’s behalf.
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 used by Republican presidents since Richard Nixon – and by Erdogan more recently, during the Gezi Park protests in 2013.
The problem for the Democrats in the US, and democrats everywhere, is that all these techniques tend to become more effective the more they are 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 process is rigged and not worth participating in. Challenging violations through the courts creates the impression of an end run around democracy.
To avoid these effects, the project of corrupting democracy needs to be clearly identified, named, and analysed through a new lens. There is a world of difference between the political subterfuge outlined above and the outright falsification of election results, as happened last month in Belarus. Nicu Popescu, a former Moldovan foreign minister who is now at the European Council on Foreign Relations, contends that autocracy is not the right term to describe the phenomenon. Rather, “it is the “degradation, corrosion, and deconsolidation of democracy.”
In any case, if Trump were Moldova’s president, one assumes that the European Union would be calling him out for his dirty tricks. Any such criticism from abroad would almost certainly be counterproductive. But it may help to put the current American experience in a wider context, so that democratic forces can see Trump more clearly. Ultimately, the only way to defeat Trump is through politics. The task for the Democrats is to remind Americans what democracy is for – and, one hopes, to counter Trump’s tactics effectively.
This article first appeared on Project Syndicate.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.