I spoke to experts on authoritarian rule about Trump's behavior this week. They say 2020 could be our last free election

Andrew Feinberg
AFP via Getty Images

It's not like we weren't warned.

Over the course of President Trump's impeachment trial, Democrats warned the Republican-controlled Senate that acquitting Trump would mean he had successfully stymied most attempts to subject him or his administration to even a modicum of Congressional oversight. They warned that an acquittal would embolden him to finally exert full control over the entirety of the executive branch; norms, customs or guardrails be damned.

That's exactly what Americans have seen in the days since Senate Republicans (minus Utah's Mitt Romney) voted to absolve him of responsibility for his attempt to blackmail a foreign government.

According to several people closest to the President, he has internalized the exact lesson that Democrats feared he would, and for some time now has been intent on using the flexibility provided him by his acquittal and a compliant cohort of aides to begin settling scores.

That process began almost immediately last Friday, with two of the witnesses who testified during the House's impeachment inquiry — Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman — being among the first to feel his wrath.

While Sondland, a licensed pilot, had the option of departing Brussels in his own jet after being told of his recall, Vindman's exit provided him no such dignity. Just one day after Trump invoked his name during an hour-long, grievance-filled rant in the East Room, Vindman and his brother Evgeny were all but defenestrated from their offices at the National Security Council, where Alexander had been Trump's top Ukraine advisor, and Evgeny, a lawyer, had been an NSC ethics expert.

Trump's national security adviser, Ambassador Robert O'Brien, tried explaining away the Vindman brothers' removal as part of a reorganization of the NSC which will remove most, if not all, career professionals in favor of ideologically friendly political appointees.

The process of revenge also began to play out against Trump's former home of New York State, which saw its residents' access to the Department of Homeland Security's Trusted Traveler programs revoked. That was apparently in retaliation for the state government's decision to deny immigration officials access to a database of driver licenses which included those soon to be issued to undocumented immigrants under a new program.

After leaked documents showed that the decision to rescind New Yorkers' access to Trusted Traveler programs was part of a plan to "punish" states with insufficiently anti-immigrant policies, the President on Thursday abandoned any pretense of a policy rationale for the move ahead of a meeting with Governor Andrew Cuomo.

In a Thursday morning tweet, Trump appeared to explicitly condition the restoration of New Yorkers’ access to the DHS programs with the cessation of lawsuits against and investigations into his administration and family business. This, despite the fact that such actions are conducted by the office of New York State Attorney General Latisha James, rather than Governor Cuomo.

That wasn't even the only governmental muscle he has been trying to flex for his own ends this week, much of which he has spent trying to keep his longtime on-again-off-again political consultant, Roger Stone, out of prison.

A Washington DC jury had convicted Stone, a self-described "dirty trickster" with a long history in GOP politics, on charges that he'd obstructed a congressional inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, as well as threatened a witness (and his dog), just days before the House voted to impeach Trump.

While the president had mostly kept mum about the case since then, that changed on Monday when federal prosecutors — including one prosecutor who'd worked on former FBI Director Robert Mueller's team — asked a federal judge to hand down a sentence of seven to nine years against Stone. This was well within the federal guidelines for such offenses, though Trump made it clear he was not pleased.

Taking to his Twitter account, Trump declared: "This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”

By Tuesday evening, the head of the criminal division in the DC US Attorney's Office had submitted a revised recommendation for "far less" than the seven to nine year range, and all four of the career prosecutors who'd worked on the case had resigned in protest.

Trump went even further on Thursday by calling for Stone to be granted a new trial after it was reported that the foreperson of Stone's jury — who'd been deemed acceptable by Stone's lawyers — had run for office as a Democrat in 2012. This prompted a pair of unprecedented rebukes from both Attorney General William Barr and the chief judge of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, Beryl Howell.

In an interview with ABC News, Barr said the President's tweets made it “impossible” for him to do his job, while Howell's extraordinary statement stressed that “public criticism or pressure is not a factor” in sentencing.

And while Barr claimed that that the President has never asked him to ease up on Stone or interfere in any other case — and White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement late Thursday that Trump wasn't bothered by Barr's remarks — the pattern at work is one that has been on full display since his earliest days in office.

Since the day Mueller was appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate possible ties between Trump's campaign and Russia, Trump has frequently ranted about how the only crimes committed with any nexus to the 2016 election are those committed "on the other side".

But for scholars who study the authoritarian regimes for which the 45th President has repeatedly expressed admiration, Trump's intervention in the Stone case represents a troubling milestone.

"The United States looks to be moving in the direction of Hungary or Poland, with the justice system starting to become a tool under the power of the executive branch that is being used for partisan ends," said Jason Stanley, a Yale University philosophy professor who studies authoritarian politics.

"Republicans have shown no interest in sharing power or having a multi-party democracy, they've shown no interest in the rule of law," he added, because a guiding concept of the Republican style of politics perfected by Trump is a wholesale rejection of the Democratic Party as a legitimate expression of voters' political will.

The way Republicans see it, he explained, the only real Americans are the ones who vote for them. It's a path Republicans have been on since 1990, when Newt Gingrich and GOP consultant Frank Luntz began teaching Republicans to describe Democrats as sick, corrupt, anti-American traitors whose every exercise of power is an abuse.

"It's one party rule, and one party rule is a form of authoritarianism. Trump is a symptom of that," he said. "We're so far beyond democratic practice when people are talking about purely partisan judges, and when the Justice Department is being run by the President of the United States, we're talking about a monarchy or something like it."

Another scholar of authoritarianism, New York University's Ruth Ben-Ghiat, said Trump's co-opting of the Justice Department is typical of a democracy falling under the control of a dictator.

"You see this in authoritarian states… those in important positions like the attorney general or equivalent end up spending a lot of their time on the personal vendettas of their leader," she said, offering the example of Barr's recent trip to Italy to pressure Italian security services into providing information that would help discredit the Mueller investigation. "Inevitably, the people who last in the cabinet of an authoritarian leader are people who end up doing his personal-slash-official business, because you can no longer separate the two."

Ben-Ghiat said the way Trump's cabinet and congressional Republicans have adapted to him is a textbook example of "personalist rule."

"This is a perfect example of when these men come to office and there is no longer a separation between their private profit and public office," she explained, with various "lackeys" like Barr doing things that make it difficult to tell where the Justice Department's business ends and Trump's personal business begins.

And even though there is a presidential election in nine months, Ben-Ghiat said Republicans will continue to enable Trump's whims and act as if there will never again be a Democratic president, because the endgame involves Trump and his allies protecting themselves by staying in power.

"They're all complicit and they have to work to make sure the system doesn't fall down because they all see that they're going to be punished if he gets out of office and their gravy train ends," she said. "They don't have any interest in multi-party democracy anymore. The [Republican] party culture has shifted and it's now an authoritarian style party."

When asked what he believed the end of the path Republicans are on has in store, Stanley replied: "It ends with many terms of Trump family rule."

"He's creating a bond of loyalty with the Trump name, and what you see all the Trumps talking about [on TV and at campaign events] is that kind of authoritarian dynasty," he said. "He's giving the Republican party complete power over everything they want. Their voters have this authoritarian bond with Trump, who's using fear of immigrants, white nationalism, anti-intellectualism, and the anti-media stuff to create paranoia and present himself as the protector of the people, and he's representing his family as the dynasty that will rule the United States," he said. "This could be our last free election."