The authoritarian’s playbook in America

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An American flag waves. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
An American flag waves. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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Authoritarian rulers claim to be all powerful, but each one of them have enablers who helped get them to the top — and to stay there.

"The strong man model of rule is based on this idea of the omnipotent man who can do everything," Ruth Ben-Ghiat says. "But in reality, they can't do it alone. They depend on institutions to get them there."

From Turkey to Chile to Hungary, authoritarian leaders don’t come to power on their own.

They get there with the help of political parties, the rich and powerful, friendly media and the just plain corrupt.

Today, On Point: The authoritarian’s playbook in America.


Ankush Khardori, attorney and former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Justice Department. Contributing writer, POLITICO. Contributing editor, New York Magazine.

Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic and editor in chief of Democracy. Author of "The Middle Out: The Rise of Progressive Economics and a Return to Shared Prosperity" and "If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might Be Saved."

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of history and Italian Studies at New York University. Author of "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present." She has a newsletter on democracy around the world and in the U.S. on Substack called Lucid.

Also Featured

Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey Program at the Middle East Institute. Author of "Erdogan's War: A Strongman's Struggle at Home and in Syria."

Isaac Arnsdorf, national political reporter for the Washington Post. Author of "Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy."


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Former President Donald Trump faces four federal charges for attempting to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election. In a grand jury indictment released yesterday, special counsel Jack Smith alleges that Trump knowingly spread lies about the 2020 election in a conspiracy to defraud the United States, obstruct Congress's lawful certification of electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021, and prevent citizens votes from being properly counted.

It is yet another unprecedented moment in the United States, and it comes as Donald Trump is running again for the presidency. Today, we'll talk about the indictment itself, what impact it might have on the 2024 election, and whether the indictments, allegations, and Trump's response to them contain echoes of established authoritarian regimes around the world.

Ankush Khardori is in Washington. He's an attorney and former federal prosecutor in the US Justice Department. He's now a contributor to Politico and New York Magazine. Ankush, welcome back to On Point.

ANKUSH KHARDORI: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, what stood out most to you in the indictment that was released yesterday?

KHARDORI: Two things really stood out to me. First, this indictment does appear to largely track, even, perhaps even trace the work of the Jan. 6 committee and the information that was revealed in those hearings last year. The second, and closely related thing, is that the indictment does not charge Trump with planning the violence on that day.

Being aware of it. Or inciting an insurrection through his speech on the ellipse that day. And that's a significant departure from the committee, but also something that I was really looking for in this indictment one way or the other, just to see how the prosecutors resolved it in the course of their investigation.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So the fact that there's no linkage to Trump to the actual violence that happened on Jan. 6, how do you read that significance now? Or no linkage in the indictment, I should say.

KHARDORI: Correct. Exactly. And that's an important point. It just, it tells me that they did not obtain sufficient evidence to charge Trump with sort of inciting the insurrection, let's say, or conspiring to engage in some violence that day. It doesn't mean that there's no evidence, it does not exonerate Trump by any means. It just means, at the most basic level, that all we can say is that the government did not obtain sufficient evidence that they believed would allow them to convict him at trial under a theory like that.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And that's specifically regarding the violence on Jan. 6, but the indictment does contain a lot about Trump's alleged activities and trying to thwart the process of certifying the electoral votes that was going on in Congress on Jan. 6. Just give me a broad overview, Ankush, if you could, of how serious you think the alleged violations are.

Because they range from conspiracy to defraud the United States to something called conspiracy against rights. Are these serious charges, you think?

KHARDORI: This indictment, I think, raises the most serious charges that are even potentially possible against a former president.

Whatever label one applies, and I think it's important not to get hung up on the sort of the titles on the statutes that prosecutors use, which sometimes can be scintillating or attractive or whatever. But in this case, the facts, the factual allegations are extremely serious.

He's being charged with trying to steal the last presidential election. Let's just not mince words about it, right? And in a democracy, I find it hard to imagine a more serious affront to Americans' rights. This is also a case that I think will be easier for people to understand. It concerns events that people were following or that were being closely publicized in the media in real time.

