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What Kind of Authoritarian Would Trump Be?

Exploiting a state of exception is a handy script for ruling in uncertain times, since it relies on neither a hegemonic political party nor a far-flung patronage network. Though it has attracted less attention, this is the model of backdoor authoritarianism that Donald Trump would most likely seek to apply if elected to another term.

CAMBRIDGE – Following Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election in 2016, many pundits predicted a worldwide breakdown of democracy, and some warned of civil war. But, aside from Africa’s Sahel region, military coups remain rare, and civil wars rarer still. Instead, democracies have tended to break down through civilian coups.

Such coups have been of three types in the post-Cold War era. Two have attracted much media attention; the one that should worry us the most, especially given the specter of Trump’s return to power in early 2025, has not.

The first model of democratic retreat is exemplified by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Having passed a draconian media law after returning to power in 2010, Orbán and his political party, Fidesz, have used every major outlet to manipulate fear of immigrants and LGBT activists and to portray the prime minister as a national savior. Orbán also exploits regional tensions, such as the war in Ukraine, to squeeze sponsors – both Russia and the European Union – for resources to fund lavish social spending.