Donald Trump’s election in 2016 sparked a veritable cottage industry of commentary about the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarian forces. Essays like Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” and books like Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die made the rounds among jittery Americans suddenly wondering if they would recognize the end of American democracy when it came. Three years later, it’s clear that, if there’s a tipping point where a country goes from “free” to “not free,” the U.S. is still far from it. That House Democrats were able to impeach Trump without fearing for their lives demonstrates that reality. And yet, the impeachment inquiry also highlights the degree to which this president has managed to carry out brazen displays of authoritarian behavior with no consequences thus far.
Much of the early handwringing focused on whether the United States could ever transition from a democratic republic to an authoritarian regime. It downplayed the degree to which authoritarianism is not just a political system but a type of political behavior that can happen in democratic systems as well. Commentators also missed that authoritarianism is increasingly global: The U.S. hasn’t gone from being a “free” to a “not free” country so much as the distinction between those has blurred.
The impeachment inquiry focuses on Trump’s apparent effort to leverage state power to discredit and undermine a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. A leader targeting political opponents with trumped-up charges or selective investigations is textbook authoritarian behavior. When Vladimir Putin’s chief opposition rival, Alexei Navalny, is targeted with embezzlement charges, or when thousands of potential rivals of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are imprisoned based on conspiracy theories, we recognize this sort of abuse of power for what it is. But there’s a wrinkle in Trump’s case: He tried and failed to wield the American justice system against other enemies (James Comey and Hillary Clinton) and so resorted to leaning on the mechanisms of power of a foreign nation—one much more vulnerable to corruption and influence. Tellingly, he has also called on China, an authoritarian state, to investigate the Bidens.
This isn’t quite what we thought the age of Trumpian authoritarianism would look like. We are accustomed to thinking of authoritarianism vs. democracy as a team sport: the Axis against the Allies, the Soviets against the West. But that traditional understanding might not make sense anymore, as governments reach beyond their borders to inflict state pressure and violence.
Leaders of authoritarian countries are increasingly able to pressure and silence critics in the “free” world. Leaders of democracies can enlist authoritarian governments against their own critics. Globalization may once have been thought of as a force that undermined authoritarianism, but lately it seems to be the democrats who are playing catch-up.
A useful framework for our current moment is suggested by the Dutch political scientist Marlies Glasius, who proposes that we devote less attention to identifying authoritarian regimes and more on authoritarian practices. Freely elected leaders like Rodrigo Duterte, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump are not “authoritarian” in the same way as leaders of China, Saudi Arabia, or Russia, where opposition groups are barred and elections are either fraudulent or nonexistent. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t take authoritarian actions. Recent events in India, where widespread protests have broken out against a proposed law that bars Muslims from the same path to citizenship enjoyed by migrants of other religions, makes this very clear. India is still “the world’s largest democracy” and Modi enjoys popular legitimacy. That hasn’t stopped him from pushing a policy apparently inspired by the police state of Myanmar.
Glasius defines authoritarian practices as “actions … sabotaging accountability to people over whom a political actor exerts control, or their representatives, by disabling their access to information and/or disabling their voice.” They enable domination and subvert the channels by which people are supposed to be able to make their preferences heard in a democratic society. Subverting the justice system to selectively investigate a government rival is just such a practice.
What does that look like in practice? The most blatant examples of globalized authoritarianism are when governments actually kill or attempt to kill their critics in other countries, as Saudi Arabia did in the case of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or Russia allegedly did to Sergei Skripal, the former spy who was poisoned along with his daughter in England in 2018. The leaders of democracies have been all-too-willing to brush aside these incidents in order to preserve economic or security relationships.
But other expressions of authoritarian power are becoming much more subtle and difficult to trace.
World superpowers have, for example, newfound abilities to censor or chill speech outside their borders. By acting as gatekeeper to the massive Chinese audience, for example, the country’s government has essentially acquired final cut privileges on films shown abroad as well as in China. In an effort to avoid Chinese ire, filmmakers have gone as far as to digitally re-edit the 2012 Red Dawn remake to make the villains North Korean instead of Chinese and cast white actress Tilda Swinton to play a Tibetan sorcerer in Doctor Strange.
