Ousted Autocratic Presidents and Their Backers in the Legislative Branch

What Other Countries Can Tell the United States About the Road Ahead

Any hope that the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol would generate such a backlash that the president and extremist forces aligned with him would lose their political potency has eroded in the days since. Some of the most revealing signs of that come from within the building they attacked: the votes that same night by 147 Republicans in Congress to embrace Trump’s lies and reject the legitimate victory of President-elect Joe Biden, and the vote on Wednesday to impeach Trump, when 197 of 211 Republicans in the House of Representatives stuck by their man.

The willingness of these duly elected U.S. legislators to prop up President Donald Trump despite his election loss echoes patterns in countries caught in the widening global net of authoritarianism over the past three decades.

The actions of autocrats and hardliners in power or out in countries from Hungary to Colombia, from the Philippines to Sri Lanka to Russia, Belarus, Italy, and on to Chile, carry lessons that illuminate what might lie ahead for the United States, as Trump leaves office by Jan. 20. In each case, the autocrat often relies on and wields influence over hundreds of complicit members of national legislatures, regardless of whether the authoritarian leader is in power or has been ousted, sometimes to return again to office or help install his chosen successor down the line.

In Sri Lanka in October 2018, the country’s then-president illegally sought to install former authoritarian President Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister, an attempted coup reminiscent of last week’s Capitol storming in the United States, Sri Lankan writer and podcaster Indi Samarajiva told Public Radio International’s The World. Though the Sri Lankan courts intervened to invalidate the move, the government remained weak amid the chaotic fallout. Just six months later, an Easter terrorist attacks in April 2019 killed almost 270 people with bombings at three churches and three hotels in the capital Colombo, and blame for the failure to prevent the assaults or respond more quickly fell on the government. It never recovered.

“The people who staged the coup were able to point to the chaos that they helped create and say, ‘Hey, you need us in.’ And so that’s who’s been elected,” Samarajiva said, referring to the election of November 2019, when a shaken country elected Gotabaya “Gota” Rajapaska, a former defense minister accused of atrocities during the country’s civil war. (Just Security has published extensively about the war crimes cases.)

“Even if a coup fails,” Samarajiva commented, “it still damages your government.”

Retaining a Base

Trump’s ignominious departure notwithstanding, he has a strong chance of retaining a political base — among voters and in Congress — that he can use to make trouble for his successor as well as for more moderate political leaders in his own party, particularly in the two years leading up to the 2022 midterm elections.

Immediately following the attacks on the Capitol, an open question was whether the members of Congress who had planned to contest Biden’s win would still do so when the Joint Session reconvened. The only Republican defections came from senators, not members of the House, noted William A. Galston, a senior fellow who holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program.

“Many members of the House come from districts where the grassroots support for Trump is particularly strong, particularly among those Republicans who are most likely to participate in party primaries,” Galston said. “So the most fervent and most participatory portion of the party is now squarely in Trump’s camp, and they can leverage their influence through the primary process and the fear that legislators have of being `primaried.’”

In the next two years, that fear will be “multiplied by the specter of an ex-president with hundreds of millions of dollars in his war chest to harass them, and he’s a very vengeful man,” Galston said. “So they have every reason to believe that if they’ve crossed him, he will seek retribution.”

Even before this week’s House impeachment, Trump backers in Congress such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) began calling for the ouster of Liz Cheney (R-WY) from her position as House Republican Conference chair, No. 3 in the party’s House leadership, over her planned vote in favor of impeachment. She has dismissed those demands, calling it a “vote of conscience,” and thus far has drawn support even from some hard-right members.

Beyond arm twisting, some lawmakers have a natural affinity for their autocratic leader by virtue of shared backgrounds, resentments, and party memberships, said Galston, author of “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy.” And they often owe their political careers to the leader’s coattails.

Internal Party Divides

Part of Trump’s potency is that his very rise to power reflected the sentiments of a significant portion of the Republican Party’s membership that had clashed for decades with its traditional elite leadership. The split represents increasing rural-urban and working class-business class divides that the party has never resolved, Galston noted.

“If you just look at raw numbers, the Republican Party has been the working-class party for a long time, but until very recently, it never behaved like a working-class party,” Galston said. “It behaved like a plutocrats’ party, and bought off the working class with a bunch of cultural issues.”

That allowed the business-oriented segments of the party to prevail on issues such as immigration, globalization, or the minimum wage, even though their positions didn’t really benefit the working-class factions, Galston notes. “Trump brought that game to an end,” he said.

