The Progressive Bloc is an opinion column by Contributing Writer Quinton Bradley that discusses politics, society and culture from an unapologetically left-wing perspective.
Feeling confident that a crippled economy will be the barrier to President Trump’s reelection this November? Both historical events and research show that it may have the opposite effect. All he has to do is use an often leaned-on political tool: authoritarianism.
It’s no secret that President Donald Trump has authoritarian leanings. From the announcement of his presidential campaign in 2016 to the fast-approaching end of his first term in office, his administration has been rife with examples. The Muslim ban. The border wall. The mass ICE raids and detainment of migrant men, women and children into detention centers (in which the people being held there have in many cases been subjected to abuse and poor living conditions, which has only been heightened due to the Coronavirus outbreak). His emphasis on “law and order”—taking a page out of Richard Nixon’s book—and his noted affinity for war have tapped into the feverish right-wing populism that his supporters appreciate.
In the midst of the numerous protests that have popped up across the country over the past week, Trump has been making clever winks and nods to the throngs of people showing up at these events with rifles, swastikas, confederate flags, Trump 2020 regalia and scarce amounts of masks.
“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Trump tweeted on April 17, days before protesters descended upon the state’s capital of Lansing. Michigan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been a key target in Trump’s slew of attacks against several Democratic governors who have resisted his suggestions to begin opening up their respective states despite the fact that COVID-19 related deaths are still on the rise.
Whitmer, who has extended her state’s stay-at-home order up to May 15, has been dubbed by Trump as the “The Woman in Michigan.”
“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” the President tweeted on Friday. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
In addition to Whitmer, Govs. Tim Walz and Ralph Northam of Minnesota and Virginia, respectively, have seen protestors in their states receive support from Trump via Twitter, with the President proclaiming “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and even going as far as telling Virginia’s protestors to “save” their second amendment rights as they are currently “under siege” according to him.
The fact that Whitmer, Walz and Northam are each Democratic Governors of states that are considered must-wins for Trump to ensure his re-election in November should not be lost on anyone. This method of attacking his political rivals while simultaneously drumming up support among his base to push for a large-scale reopening of the country—whether devised by Trump himself or someone within his inner circle—is admittedly a clever strategy.
History has shown us that in times of economic hardship and civil unrest, people can be susceptible to allowing authoritarians to seize control. A look at the tyrannical reigns of historical figures such as Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler along with the admiration that modern-day politicians such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte (whose popularity has remained intact in the nation despite launching a bloody drug war that has taken thousands of lives) and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro shows that a charismatic leader who projects strength can rally a base of die-hard supporters—regardless of their actions.
What each of the aforementioned men have in common is that they were able to garner support in their respective populaces by appealing to people’s sense of alienation and financial worry. Whereas standard politicians typically stress cliched notions of unity, a skilled authoritarian promises to lead their nation to victory and keep perceived enemies in line with an iron fist and an uncompromising attitude.
Under authoritarian regimes, political opponents and dissenters — legitimate or imagined—are branded as the enemy. Any negative media reports about the regime are dismissed as examples of “fake news,” “Western propaganda” or the Lügenpresse. Mussolini and Hitler both rose to power by preaching fascist rhetoric (fascism is essentially an extreme, explicitly far-right flavor of authoritarianism), scapegoating the severe economic downturns of their nations unto the minorities living within their country’s borders and promising a return to Italy and Germany’s glory days, emphasizing military might and national (ethnic) pride.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump successfully exploited the fears many Americans had related to the loss of jobs, the loss of “traditional values,” Muslim terrorists, undocumented immigrants from Mexico and promised to “Make America Great Again.” And won. Those aren’t the only reasons that Trump won the election, but they certainly didn’t hurt in the long run.
If Trump wants to increase his chances of reelection in light of his approval ratings, which show a consistent trend of Americans expressing disapproval over approval for him during the course of his presidency according to a Gallup poll, he will once again have to tap into the authoritative, faux-populist rhetoric that earned him his legion of followers in the first place, which is something that we should all expect to happen in the coming months.
In an article titled “‘Our Country Needs a Strong Leader Right Now’: Economic Inequality Enhances the Wish for a Strong Leader” published on Sept. 30, 2019, in the academic journal Psychological Science, researchers conducted three studies among participants in 28 different countries which found that people with high levels of both objective and subjective income inequality and “anomie” (defined in the study as the degree of perception an individual has about the breakdown of their nation’s social and moral fabric, with a higher degree of anomie indicating a higher perception) tend to have “…a greater wish for a strong leader.”
A “strong” leader—better known as an authoritarian leader.
Keeping these facts in mind, one can inductively reason that a poor economy going into November may not be the silver bullet that will end Trump’s presidency.