‘Our democracy will be gone’: Critics raise alarm over authoritarianism if Trump is reelected

President Trump and aides walk from the White House to St. John's Church with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark A. Milley.
President Trump and aides leave the White House for a photo op at St. John’s Church after federal agents forcibly cleared out protesters. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark A. Milley, right, later called his participation in the walk “a mistake.”
(Associated Press)

Anybody who doubts that American democracy could fall if President Trump wins reelection should take it from someone who knows, John Dean says. He believes a budding dictator occupies the White House.

“I worked for the last authoritarian president, and he was dangerous enough,” said Dean, the Watergate cover-up co-conspirator who served as chief White House counsel to Richard Nixon and testified against him during Senate hearings. “Trump makes Nixon look like a choirboy.”

“If we get four more years of him,” Dean said, “then our democracy will be gone.”

The notion of a U.S. president bringing about the nation’s downfall could be easily dismissed as breathless hyperbole, business as usual in America’s super-heated political climate.

But Dean and other critics of the Trump administration — former government officials, historians who’ve tracked the rise of dictatorships in other countries — see an increasingly bleak future for America if voters don’t come to terms with Trump’s recent behavior.


The president has encouraged voters in both North Carolina and Pennsylvania to cast ballots twice, floated the idea of delaying the election — something he has no legal authority to do — and when Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked whether he’d accept the results if he loses, Trump answered, “I have to see.” He’s spread baseless theories about voter fraud and threatened to withhold aid to the U.S. Postal Service during an election year when tens of millions of voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail due to a deadly pandemic.

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Even with so many signs that Trump is operating out of bounds, Republican leaders and rank-and-file members often seem unwilling to stand up to him.

“It can be easy to view some of this as science fiction, doomsday stuff, but there is really something extraordinary and extraordinarily worrying going on,” said Michael Waldman, president of the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “The checks and balances, the legal constraints, the unwritten norms — they’re all under enormous pressure.”

The Trump campaign says the real danger to the nation’s core principles is Democrats and their nominee, the longtime moderate and former vice president.

In a statement that offered no evidence for its claims, spokeswoman Thea McDonald said, “The only threats to America’s Democratic principles are Joe Biden with his socialist manifesto and the Democrat party with their endless attempts to throw our election system into chaos and trample our ‘one person, one vote’ foundation with their ballot harvesting schemes.”

Trump’s attempts to sow distrust in the most basic functions of a democratic society — in particular voting — should give all Americans pause, Waldman said.

“That’s what a dictator does,” he said. “It’s utterly foreign to the entire 244-year history of the country. There’s been ugliness. There’s been racism. But to have a leader try to undermine the vote, as a part of his core strategy, is something that’s never happened.”


“That is a sign of a shaky democracy.”

Trump hasn’t just undermined the election process. He’s portrayed protesters against police brutality as “thugs” and “domestic terrorists” while defending armed supporters who demonstrated inside the Michigan statehouse over pandemic lockdown measures and those who went to Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis., during civil unrest.

Militarized federal agents deployed by the president to Portland, Ore., in July fired tear gas against protesters.
Militarized federal agents deployed by President Trump to Portland, Ore., in July fire tear gas against protesters.
(Dave Killen / Associated Press)

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general, said he was especially stunned at Trump’s threats to use the military to quell unrest, which have so far been rebuffed.

Speaking by phone recently, Hayden said he could hardly stomach the sight of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley, the nation’s top military officer, standing with the president during Trump’s Bible-holding photo op near the White House in June, moments after federal officers forcibly cleared the streets of peaceful anti-racism demonstrators.

Hayden witnessed authoritarianism firsthand when he worked inside the Soviet Union. Now, he said, it’s the possibility that Trump will be reelected that gives him chills.

“I’m going to be gone sooner or later,” said the 75-year-old Hayden, who recently suffered a stroke. “But I thought America would be OK … I’m a little bit scared now.”


The same week that Trump accepted his party’s nomination for reelection, Hayden voiced his concern to a panel of experts on democracy. If the president wins a second term, he told them, “I don’t know what will happen to the American republic.”

