The authoritarian playbook: Trump, DeSantis, and the Republican party
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If former president Donald Trump dragged authoritarianism onto America’s doorstep, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis seeks to throw out our nation’s furnishings and replace it with the cold trappings of fascist rule, all while calling it redecorating. He isn’t acting alone, he has the support of the entire Republican party in his quest for absolute power.
Much ink has been spilled debating whether DeSantis would be “worse” than Trump as president. However, many of these op-eds miss the point of authoritarianism: democracies don’t tend to die at the hands of individuals alone. Modern attacks on democracy succeed when they are coordinated, systemic, and undertaken by broad parties or movements. Whether Trump or DeSantis or a currently unknown person is in the White House is less important than that individual having the support of a political party and its allies.
And that is where the bad news comes in: the Republican party is becoming more authoritarian every day. The loss of their figurehead in the executive office did not serve to demoralize the party’s base; it provided GOP politicians with another perceived wrong that must be righted through increasingly extreme methods.
There are seven tactics that modern authoritarians tend to employ to grow and consolidate power.
POLITICIZE INDEPENDENT INSTITUTIONS
The United States has dozens of independent institutions that are meant to be insulated from partisan political actors. Central banking, law enforcement, election administration, intelligence agencies, and the judiciary only work properly when kept separate from politics.
On Oct. 21, 2020, Trump signed Executive Order 13957 to remove protections from an estimated 50,000 civil service workers. As a result, civil service employees could be fired at will and replaced by individuals viewed as more loyal to the president. Though Biden rescinded the order, Trump reportedly intends to expand the plan should he win another term in office.
Trump also installed a USPS Postmaster that helped him slow mail-in voting, attacked the Federal Reserve as an “enemy” of the United States, undermined the National Archives and Records Administration by stealing classified documents, attempted to stymie intelligence gathering by the CIA, and appointed Big Lie proponent Cleta Mitchell to the Election Assistance Commission.
The Florida governor signed a bill in April that created a stand-alone police force dedicated to investigating and arresting people for alleged voting fraud crimes. Last week, DeSantis announced the result of his private police’s work: 20 formerly incarcerated individuals who voted without having their voting rights restored. It is important to note that it is exceptionally difficult to regain your voting rights in Florida; any amount of outstanding court fees is disqualifying. Therefore, an individual may mistakenly believe they are allowed to vote because they have completed their time in jail and are no longer on probation.
147 Republican lawmakers voted to overturn the 2020 election on January 6th, 2021. The threat has only magnified since the insurrection: At least 11 nominees for Secretary of State have rejected the results of the 2020 elections.
Authoritarians propagate and amplify falsehoods through coordinated networks, aiming to incite their constituencies through invented false grievances and create a morass of confusion that allows power grabs and abuses without accountability.
More than a third of Americans believe the Big Lie—a coordinated disinformation campaign falsely claiming that the 2020 election was stolen. Among Republicans, 78% say that Biden did not win and 54% believe that there is solid evidence that Biden did not win.
In rallies across the country, Trump continues to hammer on the fiction that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. At an August 5 rally in Wisconsin, Trump called American elections “like a third world country” and claimed that he “ran twice” and “won twice.”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court—I give such credit to them—ruled that the widespread use of ballot drop boxes across the state is totally illegal. So you know what that means? That means they were obviously illegal in the 2020 election, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of votes. And we were right there. We won this thing by a lot. We won the state by a lot. Just as I’ve said all along, the use of these unmanned unsecured drop boxes was never authorized by the state legislature, they never got approval. But partisan radical Democrat officials simply took all those hundreds of thousands of votes. They took them anyway.
Ron DeSantis is perhaps most well known for spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and methods to prevent the spread of the deadly disease. In September 2020, he appointed a surgeon general who opposes masks and vaccines. Last year, DeSantis told the public that vaccination “doesn’t impact me or anyone else,” despite the indisputable fact that choosing not to vaccinate against a contagious disease does indeed impact everyone else.
The Republican party is exceptionally adept at creating and weaponizing disinformation in a way that may bring to mind Russian tactics.
We characterize the contemporary Russian model for propaganda as “the firehose of falsehood” because of two of its distinctive features: high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions. In the words of one observer, “[N]ew Russian propaganda entertains, confuses and overwhelms the audience.
Contemporary Russian propaganda has at least two other distinctive features. It is also rapid, continuous, and repetitive, and it lacks commitment to consistency.
