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

Michael McFaul, Stanford University

[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:



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

First, Let Me Apologize for My Lunkheadedness…

The Roll Call of the States Reaches Rhode Island

I realize that lots of people avoid talking about politics in these dreadfully polarized times.

But, political junkie that I am, I failed to realize that some of you don’t even want to read about politics—not in the newspapers, not on the Internet, and not on this blog. (Oh, my!)

So it will be hard for you to understand how elated I was after watching the full four days of the Democratic Convention. And how disappointed I was to learn that even committed voters didn’t watch most of it.

I’ll take a wild leap and state that I think many of the 70% of us who say we think our country is going in the wrong direction would feel much more optimistic about our future if you’d heard some of the truly inspiring speakers and watched the roll call of the states that showed slices of Americana many of us never see (including Rhode Island’s famous calamari, pictured above—who knew?). 

You may well have been impressed, as I was, by viewing the plethora of non-political people making the case that this country needs to end its chaos and hate mongering, stop the rising deaths from coronavirus by a national plan to control the virus, and begin rebuilding the economy by electing Biden-Harris.

Know who nominated Biden? Not some hotshot politician, but New York Times security guard Jacquelyn Brittany, who had escorted him to an editorial board meeting at the Times during the campaign and blurted out “I love you!” (He didn’t gain the Times’s endorsement, but he sure had hers.) Sorry for my sappiness, but I thought that was just a delightful touch.

And you’ve probably heard about 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, whom Biden had met during the primaries on a rope line in New Hampshire. Brayden, a stutterer, said Biden’s pep talk with him changed his life. (Biden has spoken openly about the childhood affliction that still affects him on occasion.)

The speech this courageous young man made, while stuttering here and there, was an uplifting tribute both to him and to the compassionate leader who took a few minutes to talk with him and asked his father if it was OK to get his phone number. (Biden said he’s in touch with about 20 kids who stutter.)

That’s just a flavor of the heartwarming, distinctly real, distinctly American, and–ironically–distinctly apolitical feel of this convention. And it’s mind-stretching to think that the people who created it all and meshed and paced diverse people and videos so well had to put something together that had never been done before. Their success bodes well, I felt, for the smoothness and professionalism that the Biden team would bring to the White House.

I had concluded quite a while ago that although Biden wasn’t my first choice, his experience as VP, successfully handling two pandemics (H1N1 and Ebola) and the near economic meltdown that Obama and he had to address as soon as they took office, made him uniquely qualified for the major problems our country now faces. 

When I researched my post about the women heads of state who’d had the greatest success in curbing the pandemic, it all came down to leadership. And leadership meant listening carefully to the scientists, acting promptly, speaking truthfully to their people, and expressing compassion for their plight.

I strongly believe the US would have been one of the world’s leaders, rather than among its worst failures, if Biden had been President when the virus struck.

So even if you hate politics, I fervently hope you won’t sit this one out. Voting should be a piece of cake; in the US today it’s more like a triathlon of mazes, hurdles, and stamina-defying long lines. The deliberate sabotage of postal service will require more workarounds. But part of the Trump effort is to persuade you that your vote won’t count. Many thousands of people are now at work to ensure that’s not the case. But we must do our part.

In other words, we’ll need every citizen who thinks this country is on the wrong track to make the determination to vote and stick to it. Right now, of course, you must check to see that you’re registered before your state’s deadline.

More than 550,000 mail-in ballots were not counted during the primaries. The reasons were lack of a signature, signature different from what was on record, or late arrival. Make sure if you vote by mail that none of those problems negates your vote—and talk to everyone you know who’s voting by mail to ensure they also do so properly. 

Here’s an NPR interview and article about those problems; it includes a state-by-state listing of the numbers of uncounted ballots. 

And here’s New York Times columnist Frank Bruni explaining that with all the structural and human-made problems, we’ll need a landslide just to ensure Biden wins.

My fellow blogger Joseph Urban, aka The Old Liberal, who taught government/civics for many years, has put together a valuable voters guide in the blog post below. It’s relatively brief, but full of useful information.

