Photo by Samuel Sascha Mayer on Unsplash

Trump’s The Worst As He Follows The Authoritarian Playbook To A ‘T’

Phil Garber
9 min readFeb 21, 2024

--

An annual poll by historians judged trump solidly as the worst president in American history, far behind his nemesis, President Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, a non-partisan report shows how trump has become an up-and-coming authoritarian leader by following the playbook being used in such autocratic regimes as Argentina, Russia, Hungary, The Philippines, India, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

The 2024 Presidential Greatness Project Expert Survey put Abraham Lincoln again on top, followed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman, Barack Obama, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy.

The ninth annual survey showed that holding up the bottom was trump, edging out such tarnished leaders as James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison and Warren Harding.

Buchanan is known largely for his failure to attempt to stop the south from seceding from the Union, leading up to the Civil War. Johnson succeeded Lincoln and his epitaph is that he favored quick restoration of the seceded states without protection for the newly free and formerly enslaved Americans.

Pierce believed that the abolitionist movement was a fundamental threat to the nation’s unity, he alienated anti-slavery groups by signing the Kansas–Nebraska Act and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.

Harrison didn’t do much of anything as he died just 31 days after his inauguration. Harding’s term was marred by the Teapot Dome scandal as well as an extramarital affair with Nan Britton.

In a survey that trump will no doubt brand as either a hoax or somehow weaponized, President Joe Biden was ranked far ahead of trump as the 14th best president, followed by Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan and Ulysses S. Grant.

Among modern era presidents, Bill Clinton came in at the 12th slot; George H. W. Bush, 19; Jimmy Carter, 22; Gerald Ford, 27; and Richard Nixon, 35.

Respondents also were asked to list the most under-rated and over-rated presidents. Carter was the most under-rated president, followed by Grant, George H.W. Bush, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Biden. Conversely, Kennedy was considered the most over-rated president, followed closely by Reagan, Andrew Jackson, Wilson, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.

William Henry Harrison was the president that respondents considered most difficult to assess. That would likely be because Harrison died after serving just one month in office.

Finally, respondents were asked which president should have his name carved in granite on Mount Rushmore, next to Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. Franklin Delano Roosevelt again came in a the first who should be memorialized, followed by Obama and a three-way tie between Eisenhower, Madison, and Kennedy.

The survey was conducted by Justin S. Vaughn, an associate professor of political science at Coastal Carolina University, and Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. Respondents were asked to rate each president for overall greatness, from one (the lowest) to 100 (highest).

The survey was based on 154 responses from scholars across the country, including current and recent members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association, the foremost organization of social science experts in presidential politics, as well as scholars who had recently published peer-reviewed academic research in key related scholarly journals or academic presses, according to the survey.

An 2022 NPR/lpsos poll found that 64 percent of Americans agreed that democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing. The situation is no doubt a result of actions taken by trump, an expert salami cutter, like other butchers around the world.

“By using ‘salami tactics,’ slicing away at democracy a sliver at a time, modern authoritarians still cement themselves in power, but they do so incrementally and gradually,” notes a report titled, “The Authoritarian Playbook. “Sometimes their actions are deliberate and calculated, but sometimes they are opportunistic, myopic, or even bumbling. There is no longer a singular bright line that countries cross between democracy and authoritarianism. But the outcome is still the same.”

“Salami tactics” is commonly used to describe efforts to divide and conquer and split up the opposition. The expression evokes the idea of slicing up the opposition just like one might slice up salami. The slow, precise, insidious approach keeps people from feeling alarmed enough to take decisive action in response.

The strategy is compared to the idea of a “frog in hot water,” which imagines an attack that comes on very slowly and by degrees. The image is of a frog immersed in water and the water’s temperature is slowly, and almost imperceptibly increased until finally the frog is boiled to death. Because the attack came on so gradually, the frog never had the opportunity to defend itself or to flee.

The phrase is strongly associated with Josef Stalin, who used salami tactics to divide the anti-communist opposition groups in order to realize his goal of creating more and more communist states near Russia.

Stalin used salami tactics although some analysts say Stalin was just re-purposing Hitler’s “piecemeal” strategy of decimating his opposition so that he and his cohorts were left as the only viable option. During World War II, Hitler used salami tactics to slowly annex other countries, eliminating his opponents piece by piece or slice by slice.

Authoritarian rulers generally and trump in particular are the focus of “The Authoritarian Playbook.” The report was created by Protect Democracy, which calls itself a “cross-ideological nonprofit group dedicated to defeating the authoritarian threat, building more resilient democratic institutions, and protecting our freedom and liberal democracy.”

The organization’s experts and advocates “use litigation, legislative and communications strategies, technology, research, and analysis to stand up for free and fair elections, the rule of law, fact-based debate, and a better democracy for future generations.”

The report notes that authoritarian leaders like trump often impose piecemeal actions, making their actions hard to distinguish from normal politics. The report is a guidebook for understanding trump as it outlines the seven fundamental tactics used by aspiring authoritarians. Tactics include politicizing independent institutions; spreading disinformation; aggrandizing executive power; quashing dissent; marginalizing vulnerable communities; corrupting elections; and stoking violence.

