Markers to Identify a Rightwing Authoritarian Denialist
Those who can’t say no to key questions are part of the problem
It has been startling to watch the political right’s—the Republican Party’s, Donald Trump’s, and nearly every other rightwing entity’s—plunge into unabashed authoritarianism. Even more alarming is the speed with which it has happened.
When Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene ran for Congress in 2020, she was dismissed as a loon from a heavily Republican district who’d be shunted to the fringes of the party. By last year, she was a close confidante of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and she’s now reportedly on Donald Trump’s short list of potential running mates. Trump is currently the favorite to win in 2024. An average man of his age has about a 25% chance of dying over the next five years—and Trump looks to be quite a bit less healthy than the average man his age. The Republican Party’s capitulation to its most radical extremes, then, means that in three years Greene has risen from a fringe congresswoman who lost her committee assignments for encouraging violence against other members of Congress to someone who has not an insignificant chance of becoming the most powerful person in the world.
When tiki-toting white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville in 2017, the mantra they were repeating was largely thought to be the conspiratorial stuff of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Today, “replacement theory” paranoia—the idea that wealthy Jews are conspiring to replace white people with supplicant brown people—has been trumpeted by right-wing personalities like Tucker Carlson and Elon Musk, at least three sitting U.S. Senators, nine U.S. representatives (including a member of the House leadership), several governors, and of course Donald Trump. Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy explicitly endorsed the theory at the last debate, much to the delight of openly racist twits like Nick Fuentes (another once-marginal figure who has gained influence and clout with Republicans).
They Said, Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
Back in 2016, those who warned about Trump’s fondness for authoritarianism—be it his dictator chic decor, his historic and ongoing admiration for strongmen, his appeals to white grievance, his desire to crush protests with military force, his delight at the prospect of inflicting violence on his critics and imprisoning his opponent, or his warning that, if needed, cops, soldiers, and groups like the Proud Boys would inflict violence on his enemies—were diagnosed with “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
That continued up through the 2020 election, when those of us who warned that Trump may not leave office willingly were chastised for catastrophizing. If you feared that Trump might be reluctant to give up power, resort to violence, or try to delegitimize the electoral process by sowing conspiracy theories, you were ridiculed as a fearmonger, even as Trump preemptively declared that any election result that did not make him the winner would be illegitimate.
And not just Republicans. Plenty of self-declared moderates and centrists downplayed the threat to democracy, scolding anyone who dared suggest that Trump might not leave office willingly. Here are just a few examples:
The last one was published a few days ago!
Wishlist of the Orange Dictator
Now, we no longer need to read between the lines. Trump isn’t hinting at autocracy, he’s all but guaranteeing it—or at the very least, he’s made it clear he plans to give it a try.
Take the Insurrection Act. Trump badly wanted to invoke it to snuff out the George Floyd protests, but was thwarted by the threatened resignation of top cabinet and Pentagon officials. Trump’s big boosters have since made it clear that they’ll recommend he preemptively invoke the Insurrection Act immediately after his inauguration and bring in the military to suppress dissent. And these are the very people widely reported to be Trump’s top picks to fill the positions that, in 2020, were occupied by those who prevented him from invoking the act. For all of Trump’s bumbling incompetence, he has at least shown that he has learned from his past mistakes. Last time, his most egregious power grabs where thwarted mostly because a few key institutions held up. So he and his allies are determined to dismantle those institutions this time around.
Trump and his allies have taken to using explicitly authoritarian—even downright genocidal—rhetoric. He has talked about immigration “poisoning the blood” of American society. He has referred to people who hold different political views than his own as “vermin” who need to be eradicated. When asked for a response to the reasonable claim that such rhetoric reeks of fascism, Trump campaign spokesman Stephen Cheung responded that when Trump retakes the White House, those critics’ “sad, miserable existence will be crushed.”
This too is an important and alarming change. Trump backers once responded to allegations that he’s an aspiring authoritarian by dismissing such allegations as a hysterical overreaction. Now, they double down on the authoritarianism. When Washington Post’s Robert Kagan wrote a column laying out much of what I’m recounting here, Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, a Trump sycophant, responded by demanding that Attorney General Merrick Garland open a criminal investigation into Kagan, completely vindicating Kagan's warning.
The whole episode is particularly poignant given Trump’s fondness for foreign leaders who murder, imprison, and intimidate journalists. And of course it was just five years ago that Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered on the orders of Saudi prince and Trump/Kushner pal Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud—after which Trump cynically parroted the Saudis unconvincing denials. Meanwhile, his political allies, advisers, and potential appointees have explicitly promised to imprison journalists.*
(*Do I take this personally? Yeah. You’re goddamned right I do.)