Last year, long-standing concerns among China watchers about Beijing’s ability to carry out censorship on a global scale burst into the public consciousness in a high-profile dispute between the Chinese government and the NBA. After Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of the Hong Kong protesters was met with a furious reaction from China, the NBA’s second-largest market, the league went through a grim cycle of damage control and self-censorship, following in the footsteps of brands from Marriot, to Delta, to BMW that have found themselves targets of Beijing’s ire after perceived slights. The English soccer team Arsenal is now facing a similar dilemma to the Rockets’ after a star player spoke out about the treatment of the Uighurs.
Referring to another company’s surrender to Chinese government sensitivities, China hawk Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted, “Recognize what’s happening here. People who don’t live in China must either self censor or face dismissal & suspensions. China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally.” Rubio is correct, here. And if he thought about it a little harder, he might consider how the president he backs has openly solicited Chinese help to pressure his own domestic critics.
Why is authoritarianism globalizing? For one thing, countries are more economically interdependent than ever before. During the Cold War, East bloc countries sought to prevent their citizens from having access to American consumer goods. Today, China and the United States are strategic and ideological foes but deeply enmeshed in each other’s economies. China is both making and consuming those consumer goods. This interdependence creates leverage: Countries like China can use the size of their markets to induce foreign firms and governments to play by its rules, even when those rules run contrary to those other countries professed political values.
It was once hoped that improved communications technologies and the internet would undermine authoritarian governments by allowing their citizens access to forbidden information. Instead, those same communications channels can be just as easily used to spread authoritarian propaganda and misinformation.
The nature of warfare and geopolitical competition has also changed. Rather than direct military conflicts between national governments, today’s wars are more likely to resemble the one in Ukraine, a muddled conflict between militias and proxy forces that has aspects of both a full-fledged occupation and a civil war. Putin’s Russia has been particularly good at exploiting the ambiguity of conflicts like Ukraine and Syria to bolster its own global influence.
Major powers like the U.S., Russia, and China were once fairly forthright in divvying up the world into spheres of influence and ideological blocs. Today, they insist that they are respecting other countries’ sovereignty and not imposing their values abroad, while doing just that.
The U.S. has also engaged in authoritarian acts abroad, and long before Trump. One of Glasius’ primary examples is “digital surveillance such as that practised by the US National Security Agency and revealed by the Snowden leaks.” The U.S. has long leveraged its dominant position in the global financial system to compel other countries to comply with its sanctions, launched covert drone strikes outside of declared battlefields, turned over terrorist suspects for interrogation by governments with less scrupulous human rights laws, and backed coups as part of the Cold War’s ideological competition. In recent days, the Trump administration has escalated an international crisis with Iran by assassinating a senior military official in a foreign country with barely an attempt to ground that action in domestic or international law. The fact that the target of the strike, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, had himself made a career of expanding the Iranian state’s authoritarian violence to neighboring countries only highlights how this kind of transnational violence is becoming normalized.
We can argue about whether these practices by the United States are “authoritarian” themselves, but they certainly provide all governments with a playbook of how state-sponsored violence and coercion can be projected abroad.
It might seem ironic that globalized authoritarian practices are becoming more common in an era of backlash to globalization. Some of the same governments carrying out these practices are also reinforcing their borders, cracking down on international migration, walling off their communications infrastructure, and stamping out any forms of ambiguity when it comes to citizenship or territorial control. The borders that these governments enforce serve to control and monitor the activities and movements of their citizens while leaders are free to reach across those borders to commit (and sometimes collaborate on) authoritarian practices. If they manage to enrich themselves through these practices, a world of offshore tax havens and ambiguous legal jurisdictions—a world the British journalist Oliver Bullough has termed “Moneyland”—is at their disposal.
This is a challenge for anyone pushing back against authoritarianism. It feels as if half the world is erupting in protest against corrupt and anti-democratic government practices right now, but these movements have failed to connect across borders and circumstance. Moments of transnational solidarity are rare enough to be treated as curiosities. “Global” justice bodies like the International Criminal Court are hamstrung in their ability to bring human rights abusers to justice by national jurisdiction and state sovereignty. But there are positive signs as well. Human Rights Watch’s just-released 2020 World Report, which focuses on the threat Chinese censorship poses to free expression outside China’s borders, suggests awareness of the new dynamic is growing. And several presidential candidates—notably Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—have explicitly linked the fight against authoritarianism globally to tackling corruption and inequality at home, an acknowledgment of the transnational nature of the problem.
In an era where authoritarian actors are reaching across borders and collaborating, it’s time for advocates of democracy to do the same.