And I just think as a practical matter, if not strictly a legal matter, this is a cut above all of the other indictments that have been brought against him and, I think, can and should attract more attention than the others.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so let's talk in detail about some of the things that are in the indictments.

I'm going to jump around a little bit. Because one of the things that stood out to me actually comes in the middle of this roughly 40-page document, when it concerns Trump's activities and the pressure he was allegedly putting on former vice president, Mike Pence.

Because as we recall, Trump was frequently to the public putting out tweets, stating falsely that Pence had the power to either halt the electoral count or grant electoral votes to alternate slates, which we'll talk about in a second, of electors.

But what jumped out at me was that apparently Mike Pence was taking contemporaneous notes of meetings that he had with Trump. Did we, I don't recall knowing that prior to reading the indictment yesterday.

KHARDORI: I don't recall either. And that caught my eye, too. But of course, I probably had the same reaction you did, which is there's just been such a sea of information that you can never be totally sure that something's popped up or been reported at one point in time.

I think I would've remembered that though, and that caught my eye too. And I do think it's new information. Okay. So then regarding the section of the indictment that talks about the efforts, the alleged efforts that went in by Trump and his co-conspirators, which are unnamed in the indictment, regarding putting the pressure on Pence.

And then trying to change the activities that happened on Jan. 6 in Congress. How do you read the evidence there? Is it convincing to you what Jack Smith is putting forward here?

KHARDORI: An indictment is always pretty convincing. Because it's the government's theory, right?

There hasn't been a defense. But in this case, we have more insight than just what the indictment tells us, right? Because again, we have the hearings and testimony about John Eastman, who appears to be an un unnamed co-conspirator in this document. And I find it persuasive. I hate to prejudge these things until a defendant has the opportunity to put on a defense.

But I thought it was outrageous. I thought the legal theory was crazy. I actually spoke to John Eastman a couple weeks ago for a story that I was working on. And I think it'll come as a surprise to him that he features so prominently in this indictment. Because he at least told me that he was quite confident he would not be charged.

But, look, as a lawyer, his conduct was outrageous. And I think it is appropriately drawn the ire and detention of federal prosecutors.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now to be clear though, the indictment contains unnamed co-conspirators, but the details in the indictment make it pretty clear who those folks are, but they haven't been formally charged yet.

Do you think that the special counsel is waiting on that? And would it be a big legal thicket to have to wade through if all the charges against the co-conspirators came through at the same time?

KHARDORI: Yeah, he may be wading on it. And it would be more of a thicket for sure. Because if you want this case to try to proceed to trial next year, and it's clear that they're going to attempt that.

Unclear whether they'll be able to achieve that. Adding defendants just complicates that. It means more defendants, more lawyers, more legal challenges, more issues you need to brief. Efforts to separate out certain defendants and sever trials and that sort of thing. And I do think it was smart for the prosecutors to just charge Trump in a standalone indictment.

And if at some point they charge those other folks at some point in time, which if I were them, I would assume that they will be charged. That can come in a separate proceeding, and ideally wouldn't hold this one up.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I want to talk about something that happens right on the second page of the indictment. Where the special counsel goes out of his way to say the defendant, meaning Trump, had a right, like every American, to speak publicly about the election. And even to claim falsely that there had been outcome, determinative fraud during the election, and that he had won.

Essentially, the indictment acknowledges Trump and all Americans' freedom of speech to say whatever they want, even if they know that it's a lie. And that is not criminal. And yet throughout the rest of the indictment, much of the language is about Trump knowingly spreading lies about the 2020 election.

And this is something that Trump supporters are already honing in on, that Jack Smith here, in their reading, is actually attempting to criminalize the former president's freedom of speech. How do you respond to that?

KHARDORI: Yeah, I think that's really silly. Because, like, for instance, when someone like, calls you, some telemarketer or person from halfway over the world, across the world and is trying to like scam you.

That's also speech, but it's illegal because it's criminal misconduct to try to defraud someone through even just verbal misrepresentations. So at the highest level, it's nonsense. But I did actually get hung up on this line myself, actually, when I read it. I don't think it's artfully crafted.