Here’s a piece of it, including two important resources:

“The two links below are very helpful for locating information for this election. They can link you to info specific to your state. Keep in mind that a few states have different rules for each county. Find out well in advance. No excuses.

Don’t let them steal another one.”
NBC News also has a site, Plan Your Vote, with info about mail-in and early voting, answering such questions as whether COVID is a valid reason for mail-in ballots in states that didn’t originally allow them. And it tells you how to track your ballot to make sure it’s been accepted; that’s extremely important.

Your single vote has never been more essential than it is this year. Please do everything you can to make certain that it’s received and counted. Our democracy, indeed, our very lives, depend upon it.


These Are the Election Watchers Watching Us (Maybe)!

OSCE Members and Partners. Image courtesy of

Remember the good old days—say, 2015—when the World looked toward the US as a beacon of democracy?

Well, it seems that an international group designed to monitor elections is so troubled by what we’re doing in the good old USA that they’re sending people to keep an eye on us.

The Guardian reports that these designated poll watchers are from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—specifically, its democracy and human rights arm.

It seems American exceptionalism has been redefined…

OSCE, with 57 member states, actually began scrutinizing us in 2000, when Bush v Gore was settled by the Supreme Court. But they really sprang into action in 2016.

And this year, after spending one week on a needs assessment, the organization’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) reported great concern about the problems US election officials will face in November and their ability to overcome them.

Now here’s the strange part: The ODIHR needs assessment  states that it was undertaken at the invitation of the US Mission to the OSCE (!).

I think this bit of information should remain in the strictest confidence between you and me. I strongly suspect that if the word gets out to the Trump administration that some of its officials think a close look at the integrity of our elections is necessary by Europeans, no less (not, say Russians or other reliably friendly folk), heads will (figuratively) roll.

(In fact, to my amazement, the “Annex” to the report includes  names of US individuals from the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, the FBI, Federal Elections Commission, Federal Communications Commission, House of Representatives, both the Democratic and Republican National Committees, and a slew of other representatives of diverse organizations. Nobody from the White House, however. Shhhhh!)

The NAM (Needs Assessment Mission) members spoke with these US officials and experts, and apparently enough of them expressed their fear that problems with voting might affect trust in the administration of the election, which could translate into harm for the proceedings and create doubt about the outcome.

As a result, the ODIHR wrote:

“Most ODIHR NAM interlocutors opined that, in an atmosphere of increased polarization, accusations from all political sides on potential voter fraud and  mistrust in the election process and results, the presence of external observers to assess the process will be highly valuable, adding an important layer of transparency.”

And that was before mailboxes were being removed from street corners and carried away on trucks. Hmmmmm….

Most of the American officials and experts welcomed the presence of the foreign observers. The plan is to have member states send 100 long-term observers “to follow the election countrywide,” and 400 short-term observers for election day.

But will they be permitted to enter the US in the midst of the pandemic?

Knowing about this potential international presence is both comforting and terribly sad, don’t you think? Unfortunately, there’s no way to ensure the observers will even be allowed in the polling places. The states have discretion.

For some time, this group has been making recommendations to improve our elections, which have mostly been ignored, especially on the federal level. There’s that big gap in the Voting Rights Act due to the 2017 Supreme Court ruling; legislation passed in the House to correct it and end discriminatory practices against minority voters has been stalled since 2019.

There’s also attention to ensuring the vote for former felons, an issue that’s seen some improvement in several states. But in another area, gerrymandering, change has been minimal, as have calls for independent entities to draw district boundaries according to voter equity.

And, of course, there’s major concern that the pandemic will mean a shortage of poll watchers, and that the post office won’t be able to handle the additional mail-in ballots.

That was even before President Trump announced his determination to deliberately hamper the mail-in voting that he fears will oust him from office, assisted by his big-donor appointee, ironically named DeJoy,  who knows nothing about running a post office or the post office’s Constitutionally protected role. He also had (and may still have) competing financial interests when he was appointed.