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Grave warnings such as Dean’s and Hayden’s are notable because they don’t just emanate from Trump’s detractors on the left but in many cases from within conservative ranks — and from people who served in Republican administrations.

Hayden was one of 73 former national security officials from the Trump, Reagan and both Bush administrations who endorsed Biden in a letter in the Wall Street Journal.

What also galls Hayden, who served as national security director under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush before Bush appointed him to lead the CIA, are Trump’s penchant for lying and his attacks on the free press. Hayden said the president has committed an abuse of power used by despots all over the world by trying to distort the nature of reality itself.

Hayden recounted a dinner conversation he had with a military leader during the Cold War when he was a diplomatic attache in Bulgaria. The man explained his definition of “truth.”


“He said, ‘Truth is what serves the party,’” Hayden recalled. “I think about that time, and now my own government is doing something similar. Truth is what serves Trump.”

Dean has also been struggling to make sense of how the world’s most successful democracy, one that’s championed the idea of free and fair elections, constitutional checks and balances, civil discourse and the idea that no one is above the law, could be threatened even more than during the Nixon administration.

“Those who say this election is a defining election, they’re not spoofing,” Dean said. “It’s a shame that more people don’t see it.”

A protest in Huntington Beach against the lockdown sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Protesters in Huntington Beach in April decry the lockdown and the closure of businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event drew a large number of Trump supporters. The president has repeatedly spread false information about the pandemic.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

In a book he co-wrote, “Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers,” Dean tries to explain the appeal to some Americans of a president who has expressed good will and even praise for strongmen like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Trump went so far as to boast about his cozy relationship with Kim in recorded interviews with Bob Woodward for the veteran journalist’s upcoming book “Rage.”

“It’s funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them,” Trump said of authoritarian leaders to Woodward.


If Trump is reelected, Dean said, he would be like a toddler “in the terrible twos with the keys to the tank and nobody restraining him.

“Democracy is fragile. There are traditions and norms and guardrails that have always been respected, and he just ignores them.”

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution, is taken aback by Trump’s seeming affinity for autocrats and his attacks on the press, and said his attempts to undermine mail-in voting are “just criminal.”

Protesters demonstrate to save the "people's" post office" in Miami.
Protesters demonstrate in support of the Postal Service on Aug. 25 in Miami. President Trump has threatened to withhold aid from the service, with tens of millions of people expecting to vote by mail in November.
(Associated Press)

But Kamarck believes that even though Trump is “the most authoritarian man we’ve ever had in this office,” he may end up being more bark than bite — a feckless and desperate leader who tweets conspiracies that have no merit and makes threats that he doesn’t back up.

“The flip side of all of that is he has not, as far as I can tell, made any substantive legal changes to our system of checks and balances — in spite of his rhetoric,” said Kamarck, who served in the Clinton administration as leader of its “reinventing government initiative.” “The press seems to be doing its job. The House of Representatives did go ahead and impeach him. The courts have consistently thwarted him, including his Supreme Court. The separation of powers is intact. So basically, he’s a lot of bluster.”

“He’s a TV performer — not a doer,” Kamarck said. “In that way, the country’s lucky.”

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Still, Trump’s failure to respect democratic norms has become so routine, such a feature of his leadership style, that it’s easy to lose sight of the damage he can do to people’s faith in their power to check the government even if the rule of law survives his presidency, Yale historian Timothy Snyder said.

“If you go back to what the Founders were saying, it was that regular elections are like fresh air,” said Snyder, who’s an expert on the rise of tyrannical rulers. “They’re a way of keeping leaders honest and accountable.… Messing with that is messing with something that’s fundamental to democracy.”

Snyder said Americans should heed efforts in some states to close polling places and impose burdensome voter ID rules. No one should take the idea of a free and fair election for granted, he said.

He agrees with Dean that it is voters who will decide whether America holds tight to its democratic values.

If Trump persists in subverting the democratic process by interfering with the election — or resists stepping aside if he loses to Biden — Americans have to be willing to take to the streets in protest if need be, he said.

They must be ready show the president that while he may act as if he’s above the law, he’s not above reproach by the American people, Snyder said.

“The only guardrail left,” said Dean, “is the voters.”