I think it's confusing. I don't think it was necessary. Precisely because, nobody is contesting that Trump can say things. But the question is like, what those things are. What those things are that he's saying, who he's saying them to, and what his objective is.

CHAKRABARTI: And so therefore you think it shouldn't have been in the indictment.

KHARDORI: I would not have put it in that way, in the indictment. Not so prominently or not frankly, so awkwardly worded. But I don't think it's going to matter. These sorts of arguments from Republicans, and conservative supporters or Trump, they're coming no matter what. They would've said the same stuff, whether the language would've been there or not.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So then what parts in the indictment do you think most clearly lay out the former president and his co-conspirators actions as rising to the level of an illegal conspiracy?

KHARDORI: I think the key part to focus on if folks are pressed for time would be pages three through six.

And that is where the prosecutors allege the overarching sort of core conspiracy to allegedly interfere with the electoral certification. And also lays out these five different prongs of the effort, including falsely getting state officials to try to change their results, putting that pressure on Mike Pence enlisting these quote-unquote fraudulent slates of electors.

And I think when you read it all in one place and read it in that compact, sort of succinct, really quite clear fashion. I think they wrote this part particularly well. I think it's a pretty potent set of allegations and hopefully will drive home to folks who are engaging with this at home the seriousness of their underlying allegations.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Ankush, I just have less than a minute to go with you and I've got one more question. As the special counsel, Jack Smith also has a lot of experience with war crimes, investigations in the Hague, as well. It's something actually I only recently learned about him. How much do you think that experience is playing into his approach in investigating the former president?

KHARDORI: It seems to have had at least two effects. First, he does not appear gun shy, or unwilling to charge the most significant political leader in our country. And second, he moved quickly and appears to have understood that time is of the essence in a situation like this.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. Michael Tomasky joins us now. He's editor of The New Republic and editor in chief of the journal Democracy. In 2019, he wrote a book called "If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might Be Saved" and "The Middle Out: The Rise of Progressive Economics and a Return to Shared Prosperity." Michael, welcome to On Point.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Happy to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Ruth Ben-Ghiat also joins us, as well. She's a professor of history and Italian Studies at New York University. And author of "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present." Professor Ben-Ghiat, welcome back to On Point to you.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, let me just get a take from both of you on your reactions to yesterday's indictment as released by the special counsel. Professor Ben-Ghiat, what were your first responses to it?

BEN-GHIAT: I think it's just such an important move to make, to uphold the rule of law because America has been an outlier in the world, not in having a coup, but in not prosecuting Trump and the fact that he's the front runner for presidential nomination with what he did is very unusual in history.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And Michael Tomasky, same question to you.

TOMASKY: Just quickly, I was most struck by the note on which the 45-page document ended, the words on which it ended. Which I don't have in front of me, but was something to the effect that what he subverted was the right to vote and to have one's vote counted.

I'm glad it ended on that point rhetorically, because that's really what this comes down to. We invented that, right? In the modern sense, in this country. We didn't extend it to everybody. Ultimately, we have done that and ever since we've done that full extension there's been forces in this country that have opposed that, and that fight voting rights.

That's what Donald Trump was doing from November to Jan. 6th of 2020 and 2021. So I was glad to see that Jack Smith and his prosecutors had their eyes on not just the legal, but I would say the ethical or even moral prize here.

CHAKRABARTI: I do actually have the last page of the indictment here in front of me, and it's worth reading those last lines in full. It says that again, the allegation is that

"Donald J. Trump did knowingly combine conspire, confederate and agree with co-conspirators, known and unknown to the grand jury, to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate one or more persons in the free exercise and enjoyment of a right and privilege secure to them by the constitution and laws of the United States. That is the right to vote and to have one's vote counted."

So those are the actual words from the indictment. I want to underscore right now that this is an indictment. This still has a legal process to go through in terms of the court and trump's right to defend himself strongly and fully.