I’d say that’s now Concern #1: a clear Constitutional threat to the bedrock of our democracy, a clearly impeachable act for which the President will not be impeached.

But it’s nice to know our allies are still with us, trying to make us live up to the ideals for which they used to admire us—and which we seem in danger of losing with each passing day.

I read this report, which holds up the mirror to us even though our descent has been so terribly obvious to most Americans, too soon after the euphoria of the Biden-Harris appearances and the hope they inspire.

As I don’t want to end this post on a sour note, I’ve inserted a short, happy video that just happens to have come from across the pond.

Here is a totally non-election look at a Zoom professional meeting in which British sportscaster Andrew Cotter holds a brief evaluation with two of his “employees.” Make sure your sound is up high enough to hear Cotter’s concluding words.

And thanks, once again, to my dear friend Fran, for bringing me this bit of fun. I hope you’ll enjoy it—even if you’ve seen it before.


Continue reading “These Are the Election Watchers Watching Us (Maybe)!”

Why I See Kamala’s Racial Attack on Joe as a Positive Seminal Moment for Our Country

VP Biden swears Harris into office as Senator. Image courtesy of

Joe Biden has just selected California Senator Kamala Harris as his Vice Presidential running mate. Some call it an easy, obvious decision. I see it differently.

I think this was just the right choice at this time. But it couldn’t have been easy for Biden.

I was one of many who was put off by Harris in the first debate for her attack on Biden about his support of busing when she was a child integrating her neighborhood school.

It seemed unfair because it was ancient history, and he has clearly moved far from that kind of thinking. Though I didn’t support Biden then, I was moved by the shocked, hurt look on his face. He appeared wounded. He and Harris were friends. She was a close friend of his beloved late son Beau.

Evidently, Biden’s wife’s Jill was similarly offended: she reportedly questioned early on whether Harris should be his running mate. Even more tellingly, Chris Dodd, an old trusted friend who was leading Biden’s search committee, accused Harris of disloyalty and an excess of ambition.

Harris recently dismissed that tense exchange as being “just a debate,” fueling those who saw her as callous and opportunistic. But I think that moment has turned out to be one of the most important for our country today.

Here’s why:

First, it says a huge amount about Biden’s own strength and courage–aligning himself with a strong woman who will speak her mind on important issues. It shows the character of the man. His remark that “I don’t hold grudges” should be a model for us all these days.

Second, Biden has made it clear that racial justice and erasing inequality are central to his campaign for the “soul of America.”  His willingness to see Harris as his ally shows that he wants someone willing to tell him when he’s wrong–and to provide him with perspectives that he knows he can’t gain from his own lived experiences.

That is both extremely impressive and necessary. And he demonstrated true independence of judgment. He dismissed the warnings of his old guard friends like Chris Dodd–warnings that were clearly sexist and not relevant to today.

Thus, his decision tells me that Joe Biden will be his own person. He has shown that he has no fear of being overshadowed by his Vice President. He has decided that Kamala Harris and he are “simpatico”–a word he used as one of the most compelling factors for him.

I’ve been feeling for a while that Biden, having been through so much as Vice President, was the right person to lead us. All this has enhanced my opinion of him as a strong leader.

It has also been noted that through the careful selection process he conducted in seeking his partner, he has shone the light on other talented women who were under consideration but might not otherwise have gained such notice, eg, Val Demings as a possible gubernatorial candidate in Florida; Karen Bass as a possible successor to Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House when she retires.

So his deliberative approach became much more than simply a vetting: it has opened our eyes to the leadership potential of women who’d previously been overlooked.

At the same time, although Harris has dismissed her remark, I no longer see it as a cheap shot. As the killing of George Floyd led to huge and racially diverse protests and widespread societal acceptance of the grievous wrongs and unfulfilled promises in our society, Harris’s insertion of that bit of history may be seen as the opening bell for our great awakening.

Indeed, schools are more segregated today than they have been in years. And Harris was most convincing in helping us envision what it was like for that little girl on her lonely journey years ago. We are now more aware that parallels of that isolation are still plentiful in our nation.