“Before the 1990s, authoritarian leaders bent on upending democracy typically came to power forcefully and swiftly, often by means of a military coup d’etat,” the report notes. “The moment democracy ceased to exist could be time-stamped and reported on with a block headline.”

But at least for the last 30 years, threats to democracy have evolved.

“Today, democracy more often dies gradually, as the institutional, legal, and political constraints on authoritarian leaders are chipped away, one by one,” the report says, referring to the situations in Russia, Venezuela, Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, Nicaragua, India, Turkey, and the United States.

Politicizing Independent Institutions

According to the report, in the U.S., some of the most concerning attempts to politicize independent institutions have involved attacks on law enforcement — especially the U.S. Department of Justice — and election administration.

“As of December 2021, attempts to politicize previously independent election oversight and administration roles were underway in at least seven states,” the report said. “Often, overt politicization efforts are cloaked in language delegitimizing non-partisan and professional civil service, a cornerstone of modern democracy, such as by labeling it ‘the deep state.’”

Spreading Disinformation

“Disinformation is a unique challenge for the United States today, as authoritarian actors have taken advantage of our strong First Amendment tradition and fragmenting online information ecosystem,” the report noted.

As a result of the planned disinformation campaign, a third of Americans believe in the “Big Lie,” that the 2020 election was stolen.

“These lies, and the false sense of grievance they are designed to inspire, are almost certain to drive authoritarian attitudes for years to come. And in the short-term, the Big Lie is being used as cover to rewrite election laws and lay the groundwork for potential future power grabs,” the report notes.

Aggrandizing Executive Power

In the United States, it may be difficult to distinguish authoritarian aggrandizement of executive power from the decades-long and bipartisan trends towards expanding presidential authority and valorizing the presidency.

Some historical cases have been fairly clear as when Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to circumvent the Supreme Court’s opposition to his New Deal legislation by expanding the Court from 9 members to 15. The effort was rejected even by Democrats.

When the Reagan administration subverted Congressional restrictions on support to Nicaraguan rebels in the Iran-Contra Affair, Congress was quick to defend its oversight.

“But while such examples reflect how the too-easily abused powers of the president have been exploited over decades by both parties, the trump administration took this to new heights,” the report says. “Trump especially embraced emergency powers, pardons, and acting appointments while ignoring congressional subpoenas and spending appropriations, rejecting legislative oversight, and claiming immunity from judicial accountability.”

Quashing Dissent

The report says that trump administration has had a well-documented antagonistic relationship with reports but that the former president “used, or threatened to use, the regulatory and enforcement powers of the state to punish the speech of journalists in at least four ways.” They include initiating a government review to raise postal rates to punish the owner of the Washington Post; directing the Justice Department to begin enforcement actions against media companies including CNN’s parent company; interfering with White House press access; and threatening to revoke broadcast licenses.

Trump also has trammeled on the actions of government whistleblowers.

“Like authoritarian leaders the world over, Trump demonstrated little tolerance for internal dissent,” the report says.

One glaring example of trump’s abuse of power was the situation where trump and his allies used intimidation and retaliatory attacks against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman “to try to prevent him and scare off others from testifying before Congress during impeachment proceedings, and then to punish him for doing so.”

The report noted how several states have introduced or passed laws, like Florida’s “anti-riot” bill that boosts criminal penalties for protestors in the vicinity of demonstrations that turn violent.

“Restricting civil society’s ability to mobilize dissent is a glaring indicator of democratic backsliding. There have also been — although to a far lesser degree — proposed laws that attempt to criminalize disinformation, but would do so in a way that violates fundamental rights,” the report said.

Marginalizing Vulnerable Communities

Autocrats like trump tend to reject any benefits of pluralism or diverse societies. They employ political strategies that target minorities in a way that energizes and reinforces solidarity among their supporters.

“In the United States, where Black Americans have been marginalized for centuries, the language and rhetoric around voter fraud often nods to this history of racialized politics,” the report said.

Examples of the trump administration targeting minority rights include the roll back of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), exempting certain lenders from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and the introduction of more than 40 bills to curb transgender rights.

Corrupting Election

Trump has led the effort to block certification of the 2020 election results through a coordinated plan involving state and local officials.

Since 2020, at least 19 states have passed election law changes that both reduce ballot access and provide more opportunities for partisan interference in the vote counting and certification process,” the report said.

Stoking Violence

The United States has had a history of violence, particularly around elections and campaigns to intimidate Black voters in the South from voting. Recent decades have seen far fewer episodes of political violence, but recently the trend has reversed. Between 2020 and 2021, there were more than 1,200 events categorized as political violence in the United States, resulting in more than 150 deaths. The number of hate crimes reported to the FBI rose 41 percent between 2015 and 2020.

“International observers have expressed deep concern about the tone of American political campaigns and the way that it raises the risk of violence related to election outcomes,” the report said.

The violent trends culminated in the January 6th insurrection where trump supporters stormed the Capitol, attempting to disrupt the lawful transfer of executive power following the 2020 election. The rioters injured 140 police officers and five deaths were attributed to the violence on the day.

“Yet the alignment of some political leaders with violent actors and the refusal of others to condemn violence contribute to a perception of impunity,” the report said. “This kind of violence both results from and contributes to declines in democratic norms and values.”

--

--

Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer