Think Trump’s Not Moving Toward Total Autocracy? This International Analyst Knows the Signs Too Well…

Michael McFaul Stanford University. Image courtesy of

[Note from Annie: I’ve extracted from Twitter a series of observations made by Michael McFaul last week after viewing the Republican National Convention that I think form a compelling picture of the dangers we’ll face if we don’t remove President Trump from office in November. (The emphases are mine.)

McFaul served as Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council at the White House from 2009 to 2012, and then as the United States Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. The author of several books and an academic at Stanford, he cites his research interests as American foreign policy, great power relations, and the relationship between democracy and development.]


For those of us who study autocracies, including elections in autocracies, there were a lot of familiar messages, symbols,  and methods on display this week at the Republican National Convention.

1. Cult of the Personality.  This show was all about Trump. (3 years after the death of Stalin, Khrushchev gave his secret speech in 1956, titled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences.” I wonder if a future GOP leader will give a similar speech someday?)

2. Administrative resources.  Autocrats and semi-autocrats frequently use government resources for personal electoral gain.  We have the Hatch Act to prevent such behavior in the U.S. It’s obviously not working. [McFaul is speaking here of Trump’s illegal use of the White House, its gardens, and its personnel to stage his convention. We all paid for that picture of opulence, folks.]

3. Blatant disregard for the law.  That Trump’s team dared anyone to charge them with violating the Hatch Act is exactly what Putin and other autocrats do all the time. Laws don’t apply to the king & his court, only to the subjects.

4. Blatant disregard for facts.  As U.S. ambassador to Russia, I found this Putin regime trait most frustrating. We—the U.S. government—were constrained by facts. They were not. Trump obviously was not constrained by facts last night. He usually isn’t.

5. Us versus Them populism. “Elites” versus “the people” nationalism. Autocratic populists use polarizing identity politics to divide societies all the time. Many populist leaders actually have little in common with the “masses.”  (Putin is very rich.)

6. The opposition is the “enemy of the people.” Putin & other autocratic populists cast their opponents as radicals & revolutionaries. They don’t focus on their own records – often there is little to celebrate – but the horrors that will happen if they lose power. Sound familiar?

6b. There is one difference between Putin and Trump so far. Putin also claims falsely that his political opponents are supported by foreign enemies, the U.S. & the West. Trump has not gone there full-throated yet.  But my guess is it’s coming. “Beijing Biden” is a hint.

7. Law and Order.  Autocratic populists all shout about it, even when the opposite is happening on their watch.

8. The good tsar versus the bad boyars.  Kings and tsars always blamed bad provincial leaders for national ills. Putin blames the governors all the time… just like Trump.

9.  Individual acts of royal kindness.  Putin, like the tsars he emulates, does this all the time. Trump offering a pardon or “granting” citizenship (which of course he didn’t & doesn’t have the power to do) are typical, faux gestures of royal kindness toward his subjects.

10. Homage and fealty. Vassals must signal their complete loyalty and absolute devotion to kings and autocrats. Those that don’t are banished from the royal court or the party. (Where were the Bushes last night?)

11. The royal family.  In this dimension, Trump acts more like a monarch than even Putin. (But watch Lukashenko and his gun-toting teenage son in Belarus) The many Trump family members who performed this week–even a girlfriend got a slot–went beyond even what Putin does.

12. There’s still one big difference. We still don’t know who will win the November election. That uncertainty is a crucial difference between electoral democracies & electoral autocracies. It’s also a difference that has no guarantee of lasting, depending on the outcome this year.


The Bottom Line:



21 thoughts on “Think Trump’s Not Moving Toward Total Autocracy? This International Analyst Knows the Signs Too Well…

  1. I see that Trump now says he and Biden should take a drug test before their first debate. It’s just another Trump diversion, of course, but one that Biden could take advantage of and call Trump’s bluff by agreeing to it IF Trump will agree to the presence of a fact checker who can challenge (in real time) erroneous claims made by either candidate.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Biden called for fact checkers today. The big news is that we now know trump is spouting Putin’s line about Biden’s alleged cognitive issues. Putin probably saw how impaired his buddy is and decided to deflect—a trait that trump shares with him. Meanwhile, I think Biden’s doing just fine.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Cogent observations. I was struck by #10 and #11 in the reporting about the conventions. Ours had the Obamas and the Clintons, among other serious people. Theirs drew half its top speakers from Trump’s immediate family, to say nothing of Guilfoyle’s extravagant bellowing. They’re trying to make the government a dynastic cult like in North Korea. The fact that they didn’t even bother to write a platform, but just replaced it with mindless loyalty to the Great Leader, is revealing as well.

    This election is critical. We can’t give this rot another four years to deepen.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Never have I been so frightened. Every day there is a new dangerous plot: herd immunity, Republicans try to vote twice, etc. i am convinced Trump did have mini strokes…the more he denies, the more it is true. Now he will push out a vaccine not fully tested to prior to the election. I would bet only his followers will go for it—bye, bye some Repubs!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know it’s scary, Sally, but we have to try to do our best to talk up voting: make sure people don’t get discouraged; if voting by mail, do everything properly and mail early—or hand-deliver or use a drop box. And young people are badly needed to be trained as poll workers if you know anyone who’s interested. Good way for college students to make some money and get involved. Action helps overcome fear.

      I also think the CDC thing will not happen.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really hope things like the Hatch Act are tightened and utilised if Biden gets in. Our constitution in the UK is largely unwritten and relies upon custom and historical precedence – all very well until someone bent upon autocracy comes into power, so I feel we are similarly vulnerable to characters such as Trump.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I emphatically agree, Matthew. I’d like to see Biden set up a nonpartisan thorough review of all the areas of government in which trump has ignored long-standing norms to see how they can be strengthened so that they withstand the tyranny. We thought our Separation of Powers would make the Constitutional oaths taken by the President, Republican Senators, cabinet members, and others meaningful. Clearly, they were not.

      I hope the UK and others learn from our bad example.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Earlier today, I re-blogged a post from Annie of annieasksyou fame, and this evening I am sharing another. Annie has collected a series of observations made by International Analyst Michael McFaul that paint a picture that is … chilling. Please do take a minute to check it out. Thanks again, Annie!

    Liked by 1 person

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