The authoritarian playbook has no chapter on failure. Nothing prepares the ruler to see his propaganda ignored and his charismatic hold weaken until his own people turn against him. It has no pages on the horror of being voted out of office, as happened to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, or forced into exile, like Ugandan despot Idi Amin. Democratic heads of state often see their departures from office as an opportunity to build on their legacies of leadership. For rulers with authoritarian inclinations, loss of power looms as a kind of psychological annihilation — even as it also often evokes practical concerns about the end of immunity from prosecution for them and their families.
While Trump was not in power long enough to dismantle American democracy, he did succeed in installing a form of the “personalist rule” that characterizes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and other autocrats he so admires. Personalist governance concentrates power in one individual, whose own political and financial interests (and relationships with other despots) often prevail over national ones in shaping domestic and foreign policy. Loyalty to the head of state, rather than expertise, is the primary qualification for serving him. By way of example, look to the Republican Party itself, which reduced its 2020 party platform into a mere expression of support for Trump.
Of course, this high degree of personal power brings no security to strongman rulers, who are pursued by the demon of fear. You can hear that concern when they complain of witch hunts and plots targeting them, terms that Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi also have used. Fear likewise impels them to buy off and intimidate elites, making it harder for their supporters to separate themselves. It is fear, too, that makes them throw on a cloak of masculine invincibility and seek out other strongmen as partners who will legitimate their authoritarian worldview.
Having it all is never enough for men like Trump, who consistently make recourse to behaviors that let them feel safe but ultimately prove counterproductive. Chief among these is erecting walls to shield themselves from unwelcome realities. These are not just physical barriers, like bunkers and compounds, but also a style of governance that privileges inner sanctums filled with flatterers and family members who screen out unwanted input and criticism and tell the leader only what he wants to hear.
Personality cults provide a different kind of buffer. Rallies offer the strongman a boost from contact with adoring followers who believe he rules by divine benediction, no matter how profane his past may be. “God wanted Donald Trump to become President,” former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in this tradition. Many leaders come to feel omnipotent and untouchable by misfortunes or illnesses that might fell ordinary men. “I feel so powerful,” Trump said of his speedy recovery from the coronavirus, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Unsurprisingly, Trump reportedly plans to hold rallies even after his electoral defeat, ostensibly in the service of drumming up support for his attempt to contest the results, though comparison with other authoritarians would suggest that he’s mostly hoping to restore his weakened sense of invulnerability.
None of this cushioning serves the leader well. Living inside his cocoon, he inevitably comes to believe his own propaganda. This encourages his worst traits — paranoia and hubris are common — and leads to bad decisions that eventually turn his people against him. Authoritarian history is full of disastrous actions taken out of pride and megalomania. Benito Mussolini insisted on entering World War II at Adolf Hitler’s side, against the advice of many of his generals. Trump believed that he could hoodwink the American people into believing the coronavirus was just an enhanced form of the flu, and he seems to be convinced that the election was stolen from him.
It’s not surprising that most authoritarians leave office involuntarily. The brutality and the arrogance that allow them to seize power leaves them ill-equipped to handle the downward arc of leadership. They experience decreasing popularity as a personal betrayal and often abandon their people, blaming them for the messes they themselves have caused.
This was the case with Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko. By 1990, decades of kleptocracy and violent behavior had turned elites and the population against the man who had gained power in 1965 through a military coup. “Something died in him from that moment on,” said former aide Honoré Ngbanda of Mobutu’s awakening to how much his people hated him. Even hiring dictator-whisperer lobbyists Roger Stone and Paul Manafort could do little. Soon Mobutu retreated to his palace compound in Gbadolite and was overthrown by rebel leader Laurent Kabila when he traveled to Switzerland for treatment of prostate cancer. In 1997, he went into exile in Morocco, where he died a few months later.
Trump hews to this history of denial in front of adversity. He has refused to accept defeat by Biden, seemingly embracing as true the fiction that the election was stolen from him, rather than accept responsibility for mismanaging the pandemic. The president reportedly has no intention of preparing a concession speech, leaving his cowed inner circle to contemplate holding an intervention to get him to accept the truth. As Bess Levin writes in Vanity Fair, “Trump apparently thinks he can just go on being president even though the American people have fired him.” Nor is it surprising that the enhanced security perimeter around the White House grounds, erected to shield Trump from protesters during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations this summer, is back, so he can block out any voices he does not care to hear.
Strongmen have gained power in different ways over a century, but one thing holds true: They are especially dangerous when their power is threatened. Trump could not pull off the solutions his illiberal contemporaries have used to stay in office, such as gaming elections through digital and legal manipulation (Russian President Vladimir Putin’s methods), or by consolidating power sufficient to rule by decree (Orbán’s way). But the rage that will grow in Trump as reality sinks in may make for a rocky transition to Biden’s presidency. Americans would do well to be prepared.