The Democracy Watch List

by | Mar 5, 2017 | The Recent Modern Age, Legal History

Here’s what to watch for.

How would the Trump administration erode American freedom and democracy, if it went down that road? I’ve approached this question as a lawyer and amateur historian, studying democracies that lost freedom in recent years, as well as some currently on the brink. I’ve put together a list of their leaders’ moves against liberty — then deleted those I consider barely possible in the United States, thanks to our culture and Constitution. The result is below: steps the Trump administration and its GOP allies might take without obviously violating the Constitution.


Aleberto Fujimori, President of Peru, 1990-2000

We often look to Hitler and Mussolini as models (or to the emperor in Star Wars), but I doubt America risks a quick trip to totalitarianism. The real risk is a slide to hybrid or “illiberal” democracy: a system led by elected officials but without the political liberties and other civil rights that support fair elections, responsible government, and true freedom. So my review focused on governments like Erdoğan’s in Turkey, Chavez’s in Venezuela, and Fujimori’s in Peru. I also looked at teetering democracies, like Poland under the Law and Justice Party and Hungary under Orban. (I left out Russia: a land so in love with brutal authoritarians that it makes a poor model.)

This post does not argue that the Trump administration will erode American freedom. Rather, it offers warning signs. Here’s how modern elected leaders have eroded freedom: The Democracy Watch List.

  1. Refusing to investigate or prosecute crimes by allied politicians, civil servants, and police.
  2. Threatening investigation or prosecution of opponents (politicians, civil servants, judges, journalists, advocacy leaders), and launching actual investigations and prosecution.
  3. Refusing to arrest or liquidate vigilante groups or militias that harass the administration’s opponents.


    Recep Erdoğan, Prime Minister then President of Turkey, 2003-present

  4. Refusing to investigate the administration’s own alleged wrongdoing, or to participate in investigations.
  5. Barring unfriendly journalists from press conferences and other events or keeping them from asking questions.
  6. Pressuring advertisers not to support unfriendly media, by withholding government contracts and licenses.
  7. Helping friendly media through special access and interviews — more than previous administrations.
  8. Favoring friendly media in the award of broadcast licenses and rights for radio, TV, and other communication systems (e.g., a politically biased replacement for net-neutrality).
  9. Claiming a “war with the media”: in other words, attempting to discredit unfavorable news by suggesting the media itself opposes the administration.
  10. Packing the courts: appointing more judges than the system normally requires, to dilute the influence of uncooperative judges (e.g., increasing the Supreme Court to more than nine justices).
  11. Firing civil servants who disagree or criticize.
  12. Collecting and/or publicizing private, embarrassing information about political opponents.


    Donald Trump, President of the United States, 2017

  13. Refusing to cooperate with opposing governors or mayors, or union leaders, to prevent their reelection.
  14. Expanding libel and slander laws protecting political leaders.
  15. Refusing to cooperate with international organizations that monitor and protect human rights.
  16. Excusing the administration’s crimes and other lawbreaking as breaks with “political correctness.”
  17. Telling the public obvious lies, over and over — in other words, regularly making claims or offering explanations that aren’t just debatable or suspicious (like so much said by politicians) but rather demonstrably false.




  • Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan cropped.jpg, by World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland, provided through Wikimedia Commons
  • Fujimori and Trump images from the public domain

© 2017 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.


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