So this is not necessarily a decision by a jury. It is the beginning of a legal process, which is why these are still all currently allegations rather than proven facts, I would say so. Professor Ben-Ghiat though, as you read some of the allegations in the indictment, you are the specialist in authoritarian governments, are some of the things alleged that Trump had done familiar to you, in terms of actions that other authoritarian governments have or are taking now?

BEN-GHIAT: Absolutely. The spreading of lies, the attempt to, what this really is an attempt to reeducate through propaganda. And Trump is a highly skilled propagandist. Many people underestimate him. It's easy to call him a clown. He really is one of the most important propagandists of the 21st century.

And, he didn't have the advantages that other, the despots he so admires had, 'cause he did this, he made tens of thousands of people believe that he actually won the election and that he's the victim. He did this in a democracy. I don't know if this has ever been accomplished, this mass deception on such a scale in a democracy before.

It's very important that this was singled out, the knowingly perpetrating these lies. The other thing I'd say is the end game of this obviously was to keep him in power illegally. That's the coup part. But he'd been trying since 2016 relentlessly, through propaganda to his own propaganda and his leader call to turn Americans off the idea of elections altogether.

That's the end game. And Tommy Tuberville, one of his lackeys, came out and said that, "Oh, we don't really need elections anymore." That the idea that elections are corrupt. They're not really necessary, because I alone can fix it. That's something that is there.

So that's also why, as Michael said, ending this on the right to vote, they're way beyond this, they're like, "We're going to convince the public that elections aren't even necessary because they're just corrupt." And that's also why Trump relentlessly praises models of leadership like the most murderous dictators around, Putin and Xi.

He says they're top of the line people at the top of their game. We can laugh at that, but this is reeducation of Americans to want democracy. Sorry, to want autocracy.

CHAKRABARTI: Michael Tomasky. What do you think about that?

TOMASKY: I naturally agree with it. And I think first of all that, he's running to reinstate that or to impose that in a way he wasn't able to impose it in his first term. He's also running to stay out of prison. Will Hurd was right when he said that the other day. He's a presidential candidate in the Republican side. So he's running for those two reasons, but it's a very frightening thought that if he gets in, he will take certain steps that he and his people have already announced they'll take.

For example, in a recent and prominent New York Times story. to curtail democracy. The Republican Party has, in my view, been headed in this direction for quite some time. They didn't have anybody to say the quiet part out loud until Trump came along. But I think you can trace the roots of this in the GOP back to Newt Gingrich and certainly the avowedly right-wing media including prominently Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh.

Chipped away at Democratic norms and institutions, celebrating, for example, Bush v. Gore, a decision that the five justices who agreed to it, even said, admitted that it was not standing precedent and shouldn't be standing precedent. To install presidential candidate who got the minority of the popular vote.

I could go on with more of that history. My point is that Trump didn't just happen in a vacuum, and this all doesn't spring from Donald Trump's head. A lot of it does. A lot of it does. To be sure. But there are historical antecedents there that produced him, and that made that party want to nominate a guy like that in the first place.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, actually for the remainder of this segment, I do want to explore a little bit more of the, how we got here. Because then it helps us have a more informed conversation of where we as a country might go next. But to that point, you mentioned some of the things that Trump and his campaign have been talking about quite openly regarding what they would do with the presidency if Trump wins again in 2024.

So I want to spend a little bit more time on that, because as we've been talking about, the federal grand jury indictment contains those 45 pages of allegations of how Trump used the power of the presidency, allegedly, to overturn the results, in an attempt to overturn the results in the 2020 election.

So should he win in 2024, Trump and his allies really are crafting a plan to make the presidency even more powerful by smashing legal and political norms. Refashioning the federal government. He's proposing stripping federal agencies of their independence, purging the civil service of those disloyal to him, even subverting Congress's power of the purse.

So we talked with Isaac Arnsdorf, a national political reporter covering Donald Trump for the Washington Post. And he says this isn’t just Trump speaking off-the-cuff, like you said Michael. It's not just all springing forth from Trump's head. It's a $22 million effort crafted in concert with one of the most influential conservative think tanks in Washington.

