When Donald J. Trump told Hillary Clinton at Sunday’s presidential debate that if he were president, “you’d be in jail,” he was threatening more than just his opponent. He was suggesting that he would strip power from the institutions that normally enforce the law, investing it instead in himself. More here: Clinton vs. Trump
Political scientists who study troubled democracies abroad say this is a tactic typical of elected leaders who pull down their systems from within: former President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the fascist leaders of 1930s Europe.
Today’s United States, unlike the countries in those cases, has strong institutions and norms that prevent any president from going that far, these experts stress. But Mr. Trump’s threat to jail his opponent for her deletion of thousands of emails sent from a private server while she was secretary of state, they warned in interviews on Monday, would chip away at the things that make American democracy so resilient.
Mr. Trump’s comment was “a threat to the rule of law, a threat to the stability of our institutions, a threat to basic agreements that are necessary for democracy to function,” said Adrienne LeBas, a political scientist at American University.
“For those of us who work on authoritarian regimes and hybrid regimes,” she added, referring to a kind of government midway between democracy and dictatorship, such as Turkey, “this sort of thing is just eerily familiar.”
Mr. Trump’s remark, then, could be interpreted as a threat not only to Mrs. Clinton, but also to the police agencies, prosecutors and courts that normally apply the law. By suggesting that he alone could determine her fate — appointing a special prosecutor on a case the F.B.I. has already dismissed and predetermining the outcome — Mr. Trump seemed to disregard these institutions as illegitimate.
Professor LeBas called this “the absolute personalization of power,” in which leaders consolidate authority under themselves — something she had seen in “Zimbabwe, Togo, Ethiopia, cases like that, where there are explicit threats to imprison opponents.”
She said the closest parallel was Mr. Chávez, who came to power in 1999 by arguing that elites had corrupted Venezuela’s democracy. Rather than strengthening institutions, he took their power for himself and persecuted opponents, all while riding a wave of populist support.
Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College in New York, emphasized that leaders like Mr. Chávez were able to seize so much power because their states were very weak — something that is not true of the United States.
“Our institutions are strong enough to prevent him from doing anything truly horrific,” she said of Mr. Trump.
But many Americans wrongly perceive their country’s democratic features as inviolable facts of life, she warned, when they are actually only as strong as the institutions and norms that uphold them. No president is strong enough to collapse those norms, she said, but one could erode them.
“The rhetoric alone is extremely dangerous,” she said, because it “undermines people’s belief in our democratic institutions and process.”
Strongmen typically come to power in democracies, Professor Lebas said, by telling citizens to “distrust institutions and procedure — that what is needed is to burn it all down.”
Mr. Trump has claimed that the F.B.I. gave Mrs. Clinton “immunity” over her use of a private email server while she was running the State Department. He has also hinted that Mrs. Clinton could steal the election through vote-rigging.
Paul Staniland, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said these kinds of attacks “can undermine the whole idea of democratic elections, where each side agrees that whoever won will then rule.”
He said he had been unnerved by the degree to which Mr. Trump’s threat on Sunday echoed authoritarian leaders. “This is something that, as someone who studies the developing world and political violence, is kind of freaky,” he said.
Professor LeBas said Mr. Trump was unlikely to succeed in jailing Mrs. Clinton, much less consolidating power in the manner of Mr. Chávez or Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. But even invoking their playbook can have “real consequences,” she said, adding, “There’s a great deal that Trump could do with executive power if he’s elected.”
When Professor Berman was asked where language like Trump’s might lead, her thoughts immediately turned to the ascensions of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy — events she has studied extensively — not because she believes that Mr. Trump would or could mimic them, but because of the parallels in how they rose within a democracy by promising to tear it down.
“I’m a little paranoid,” she conceded. “You spend enough time studying interwar Europe, you begin to have a kind of apocalyptic view of politics.”
Mr. Trump’s language sends a message to his supporters that the system as a whole is irredeemably flawed.
“What’s really dangerous here is taking people who are already disaffected or alienated,” she said, “and making them believe that democratic institutions either don’t work or only work for people in power.”
Professor LeBas said Mr. Trump’s two intertwined arguments — that American institutions can’t be trusted and that extralegal action is justified — have, when made in other countries, led to violence. Supporters see the state as too corrupt to enforce order, so they take it upon themselves.
Mr. Trump, she pointed out, has already encouraged supporters at his rallies to violently eject protesters. He went even further in suggesting that gun rights advocates might take matters into their own hands to stop Mrs. Clinton from appointing judges they do not like.
“Vigilante justice is not that long ago in this country,” Professor LeBas said. “I’m talking about the South; I’m referring to the K.K.K. All of that is very recent.”
Mr. Trump, in threatening to jail his rival, was not just echoing authoritarians like Mr. Chávez or President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. He was also promising to take what is often one of the first steps by which a democracy becomes more authoritarian.
“It kind of reminds me of Bangladesh,” Professor Staniland said, referring to the country’s history of political violence and instability. “Thailand is like this, too. You have this real sense that whoever wins the election will go after the loser.”
Even if leaders succeed only rarely in using the state to punish their rivals, he said, “that can quickly spiral out of control,” turning politics into a zero-sum game for control over the institutions of law and order.
“If I believe the other party will purge me and my supporters if I lose the next election, then I have powerful incentives to try to do everything I can to win the next election,” Professor Staniland said.
Professor Berman said American democracy was strong enough to prevent such a sudden transformation, but she still worries that voters take this for granted.
“Democratic institutions, like all institutions, can corrode and erode over time,” she warned, saying of Mr. Trump, “Even if he couldn’t become an Orban, much less a Mussolini, he could do damage so that the next person that comes along has even more leeway.”
Professor LeBas was more blunt. “Our institutions and our democratic orientations and attitudes,” she said, “are far weaker than we think they are.”
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