President Donald Trump this week claimed the “absolute right” to pardon himself, but he has been steadily consolidating power ever since his surprise election.
International relations expert Stephen Walt compiled a checklist, “10 Ways to Tell if Your President Is a Dictator,” published by Foreign Policy shortly after the 2016 election — and Trump has already accomplished many of those warnings.
1. Systematic efforts to intimidate the media. The president’s near-daily attacks on the free press have perhaps been the defining feature of his administration, and his White House press secretaries have frustrated and horrified journalists with their brazen dishonesty on verifiable truths. He reportedly admitted that his attacks were intended to undermine media credibility to gather power. “You know why I do it?” Trump reportedly told “60 Minutes” correspondent Leslie Stahl. “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
2. Building an official pro-Trump media network. There’s been a lot of speculation that his long-shot campaign was actually just a publicity stunt to start up a Trump TV network — but since his election Fox News has served the same function. Sean Hannity and other Fox personalities push wild conspiracy theories to undercut law enforcement agencies investigating the president and his associates, and Trump engages in a daily feedback loop with “Fox & Friends.” The conservative network has always been solidly in the bag for the Republican Party, but it functions essentially as state TV in the Trump administration.
3. Politicizing the civil service, military, National Guard, or the domestic security agencies. Trump’s attacks on the FBI and intelligence agencies have eroded public trust in them, and his administration has purged “Obama holdovers” in many federal agencies and replaced them with campaign staffers and other Trump loyalists — if the positions are staffed at all in a hollowed-out government. Trump has politicized the military by appointing retired and active-duty generals to serve in the White House, using troops as props for political rallies and proposing a grand parade through Washington, D.C., and attacked his predecessors for their calls to families who lost loved ones in service.
4. Using government surveillance against domestic political opponents. The president has directed the Justice Department to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, and a bipartisan congressional majority voted to expand Trump’s surveillance powers. But the president has thus far preferred to use private means to intimidate his enemies. Trump aides hired the Israeli private intelligence agency Black Cube to orchestrate a “dirty ops” campaign against Obama officials who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, and the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” claimed Trump tried to use the friendly National Enquirer tabloid to blackmail them into more positive coverage.
5. Using state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents. There are almost too many examples to mention, but two of the most glaring abuses of state power have been Trump’s threats against Amazon — owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post — and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s attempts to trade foreign policy for a bailout of his money pit at 666 Fifth Avenue.
6. Stacking the Supreme Court. Trump got to pick a seat that constitutionally belonged to President Barack Obama, thanks to mendacious machinations by Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate majority leader — somehow an underrated scandal. The president is also reportedly sending signals about retirement to Justice Anthony Kennedy through their shared family connections.
7. Enforcing the law for only one side. Trump has called for the prosecution of political rivals like Clinton and fired FBI director James Comey, while insisting he and his associates are above the law as special counsel Robert Mueller closes in. He even says Democrats should be held accountable for his decision to separate migrant families at the border. The president has enlisted GOP allies like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) to interfere in the congressional probe of his campaign ties to Russia, and he’s ordered Justice Department loyalists to give his legal team what amounts to a sneak peek at the evidence gathered against him.
8. Really rigging the system. Trump infamously warned the 2016 vote was “rigged” against him before the election, and he has baselessly claimed that “millions” of illegal votes were cast in favor of Clinton. After the election, he set up a voter fraud commission, overseen by the notoriously anti-immigrant Kris Kobach, that critics said was intended to suppress non-white voters, and which he eventually disbanded in a flood of legal controversy. The president has rejected the findings of intelligence and law enforcement agencies that Russia interfered in the election, and has done virtually nothing to limit foreign interference in future elections and made cuts to U.S. cybersecurity — which experts warn will invite more meddling.
9. Fearmongering. Trump ran on a campaign of fear, with dark warnings about undocumented immigrants, inner-city gun violence and terrorists, and his inauguration theme was “American carnage.” As president, he has compared young immigrants in the U.S. under DACA and the Dreamers to MS-13 gang members, and urged rally crowds to join him in denouncing migrants and refugees as “animals.”
10. Demonizing the opposition. The president has accused Democrats of “sticking up for MS-13” and questioned the patriotism — and citizenship — of NFL players protesting racism, after praising his neo-Nazi supporters as “very fine people” following a violent rally in Charlottesville. He has accused law enforcement and other government agents investigating his ties to Russia as “deep state” conspirators engaged in a partisan “witch hunt,” and he regularly stokes anger at the media as the “enemy.”
When you add it all up using those metrics, Trump is well on his way to becoming a dictator — if he’s not one already.