ARNSDORF: The Heritage Foundation and a cluster of groups under the umbrella of the Conservative Partnership Institute, probably most prominently, the Center for Renewing America, which is led by Russ Voght, who was Trump's head of the Office of Management and Budget, and has taken on the role of like a White House chief of staff in exile.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, the Heritage Foundation has drifted far from its original Reaganite philosophy of deregulation, lower taxes and keeping the federal government out of people’s lives.

ARNSDORF: Reagan's idea was that government is the problem and Trump is up there saying, not only government is the solution, but basically I, meaning Trump, as the government, am the solution. So he's proposing knocking down any laws and norms that establish independence among different arms of the executive branch from direct presidential and White House control.

CHAKRABARTI: So one example of that? Trump wants to subvert a law called the Impoundment Act. The law states that the president must approve spending on government programs authorized by Congress.

ARNSDORF: He would just basically refuse to spend money that Congress has appropriated, that he doesn't feel like spending on things he doesn't support. There's a law against that. He's taking the view that that law is unconstitutional, so he's just gonna ignore it. And that again, is really emblematic of this idea that all of the power of the government is gonna be vested in him.

CHAKRABARTI: Wresting financial control from Congress. Purging the civil service, bringing federal agencies to heel – many political scientists see these as the hallmarks of authoritarian governments. So how do Trump’s conservative allies justify the plan?

ARNSDORF: Establishment conservatives are not establishment conservatives anymore. What you might say that more like orthodox conservative ideology, a lot of those people have left the party or are strangers in their own party.

And with the evolution of institutions like Heritage is that that Trump's articulation of the party has swallowed them up, too. They are getting more comfortable with the idea of trying to use government power to influence society toward the right, rather than getting the government out of civil society.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Isaac Arnsdorf, national political reporter covering Donald Trump for the Washington Post. He's also author of the book "Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy." And Isaac's been reporting for the Washington Post on this plan called Project 2025.

Donald Trump calls it Agenda 47. And as noted earlier, a lot of the reporting has also come out of the New York Times. Now, Michael Tomasky, let me turn back to you. Because another way of describing what this plan is that the Heritage Foundation and Trump are talking about is a maximalist view of the Unitary Executive Theory as it's called in wonky circles, but can you tell me a little bit more of how, what the progression was in amongst conservative thinkers in the Republican party that viewed that the executive branch should be outright the most powerful branch in the federal government?

TOMASKY: That dates back to Nixon. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The famous historian, wrote a book during the Nixon presidency called "The Imperial Presidency." And it had mostly to do with Nixon, the way Nixon exercised foreign policy as opposed to domestic policy, although there were domestic aspects to it.

Then it was augmented under Bush Jr. During the Iraq war when he and his administration irrigated to themselves certain powers that had theretofore been in the hands of Congress. So it's grown and grown. As I said before, they've chipped away and chipped away.

Over the last, I guess I'm saying half a century now. But Trump is a different order of magnitude. There's a phrase from political science called competitive authoritarianism, coined by two political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, they were studying in the 1990s countries in the developing world and countries in the former Eastern Bloc.

And trying to put them in category as, "Are you a democracy or are you authoritarian?" And as they sifted through the data, they came to see that a lot of countries weren't exactly either. They were a combination. So they came up with the name: competitive authoritarian state, which has some of the look and trappings of a democracy.

It might have a free press. It might have a somewhat independent judiciary, but essentially the game is rigged for one party over the other. So they have elections, but one party always happens to win 'em. That's what the Republican party wants. That's what Donald Trump wants.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Ben-Ghiat. Listening to what Michael was just saying, it reminded me of a show we did a while ago about Viktor Orban in Hungary, and a guest on that show said, "Hungary looks like a democracy, but only if you squint really hard."

So is that the same sort of, we would have to squint really hard to see American democracy if the plans for Agenda 47, as Trump calls it, would actually come to fruition here?

BEN-GHIAT: Absolutely. And the more recent term for competitive authoritarianism which I don't use is electoral autocracy.