Autocrats typically are “like an earthquake,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University and author of the book, “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” “They cause fractures because they’re so extreme. And we’re living through a huge shift in political culture.”

The Republican Party already had been moving away from democratic political values of bipartisanship, tolerance of opposition, and accountability when Trump came along and added his “leader cult and culture of lawlessness and open scorn for democratic methods,” along with threats, buyoffs, and intimidation, Ben-Ghiat said. “The opposition becomes a political enemy to be `locked up.’”

Shared Grievances

Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines reshaped or created political parties with bases made up of voters and political leaders from outside the capitals who shared upbringings, sentiments, and grievances, as well as a knack for populism. They demonized the opposition or anyone who dared demonstrate independence – in media, in civil society, and within their own parties.

Such leaders’ new political allies quickly rise to prominent positions within their parties on the basis of a heady symbiosis. The leader can use his power to dole out rewards, too, as in the case of Trump’s awarding of the coveted Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman Devin Nunes (R-CA), who defended the president so vigorously, though unsuccessfully, in his first impeachment trail over the Ukraine scandal. Trump announced this week that he plans to do the same for Jordan.

And the leaders’ growing strength is often reinforced by populist policies like monthly payments in Poland for families with children, Galston noted. In Trump’s case, he insisted on putting his signature on the pandemic stimulus payments sent to American households last year. He also made the idea of $2,000 payments for pandemic relief attributable to him in the eyes of many Americans.

Trump will be “a huge problem” for Biden, Ben-Ghiat said. In addition to his war chest, he is building a political dynasty with the prospect of one or more of his children running for office in the future. And many lawmakers are loyal to him, even respecting him because, “if you’re not operating in a democratic framework anymore, then all methods are good to stay in power,” she said.

Trump also has left seeds of disruption in the judicial branch, with his hundreds of federal judicial appointments and the pushing through of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barret for the Supreme Court.

Chaos will be another tactic. When Trump released a video more than 24 hours after the mob rampaged through the Capitol, he punctuated his message with a promise that “our journey is just beginning.” He issued multiple statements and tweets in the days following that “it’s only the beginning of our fight” and that his supporters “will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future.”

That could indicate “a strategy of psychological and political warfare to try to make the Biden administration look as incompetent and illegitimate as possible,” Ben-Ghiat said.

Turning Popular Desires Against Responsible Leadership

In Colombia, hardline former President Álvaro Uribe relentlessly criticized his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, taking advantage of popular opposition to a peace agreement Santos was trying to strike to end a half century of violent conflict between the government and the FARC insurgency. Uribe now has one of his acolytes, Iván Duque, in the presidency, and the peace agreement is shaky.

“Successful autocrats are very good at sniffing out gaps between elite behavior, however responsible it may be, and popular desires,” Galston said. “And they always turn popular desires against responsible governments who are trying to do difficult but necessary things.”

In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz had been a liberal party among a plethora of political blocs. Orban saw an opening for a more conservative, but still somewhat mainstream, position and filled the vacuum for his first term from 1998-2002, says Sandor Orban (no relation), director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Budapest. When his party lost power in the next election, Viktor Orban was furious. It took him eight years to return to power, and he did so in part by seizing on the 2008 global financial crisis and turning his party to the populist extreme right. When his party prevailed in 2010, they did so with fully two-thirds of the seats in parliament, enough to change the constitution and election laws to permanently favor Fidesz.

From his earlier loss, “his lesson was not that we should serve the country better, but that any means is acceptable to keep power,” Sandor Orban said.

In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi served as prime minister multiple times over two decades. “After he lost power the first time, he didn’t fade away. He kept on scheming to get back, and he ultimately succeeded,” Galston notes.

In the United States, Trump or his supporters may resort to further violence to destabilize the government under Biden, Ben-Ghiat said, similar to tactics used in the 1970s by radicals in Germany and Italy and also by U.S.-backed opponents of Chilean President Salvador Allende who sought to destabilize his government before their 1973 coup.

Should Trump choose that path, he will be “not just a thorn in the side, but he’ll be doing what he just did with Jan. 6 – he’ll be laying the kindling and lighting the match and trying to create chaos and upheaval,” says Ben-Ghiat. “In a way, he can do that more easily out of office.”

IMAGE: House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-CA) speaks with Republican Representative from Ohio Jim Jordan(L) as US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the November 2019 impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Viola Gienger

Washington Editor for Just Security and research scholar at NYU School of Law. Follow her on Twitter (@violagienger).