Boston University

Authoritarian practices of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. By Alexander Henshaw-Greene at Boston University.

Stealth Authoritarianism, as expressed by Ozan Varol, refers to regime practices that make a country less democratic without outright violating laws or repressing opposition. Varol writes that stealth authoritarianism emerged as a result of internationally mandated democracy-promotion mechanisms. As the global community cracked down on authoritarian regimes, the leaders of such governments adapted their methods in order to avoid international condemnation. Rather than rig elections, murder dissidents, and ban opposition parties, the modern authoritarian engages in far stealthier practices. While these practices may be executed in the name of democracy and frequently violate neither laws nor norms, the result is a system less democratic than it was before. Furthermore, the costs of removing an incumbent are greatly increased while checks and balances are eroded.

In the United States, the Republican Party and Donald Trump have separately and in conjunction pursued practices that I argue fall under this term. Varol expands on six mechanisms of stealth authoritarianism in his paper, however for the purposes of this post I will discuss three of them; (1) judicial review, (2) libel lawsuits, and (3) electoral laws. I first summarize Varol’s explanations of these mechanisms and then relate each one to the current political condition in the United States.

(1) A key mechanism through which authoritarian leaders preserve their power is by transferring it to the judiciary. Appointing judges who share an incumbent’s ideology can ensure his/her policies will be carried out for generations (depending on rules governing judicial appointments). Additionally, judicial appointments are a useful mechanism since they are often protected in a Nation’s Constitution, and thus seen as legitimate.

Following the death of Justice Anthony Scalia, Senate Republicans refused to meet with President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, and delayed the decision to appoint a new justice until after the Presidential election. As a result, Trump was able to appoint the staunchly conservative justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The Republican Party’s norm-breaking behavior was motivated by the fact that the ideological bent of the court depended on who replaced Scalia. Gorsuch’s views on property rights, the role of government, social issues, taxation, and free-markets align closely with those of the Republican elites and, more importantly, the donors who funded the 10 million dollar dark money campaign to get him appointed.

It should be noted that, overall, the court system has acted as a check on President Trump’s authority, successfully blocking several of his “Travel Bans”. However, Varol remarks that authoritarian leaders must allow courts to occasionally act against them in order to preserve the image of autonomy. Given that we are less than a year into Trump’s Presidency, it is difficult to say whether his actions in this area qualify as authoritarian in their own right, or if he merely benefited from the authoritarian practices of the Republican elites. Either way, Trump will have immense opportunity to shape the judiciary to his liking in the coming years, and his appointments should be carefully monitored by researchers and concerned citizens alike.

(2) A second mechanism favored by authoritarian leaders involves libel lawsuits. Public debate and disagreement as well as civilian ability to monitor politician’s behavior is necessary to any healthy democracy. In order to stem public criticism, incumbents can use libel lawsuits to lash out against figures they deem to be unfriendly. While such a technique may be less effective than outright oppression, it is far less likely to lead to outcry or reactionary dissent. The costs of a sustained legal battle often prove to be too much for most opposition figures, and can lead to an environment of self-censorship.

President Trump’s affection for threatening to sue publications and individuals that he feels have wronged him has become something of a joke in popular culture. Beyond that, the threats cannot be said to have been effective, seeing as most publications are more than happy to write critically of him and his administration. A somewhat more sinister technique that Trump has engaged in involves him openly admonishing specific members of the press and encouraging his supporters to do the same. Reporters who write critically of Trump and are called out by him often receive hundreds of death threats and hate messages over the internet. This technique, as with libel lawsuits, does not violate any laws and encourages self-censorship among individuals who do not want to endure such adversity.

During the 2016 primary campaign, there was disagreement within Fox News over whether the network would support Donald Trump’s candidacy. One anchor, Megyn Kelly, made clear her antipathy to Trump during a debate that she was moderating. Over the following days the network was attacked by hundreds of Trump supporters (many of whom were also Fox viewers) angry at his treatment during the debate. The public outcry likely played a role in Fox’s decision to ultimately back Trump and cover him favorably.

(3) The final mechanism of stealth authoritarianism I will discuss is in the field of electoral laws. Incumbents who wish to tilt the electoral playing field in their favor without blatantly violating laws or suppressing opponents have a variety of options to choose from. These include implementing voter ID laws to suppress minority voters, changing electoral rules, manipulating voter registration, or enforcing electoral thresholds. Varol stresses that these mechanisms are generally accompanied by promises to eliminate voter fraud, whether such fraud exists or not.

The similarities between Varol’s description of this mechanism and the current political climate in the United States are almost too clear. Trump claimed numerous times before the election that he suspected voter fraud to be widespread. More shockingly, after he had won the election he asserted that 3 million individuals had voted illegally for his opponent. These claims resulted in him appointing an “Election Integrity Commission” chaired by Vice-President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Critics are concerned that this commission will enact policies similar to those Republicans have pursued in many states with the express purpose of suppressing democratic voters.