And that is what Michael described, when you still maintain some, you maintain some opposition. You don't shut down elections. Today, autocrats often come to power through elections, and then they have to gain the system to stay there. And we've seen this around the world recently. Now Orban has his propaganda phrase, illiberal democracy that he uses.

And that's largely, he is in the EU, he still gets funds from the EU. And so that's like whitewashing everybody, that there is some kind of democracy there, even though the elections are no longer free or fair. In Turkey, for example what Erdoğan did, he was very vulnerable before these last presidential elections.

And so he put a jail sentence over the only man who could have beaten him, the current mayor of Istanbul. So that person could not be the opposition candidate. And so he took him out of the running. That's what we mean by gaming the competition as well as domesticating the media using threat.

There's a million tools that these people have all the while saying as Erdoğan does, "Oh no, we're not a dictatorship. We here, we have voting, but it's not free or fair."

CHAKRABARTI: Michael, I know I've just got you for about 30 seconds more, but in fact, I would say Donald Trump's supporters are saying that the fact of these indictments coming down against him is Joe Biden and the Biden Justice Department actually behaving in a way that's using the power of law enforcement to sideline political opponents.

What's your response to that?

TOMASKY: Fascists, if you don't mind me using that word, always accuse their opponents of doing that which they are doing. It throws people off the scent. It confuses people. And some percentage of the population is gonna buy it. 35%, 36%, 37% in this case.

Part III  

CHAKRABARTI: Michael Tomasky, forgive me for having to cut you off earlier. The clock is a very unforgiving force in the life of a radio host here. But I wanted to let you finish your thought and have one actually final question for you after that. So you were going to say to listeners that --

TOMASKY: Yeah, I'll just say quickly, take this seriously. Countries can lose democracy. It's happened in a lot of places, Argentina lost its democracy for a time. Chile lost its for a time. Hungary was a democracy after the Cold War for a number of years. This is real. Now, none of those countries have the traditions with the durability of ours, 247 years.

But, they can be defeated, and we run a very serious risk of that happening if Trump wins. So that brings me to my final question for you, Michael, which is, so we keep talking about Trump himself, right? Because obviously, he's the gravitational force around which all this activity and attention is orbiting.

But what really strikes me now is that it's not just Trump and his handpicked staffers or campaign managers or even his political allies who are elected officials, with the sort of full-throated encouragement from places like the Heritage Foundation.

Fox News has always been there. But the Heritage Foundation, we're also now talking about that he's getting more overt institutional support for his authoritarian ambitions, from places that we maybe hadn't heard from as clearly before. What do you make of that?

TOMASKY: I'd say that there are three elements to the current MAGA Republican Trump coalition. There's the elites of the party who seem, for the most part, comfortable with it. There's the base which loves it, and there's the media. And they've built their own media that in many ways has more power than the mainstream media these days, and they seem to be all in, too.

Yeah, I worry frequently that even when Trump has gone from the scene, the Republican party is not going to walk back from this cliff. There's a chance that some leader could come along who can inspire people back in a more mainstream direction, but I would put that at less than 50%.

Michael Tomasky, editor of the New Republic and editor-in-chief of the journal Democracy, author of "The Middle Out: The Rise of Progressive Economics and a Return to Shared Prosperity" and "If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might Be Saved." Thank you.

TOMASKY: Pleasure.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Ben-Ghiat. I want to spend the rest of the program talking about what Michael said, that it has happened elsewhere and therefore it could happen here, as well. So allow me to just provide a little bit more detail of one of the examples that has been mentioned already, and that is in Turkey.

Gonul Tol is director of the Turkey Program at the Middle East Institute. Author of "Erdogan's War: A Strongman's Struggle at Home and in Syria." And she has watched closely how Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came into office through the normal levers of a democracy — elections — and then how he amassed more and more power in his own hands.

GONUL TOL: Erdoğan's centralization of power in his own hands, it didn't happen in one day. In the 20 years he's been in power, he has taken incremental steps, and there was no Rubicon really. When he first came to power in 2002, he was in a weak position.

