President Trump has come closer this week than at perhaps any point in his presidency to reproducing, in appearance if not in form, some of the same traits of the strongmen rulers for whom he has long expressed admiration.
The man who praised President Vladimir V. Putin’s “very strong control” over Russia, and once said that China’s violent crackdown in Tiananmen Square showed “the power of strength,” found himself threatening to deploy the military to states where governors did not restore calm.
Mr. Trump also told governors “you have to do retribution” against the protesters he described as “terrorists” and, later, endorsed as “100% Correct” a tweet by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, calling for “zero tolerance” of “anarchy, rioting and looting” and for deploying an Army division against “these Antifa terrorists.”
Such moments — in another, Mr. Trump warned protesters, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — echo his praise for Rodrigo Duterte, the strongman president of the Philippines. Mr. Trump lauded the Philippine leader for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” referring to a campaign of vigilante police violence thought to have claimed thousands of lives.
And after long admiring the pomp and regalia of military leaders and military parades, Mr. Trump this week marched across Lafayette Park in Washington flanked by senior Defense Department officials. One of them, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, separately referred to cities as “the battle space.” Another, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strolled among the soldiers securing Washington’s downtown street corners while in battle fatigues.
Mr. Trump’s unapologetic calls for force, his efforts to position the military as backing his political line,and his warnings of us-versus-them internal threats that must be put down swiftly all follow, whether he knows it or not, a playbook used by the very strongmen he has praised.
The episode heightens a question that has busied political scientists since Mr. Trump took office: whether that playbook, developed in shakier democracies with weaker institutions, would bring Mr. Trump similar political gains and whether it would do similar damage to the norms and institutions that serve as the guardrails of democracy.
“Saying you’re going to shove aside the niceties of democratic norms in order to take a hard line against crime or against chaos, that’s a really common appeal,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist who studies democratic decline. “Duterte is the leading example of this.”
But, Mr. Levitsky added, “whether that will work for Trump or not, well, it’s a very different context in the United States.”
The Appeal of Extreme Steps in Chaotic Times
Psychological research finds that, under certain conditions, when a threat feels chaotic and uncontrolled, some people will not only tolerate but desire extreme steps by the government to reimpose order and forcibly control whoever is perceived as the source of the danger.
Some leaders — Mr. Duterte, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Mr. Putin early in his career and others — rose by promising to fulfill those desires, a strategy that Tom Pepinsky, a Cornell University scholar, has termed an appeal to “order over law, instead of law and order.”
“If people think that the normal functioning of the rule of law won’t protect them, maybe they’ll find someone who can crack a couple skulls or tase some college kids in their car or shoot a protester in the eye,” Mr. Pepinsky said.
If this requires overturning limits on the leader’s authority, or enlisting the police or the military to serve as a personal shock force, all the better for demonstrating that this leader alone can take the supposedly necessary steps.
Where this goes to extremes, Mr. Pepinsky added, is when people do not just tolerate force as a regrettable necessity, but “feel real pleasure in seeing the capital-O ‘other’ being put down and controlled.”
That’s a far easier sell in countries like the Philippines, where violent crime had been widespread in a way that it is simply not in the United States.
But deep social polarization, along with sometimes alarmist portrayals of protesters who have committed some looting but only scattered violence, may prime some Americans to be receptive to the language of us-versus-them and of a threat growing out of control.
Mr. Duterte is planning to sign legislation that would allow his government to classify some political opponents as terrorists, mere days after Mr. Trump claimed he would designate the left-wing protest group antifa as terrorists.
The Peril and Promise of ‘I Alone Can Fix It’
Under that playbook, transgressing democratic norms — by, for example, deploying the military at home — is seen as part of the appeal in its own right.
In another echo of the leaders he has praised, Mr. Trump, far from presenting his deployment of troops and his threat to overrule governors as regrettable necessities, has held them up as shows of strength.
“Populist figures almost invariably use norm-breaking as a signal to supporters,” Mr. Levitsky said, calling it a way to signal that the leader will “take an ax to the political elite” who set those norms. And it shows the leader’s willingness to take drastic actions that others won’t.
For opportunists like Mr. Duterte or Mr. Orban, this creates an opening to consolidate power. Mr. Trump’s aims appear more narrowly tailored to appearing strong and in control at a moment of economic calamity and a runaway pandemic.
But the effect is similar in at least one way: Mr. Trump rallying the military to his side, portraying it as tacitly backing both his polarizing condemnations of protesters and his assertions of sweeping power over governors and public order.
“Creating a sense that the military is a partisan political actor,” said Kori Schake, a former Pentagon official now with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, “really does violence to the nature of the civil-military compact of the United States.”
So does, she added, “the suggestion that you would make civilian authorities inside the United States subordinate to the military, rather than vice versa.”
It calls to mind Mr. Trump’s pledge on accepting the Republican presidential nomination: “I alone can fix it,” a message common to populist leaders who are skeptical of norms that restrain them and institutions that govern somewhat independently.
He has frequently moved to take direct control of institutions like the Justice Department or the State Department, purging troublesome inspectors general or career civil servants and installing loyalists, another trait he shares with the strongmen leaders he has praised.
But the military is a very different entity. It may prove harder to politicize.
The United States is unusual in that its military simultaneously holds significant sway over foreign and defense policy, is culturally revered and yet is widely seen as apolitical — a combination that no other country’s military fits, Ms. Schake said.
“The military is a big, very professionalized institution,” Mr. Levitsky said. “It has a lot of prestige, which gives it some capacity to push back, which we’re already seeing. Because the stakes are so high, you’ll likely see an awful lot of pushback.”
In his study of democratic decline, he added, he found that civilian courts and prosecutors had proven far more tempting, and more dangerous, targets of politicization.
Still, he added, given both the military’s status in American life and its sheer firepower, “If Trump were to succeed in politicizing the military, it would have potentially devastating consequences for democracy.”
This echoes another puzzle that Mr. Trump has presented for political scientists, particularly those whose study of strongmen populists have heightened their sensitivities to Mr. Trump’s bluster. How seriously to take his gestures toward extreme steps, like sending the military into states where governors have refused their access, positions that he might well move on from in a few days’ time?
Mr. Pepinsky, the Cornell University scholar, speculated that Mr. Trump was unlikely to go further, but stressed he had been wrong before.
“We are more safe, probably, until we’re not,” he said, adding of a playbook that has brought chaos to the Asian and Eastern European countries he studies. “We don’t know what the outcome is here in the United States. But we’ll find out.”