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Experts on authoritarianism are absolutely terrified by the Comey firing

Trump (Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

“Trump has talked like a would-be authoritarian since day one. … This is the first clear warning sign that he’s attempting to [act like one].”

Those are the words not of a Democratic political operative or a fringe liberal Trump critic, but of Yascha Mounk, a respected scholar of democracy at Harvard, reacting to Preisdent Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Comey’s firing sparked immediate questions in the press — Is this Watergate? Will Trump be impeached? — all of which are legitimate and serious questions. But they’re not answerable now. In the meantime, all we have to go on is what we know to have happened: The president fired the person who was investigating him and his associates.

To people who study the rise of authoritarian leaders, just those facts alone are terrifying.

“This is very common — in semi-authoritarian and authoritarian regimes,” Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Denver, tells me. “Purges, summary firings, imprisonment: These are all things that authoritarian leaders do when they attempt to rid themselves of rivals within government.”

Comey’s firing, these political scientists say, fits a pattern that’s very common in democracies that collapse into authoritarianism in the modern era. It’s not that the elected leaders in these countries set out to become an authoritarian, per se. It’s that they care about their own power and security above all else, and do things to protect their own position that have the effect of removing democratic constraints on their power.

One of the first steps in this pattern is weakening independent sources of power that can check the executive’s actions. Like, say, the director of your domestic security service who just happens to be investigating your administration’s foreign ties.

Trump “has what you might think of as autocratic tendencies, which were probably perfectly normal in the business world but are very problematic in the political world,” says Sheri Berman, a professor at Barnard College. “What he would like to do is eliminate all sources of opposition to him — indeed, even sources of criticism of him — and he’s willing to do pretty much anything to do that.”

Now, before you worry that the United States is going to go the way of Turkey or Russia, it’s worth noting that the institutions checking Trump are far stronger than the ones in countries where democracy has collapsed. The courts, the press, and social movements have all done a pretty good job checking Trump’s power so far; even Congress, by far the most Trump-subservient institution, has blocked some of his policy proposals and appointees.

But the Comey firing is by far the greatest test of the strength of American democracy in the face of Trump’s authoritarian instincts so far. Whether American institutions keep up their strong performance in the face of this stress test may well determine its fate.

The new authoritarianism

Vladimir Putin Visits Hungary
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When most people think about the collapse of democracy, they think about the Nazis, or maybe a military coup. In both cases, a leader comes to power with the explicit goal of taking a democratic system and replacing it with an authoritarian one. They then immediately pass laws banning dissent and use force to shut down all sources of political opposition.

That actually doesn’t happen very much anymore. Outright fascist movements were mostly discredited after World War II, and data on military coups shows a clear decline in their frequency since a peak in the 1960s.

But in the past 20 years or so, we’ve started to see a new kind of creeping authoritarianism emerge in places around the world — something that, in the wake of Trump’s recent actions, now has ominous parallels to the United States.

Leaders in these kinds of countries — Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and both Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela — don’t come into power and immediately dissolve the legislature and get rid of elections. What they do is corrupt those institutions, slowly and over time, rendering legislatures powerless and elections not truly competitive.

“It looks the same from the outside — there’s elections, there’s a judiciary, there’s a bureaucracy,” Berman says. “But the sort of power centers within those things, the people who populate them, have changed dramatically, so that … the substance of true democratic competition, true power competition, no longer exists.”

The vital first step toward this kind of “soft authoritarianism” is unified control over every key part of government. That starts with personnel: You can’t corrupt a judiciary staffed with impartial judges, or suborn election officials who are truly committed to running free and fair contests.

Instead, you need to fire people at key pressure points and replace them with cronies, or weaken the institution’s formal abilities to the point where it can’t really provide effective oversight.

“What would-be authoritarians do when they get into power is systematically undermine the functioning of independent state institutions,” Mounk says. “That is what Hugo Chávez did in Venezuela, by trying to break the power of independent electoral commissions, of the courts, and, over time, every institution in the state.”

This is what makes the firing of Comey so scary for these scholars.

Dismissing the head of a national law enforcement agency is extremely rare, both in the United States and in other advanced democracies worldwide. Only one prior FBI director, William Sessions in 1993, has been fired in the 82-year history of the modern FBI, and that was because of a protracted corruption scandal involving his alleged abuse of government resources for his own personal use.

There’s a reason FBI directors don’t get fired. The bureau handles, among many other things, criminal investigations involving the executive branch, so its leader needs to be as nonpartisan and clear of influence as possible. That’s why FBI directors have 10-year terms and are generally asked to stay on by new administrations, even if the director was appointed under a president of the opposing party.

As far as we can tell, the White House’s stated justification for Comey’s firing — his handling of the Clinton email scandal and Trump’s increasing lack of confidence in Comey’s ability to do his job — is completely bogus. Reports from inside the administration suggest that it’s all about the Russia investigation, and that the email stuff was just a pretext. Multiple outlets have reported that Comey asked for more money for the Russia investigation last week, and was turned down.

Comey was fired, it seems, precisely because his FBI posed a threat to Trump’s authority. Trump is doing exactly what new authoritarians do in the early stages of their leadership.

The danger from Trump isn’t an authoritarian plot. It’s his instincts.

Trump Returns to the White House (Ron Sachs/Pool/Getty Images)

It’s important not to get too paranoid here. There is no secret Trump plot to undermine American democracy, no premeditated plan to turn America into Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale.

But the thing is, modern authoritarians generally don’t have that kind of sinister blueprint. “They’re winging it,” Chenoweth says, bluntly.