Although he had just captured a little more than 30% of the popular vote, he knew that was just the beginning. He knew that the secular establishment, particularly the military, was still calling the shots, so that's why he had to be very cautious.

CHAKRABARTI: Key to Erdoğan's ambitions — winning over citizens and politicians of different stripes to help him undermine centers of power in Turkey, like the country's military.

TOL: So he pitched himself as the guy who was going to fix Turkey's broken Democracy, and that meant sidelining the secularist military. And he framed that goal as part of his democratic agenda, and that's how he was able to put together a coalition of liberals, for instance. His support went way beyond the narrow Islamist space. He managed to appeal to the country's Turks, Kurds, conservatives, progressives, even social democrats. And I think that was a brilliant idea.

CHAKRABARTI: Thereafter, Erdoğan seated supporters in the judiciary –and silenced critics outside of government.

TOL: He managed to capture judiciary and got rid of the secularists in the judiciary and staffed Turkish judiciary with supporters. And later on he took over the business community in the country, because many of them owned media outlets. And Erdoğan launched several investigations into these business owners who had been critical of Erdoğan. So he managed to sideline them by using tax evasion cases, for instance. And so that's why by the time he won elections in 2011, all institutions and social levers of power had come under his control.

CHAKRABARTI: And critically for this conversation, Erdoğan didn’t just take power; it was also given to him by business interests who grew ever wealthier under Erdoğan's brand of crony capitalism.

TOL: Shortly after coming to power, he surrounded himself with loyal businessmen. So right now in the country, there are a handful of businessmen who receive an unprecedented number of public tenders and who have become really wealthy in the last 20 years under Erdoğan's Rule.

CHAKRABARTI: And it's actions like that have cemented Erdoğan's power not just inside Turkish government, but outside it as well. And it's also won him the stalwart support of many of Turkey’s elite.

TOL: It's a heaven. There are no accountability whatsoever. There's no rule of law, so one man calls the shots and if you are close to that man, Turkey is a great place to be living in. So from those people's point of view, Erdoğan's legacy is one of heroism.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey Program at the Middle East Institute and author of "Erdoğan's War: A Strongman's Struggle at Home and in Syria."

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, what are the similarities and differences that you think lie between the Turkish example that we just raised and what you're seeing happening in the United States?

BEN-GHIAT: Yeah. What Gonul was describing very well is with the crony capitalism, is a concept called authoritarian bargains. And in my book, "Strongmen," I go over 100 years of these. These are things that all dictators do or wannabe dictators. You have to make early on, you have to make deals with important elites.

And it's not just the ones that Michael mentioned where you must have, of course, your party. You've got to have your fanatic grassroots base. You've got to have the media. You also need religion. That's been very important. And once these people sign on, as well as financial people, of course, the business elites, once they sign on, it's very difficult to have these authoritarian deals break.

You need some kind of major crisis. We see in, in Israel, there's a crisis now with Netanyahu and so he's seeing elites turn against him, even the military and security establishment. But so we've seen in the states, so Trump had Christian Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews who are saying he was put there by the will of God.

He had all of the billionaires, the conservative elites who are, I don't call conservative anymore, they're far right. He had all this constellation of people, the Federalist Society, Heritage Foundation. You really can think of it as a constellation. You could map it like that, with him in the center.

And he's delivered for many of these people, and they know it. And so when he says this is the final battle, they're all in it. because this is their moment. This is as close as they're ever going to come to actually being able to realize the kind, the model of autocratic power that they have either wanted for a long time, excuse me.

Either wanted for a long time, or have been converted to see what benefits they can draw from it.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Because I think you've said previously that the autocratic playbook, if I can call it, that it operates on what would seem to be two opposing truths. That one, the autocrat says, "I alone can fix things." That's literally what Donald Trump has said in the past. And he is saying now, the quotes are along the lines of, he's calling himself the vengeance for aggrieved Americans. So there's this very self-centered aspect of the authoritarian personality. But you're saying that can't rise to power on its own.

That it needs the complicity of all these other groups.

