President Trump’s barrage of racist tweets on Sunday ignited precisely the kind of firestorm he wanted. So on Monday he doubled down — and then tripled down, again attacking the four nonwhite Democratic women in Congress he had just urged to “go back” to their countries. He accused them, without a hint of irony, of “racist hatred,” and claimed that they hate America, even that they support al-Qaeda.
As he unfolds his toxic strategy for the general election — an us-vs.-them blueprint relying heavily on social media to inflame supporters and polarize the country — Trump is cementing his position as a leading figure in the current wave of populist authoritarian leaders who have undercut democracy across the globe.
Watch the tactics of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and the growing number of their nationalist imitators, and you will see the pattern now familiar to Americans.
A key tactic for such leaders is leveraging social media to identify and demonize critics, usually people engaged in activities that are normal in a functioning democracy — such as belonging to a different political party, working as a journalist or criticizing the president — and labeling them as a threat to the nation.
In Hungary, Orban, whose efforts to dismantle democratic safeguards have alarmed Europe, tagged George Soros as a supposedly nefarious menace to the country. Orban helped brand Soros, a wealthy Hungarian Jew who has used much of his fortune to promote the spread of democracy, into an international pariah to the far right. Conveniently, attacking Soros served as a dog whistle for anti-Semites — just as Trump’s tweets this weekend sent an unmistakable signal to those who wanted to hear it.
In the Philippines, Duterte, another populist leader steadily dismantling the rule of law, has launched a barrage of legal actions against journalist Maria Ressa, who leads one of the last remaining independent media organizations there. Duterte initially led the charge over Facebook, but then unleashed the judiciary against her. Ressa has been arrested repeatedly on a multitude of charges, including a thinly veiled accusation of being a foreign agent. It helps Duterte’s cause that Ressa is gay in a deeply Catholic country, a good foil in an us-vs.-them model. Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib, she’s a perfect example of someone who doesn’t conform to the leader’s definition of “us.”
The new wave of nationalist populists needs to find that ideal “other,” a person or group it can anoint as the official threat, as an impediment to the return to some former mythical national greatness. In Italy, Salvini, the head of the far-right League (Lega) party, currently serving as interior minister, targets refugees. That the wave of migrants from a few years ago has died down is only a minor inconvenience. Salvini still exploits it at every opportunity, the more controversial the better. The bigger the headlines, the bigger the outrage, the more he thrives. Sound familiar?
Trump may want to claim credit for pioneering 21st-century authoritarian nationalism, but it’s really his idol, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and another man from the opposite side of the political spectrum, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, who led the way.
Early on, Putin capitalized on the widespread fear of Chechens, minority Muslims who carried out horrific terrorist attacks as part of their rebellion against Moscow. As his authoritarianism came into full view and the Chechen threat faded, Putin went after Russia’s LGBT community, turning them into the focus of fear, while wrapping himself in a nationalist flag with full support of Russia’s religious leaders. That’s when the band Pussy Riot lambasted the church’s support for Putin. Some members ended up in prison.
Chávez, too, used the media to demonize his critics as disloyal to the country, while turning himself into the object of adulation. His endless performances on the call-in television show “Aló Presidente” were the Twitter of the day, before Twitter existed. His critics, he claimed, worked for “the Empire,” meaning the United States, and were the enemies of the people.
What we see now from Trump — his racist attacks against controversial Democratic lawmakers, his much-advertised multi-city raids against migrants, the family separations and the inhumane conditions at migrant internment centers — is all part of the same effort, an election campaign plan.
Migrant raids and cages overcrowded with Central American men, women and children are not really part of a policy aimed at solving a crisis on the border. They are part of a propaganda campaign.
Immigration officials reacted with bewilderment when Trump gave advance notice of impending raids. But there’s no mystery. The objective of the announcement is to alert Trump’s most fervent supporters that he’s their man, and he’s on the job. It trumpets a reminder that the president stands for what they consider to be “real Americans.”
The playbook has many elements — from politicizing law enforcement to undermining notions of objective truth to undercutting the independence of central bankers. But above all, it demands conjuring monsters, inventing enemies and keeping the base fired up, aroused and excited to have such a forceful leader. We’ve already seen this scenario in many countries.
And we should expect to see plenty more of it from Trump as his 2020 reelection campaign gets underway.