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Donald Trump’s tactics are disturbingly similar to those of actual dictators

Trump (Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has long been the career coach America didn’t ask for, instructing the country on the finer points of business leadership by bellowing advice and insults at the hapless MBAs who competed on his reality TV show.

But now that the Donald has made a career shift, abandoning the boardroom in favor of the campaign trail, he could use some role models of his own. In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking that he's already found them: Whether Trump is aware of it or not, he appears to be increasingly following the unwritten playbook of tricks used by dictators and autocratic leaders the world over.

In recent weeks, Trump has been acting — consciously or not — like a contestant on The Dictatorship Apprentice. Recognizing those tactics helps explain what he's doing and why it often seems to work so well for him. And the reverse is also true: The fact that Trump is borrowing so liberally from the autocratic regimes tells us a lot about why these strategies are appealing for would-be strongmen the world over.

But no matter how popular Trump might become or what he might do, no one thinks he could become the next Manuel Noriega or Mohammed Zia al-Haq. And that gets to another, more reassuring lesson here: America’s norms and institutions make these strategies a lot less effective here than they might be in, say, Panama or Pakistan. Trump can borrow from the dictator’s playbook, but that playbook is much less effective here.

Rule 1: Wink at violent supporters to intimidate the opposition

Here's Donald Trump on February 1, exhorting his supporters at a rally in Iowa to physically attack protesters:

If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ‘em would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.

Trump protester rally Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty

In subsequent weeks, Trump has said that protesters are a "problem" that he implies or outright says his supporters should solve by physically attacking them. When a demonstrator interrupted a Michigan event, Trump instructed the crowd to "get him out," before sneering, "Try not to hurt him too much."

Trump then told the audience that a protester had been "swinging and punching" at a rally in New Hampshire, and that it was "amazing to watch" as the crowd "took him out."

And on March 13, Trump tweeted what seemed pretty clearly intended as a threat that his supporters would violently disrupt events held by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders:

Dictators such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe would find this approach very familiar. For example, just a few weeks ago, six vans full of stone-throwing thugs who were believed to be supporters of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party attacked an opposition rally, breaking up the event and sending at least one person to the hospital.

For people like Mugabe, the point of this strategy is to consolidate his own power by undermining opposition support. It reminds people that dissent is dangerous, making it difficult for opposition leaders to organize public events.

This kind of mob violence, after all, is in many ways more frightening than repressive laws or harsh policing. Because it's uncontrolled and unpredictable, there's no way to know how destructive it might get. If you're a regular citizen who is unhappy with the regime, threats and attacks on opposition events raise the cost of translating those feelings into action: You may be dedicated enough to attend a rally, but are you dedicated enough to risk your life?

Trump is no Mugabe. For now, his calls for his supporters to "knock the hell" out of protesters are unlikely to cancel Sanders's events or undermine support for the Vermont senator, though they might intimidate would-be demonstrators at Trump's own events.

Rule 2: Tell your supporters that your political opponents are enemies of the state

At a Missouri event, Trump escalated his anti-protester rhetoric, saying that the failure to rough up protesters was an example of the kind of "political correctness" that is hurting the country.

"Protesters, they realize there are no consequences to protesting anymore," he said, suggesting maybe there should be some consequences. "These people are so bad for our country, you have no idea."

Trump has also been a prominent voice of the "birther" movement, which claims that President Obama was born in Kenya and is therefore an untrustworthy foreigner whose claim to the presidency is illegitimate.

Trump supporters attending a campaign event.
Scott Olson/Getty

Dictatorships use similar, albeit stronger, rhetoric to demonize their own opposition, describing them as enemies of the state or the people.

During Egypt's 2011 Arab Spring protests, for example, then-President Hosni Mubarak warned darkly that the protesters were trying to "destroy Egypt," and accused them of being foreign agents.

Egypt's current military government, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has used the same tactic. So has Syria's ruthless dictator Bashar al-Assad, who, when peaceful protests began in 2011, claimed those protesters were really agents of a foreign plot intended to weaken Syria.

This tactic accomplishes two things. First, it delegitimizes protesters: They're no longer dissenters trying to make their country a better place; they're insidious agents responsible for weakening it.

And, second, by demonizing protesters as part of some larger threat, strongmen like Mubarak and Assad justify violence against them. If the protesters are hurting the country, their logic goes, then attacking them is a justifiable or even necessary act of self-defense. It's a way to argue that the murder, torture, beating, and detention of peaceful protesters, who are portrayed as not really that peaceful, is necessary to protect the nation.

Rule 3: Intimidate or co-opt journalists to ensure positive coverage

On March 8, Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, allegedly assaulted Breitbart journalist Michelle Fields, grabbing her arm and pulling her away from Trump with such force that she was left with multiple bruises.

Donald Trump Holds Press Conference To Announce Ben Carson Endorsement
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who denies assaulting Fields.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It's easy to believe Fields's story in part because Trump and his campaign have been so consistently hostile to the media. Trump has denounced the media as "illegitimate," "terrible people," "disgusting," and "scum."

This is a less extreme version of something that happens commonly in countries such as Russia, Uzbekistan, Gambia, and Egypt, where journalists and media organizations know that criticizing the regime can invite the risk of being shut down, arrested, imprisoned, or even murdered.

In Egypt, for instance, Sisi "continues to use the pretext of national security to clamp down on dissent," according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and has imprisoned nearly 200 journalists because of their work.

And in Chechnya, journalists who are insufficiently deferential to local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov are often persecuted by government forces or fall victim to suspiciously timed criminal attacks.

These tactics are crude, but they work. Like attacks on opposition supporters, they raise the price of dissent, forcing journalists to choose between telling the truth and protecting their own safety.

