If You Had to Choose Your Autocrat ...
by Neil H. Buchanan
The intensifying humanitarian disaster in Ukraine is the inevitable result of an obvious violation of international law, to say nothing of being a horrific and wholly unjustifiable act of war that will permanently harm even those Ukrainians who survive. Those who are able to take refuge outside of their country as well as those who stay to face whatever comes next have had their lives irreparably damaged, not only by losing loved ones but by losing everything that they have ever known as a normal life.
And this is all one man's fault. Vladimir Putin has surprised everyone by deviating from what most observers thought to be true, which is that Putin possesses nothing resembling a human conscience but that he is fully in control of his faculties and thus can be impressively -- and reliably -- strategic. He was thought to be a sociopath with keen reasoning skills. Now, however, no one is sure whether he has gone insane and might no longer be able to control himself.
The most pressing reason that this matters, of course, is that Putin is making not-veiled threats to use nuclear weapons. More broadly, however, it even brings into doubt whether it is possible to negotiate an off-ramp with him. Unless one simply assumes rationality -- which, as those of us who have critiqued theories like "rational expectations" have emphasized, becomes a tautology by which every action (including, say, suicide) can be described as the result of a reasoned line of thought -- Putin's previous reputation for being "homicidal but cunning" now seems never to have been true or to have suddenly stopped being true.
This raises a question for people everywhere who worry that they might soon live under one or another autocrat in their own countries. There are many different types of autocrats. Under which type would you rather live?
I confess that I ask this question because I had not previously written about (or even thought much about) the obvious reality that autocracies come in many different flavors and intensities. In all of my writings about the now-all-but-certain loss of constitutional democracy and the rule of law in the United States, I have described the after-times with words like autocracy and dictatorship, but without differentiating among types.
The closest that I have come to thinking about life in those after-times was when I attempted to imagine what day-to-day living would be like for certain groups of citizens in a post-democracy. For example, I have suggested that the people who would most immediately feel the impact of a turn to autocracy in the US would be public employees, because they would lose legal protections for civil servants and essentially be forced to serve at the whim of the country's newly self-installed autocrat. Disfavored groups like racial and ethnic minorities, women, and other Others would also feel the brunt in specific ways.
All of those possible future problems, however, ultimately depend on who the autocrat is. I have mostly been thinking about Donald Trump's pathologies when imagining a US autocracy, but clearly his reign would be relatively short (given his age and degraded physical health), so even there, the question is who or what would replace him. His addled oldest son? His vacuous oldest daughter? Rudy Giuliani? Ted Cruz? Tucker Carlson? A triumvirate or some other ruling cabal?
The Putin situation highlights the importance of this inquiry, because I suspect that everyone would rather live under what I think of as Putin Original Gangster than under Mad Putin. Life under the OG has never been good, but if I were living in Russia -- and thus had long given up on the idea of having a non-corrupt government, a functioning legal system, or a first-world economy -- I would know that my life will be much worse because of what Putin is doing now. Even if I supported the international sanctions that would hurt me personally and hoped that they would somehow change Putin's actions, I would be relieved if someone offered me the opportunity to revert to the status quo ante, autocratic though it was.
Looking at Russian history (the Soviet version), I would rather have lived under Gorbachev than Khrushchev, Khrushkev than Brezhnev, and Brezhnev than Stalin. Similarly, based on my admittedly limited knowledge of the relevant histories, I would rather have lived under:
-- Catherine the Great than Ivan the Terrible,
-- Elizabeth I than Henry VIII,
-- Louis XVI than Louis XIV, and
-- Mussolini than Franco, and Franco than Hitler.
For that matter, I guess that I would rather currently live under Orban than Duterte.
Maybe I would change my mind if provided with further information about any of those specific examples, but the point is that there are more-bad and less-bad (also known as worse and better, but I think Orwell would forgive me here) autocracies and autocrats. Saying that we might soon be living in an autocracy, where legal authority can be overruled without meaningful legal process or protections AND where the person who can do the overruling cannot be removed from power through peaceful means, is a terrible thing to contemplate. But it is hardly the end of the story.
So, what would it be like to live in Trump's America starting on January 20, 2025, knowing that either the next election will never happen or that the ceremony on January 20, 2029 will take place after an election that had been staged merely for show? That is, how would Trump abuse such power, compared to other people who might be in that position?