Kash Patel—who under Trump served as a National Security Council official, an advisor to the acting Director of National Intelligence, and chief of staff to the acting United States secretary of defense—has promised that if picked to head the CIA, as is widely expected, he would deploy the agency to imprison journalists, politicians and other Trump critics.
Mike Davis, a MAGA influencer who has been touted to be Trump’s attorney general, promised a “reign of terror” (his term), during which he too would imprison Trump’s critics and enemies. Davis—a former clerk for now-Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch—has also promised to toss his enemies ”in the gulag” and urged his supporters to “arm up against the violent Black underclass.” He explicitly threatened to arrest and deport journalist Mehdi Hassan. He also crassly and homophobically threatened to put Hassan in a “women’s gulag” with anti-Trump pundit Tim Miller (who is gay).
Other Republicans no longer even need Trump to show their contempt for democratic norms. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently opened an investigation into companies that stopped buying ads on X/Twitter in response to Elon Musk’s endorsement of the great replacement theory and other antisemitic tropes. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened investigations of Disney and Budweiser for supporting LGBTQ rights and for donating money to causes he finds objectionable. Trump himself repeatedly threatened the tax status of Amazon because he objected to how the Bezos-owned Washington Post covered him. Trump has also recently threatened to shut down unfriendly media outlets like MSNBC.
After Trump’s performance in his first term and his role in fomenting the Jan. 6 insurrection, it would be a mistake to dismiss this as a joke. The whole point is to use these jokes to shift the Overton Window for authoritarianism. It’s time to draw some lines in the sand.
So below, I’ve put together a list of questions that those of us concerned about the state of democracy in this country should pose to anyone who wields or seeks to wield power. These questions are clearly designed for people seeking political power, but they can serve as a general guide to test anyone’s—lobbying groups or think tanks, editors of newspapers and magazines, TV producers, heads of civic organizations—commitment to liberal democratic norms. To be successful, a Trump authoritarian push would need support not just from politicians, but from all of them.
Conceiving these questions makes one question one’s own sanity. Some are so dystopian that they seem hyperbolic, hysterical, or completely detached from reality. I suspect reading them will have the same effect. It’s hard to fathom that we’re living in a time when they need to be asked. Yet each of these questions is based on actual statements from Trump or one or more of his influential supporters.
It’s of course likely that getting people on the record on these issues won’t matter much. A recent South Carolina poll found that two in three Republican voters think that even if Trump did illegally attempt to overturn the 2020 election, they’d still support him. Another poll found that nearly half of Republicans are fine with a president who breaks rules if that’s what it takes to get the country back on track (versus 28% of Democrats), and another third believe violence may be the only way to fix the country as it exists now (versus 13% of Democrats). Polls have also consistently shown that about 55% to 60% of voters think Trump is both a threat to democracy and has committed serious crimes, yet polls also consistently show Trump leading Biden in the 2024 race. This means that a not insignificant number of voters are either indifferent to the threat Trump poses to democracy and the rule of law, or actually consider it a positive.
In other words, simply educating people on the right’s authoritarian tendencies may not be enough. These folks know what Trump and his allies are planning and they’re fine with it. They want authoritarianism. They revel in the thought of watching their enemies suffer. Others aren’t bothered because they don’t think they’ll be affected by it.
In 2016, you’d probably have been hard-pressed to get a prominent Trump supporter to answer any of these questions. They’d claim to have found them insulting. Now, in 2023, they’re just openly advertising this stuff.
The best we can do at this point is at least enter the coming year with our eyes open. We can at least know who stands where, so there are no surprises. And should this country come to its senses and end the Trump era by handing him a defeat by the wide margin he deserves, we’ll at least know who to keep far away from the reins of power in the future.
Finally, even if none of these people ever bother to answer these questions, they’re still worth spelling out. They are based on the real words of Trump and his most powerful supporters and help paint the full, grim picture of what we’re up against.
Questions the Concerned Should Ask
Here are my questions:
A number of Trump supporters—including Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance—have argued that we need an “American Caesar,” a dictator who will dispense with the democratic norms that they believe are holding the country back. And they have suggested that Trump is the man for the job. Let’s set aside their historical ignorance about what Caesar actually did and concede their view of Caesar as a benevolent populist dictator. Do you agree with them? Does America need a dictator?
Vance also told a rightwing talk show, “We are in a late republican period,” referring to ancient Rome. “If we’re going to push back against it, we’re going to have to get pretty wild, and pretty far out there, and go in directions that a lot of conservatives right now are uncomfortable with.” Vance is clearly calling for extra-constitutional abuses of power. Do you agree with him?
Do you believe a president has—or should have—the power to shut down media outlets if he believes they’re covering him unfairly, as Trump has threatened?
Do you agree with Vance’s call for a criminal investigation of Washington Post’s Robert Kagan for his column warning of Trump’s lurch toward fascism? Should it be a crime to accuse a politician of aspiring authoritarianism—whether it’s accurate or not?