BEN-GHIAT: It needs that. It needs, also, another similarity is authoritarian's promise, a utopian future that everything's going to be better. They think big. Erdoğan has these huge infrastructure projects. Trump was all about infrastructure. Never really happened, but that we're talking about propaganda, but very important is they appeal to nostalgia.

They get all these malcontents who think, "Yeah, things used to be better before Blacks had so much power," or in the case of Turkey, other things. So all of them want to revive some form of the past. So Erdoğan, there's this obsession with the power and grandeur of the Ottoman Empire. And look at Putin, the idea of the rush Imperial Russia.

And so Trump had, when Trump came out with this slogan, it's not "Make America Great," it's "Make America Great Again." I almost fell off my chair. Because this is what I've been studying for so long. This was Mussolini with the Roman Empire. Hitler had a kind of Aryan fantasy civilization. So all of these people do, they all have the same playbook and Trump has followed it to a T.

Which is why he is in my book. In the context of 100 years of these things, Erdoğan is in it too.

CHAKRABARTI: And then so even if that initial vision doesn't ring true with everybody, I think you've also written about how when an authoritarian comes into power, one of the initial things that he does is actually begin with real reforms that might have greater appeal to people than those in his immediate coalition, if I can put it that way.

Is that right?

BEN-GHIAT: This is usually they don't get to power unless they have a very broad base swath of different interested parties. Excuse me. And one of the hallmarks of these guys is that they get these very eclectic constituencies. You have gangsters, you have housewives, and that's because this type of leader will be anything that each constituency needs him to be. They have no morals. They have no principles.

They only want powers. They promise each group whatever they think that group wants, and that's why people fall for them and think, "Oh, he's speaking to me in a way no one's ever spoken to me." And I think that's one of the secrets of their success.

Who would've predicted that the most impious person you could think of, Donald Trump, who's uniquely criminal, would have such support from Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, all of these kind of establishment conservatives. They've all fallen under his spell, meaning they see what they can get out of him.

CHAKRABARTI: Donald Trump did not win the 2020 election. But as the indictment that was released yesterday outlines, there seems to be plenty of evidence that he fought tooth and nail to remain in power. But nevertheless, he is running, he's running now again for the 2024 race.

Are there examples elsewhere? I think maybe Viktor Orban does spring to mind, but of how authoritarians have their first time at bat, but then when they come back again, they win and can fulfill the authoritarian vision that that they've put out there.

BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, there's two parts to this. First is sadly and scarily, whenever they come back, they're full of vengeance and they're five times more extremist. And so if Trump gets back into the White House, there's a reason he is talking about retribution, the avenging, this and that, and purging civil service. He's got people talking about impeaching Trump. Sorry, impeaching Biden.

So there's that dynamic, but there's something larger. It's our turn in America to go through this idea that most politicians, if they're under investigation, or they've got indictments, they don't want to run for office because you're under the spotlight. There's opposition research, but authoritarians are not most people.

And this is Trump's third time running. Now he has indictments, but he ran in 2016. He was under investigation for fraud for Trump University. Berlusconi ran three times for office with massive corruption trials and indictments. By the way, by the time Berlusconi was forced out of office, he had over two dozen indictments and he had never been to prison.

Putin ran for the first time while under investigation and Netanyahu, now we're seeing the drama in Israel, where he is indicted for bribery and other things, and he is trying to get back. He got back and he's immediately trying to shut down judicial independence. So the reason they do this is that the purpose of authoritarianism is to allow the leader to commit crime with impunity.

So that they feel safe. And so all of this Trump 2025, the whole plan which has been laid out for us with the help of the Heritage Foundation purging the civil service, when the former Trump's former head of the Office of Management and Budget says, quote, "We're looking for pockets of independence in the government to seize them."

That is a what's called autocratic capture. That's what Gonul described that Erdoğan already did. So you must purge the civil service and institutions of any non-lawyers. And once you've done that, and if you can fix the system, then you can commit as many crimes as you want, and you're untouchable.

Being untouchable is the dream of authoritarians like Trump.

This program aired on August 2, 2023.


Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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