Thus, on one of the most important issues of our time, Biden-Harris are uniquely positioned to move us forward.

In some ways, Harris parallels President Obama. Both grew up in largely white environments and sought their identities elsewhere: he went to Africa in search of his father; she attended Howard University, a predominantly black institution. Thus, they are both comfortable with all types of people in varying settings.

Both are also highly intelligent, accomplished, witty, fast on their feet, and charismatic. Harris drew 20,000 screaming Californians to her presidential campaign announcement–even more than Obama did to his.

Both are more pragmatic than ideological–despite what you’ll hear from the Trump administration about the raving leftists who want to destroy America.

And both have an uncommon ability to demonstrate compassion toward the individuals they engage and the societal problems people face. (With Biden, who also has an abundance of compassion, and Harris, the compassionate responses will flow freely. Due to the pandemic and accompanying financial distress, our suffering nation now needs this quality in our leaders as never before.)

Kamala actually has more executive experience than Obama did: as California’s attorney general, she ran the second largest attorney general office in the country–with the exception of the federal government’s.

It was in that position that she became close friends with Biden’s son Beau, and Biden has said that knowing how highly Beau thought of her was a large influence on his decision to choose her.

One of her many accomplishments during her tenure in that position was to walk away from a 2011 offer by the country’s biggest mortgage firms that she felt was a paltry response to the needs of Californians and others facing illicit foreclosures. Beau Biden and other state AGs sided with her, but she took heat as she stood her ground. Dismissing the $2-$4 billion original offer, she eventually gained $20 billion for Californians.

That, President Trump, is truly The Art of the Deal!

There will be much media digging into Harris’s imperfections, many phony attacks by the Trump Administration, depicting them both as captives of the far left–Communists, anarchists, religion defilers. Nonsense!

But Joe Biden has pronounced himself a transitional figure. In selecting Kamala Harris as his running mate, he has demonstrated his understanding and belief in the direction America is moving.

Yes, race and gender are major components. We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment–but when women won the right to vote, the Black women who’ve done so much to build our nation were not included in that move. They have increasingly made up for  lost time.

So just as Black women (and Congressman James Clyburn) were the powerful force that brought Joe Biden’s candidacy back from the brink, so will they protect Kamala Harris from undue attacks and use their sororities and networks to turn out a vote that I believe will be massive enough to overcome the Republican efforts to suppress voting and prevent valid ballots from being counted.

It’s about time, for sure. I teared up when I saw one after another Black woman interviewee express her delight at finally seeing a candidate “who looks like me.”

I hope the media and the grumblers won’t get carried away with focusing on race and gender to the exclusion of everything else.

Make no mistake. In Biden-Harris, we have two pragmatic and compassionate souls who will consider all ideas–some more progressive than might have been the case before conditions in this country became so dire–to dig us out of the worst hole America has been in due to failed leadership in its history.

I expect Biden and Harris will be concentrating on workable, equitable solutions to help us get back on our feet and begin moving toward greater economic and social justice.

The historian Jon Meacham pointed out earlier that our America today dates from Kamala Harris’s birth 55 years ago, when the Voting Rights Act became law, and changes in our immigration laws made the nation more inclusive and diverse. “Our America is 55 years old,” he said.

I believe this is a great day for the America most of us long for.

I welcome your thoughts.


Continue reading “Why I See Kamala’s Racial Attack on Joe as a Positive Seminal Moment for Our Country”

The Presidential Polls Will Soon Be Tightening (Gasp!)

Mail-In ballots. Image courtesy of

It seems that President Trump’s attempts to stay in office are increasingly desperate. “Biden wants to hurt God,” he said Thursday, leading MSNBC host Chris Hayes to ask how he could even do that (?).

It was bad enough for Trump that he’s apparently lost control over events and the narrative–and the opportunities to get the campaigning juice so essential to his being.

Then came the news that Cy Vance, Jr., the New York County District Attorney, apparently possesses not only those elusive tax returns, but also evidence of fraudulent claims made by Trump and his company in order to obtain loans from Deutsche Bank. It’s finally looking as though the long arm of the law that he’s eluded for so long may well be hovering within reach.