While he was president, Trump frequently accused his critics of “treason.” Do you believe that criticizing a sitting president is akin to treason? Does it merit criminal punishment?
Do you think supporting Donald Trump is indistinguishable from supporting America? Do people who criticize Trump by definition hate America?
Do you believe the 2020 election was unfairly decided, and that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president of the United States?
Do you think the Jan. 6 rioters should be pardoned? Do you think they’ve been treated unfairly when compared to other people who have been charged with similar crimes?
Do you think the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was a “false flag” operation perpetrated by the FBI? Do you think it was perpetrated by Antifa, actors paid by George Soros, or some other enemy of Donald Trump?
Do you think Trump would have been justified in invoking the Insurrection Act to send in the military to end the George Floyd protests? Do you support the plan recently suggested by some of his advisers that he invoke the act on his first day in office in 2025 to proactively quell possible protests? Do you support Trump’s suggestion that he’ll send the military into “Democrat-run cities,” that he believes are “crime dens” in order to “restore order,” even if the elected leaders of those cities object?
Trump has also suggested that he will use the Department of Justice and agencies like the FBI to investigate and arrest his critics and enemies. Do you think this is an appropriate use of the FBI? (Does the FBI serve the president or the public?)
Trump confidant Kash Patel said recently that if he’s appointed to lead the CIA, he’ll use the agency to arrest and imprison journalists and other Trump critics. Do you think this is an appropriate use of the CIA? Should Patel’s remarks disqualify him from leading the CIA, or from holding another powerful position in a Trump administration? On the other hand, do Patel’s comments make you more likely to support him for such a position?
Mike Davis, thought to be on the short list to be Trump’s attorney general, recently promised a “reign of terror” (again, his term) during which he would direct the Justice Department to arrest and imprison Trump’s critics and set up massive detention camps for immigrants. Davis specifically promised to arrest, deport, and/or send immigrant journalist Mehdi Hassan to “a gulag.” The “reign of terror” commonly refers to the period after the French Revolution in which the former ruling elite were massacred and publicly executed. Do these threats make you more likely to support Davis for attorney general or another high-ranking position?
Trump recently claimed that the United States is infested with “vermin” like “communists” and “left-wing radicals.” Do you think this is appropriate language from a president?
Trump then promised to “root out” said '“vermin.” Do you think that language is appropriate? Should it be illegal to hold communist or Marxist views? Should it be a crime to hold views considered to be radically left wing?
Do immigrants “poison the blood” of American society? Is this appropriate language from a president in a country built by immigrants and with a significant immigrant presence?
Trump, his longtime adviser Stephen Miller, and other prominent MAGA figures have proposed ending birthright citizenship in the United States. Do you support this? Do you think Trump has the power to do so unilaterally, or would it require a constitutional amendment?
Donald Trump has promised to impose an ideological test on people who want to immigrate to this country, including a ban on immigrants who “don’t like our religion.” Would you support such a policy? (If so, what would it look like? Would the ideological test require immigrants to pledge loyalty to a particular set of ideas? Who would choose which ideas immigrants must support? Would they be required to pledge their loyalty to Donald Trump personally? To the Republican Party? What does “our religion” mean? Would prospective immigrants be required to profess a belief in god? (Which god? A Christian god? A Catholic or Protestant god? A Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, or Presbyterian god? Which faiths would be acceptable, and which would not?)
Do you think, as Trump once suggested, that border-crossing immigrants should be shot on sight? Should Border Patrol agents be given the power to shoot and kill any immigrant they suspect of smuggling fentanyl or other illegal drugs, as Ron DeSantis has advocated?
Do you believe the media is the “enemy of the people,” as Trump has claimed? Are there any specific journalists you believe merit that label, which has historically been accompanied by policies to imprison, expel, or execute those people, or deprive them of their property without due process?
Over the last year, several Republican governors and attorneys general have attempted to punish private companies for supporting left-leaning political causes, candidates, or parties. Do you think the First Amendment allows for that sort of retaliation?
Aside from whether or not you think those officials have that power, is it appropriate for them to wield it? Would the First Amendment permit a Democratic governor from taking similar action against companies that support conservative causes or candidates—or can this power only be wielded for supporting leftist causes?
Do you support Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s investigation of Disney and other companies for discontinuing their advertising on Elon Musk’s X platform?
At least two Republican attorneys general have announced investigations into Media Matters after the advocacy group showed how mainstream companies advertising on the X platform could appear alongside content posted by white nationalist and neo-Nazi accounts. But even X’s own lawsuit against Media Matters concedes that the ads were authentic and hadn’t been faked. Do you think Media Matters broke any laws with its report? Do you think investigations like these are an appropriate use of state power?