As a starting point, we can guess that he would not immediately become a murderous thug, even though he so admires Putin. Trump's ego and venality are mostly petty, so he would more likely busy himself by "opening up the libel laws" to shut down criticism, and he would go about the business of making himself as wealthy (through plunder) as he has always claimed to be (through the art of the deal). He would also surely exact revenge on his enemies, but even that might be limited to settling scores via public denunciations rather than, say, poisoning people in London restaurants.
Trump would also most likely do whatever the Republicans want on almost every substantive issue, some of which would be bad for particular subgroups (as noted above), but a large part of which would be bad for everyone (especially on the environment and guns). For me personally, it would be very unpleasant to see what Republicans would do to professorial jobs, but the real harm would be to students who would be deprived of the right to be taught by teachers who are protected by academic freedom.
Would there be outright purges and mass killings? Again, that seems unlikely, even to a pessimist like me. But just as Putin seems to have spun out of control as he has consolidated absolute power over the years, one never knows what Trump or his chosen successor might eventually begin to do. At least for some amount of time, however, post-rule of law America would probably be bad but not horrific.
I should, however, be especially clear in stipulating that this relatively calm assessment is based on my conscious awareness of my privilege. I would be an enemy of the state for being an anti-Trump intellectual, but I am also a White Anglo-Saxon Sorta-Protestant man — and one who is not a target of the Right’s sexuality panic brigade. So when Trump tells the police "not to be so nice" with suspects (as he once did, but next time he could make it happen), that portends something quite bad, but mostly for people who do not look like me, which surely makes the picture seem from my perspective relatively less threatening in the most immediate sense. Even those horrors visited upon others, however, would not be likely to reach the levels of arbitrary lawlessness that we see in Russia and elsewhere.
What about a non-Trump autocrat taking over the United States in 2025, either because Trump does not live that long or for any other reason? That is, even though Trump would surely give the Republicans what they have always wanted, might it nonetheless matter which Republican emerges from the Hunger Games that would be the 2024 Republican presidential primaries? Is Tom Cotton no different from Nikki Haley, who would be no different from Ted Cruz or Kristi Noem (or Marjorie Taylor Greene)? Are all of them the same as Trump?
Interestingly, one of the most important potential differences would be felt by people in other countries, not the United States. It is, for example, easy to imagine that if Trump or Carlson becomes the autocrat, eastern Europeans (and even people further west) would have additional reason to fear Putin. It is not as easy to picture many of the other Republican presidential wannabes being so accommodating to the madman from Moscow, because many of them are more interested in having America be the undisputed leader of the world. Putin would likely not get a free pass from many of them.
In a column a few years ago, I suggested that these ambitious Republicans might not want to live in a Trumpian autocracy: "[T]he Hawleys and Cottons would spend their time jostling for position in the Politburo to stand as close to Trump as possible during photo ops, but even they will not have any real power, unless and until there is a post-Trumpian power struggle. The other people in 'high office,' meanwhile, would become nothing but dead weight, with no external opposition to vanquish and no power to shape anything that they were told to rubber-stamp."
That is not the only possible outcome, however, especially if the first post-democracy autocrat is not Trump. Whoever would become president would not necessarily be able to consolidate power completely within the party, so there would be a genuine question about how concentrated the autocratic power would become. If there is something resembling a true contest in future Republican primaries, an odd form of truncated democratic accountability would drive contenders to try to do things that are popular among party members. And the more muddled the intra-party lines of power are, the less likely it is that all forms of true accountability could be permanently shut down, because it would be in various Republicans' interests to support independent investigations of their rivals, and so on.
None of this is anything but dystopian, but again, we are talking about degrees of awfulness here. I doubt that any Republican autocrat would do to the American people as a whole what Putin is doing to the Russian people. Were I to emigrate from the US after 2025, it would not be because I was willing to move to just any autocracy, because it is simply true that some autocracies are worse than others, and the red-white-and-blue version might be the least bad among them. I would only move if there were a better alternative that was a genuine constitutional democracy — or a less-bad autocracy.
Of course, the nature of autocracy is that people are not given the option to choose their autocrats. If they were, the people would choose an autocrat who is not only benevolent but who would immediate become a non-autocrat. But within the range of people who might truly be willing to turn their countries into something post-democratic (Trump, some emerging Trumpoids in Canada and Australia, various extreme nationalists in many European countries, perhaps Boris Johnson on his worst days), there would be very different outcomes for different people. Unfortunately, most of what happens will be inflicted on people who have no way to make it stop. That is what unaccountable power is all about.