So despite his obvious contempt for and boredom with the position of President, and the fact that more than 160,000 Americans have now died on his watch (“It is what it is”), Trump still wants to keep the job. And that’s understandable. If he loses, he could soon be facing trial and conviction.

But if he’s President, he can’t be indicted. That’s a dopey standard as far as I’m concerned–one that never occurred to Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, et al. But that’s what we’re stuck with for now–just as we’re stuck with the outdated Electoral College.

And if it weren’t for the latter, we’d have few concerns that Trump would be easily booted from the Oval Office.

So Trump is declaring the election a fraud ahead of time, his selection for Postmaster General is snafuing postal operations just when the pandemic has made vote-by-mail more essential than ever, crazy lawsuits are being filed to prevent state officials from sending vote-by-mail ballot applications to citizens, and now Republican operatives are pushing an unstable hip-hop star strategically onto the ballot as a third-party candidate.

I’d say “poor Kanye West” because it seems he’s being used–at a time when his wife is lamenting his untreated mental illness. But he’s also being handsomely rewarded by his relationship with Trump: his fashion company received millions of dollars in loans from the Paycheck Protection Program for small and medium-sized businesses, and he says he’s negotiating other deals as well. In addition, he wants President Trump to defeat Joe Biden, so why not act as a spoiler in states where the race may be tight, eg, Wisconsin?

Right now, the polls in the swing states are still showing Biden is strong, and a surprising number of Senate seats may be in play. The national polls have tightened a bit. They will continue to do so–and we may see this movement more after Biden announces his choice as Vice President next week. There is no way everyone will be happy with whomever he chooses.

This poll-tightening is not a cause for worry, as my wise friend has written:

“Here’s the word of caution: Trump’s popularity has dropped so significantly and quickly that a rebound is inevitable. In statistics, such a correction is known as ‘regression to mean.’ It is a nearly universal phenomenon that manifests itself in batting averages, stock prices, and the number of insects in a hectare of forest.

“When Trump recovers some of his lost ground due to regression to the mean, DON’T PANIC! We must have the intellectual discipline to understand that when Trump closes the gap because of a nearly immutable law of statistics, it does not mean that Biden is ‘losing.’ When Biden is ‘only’ five points ahead of Trump (instead of his current 14 point lead), Biden will still be winning —notwithstanding Trump’s efforts to convince you otherwise.

“And when the gap closes, don’t blame Joe for forces that are far beyond his (or Trump’s) control. But most of all, don’t panic, stay the course, and recognize that we cannot rest until the last vote is cast, counted, and defended in court…”

We all know that polls have flaws–a lesson we learned the hard way in 2016. Is there another approach to determining who’ll win?

You may have seen or heard about a video of historian Allan Lichtman explaining how he garnered the sterling record of successfully calling every Presidential winner–including Trump–since 1984. He even predicted Trump’s impeachment.

Lichtman’s prognostications are unaffected by polls. He maintains that voters vote pragmatically according to how the party in the White House has been governing. His methodology, based on years of research, focuses on “13 Keys to the White House”: answers of “true” mean the party in the White House will remain; answers of “false” mean a change. Among the keys are incumbency, primary challenges, economic indicators, and foreign successes.

If you’d like to see the video and learn all the facets of Lichtman’s decision-making, here’s a link.

On the basis of the 13 keys, Lichtman predicts Trump will lose the election. But, he says, “Don’t just take my word for it,” and he points to unknowable factors that he says keep him up at night, such as voter suppression and Russian intervention. Get out there and vote, he exhorts us.

We need the closest thing possible to a landslide to prevent Trump from crying fraud and trying to discredit the legitimacy of the election. Every vote–in red states and blue states–is critically important in this effort.

Lichtman concludes by quoting President Lincoln:

“The best way to predict the future is to choose it.”


Continue reading “The Presidential Polls Will Soon Be Tightening (Gasp!)”