In the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory, many American political analysts are arguing that his presidency has virtually no precedent in U.S. history, and so it’s impossible to know how he might govern.
However, Trump isn’t without precedent in modern democracy if you look for examples outside America. To be sure, some of his populist mantras echo those of the increasingly powerful European hard-right parties. But most of the hard-right parties in Europe haven’t yet won control of a government. Instead, it’s better to study the slew of elected autocracies that have taken over developing nations during the past decade—and touched richer countries such as Italy, Hungary, and Poland. According to the monitoring group Freedom House, democracy has been on the decline worldwide since the late 2000s, with the rise of elected autocrats—legitimately elected leaders who then undermine democratic institutions and culture—a major reason for freedom’s ebb. These elected autocrats include people on the left of the spectrum, such as former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, as well as right-leaning leaders such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who dominates Poland’s current ruling Law and Justice Party.
Many of these elected autocrats had little or no government experience before winning national elections. Like Trump, they’ve built personality cults greater than exist in most far-right European parties. Most won elections as much on the power of their own charisma as on any set of coherent policy ideas. (Leaders such as Berlusconi, Duterte, and now Trump took advantage of complex political systems and multicandidate races, often winning with less than 50 percent of the popular vote.) They’re indeed deeply devoted to themselves and their images, making their administrations reliant on their own personal influence. And in office, they usually conform less to policy orthodoxies than politicians with traditional backgrounds. Duterte, for instance, has mixed a leftist economic policy, which includes rural development and land reform, with a harsh and conservative antidrug crackdown.
What else do the elected autocrats have in common? They usually win elections in part by dominating the media, sometimes by buying media outlets or having allies who do so. In office, they further undermine the traditional media, using alternative forms of communication and aggressively stoking public antagonism at elites to blunt the power of reporting on their administrations. Berlusconi and Thaksin used their riches to purchase major media outlets—the former had taken control of much of Italian private television by the time he was first elected in 1994—or had their friends buy up important newspapers. Berlusconi reveled in attacking the few Italian newspapers (along with many foreign publications) that criticized him, apparently believing his approach won him more supporters than it cost him. He sued the Economist for libel, and for almost a decade his posturing against the Italian media seemed to be popular. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has used his network of business connections to virtually control the broadcast media and ensure favorable coverage.
Trump seems likely to take the same approach to the media, even if he will not buy networks and sites. His senior strategist, Steve Bannon, previously ran Breitbart News; his successors there could well turn the site into a kind of state media for President Trump. He has openly mused about deploying libel laws more aggressively, while demonizing the mainstream press at nearly every campaign rally. It wouldn’t be unthinkable for Trump allies, perhaps even family members, to purchase a major television network or set up a new one essentially dedicated to promoting the president. Trump, meanwhile, could continue using Twitter to delegitimize the mainstream media, mix fiction with fact to confuse the public, and promote himself—a strategy he seems to be pursuing since his election.
In office, elected autocrats try to slowly suffocate the civil service, military bureaucracy, and other government networks that are supposed to be apolitical and which normally provide continuity across presidential administrations. They substitute clientelism for professionalism. Thaksin, who first took office in 2001, purged the esteemed Thai civil service and replaced many senior officials with his allies, while also seeding the police and armed forces with family members and close friends. (Thaksin was deposed by a coup in 2006. Pro-Thaksin parties came back and won multiple elections, before another coup in 2014.) In Venezuela, late President Hugo Chávez took similar measures with the civil service and state-run companies, while in Italy Berlusconi repeatedly attacked the judicial system and oversaw the passage of multiple laws designed to shield himself and his empire from criminal prosecution. It’s not hard to imagine that, as president, Trump would vocally attack judges who decided against his administration or try to stack the U.S. Department of Justice with allies whose primary qualification is loyalty.
That said, elected autocrats’ extreme personalization of power is often their downfall. By surrounding themselves with unqualified family members and sycophants, they make graft much more likely. Berlusconi notoriously appointed former showgirls and other cronies to high office. Despite his efforts to revamp the legal system to protect himself, he was ultimately convicted of tax fraud. Trump’s children—and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—are expected to be extremely influential, while at the same time having power over his businesses. David Frum of the Atlantic, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, has already suggested that the Trump administration could be the least ethical in U.S. history. Trump, Frum wrote on Twitter, will “enable systematic looting & disable oversight.”
Because of their personalization of power, elected autocrats also often have difficulty building lasting movements beyond themselves. Most struggle to name successors, in part because they’re so fearful of delegating power. Chávez died in 2013 and left his party to a weak successor, beleaguered current President Nicolás Maduro. Facing corruption charges, Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008, leaving his party to his younger sister, Yingluck. Although she won an election in 2011, in part because Thaksin openly backed her, she proved an ineffective political operator and was beset by scandal and street protests before being deposed in a May 2014 coup. And Putin seems unable to imagine a future Russia without himself, leaving a void when and if he finally exits the scene.
As the elected autocrats age, in fact, they also need to make greater and greater efforts to stoke their cults of personality. In recent years, Putin has overseen the rewriting of Russian history and the construction of monuments across Russia designed to bolster his personality cult and distract Russians from worrying about what will happen when he’s no longer around. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has overseen the construction of a lavish, Ottomanesque palace for himself.
The cults of personality that elected autocrats have created often don’t survive them. Ultimately, when they exit politics, their countries struggle to return to normal. After serving as prime minister, Berlusconi left Italy with slower growth and far weaker legal institutions. The country hasn’t yet recovered from the nine years he spent in office.
Kurlantzick is author of the forthcoming A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.