As Donald Trump has swept through the primaries toward the Republican nomination, his blowtorch style has led some commentators to call him a modern version of Benito Mussolini who’s bringing dangerous 1930s-style politics to America. In reality, Trump’s rise doesn’t signal a return of fascism, and his political style doesn’t parallel that of Mussolini. Instead, Trump is part of a modern-day democratic retreat that’s been going on for a decade in the developing world and which is making its way to America and Western Europe. The environment that’s made Trump’s rise possible has more in common with Thailand in 2000 and Turkey in 2010 than Italy—or Germany—in 1933, and Trump’s political approach is closer to those of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, or former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
From the early 1970s, when much of southern Europe democratized, to the mid-2000s, democracy seemed to be sweeping the globe. From 1990 to 2005, electoral democracies worldwide expanded by almost 50 percent. Yet according to Freedom House, a nonprofit that monitors the state of democracy, the number of countries with declining freedoms grew in 2015 for the 10th year in a row, the longest streak of democratic regression in five decades. What’s more, in its annual report Freedom House noted that in 2015 “the number of countries showing an [annual] decline in freedom was the largest since the 10-year slide began.”
In many countries democracy is failing because the current generation of leaders has proven to be elected autocrats. Unlike in the 1920s or 1930s, when fascist governments such as Franco’s Spanish and Mussolini’s Italian regimes came to power by essentially overthrowing establishments through force or bullying to dominate a single election, today’s elected autocrats understand that holding regular votes is critical to one’s domestic and international legitimacy, even if those votes aren’t totally free. After the elections, leaders like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Erdogan, Thaksin, or Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak show little respect for any institutions—an impartial judiciary, a free media, constitutional limits on power, a vibrant private sector—other than the ballot.
Under Erdogan, Turkey’s government has silenced most critical media, while in Malaysia the Najib government has destroyed the independence of the attorney general and tossed the opposition leader in jail on highly dubious sodomy charges. On the campaign trail, Trump has shown similar leanings. He puts great stock in citing his poll numbers and primary results; it’s hard to imagine Mussolini standing before crowds diligently citing the latest polling figures to cement his legitimacy. But Trump disdains other aspects of free politics, promising to use his power as president to alter laws that protect freedom of expression, to force leading companies to manufacture products by his rules, and to wage a trade war that would violate many international agreements signed by U.S. presidents.
The changing nature of media has also prompted this democratic recession. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Thaksin, Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Malaysia’s Najib, and many other elected autocrats have enhanced their popularity by bending domestic media to their will. They have purchased media outlets themselves (Berlusconi), relied on proxies to buy media outlets (Putin, Thaksin), used political powers to intimidate media outlets (all of them), and/or proved so entertaining the media felt it had to cover them. Berlusconi, in particular, was a quote machine like Trump—so exhilarating to cover that many Italian media outlets initially were thrilled to follow his political rise. In the primary season, Trump has gotten more than double the media coverage of any other candidate, according to studies by MediaQuant, a research firm.
Today’s authoritarians have benefited from the emergence of middle classes that have grown disdainful of democratic politics. From middle-class Bangkok residents who initially embraced Thaksin’s strongman style to Americans who, in the recent editions of the World Values Survey poll, show growing support for the idea of “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections,” the middle classes seem exhausted by free politics. (In America, the Gallup poll shows the public’s trust in the presidency and the Supreme Court is at its lowest points ever, and trust in Congress is near historical lows as well.) In large part, this is because democratically elected politicians have overpromised what electoral politics could deliver, vowing that leaders voted into office can almost magically ensure economic growth.
In America, elected politicians have repeatedly made the same mistake of linking democracy to growth, though there’s no evidence that over the short term free politics produces higher growth rates. (Over the long term, many studies have shown that democracy is better for health, welfare, and human development.) Many leaders have made this connection, from those in post-Cold War Eastern Europe who vowed that political freedom would bring dramatic economic change to American presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. And when middle classes and working classes see that economic expansion has stagnated under democratic systems or that growth has come with widening income inequality, they begin to wonder whether an autocratic leader might oversee higher growth rates. They begin to believe an autocrat could cut through political gridlock or take steps such as reducing immigration that, they hope, could somehow lead to greater economic gains for them.
Like the elected autocrats, Trump preys on the anger caused by the mistaken link of democracy to short-term growth. He’s more willing to scapegoat immigrants and minorities than some other elected autocrats such as Chávez. Still, his rhetoric—angry, but not totalitarian—is similar to that of Malaysia’s Najib or Italy’s Berlusconi, who used racially charged language but stopped short of encouraging ethnic cleansing and massive attacks on minorities.
Indeed, today’s elected autocrats have flexible ideologies that mostly revolve around their own personalities, political longevity, and enrichment. They want the state to exert significant control over the economy but not as thoroughly as fascist governments did. Thaksin embraced left-leaning populism when it brought in votes and espoused business-friendly rhetoric when it won him political support. Trump, too, is a political chameleon on issues from trade to health care.
But just because they aren’t Mussolini doesn’t mean these leaders are harmless. The expansion of modern-day authoritarianism breeds more authoritarianism. The success of a strongman in one nation seems to embolden autocrats in other countries, just as, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the expansion of democracy into some countries seemed to help spark democratization in neighboring nations.
Elected autocrats like Berlusconi, Thaksin, Chávez, or Putin also usually leave their countries’ political systems and economies in far worse shape than they found them. In Venezuela, years of statist economics led to ballooning national budgets and weakening corporate governance. Venezuela’s economy is now on the brink of collapse, with basic foodstuffs rationed. Italy’s economy stagnated for more than a decade under Berlusconi, as his government spent much of its time trying to keep the prime minister from being jailed for fraud and other charges.
Contrary to their vow to cut through political gridlock, modern-day autocrats also undermine institutions so badly that they can take years to recover. Thailand has suffered more than a decade of street fighting with no institution, including the judiciary, capable of mediating political conflicts. And the politics of destroying opposition after an election fosters greater polarization, with opponents of the elected autocrat supporting any means to oust them, even military coups such as those that deposed Thaksin in 2006 and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014.
Today’s elected autocrats also may give strength to the world’s two biggest, most powerful autocracies, China and Russia. Moscow and Beijing have slammed shut any hopes for political reform, while using their aid, state media, and other tools to denigrate neighboring democracies and highlight the strengths of authoritarian rule. Elected autocrats are unlikely to spend government funds on democracy promotion and human rights to battle back against Moscow and Beijing. Having unstable elected autocrats take the helm in major democracies only strengthens Chinese and Russian arguments that democracy inevitably leads to chaos. As China’s state-owned Global Times wrote in mid-March after protests in Chicago turned violent, in American democracy, problems are now settled through “fist fights among voters who have different political orientations.” Democracy is unleashing disaster in America, the Chinese paper editorialized, while doing nothing to actually represent many people’s views. “Americans know elections cannot really change their lives … why not support Trump and vent their spleen?”
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.