What happens, instead, is a series of lower-level conflicts between the executive and other elements of the state. The president wants to do something; a court or a legislature blocks him. The president, frustrated with his opponents’ behavior, decides to circumvent them using whatever legal tools are available.

“They use their powers in the executive branch to reshape the way the institutions and procedures work,” Berman says. “Orbán, who’s clever, did interesting things like decide he was going to change the retirement age for judges to 62. And all of a sudden, all of these people who had built up experiences [were gone], opening up these huge numbers of positions that he could stock with his own supporters.”

The issue isn’t so much a premeditated anti-democratic plot as it is the result of repeated collisions between a leader who wants to do whatever they want and a democratic system that won’t let them do it.

In well-functioning democracies, leaders don’t do things like that. Not because they can’t in legal terms — Orbán’s court-packing scheme was eventually blessed by the legislature — but because they think it’s wrong to. They believe there are certain steps that, while they would enhance one’s own power, simply shouldn’t be taken because they undermine the long-term health of democracy.

This is what people mean when they talk about “democratic norms.” Democracies aren’t protected just by formal rules, but by a set of beliefs among the people tasked with running them. A commitment to the idea that certain things are just out of bounds for presidents.

Every American president in the postwar era has shared these basic commitments — with the notable exceptions of Richard Nixon and, now, Donald Trump. In both of those two cases, the presidents have done something (Watergate and the Comey firing) that fundamentally threatens the constraints on the president.

“We’ve long taken for granted that norms and practice were enough to mitigate overreaches of power,” Chenoweth says. “Without the rule of law establishing and enforcing those norms and practices, they’re very easy to push aside.”

This is why the president’s personal instincts matter so much. If Trump were someone with a good grasp of — and respect for — the underpinnings of American government, he probably wouldn’t have done what he just did. It’s not that it’s illegal or anything — the president is absolutely allowed to fire the FBI director — it’s just that it usually isn’t done.

Trump doesn’t seem to care. He’s a demonstrably thin-skinned man who gets upset when people challenge him. In the case of Comey, the challenge actually posed a potential threat to his presidency, not to mention his reputation. This kind of person, when faced with the difficulties inherent in governing a democracy, was likely to try the soft authoritarian playbook in such a crisis.

“The likelihood was that he would stumble into these kinds of authoritarian messes, precisely when he comes across the kind of roadblocks that a functioning democracy would put in his way,” Mounk says. “I think the firing of James Comey is a perfect [example].”

American institutions are much stronger than those in collapsed democracies. Comey is their biggest test yet.

Demonstrators Protest Outside White House Over President Trump's Firing Of FBI Director James Comey (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Now is a good time to take a deep breath and note that this crisis, however it shakes out, is not likely to collapse American democracy all by itself.

“I don't think we've crossed any bright lines distinguishing authoritarian systems from democratic ones,” Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who studies the rise and fall of democracies, tells me.

The issue, instead, is the precedent that this sets for the Trump administration. If Trump’s firing of the man who’s investigating him successfully neuters the FBI and slows down its investigation of the Trump-Russia ties, that’s one less check on his power going forward. If he gets a clear message that the checks on him when he grabs for power are pliable, how far will he end up pushing the envelope?

That makes the reaction to this moment absolutely vital. What will the other people in the government with power to check the president do in response?

In this respect, the United States is in much better shape than the other countries that have fallen from democracy to authoritarianism. America has one of the longest-running democracies on earth, which means its institutions have had a lot of time to build up strength and popular legitimacy. It also has a vibrant civil society — meaning press and social movements — that can mobilize opposition outside of the state.

All of these actors really are checking the president. Multiple courts have blocked Trump’s most egregious overreach, the Muslim ban. Journalists are doing a lot of deeply critical reporting on the Russia scandal and other parts of the Trump administration; it’s very likely that were it not for the Washington Post publicly exposing his lies, Michael Flynn would still be national security adviser. And since the election, there’s been a wave of activism and protest unlike anything since the 1960s.

This is a great sign. A recent book by two scholars, Stephan Haggard and Robert R. Kaufman, studied 25 cases of democracies backsliding into authoritarianism. They found that once leaders start to behave in an authoritarian fashion is when civil society challenges the would-be authoritarians. Institutions alone aren’t enough to stop slides toward authoritarianism; you need actual pushback from the people.

Clearly, in the broader sense, Americans are already primed to do that.

Unfortunately, the institution most relevant to the Comey issue — Congress — has been the most pliable, for basically partisan reasons. You’ve seen some willingness to challenge the president, with Republicans helping block Trump’s pick for secretary of the Army and his early plans for cutting the foreign aid budget.

But the issues that have come before this one haven’t really implicated core features of American democracy, like oversight of the president. This is now a stress test for Congress: In the face of a clear power grab, what will they do?

“We now have to watch out for two things,” Mounk says. “The first is whether [Trump] nominates a clear partisan hack, like Rudy Giuliani [to run the FBI],” and the Senate confirms that pick instead of blocking it. “The second thing to watch for,” says Mounk, “is whether this is the beginning a whole series of similar appointments to similar institutions.”

The Comey firing itself doesn’t herald the death of democracy in America, not even close. But it is a watershed moment for the country’s future nonetheless. What happens now will shape the future of American democracy — if not its survival, then certainly its health and ability to function smoothly. Both Congress and ordinary Americans can shape it for the better — or for the worse, if they just let this pass and do nothing.

At the end of our conversation, Chenoweth left me with one parting thought: “This is not a drill.” I believe her.