The New York Times wrote in 2016 that “Republican lawmakers…have enjoyed plenty of success erecting obstacles between the ballot box and the most vulnerable voters”. To take one example, Wisconsin implemented strict voter ID laws under Governor Scott Walker that resulted in several hundred thousand voters being made ineligible to vote.  In a state that Donald Trump won by roughly 22,000 votes, the results of such a mechanism speak for themselves.



  1. Aidan Calvelli

    October 2, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    I think this post does a good job of cataloguing Varol’s argument, but in the cases presented about the Trump administration and the Republican Party, Huq and Ginsberg’s concept of “constitutional retrogression” is a more apt label than Varol’s “stealth authoritarianism.” Constitutional retrogression is a more accurate term because it does not insist on calling a major political party in the United States authoritarian, but rather implies that it might have quasi-authoritarian tendencies.

    Consider the 3 examples presented of Trump/Republican actions as forms of constitutional retrogression. First, violating historical norms of judicial nominations to make the Supreme Court more partisan is an example of decreasing institutional checks on the executive. Second, threatening to punish journalists or engage in libel lawsuits contracts the public sphere by creating social disincentives for dissent and ideological diversity. Third, voter ID laws decrease political competition by inhibiting voter turnout (and thus participation in democracy), especially among lower-income and minority populations that are often not well represented.

    These actions fall into the categories of constitutional retrogression, but given that they were not simultaneous (the blocking of Garland happened before Trump took office), don’t perfectly fulfill the criteria of retrogression. In fact, these actions can be viewed through the more benign lens of partisan political consolidation, not quasi-authoritarianism. As Schumpeter explained, in a functioning democracy, political parties compete vigorously to win, and all three examples show Republicans putting themselves in a better position to win. Republican voters distrust the media, think of the judiciary as too liberal, and the Republican Party does better electorally in elections with low turnout. Knowing this, and knowing that the Republican Party exists to elect Republicans, it is plausibly the case that the examples from this blog are just aggressive cases of electoral competition – not examples of authoritarianism.

  2. Talia Brenner

    October 2, 2017 at 9:00 pm

    I found it interesting how you claimed in your section on judicial review that courts striking down the President’s travel bans actually furthered his authoritarian goals, even though they were a political failure for him, since by Varol’s framework stealth authoritarians give the appearance of federal checks that would be seen in a strong democracy. Unlike your question of was whether this stealth authoritarian act was part of Trump’s own authoritarian behavior or Republican elites’, I wonder if the court strikedowns were stealth authoritarian behavior or just a democratic institution working properly.

    If they were an act of stealth authoritarianism, we can presume that Trump intended for these bans to be struck down. Although they weren’t blatantly unconstitutional, their failure wasn’t too surprising given how unprecedented they were in recent American history and how obviously they appeared to discriminate against a specific religious group. Yet, it is possible that the administration legitimately believed they would pass, since their floundering only harmed Trump’s image. Surely the administration would have known that multiple failed bans would only add to the view of Trump struggling to turn campaign promises into legislation.

    We could also conclude that the administration did not intend for the travel bans to fail, but that their being struck down still had the effect of growing stealth authoritarian power. After several judges deemed the bans unconstitutional, liberals cheered for democracy prevailing, and perhaps relaxed their close watch on the administration for some time.

    It is certainly hard to see in the moment whether these democratic actions are in fact democratic success or a sign of deepening authoritarianism. Perhaps at the present, there is no way to know.

    1. Alexander Henshaw-Greene

      October 3, 2017 at 4:55 pm

      My best guess would be that the administration truly did believe the bans would be approved by the courts, or even did not understand that they would have to be. Seeing as the failure of their travel bans has only served to feed into the narrative of the Trump Presidency as incompetent and amateurish, I don’t at all think that they planned for them to be struck down in some calculated attempt to bolster the appearance of judicial independence. However, as you said, the result could be seen as liberals cheering the strength of democracy and then relaxing their watch on the administration. I would certainly agree with your final statement, that, at the moment, there is no way to know whether these actions should be interpreted as democratic success or creeping authoritarianism.

  3. Trump, DeVos, and Title IX Through the Lens of Stealth Authoritarianism by Lauren Hilliard @ Boston University – Democratic Erosion

    October 12, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    […] Previous blog posts have stated that the Trump administration often employs Ozan Varo’s “stealth authoritarianism” to advance President Trump’s political agenda. The goal of this post is to examine the Title IX reformation and determine if this new legislation fits into the category of stealth authoritarianism. […]

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