Consider the rightwing firestorm when a 10-year-old rape victim attempted to obtain an abortion in Ohio, one of 13 states with automatic “trigger bans” that went into effect immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) tweeted that the story “was fake to begin with. Literal #FakeNews from the liberal media.” Ohio Republican Attorney General Dave Yost appeared on Fox News to discredit the story, saying there is “not a whisper anywhere” about the child among law enforcement and prosecutors. Tucker Carlson, Jesse Watters, and Laura Ingraham—who all cast doubt on the veracity of the story and assisted in vilifying the girl and her out of state doctor—quickly shifted the narrative away from their lies after the story was confirmed to be true. Instead of admitting their mistake, rightwing commentators seized on the nationality of the rapist.
Watters, who had suggested the story could be a “hoax,” took some of the credit for the arrest during a show that featured Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita (R) calling for an investigation of the doctor who provided abortion care to the 10-year-old girl…
Carlson and Ingraham shifted their attention to Fuentes and his uncertain citizenship status. The hosts featured chyrons on their shows saying that the 10-year-old girl “in Biden’s abortion story” was raped by an “illegal immigrant.” Assistant Franklin County prosecutor Dan Meyer said during Wednesday’s hearing that he believes Fuentes, 27, is undocumented, according to video of the arraignment.
“So the obvious headline here was not about abortion. It was about the crime committed against a child — ‘Who raped a 10-year-old?’ ” said Carlson, who had previously claimed the story was “not true.” “Nobody seemed interested at all in learning who this person was. And maybe there was a reason for that… Apparently, the rapist was an illegal alien.”
WEAKENING CHECKS AND BALANCES
Authoritarian regimes require the passivity, if not outright cooperation, of legislatures, courts, and other institutions designed to provide checks and balances. Weakening competing institutions, often by denigrating them as obstacles to popular will, allows authoritarians to expand executive power.
Trump spurred any power of Congress to act as a check on executive power, including but not limited to appointing acting officials without the advice and consent of the Senate, openly ignoring subpoenas from Congress, and flouting spending appropriations.
Like Trump, who remade the federal judiciary in his image (with Sen. Mitch McConnell’s essential assistance), DeSantis has gained control over the highest court in his state by appointing four of seven judges.
He has since further degraded the democratic process by suspending the elected prosecutor of Hillsborough County, Andrew Warren, for voicing his opposition to the governor’s anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion laws.
As anyone who lived through the Trump presidency will remember, the majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted not once but twice to acquit him of undermining and attacking their own power as an independent branch of government.
During the first impeachment, 195 House and 52 Senate Republicans absolved Trump of abusing his power by directly flouting Congress’ right to control and direct federal spending.
Even worse, when asked to convict Trump of leading an assault on the Capitol that targeted some of their own members, 197 House and 43 Senate Republicans voted to acquit.
Authoritarian movements weaken freedom of speech and the press—the foundation of any democracy—and try to silence voices that could serve as counterpoints to the autocratic faction.
In addition to Trump’s regular verbal attacks on the press, calling journalists “fake news,” “the enemy of the people,” “dishonest,” “human scum,” and “some of the worst human beings you’ll ever meet,” he also inspired a supporter to send a pipe bomb to CNN in 2018 and goaded crowds of hostile people into abusing news media at rallies.
More dangerously, Trump’s Justice Department obtained the phone records of numerous reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN as part of an investigation into their sources for news stories critical of the administration.
Government whistleblowers are critical to holding officials accountable and are supposed to be protected in America. Like other authoritarian leaders, Trump demonstrated no tolerance for internal dissent. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman reported the former president’s pressure campaign against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the inspector general, later testifying as a witness in Trump’s impeachment proceedings. As a result, Trump, his aides, and associates retaliated against Vindman and his brother, seeking to scare Alexander and others from speaking out against the former president.
After a Florida Department of Health official was fired for making public her disagreement with the state’s method of calculating COVID-19 data, the state police executed a search warrant on her home, directing her and her children out at gunpoint. Regardless of whether she was telling the truth about the state government’s mishandling of COVID data, the aggressive tactics employed by police could be interpreted as retaliation for her criticisms of Gov. DeSantis’ administration.
More recently, DeSantis pushed to strip the Walt Disney corporation of its special tax status in retaliation for the company’s opposition to his “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
House Republicans are promising to retaliate against the Justice Department for executing a search warrant on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property.
McCarthy said that if Republicans win control of the House in November’s midterm elections, they will task committees with investigating the Justice Department’s investigation of Trump.
“When Republicans take back the House, we will conduct immediate oversight of this department, follow the facts, and leave no stone unturned,” McCarthy said.
To Attorney General Merrick Garland, McCarthy said, “preserve your documents and clear your calendar.”