The Trump campaign manager's alleged assault on Fields looks pretty JV when compared with al-Sisi and Kadyrov's varsity-level oppression of journalists. But it still suggests that Trump's team sees violence as an appropriate response to troublesome journalists.

Trump may also be familiar with the other side of that strategy: co-opting media outlets to get positive propaganda.

After Fields was attacked, her then-employer, Breitbart News, went to astonishing lengths to defend the Trump campaign instead of its own journalist. This seemed to lend credence to the Breitbart staffers who have been saying for months that Trump has bought off the conservative news organization to ensure favorable coverage of his candidacy.

While those allegations have yet to be confirmed, they'd be familiar to Russia's Vladimir Putin, whose government has funded state-supported news networks such as RT and Sputnik, which aggressively push the Kremlin line and which replace more traditional and independent state-funded outlets such as RIA Novosti.

Rule 4: Use strict libel and sedition laws as weapons

"I've never said this before. I’m going to open up our libel laws so when [journalists] write purposely negative and horrible and false articles we can sue them and win lots of money."

trump rally Scott Olson/Getty Images

That was Trump at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas, in late February. He's not the first to think of this: Punishing journalists by accusing them of being "defamatory" is a classic tactic of repressive regimes.

In Egypt, for instance, Sisi's military regime arrested a group of journalists from the Qatar-based network Al Jazeera, accusing them of, among other things, "broadcasting false news."

Last year, Myanmar jailed two journalists for "defamation" after they published statements that a military lawmaker made about his colleagues.

The effect of such measures is to crack down on press freedom and limit dissent. But by claiming the problem is that the news is "false" rather than that it is journalists being insufficiently deferential to the interests of those in power, a regime is able to claim that the real problem is the journalists' unprofessionalism rather than its own intolerance for dissent.

Not only does that give the state's crackdown a veneer of respectability, it also impugns the reputations of the journalists it targets, making them less credible to their readers and viewers.

Rule 5: Hint that if the election doesn’t go your way, your supporters will respond violently

Trump has to be aware of speculation that GOP leaders might try to nominate another candidate at the national convention in July, and he's putting out warnings about what will happen if they do.

"I think we’ll win before getting to the convention. But I can tell you, if we didn’t and If we‘re 20 votes short or if we’re 100 short, and we’re at 1,100 and someone else is at 500 or 400 cause we’re way ahead of everybody ... I think you’d have riots," he said on CNN.

A tense moment at the cancelled Donald Trump rally in Chicago.
A tense moment at the canceled Donald Trump rally in Chicago.
Jabin Botsford/Washington Post

The effect of this is to subtly warn Republican Party leaders that they'd better not try to stop Trump, because if they do his supporters will wreak violent havoc.

"Nice convention you'll have there," he's saying. "Sure would be a shame if anything were to happen to it."

This isn't so different from a routine often followed by strongmen and would-be strongmen in more fragile democracies.

Step one is to claim that the election was wrongfully stolen from you. Step two is to unleash your supporters, who now believe their chosen candidate was denied rightful office, on the streets to cause riots or violent chaos. Step three, the end goal, is to graciously accept the presidency, or perhaps a significant role in a "government of national unity" in exchange for telling your supporters to stand down.

See, for example, Kenya's then-President Mwai Kibaki in the 2007 presidential election, against challenger Raila Odinga.

Both men claimed victory in the election and accused each other of committing electoral fraud. (Evidence suggests Kibaki's vote rigging was much more significant.) The dispute spiraled into devastating mass violence, with each man's supporters attacking the communities and tribes associated with the other.

Eventually, in order to end the violence, a panel of eminent African leaders led by Kofi Annan brokered an agreement for a government of national unity, with Kibaki retaining the presidency and Odinga being appointed prime minister. The lesson was disturbingly clear: The mass violence didn't disqualify Kibaki and Odinga from office; it ensured each man a seat in the government.

When the dictator's playbook doesn't work in America

But in the long term, this playbook will only take Trump so far. Even if he wanted to be America's own Putin or Sisi, there's no reason to expect that he will be, and we can already see the playbook proving less effective here in America than it might be elsewhere.

For example, Trump can only accomplish so much by urging protesters to violence, because the American legal system is strong enough to enforce rule of law no matter how wild Trump's rhetoric gets.

John McGraw, a Trump supporter who sucker-punched a protester at a rally in North Carolina, has been arrested and charged with assault and battery. Trump can't actually shield someone like McGraw from legal consequences (though he did offer to pay McGraw's legal fees). Whereas in an actual dictatorship angry mobs can feel comfortable in the assurance that they won't face punishment for doing their leaders' bidding, because the courts are more easily co-opted or cowed by an angry leader, in the US things are different.

Similarly, there's no indication that Trump's bullying of journalists has actually silenced negative coverage. On the contrary, it's led to even harsher criticism of Trump in both the mainstream and conservative media. His threats to "open up" libel and defamation law is empty: Such laws are limited by the First Amendment, which means that Trump would need to change the Constitution, which he can't do on his own.

This is not to say that we should sit back and relax, content that this country's institutions and traditions will protect our freedoms and values. As Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan pointed out on Twitter, Trump's candidacy itself is a symptom of institutions not being as strong as they ought to have been.

But at the same time, this election has shown that Trump's demagoguery has its limits. He hasn't managed to shut down Bernie Sanders rallies or silence the press. It still seems unlikely that Trump will get elected, but even if he does, there will be limits on his power. He's a lot more likely to be the next Silvio Berlusconi than the next Vladimir Putin. That's a wide and extremely important distinction, and one we owe in no small part to the strength of democratic norms and institutions.

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