Do you believe that Black people are genetically or biologically predisposed to crime and violence? Do you believe Black people are biologically or genetically less intelligent than other races?
Do you believe that wealthy, powerful Jewish interests are conspiring to replace white people with brown-skinned immigrants in order to elect more Democrats and build public support for leftist policies?
Do you believe there are unseen, un-elected, and unaccountable Jewish power brokers who secretly decide what entertainment gets made, what views are aired or published, and which politicians get elected?
Should the government prevent transgender people from changing the gender assigned to them at birth?
Do you believe Congress or state legislatures have the power to criminalize homosexuality? Would you support such a policy? Do you support arresting and prosecuting people for engaging in homosexual activity?
Do you believe that LGTBQ people are a threat to children?
Mike Flynn, a man whom Donald Trump entrusted with the most sensitive national security position in the U.S. government (despite warnings that Flynn was on the payroll of foreign governments) has in recent years expressed sympathy for QAnon conspiracies. Flynn in fact posted video of himself taking the QAnon “oath.” Donald Trump has vowed to appoint Flynn to a high-ranking position if he wins in 2024. Would you support giving Flynn such a position?
Trump is also reported to be considering Steve Bannon for a high-level position, possibly his chief of staff. Bannon has said that Joe Biden was installed as president by the Chinese Communist Party. Trump pardoned Bannon after he was indicted for stealing money from Trump’s own supporters. Bannon helped organize the protests that turned into the Jan. 6 riots. The day before, Bannon told listeners of his radio show that “all hell is gonna break loose,” “this is gonna be epic,” ”our people are ready.” Bannon has also made clear his contempt for democracy. He has worked to install far-right authoritarians in countries around the world, and helped facilitate the riots in Brazil that attempted to keep Jair Bolsonaro in office after he lost his bid for reelection. Do you think Bannon is fit to serve in the White House?
Do you support laws immunizing motorists from criminal and civil liability if they run over protesters with their cars?
Does a governor, legislature, or other government entity have the power to prohibit state universities from teaching topics like critical race theory or gender studies? Should they? Could the states or federal government also prohibit private universities from teaching those topics if they receive public funding? Should they?
Trump is reportedly planning to fire thousands of civil service employees and replace them with loyalists. Do you believe the president has the power to fire any employee of the executive branch whom he believes is insufficiently loyal to him? Do you think this is an appropriate reason for a president to fire someone who isn’t part of his staff? Let’s put it a different way: Suppose we had proof that, as then-FBI director James Comey has alleged, Donald Trump asked Comey to pledge his loyalty to him personally. Not to the country or the Constitution. Just to Trump. Would that be an appropriate thing for a president to ask? If this did happen, would Trump have been justified in firing Comey if he refused?
Here’s a partial list of people Trump or his supporters have said should be in prison. Which, if any, of these people do you think should be incarcerated, and for what crimes? Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Adam Schiff, Brad Raffensperger, Mike Pence, Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney, Kamala Harris, Rod Rosenstein, Jeff Sessions, James Comey, George Soros, John Kerry, Alexander Vindman, Andrew McCabe, publishers and editors of The New York Times and Washington Post, Steve Rattner, Paul Begala, Peter Strzok, Jack Smith, Letitia James, Democrats who failed to applaud during Trump’s State of the Union speeches, Trump officials who disparaged Trump after leaving office, journalists who mistakenly published false accusations against Trump, journalists who published accurate accusations against Trump, Anthony Fauci, Miles Taylor, Marco Rubio, Tim Kaine, Robert Mueller, John Bolton, Lisa Page, Andrew Weissman, Bill Clinton, Eric Holder, Loretta Lynch, John Podesta, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi. Trump recently suggested that Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley should be executed for opening a line with China and reassuring it that the Jan 6 violence would not spread to the rest of the country? Do you agree?
After the 2020 election, Donald Trump reportedly asked the Justice Department, the Homeland Security, and the Defense Department to seize voting machines in several battleground states. He was thwarted only because the heads of those departments refused to comply. Do you think they should have acquiesced? Do you think it was appropriate for Trump to have asked? If Trump is elected again, he has all but promised to appoint people who would comply with such demands in the future. Are you okay with that?
Trump has a long history of praising tyrants and aspiring authoritarians around the world, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim John Un, Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, and China’s Xi Jinping, and Rodrigo Duterte, the former president of the Philippines. In fact, Trump seems to admire their most authoritarian tendencies— such as arresting, intimidating and killing journalists, brutally crackingdown on protest and dissent, and engaging in extrajudicial executions. Do you find any of these leaders praiseworthy? Is there anything about any of these leaders that you think an American president should emulate? Should an American president be publicly praising authoritarians?
Do you believe the United States is headed toward civil war? If Joe Biden is reelected, do you think violence may be necessary to put the U.S. back on the right path?
© The UnPopulist 2023