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The GOP’s Telltale Signs of Authoritarianism

Trump dominates its money and its mind.
May 17, 2021
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(Photo by ALEX EDELMAN / AFP) (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The Republican party is an authoritarian party, not just in its unabashed hostility to democracy and the rule of law, but also in its internal organization. It exhibits many of the classic signs of authoritarianism, with many of the attendant strengths and vulnerabilities.

Trump’s path to power in the Republican party would be familiar to many authoritarian leaders. He won the 2016 nomination with just a plurality of the popular vote, and once in office used his influence to ensure a future vote couldn’t threaten his hold on power within the party. He merged his fundraising organization with that of the Republican National Committee in December 2018, long before the 2020 primaries had even begun or any of Trump’s three challengers for the nomination had announced their candidacies. Like other authoritarians, Trump and his courtiers took a belt-and-suspenders approach to election rigging, convincing the Republican party committees in several early primary states to cancel their contests. (This was not an unprecedented move, but it was never so clearly part of an authoritarian pattern.)

Having been established as the GOP’s undisputed ruler, Trump is encountering some of the headaches and tensions common to all autocrats. The first and most obvious is the lack of a clear succession principle. In 2020, the party proudly defined itself as an organization devoted to Trump, forgoing the creation of a party platform beyond ‘We ❤ Trump.’ No wonder other notables who would seem to have their own independent bases of support, like Nikki Haley and Sen. Mitch McConnell, can’t bring themselves to quit him, and dissidents like Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger face de facto excommunication. How could any of them make a claim to become the new leader of the party if the party only exists to serve the current leader? Because actively opposing Trump is impossible, Republicans with presidential ambitions have no choice but to ingratiate themselves with him in the hope of gaining an advantageous position in the squabble for his endorsement should he choose not to run.

Another issue common to both authoritarian regimes and the Trump-era Republican party is the paucity of trustworthy, honest information. Most autocrats struggle to figure out who is telling them the truth and who is a yes-man—the incentives of lower-level officials to inflate their success to their superiors are infamous. Trump embraces the problem, eschewing anyone who dares to give him bad news.

And then, of course, there’s the brain drain. One of the problems of strangling and restricting a society for political expediency is that there are always other options. The people with the most human capital—extraordinary abilities, intelligence, skills, etc.—are the most likely to defect. The Soviet Union and its allies leaked talent at an extraordinary rate. Judging by how many former Republican luminaries have publicly broken with Trump, the Republican party, or both, its brain drain could be even quicker.

The Republican party has shed many of its legal, economic, foreign policy, and political experts—the very people who enabled it to govern. Its new leading legal light is Rudy Giuliani. Its foreign policy guru is . . . maybe Sen. Rand Paul? (Sorry, Mike Pompeo.) Its most accomplished economist is Larry Kudlow.

The Trumpistintellectualmovement is a bit like the Soviets’ ersatz space shuttle—it never really got off the ground.

To Trump and his supporters, this is all an asset, not a liability. Sycophants are the only people who won’t threaten the power structure. But in the long run, the imperatives of internal politics conflict with those of external politics. At least in theory, a political party’s purpose is to win and hold power. How is the Republican party supposed to do that if all the smart, experienced, well-trained, well-organized people have left the party?

For Trump, there’s another advantage to the brain drain, too: Ideological and political flexibility. Before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Communists around the world defended Hitler as a co-belligerent against decadent international capitalism. After the Panzers crossed the border, fascism became communism’s chief ideological enemy. Funny how that works: Only an authoritarian party could object to the corruption of the swamp while waving away Trump’s self-dealing. No consensus-driven organization could, as the GOP did with regard to North Korea, pirouette with such fluidity from “fire and fury” to love letters. A party that took its policy preferences seriously couldn’t possibly replace Cheney with Rep. Elise Stefanik in its leadership because the former was somehow insufficiently loyal to the party.

There’s an indication that Trump is getting better at being an authoritarian ruler. For example, during the post-election turmoil, he encountered for the first time the problem of regional elites who were incompletely restrained by his power vertical. State officials in Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania refused to overturn the election results. Next time he’ll know better how to prevent that from happening.

There’s nothing authoritarians fear more than successful free and democratic societies on their borders. Hence Putin’s disdain for Ukraine, Xi Jinping’s aggression toward Taiwan, and seven uninterrupted decades of North Korean hostility toward South Korea. As the Republican party gets more and more autocratic, the best thing the rest of the country can do is make the alternative as attractive as possible by demonstrating that small-d democratic politics is capable of governing well and wisely.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.