[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:
FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE–AND THEN VOTE!