Populist authoritarianism has become a threat to democracy.
This is not about monarchies, dictatorships, military rule, but the rise of populism, championed by strong, charismatic leaders with a compelling message and a furiously loyal political base. It’s in evidence in Eastern Europe, Brazil, Turkey, the Philippines. These elected leaders, once in office, proceeded to dismantle the fundamental tenets essential to any democracy.
What are those fundamentals? In the mid-1980s, as chairman House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations and Human Rights, I conducted hearings on South American countries that were transitioning from military rule to democracy. America was their preferred model, recognizing our constitution and system of governance was based on the fundamentals of most democracies: (a) open and fair elections, (b) independent media, (b) sovereign judiciary.
Donald Trump appears smitten with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian leader who governs with no restraints. It is obvious that Mr. Trump also has little tolerance for restraints or being held accountable, thus prefers the Putin model over our constitutional norms. Let’s compare how the two measure up to the three pillars of a democracy.
Elections. Russia does have elections, but there is little doubt who controls the outcome. First and foremost is to block viable opposition, be it a political party or serious candidates. Putin’s political opponents are put away. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch with a conscience, was an early political threat, prompting Putin to bring false charges, placing him in a courtroom cage, then off to prison for ten years. A more serious threat was the popular Boris Nemtsov, who was mysteriously killed near a bridge in central Moscow.
In 2016, candidate Donald Trump’s shouting “lock her up” fired up his campaign rallies; once in office he pressed for an investigation of Joe Biden, and more recently it’s about Obamagate.
The authenticity of our election system is at stake as never before. It began with Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, that has been thoroughly investigated yet may be ongoing. Now it’s Donald Trump sounding alarms over the pandemic-fueled voting by mail, positioning our Commander in Chief to possibly challenge the outcome if not re-elected.
Media. The two presidents are in lock-step in controlling or discrediting media outlets. Mr. Putin had no tolerance for criticism, thus ordered the founder and owner of Russia’s largest media company, Vladimir Gusinsky, arrested, put in prison, the state seized control of his media assets, then he was forced out of the country. While Mr. Trump lacks such authority, he relentlessly blasts the “fake” mainstream media, relying on Fox News and Tweets to communicate with his base.
Judiciary. Of the three tenants of a democracy, this is the most sacred. The courts have the final word. The Kremlin definitely controls Russia’s judicial system, so the legal system is more about Mr. Putin’s whims than the rule of law. For Donald Trump, it’s about attacking judges if rulings are not favorable. He now has an Attorney General more loyal to him than the Constitution. Traditionally federal judge nominees were highly credible and received bipartisan support. Today, many of Trump’s nominees are political operatives whose primary qualifications, beyond loyalty, are possessing law degrees.
Another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, had a different take on our political heritage and global leadership, once reflecting that “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.
The haunting question as we approach the Nov. 3 election is: where are we headed? Once the world’s beacon light of democracy will be at a crossroads —the electorate will have a clear choice: either re-commit to the principles on which this country was founded or transition to a form of populist authoritarianism.
Alexander Hamilton, co-author of the Federalist Papers, was a strong advocate of incorporating checks and balances in the United States Constitution because his greatest concern at the time was that “someday we may elect a demagogue who could become a tyrant.”
The author, Don Bonker, a former Member of Congress (1975-88), served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy & Trade. Author of A Higher Calling.