MARGINALIZING VULNERABLE COMMUNITIES
Democracy in diverse societies depends on protecting the rights of minority groups. Authoritarian movements seek to use demographic identity, from race to sexual orientation, to sow division and energize their constituencies.
Trump’s earliest use of race to sow division began just a week into his time in office when he signed an executive order that discriminated against Muslims and banned refugees. Of course, his rhetoric has always been anti-immigrant, from his promise to create a deportation force to remove all immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to calling all migrants from Mexico “rapists.”
- Further reading: “Donald Trump’s long history of racism, from the 1970s to 2020,” Vox. “Trump’s Timeline of Hate,” HRC.
DeSantis has made it his mission to further marginalize LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly children, in Florida. In addition to the “Don’t Say Gay” law that bans discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary schools, the governor has told schools to ignore federal protections for transgender students, signed a bill banning transgender girls and women from participating on girls’ and women’s sports teams, and vetoed funding for LGBTQ programs from the $101 billion state budget all funding for LGBTQ programs from the $101 billion state budget.
Republican lawmakers across the country have introduced over 200 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in state legislatures, banning transgender students from using the bathrooms of their preferred gender, excluding transgender students from athletics, and providing religious exemptions in healthcare that harm LGBTQ+ people.
This trend of hate even reached the federal level: Last week, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that would criminalize anyone who provides gender-affirming medical care to minors. The bill has 14 Republican cosponsors, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO).
Modern authoritarians maintain the facade of democratic elections while at the same time manufacturing rules against their opponents by suppressing votes and distorting or falsifying electoral results.
The former president incited an insurrection in an attempt to overturn the election results and steal a second term in office.
Trump also admitted that he opposes voting by mail because allowing more people to easily vote would make it so “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Consequently, he spoke out against mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes during a pandemic.
In addition to creating an election police force that serves to intimidate voters, DeSantis has signed numerous bills into law that restrict the right to vote in Florida. Senate Bill 90, for example, retroactively canceled voters’ current vote-by-mail ballot requests, made it a crime for voters to ask a trusted friend or caregiver to pick up or drop off a vote-by-mail ballot, and eliminated secure vote-by-mail drop boxes in many areas.
This nationwide campaign to rig elections in Republicans’ favor included redrawing electoral maps in ways that disadvantage Democratic communities. For example, in Ohio, the Republican-majority redistricting commission submitted unconstitutional election maps five different times in order to run out the clock on fair redistricting. As a result, the map being used for the 2022 election will produce 16 percent more seats for the GOP than a perfectly fair map.
Stoking violence advances authoritarian efforts in other areas, like quashing dissent, but it also undermines the norms of a democratic society and creates instability that further politicizes social divisions, creating cover for autocrats to seize more power for themselves.
While president, Donald Trump stoked racial tensions that led to the 2017 Unite the Right rally and incited a full-blown violent insurrection. After office, he has continued to encourage his supporters to take violent actions against his opponents. “This is an assault on a political opponent at a level never seen before in our Country,” Trump wrote in response to the FBI’s search of his Mar-a-Lago property. A Trump fan consequently got in a shootout with the FBI in Ohio. Another drove his car into a U.S. Capitol barricade and fired gunshots into the air before fatally shooting himself. A third made repeated threats on the lives of FBI agents on the far-right platform Gab.
Gov. DeSantis employs people, like Christina Pushaw, who incite violence on his behalf. Earlier this year, Pushaw, his press secretary, said that anyone who opposes the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is “probably a groomer.”
“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year-old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules,” Pushaw wrote in a follow-up tweet.
DeSantis has also made it easier for extremists in his state to commit violence by granting protections to people who use violence against protestors. Under last year’s “Combatting Public Disorder Bill,” individuals who feel frightened and drive their vehicle into a crowd of protestors, causing injury or death, are given civil immunity protections.
According to a poll by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute, 30% of Republicans believe violence may be necessary to “save” the US.
Where would they get this idea? From Republican lawmakers and politicians. Incessant demonizing of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) at the local and national level led 14 people to create and train for a domestic terror plot to kidnap the governor and use violence to overthrow the state government.
The right’s fanatical embrace of firearms, often to the point of religious extremism, combined with anti-racial-justice rhetoric in 2020 to drive 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse to patrol Kenosha, Wisconsin with an AR-15 rifle. Rittenhouse ended up shooting three people, killing two.
Likewise, the “great replacement theory” espoused by rightwing media figures like Tucker Carlson and Republican lawmakers like Rep. Elise Stefanik (NY) has been the inspiration for white supremacist mass shooters from Texas to New York.