I, like many of my fellow Americans, am extremely concerned about Trump’s dictatorial tendencies. Given his behavior – what he said and did over the past four years – he may well act on some of these tendencies, especially if he loses the election by a narrow margin. The concerns I have are not numerous, but are extremely critical: what if he challenges the results of the election and remains adamant on calling for a recount or a new election entirely? What if he refuses to leave the White House and prevents the peaceful transition of power?
What if he calls on the military to occupy all major American cities while he still is the Commander-in-Chief between Election Day and the inauguration of the new president? And what if he prompts his supporters to take up arms, converge into the streets, and violently confront the likely massive number of protesters who would demand Trump’s removal from the White House, which could lead to some kind of a civil war?
Although many Democratic leaders, including Joe Biden, and scores of journalists and others have spoken about their concerns in this regard, there is still no rife discussion about the above unthinkable scenarios. Besides, does Congress – the House and/or the Senate – have the constitutional power to take action in such a situation, or does the Supreme Court have the authority to intervene? Is there anything else in the constitution that would address these troubling issues?
The 20th Amendment says that “The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January.” But what if he doesn’t leave? I posed this question to Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, and one of the country’s foremost constitutional scholars. “After all,” he said, “that has happened elsewhere in the world. My hope is that the courts would quickly rule that Joe Biden is the President and has all of the powers of the office… Every incumbent president who has lost a reelection bid, starting with John Adams in 1800, has left office without incident.”
In my view, however, Trump may well be an aberration. And what if Trump still will not leave the White House? Chemerinsky said, “I doubt that the military would stick with him in that circumstance. Of course, if it did, we would then have a military dictatorship, as other countries have experienced. What if some of the military with the right-wing militias support Trump. Then we would have some kind of a civil war.”
While many Republicans and Democrats may think that any of these scenarios are farfetched, the fact remains that Trump has dictatorial tendencies and occasionally acts on them by testing the ground to gauge the public reaction and weigh how his base responds to his moves. Here is what he displays, and how much in common he shares with dictators in general.
President for life: Trump has said on many occasions that he will be president for life —in March of 2018, he played around with the idea after praising Xi Jinping for granting himself precisely that term extension. Trump also retweeted an absurd meme showing him remaining president for 88,000 years — slightly longer than the human lifespan.
‘I can do whatever I want: Like many despots, on Tuesday, July 23, 2019, Trump suggested that the constitution gives him the power to do “…whatever I want as president.” But I don’t even talk about that.” Albeit, he often tries to do just that to see if he can get away with it.
Defies reality: Trump notoriously lies and creates his own reality just like many dictators do. Bob Woodward reports in his book Fear that John Kelly described Trump as unhinged: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here.”
Presents himself as infallible: Authoritarian leaders never admit that they made a mistake, and neither does Trump. For example, in a tweet, he refused to back down from his “forecast” that Alabama was going to be hit by Hurricane Dorian, which was false. Trump went so far as to alter the National Weather Service’s map of Dorian’s trajectory to include part of Alabama to ‘prove’ that he was right.
Vindictive: Vindictiveness is second nature to all dictators. Following his impeachment acquittal, Trump was characteristically vindictive towards his perceived enemies. They were “evil, vicious, corrupt ‘dirty cops.’” He is habitually mean-spirited and spiteful. Trump’s cruelty is often gratuitous, without any explanation. It is just who he is.
Narcissist: We have yet to know one despot who is not self-centered to the core. Trump, in fact, is a textbook narcissist. Sander Thomaes, a developmental psychologist at Utrecht University, maintains that Trump is “a prototypical narcissist.” He has grandiose visions of oneself; the need to be admired and envied.
Domestic military intervention: Trump is quick, like all tyrants, to resort to the military to show his strength and authority. On June 1, 2020, Trump deployed the military to intervene during the protests in DC. He dispatched federal troops with no identification to quell the protests in Portland two weeks ago against the will of the mayor, which continue to haul peaceful protesters off in unmarked cars, akin to the Gestapo. He is further threatening to send more federal law enforcement officers to major US cities. “We’re not going to let this happen in our country,” he said, “all run by liberal Democrats.”
Praises dictators: Trump’s affinity for dictators, whom he envies for doing whatever they please without accountability, is well-known. On Sept. 7, 2016, Trump said on NBC: “If [Putin] says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader.” About the ruthless Turkish President Erdogan, he stated “I’m a big fan of the president.”
Attacking media: Free media is the biggest threat to authoritarian regimes. Trump’s attacks on the media are routine, calling it the “enemy of the people.” During last year’s trip to the G20 summit in Japan, Trump said to Putin regarding the media present: “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it?”
Conspiracy theorist: Trump is a master in conspiracy theories. That’s what despots often concoct to punish their enemies. Among the many conspiracies he promotes, Trump claims Ukrainians, not Russians, interfered in the 2016 election and were working against him (despite overwhelming agreement from intelligence that Russians hacked the DNC server).
Withdrawal from international agreements/organizations: Authoritarian leaders often defy international agreements when it serves their interests to appeal to their political base. Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change in June 2017, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018, and the UN Human Rights Council in June 2018, among many others.
Trump’s attacks on critics: Dictators do not tolerate any criticism. In January 2017, in response to criticism from Rep. John Lewis, Trump said “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results.”
Surrounding himself with Yes men: Like any despot, Trump retains only those who agree with him. As a former National Security Council official told Politico “I feel like you already don’t have an A Team or B Team. You’re really getting down to who’s left that will say ‘yes.”
I do not believe that Democrats and responsible Republican leaders should simply dismiss any of the above alarming scenarios only because they did not happen before. Trump is unlike any of his predecessors; he is corrupt to the core and his self-interest as he perceives it comes before the nation. He desperately wants to cling to power, in whatever way he can. Just like any dictator, he will stoop to any low, cheat, lie, threaten, viciously attack his opponents, suppress voting rights (especially of the Black and Hispanic communities), and continue to delegitimize the upcoming elections even before they take place. His enablers, the leadership of the Republican party, stood idly by all along and allowed him to run wild, to jeopardize the country’s domestic security and global standing, for which they will pay dearly come November.
I am hopeful that none of the above scenarios will occur. But can we be certain that, given his disturbing behavior and consistent efforts to emulate dictators, Trump would simply concede if he loses the election and peacefully vacates his office come January 20, 2021?
We can only hope so, but it will be a grave mistake not to take these clear warning signs seriously. Be aware America, and be prepared to act.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.