What would authoritarian America look like?
Donald Trump is pledging to be a dictator "on day one." The risks to American democracy are real. What would American authoritarianism actually look like?
Nobody can say they weren’t warned.
Donald Trump has pledged to become a dictator “on day one.” He proudly boasted that voters most anticipate that a second Trump term will bring “revenge” and “dictatorship.” Trump recently vowed to shoot shoplifters, give the death penalty to drug dealers, and called to execute America’s top general. He’s planning to search for, round up, and deport millions of undocumented migrants—and again echoed the worst dictators in history when told his baying supporters that immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.”
For the past 12 years, I’ve studied authoritarian politics and the breakdown of democracy by conducting field-based research around the globe, from Madagascar to Thailand and from Tunisia to Zambia. Then, in 2015, as Trump took charge of the Republican primary, I began to see worrying parallels with what I had witnessed in far more broken countries than the United States.
In 2017, I wrote a book called The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy, in which I warned about Trump’s growing authoritarianism. I was repeatedly called an “alarmist,” because the mainstream pundit consensus was that such concerns were overblown. Now, after Trump’s botched plot to seize power after losing an election—and a failed insurrection at the Capitol—few outside of Trump’s MAGA base see concerns of Trump’s authoritarianism as overblown.
But the conversation usually ends there. Trump pledged to become a dictator. Okay, that’s terrifying, but what does that actually mean in the United States? After all, Washington is hardly Pyongyang. The United States, a flawed democracy, still has robust democratic institutions. Do checks and balances just disappear on January 20, 2025 if Trump wins and takes power?
Fear is warranted. The threat to democracy in the United States is real and existential. America could realistically cease to be a democratic country.
But what many people picture when they imagine a dictatorship—tanks on every corner, the total abolition of elections, and systematic mass killing—is less likely in the United States in the short-term precisely because America already has a comparatively robust democratic system, which is not usually the case when democracy dies. So, what would happen if Trump won?
From dictatorship to democracy
To understand the risks of modern authoritarianism, you must first understand modern democracy. Many people wrongly think of democracy as a binary—a country is either democratic or it’s not—instead of as a system of governance that exists along a spectrum. Similarly, there is a common false belief that holding an election makes a country democratic. That’s completely wrong. Elections are a necessary but not even close to a sufficient ingredient for a country to become a democracy.
If you were to chart regime types around the world, you’d have a bell curve.
On one side, there would be the full-blown democracies—what political scientists like me call consolidated democracy. These are the Norways and Japans of the world. The system works well and the quality of democracy, while never perfect, is ranked among the best in the world.
On the other extreme, there are the full dictatorships—North Koreas and Saudi Arabias and Turkmenistans—places where nobody believes that the country is remotely democratic. There’s no fig leaf; it’s just a dictatorship.
Then, in the middle, there’s the largest group of countries, which are between dictatorship and democracy. I call these counterfeit democracies, because they all try to masquerade as something they aren’t. They are fake democracies, where elections are rigged, the law becomes a weapon against opponents and a shield to protect political allies, and the trappings of democracy are merely a fig leaf to cover up a seedier semi-authoritarian reality. But they’re not full-blown dictatorships. Most countries exist somewhere in this grey area. (I previously wrote a full article about these regimes and why they function as they do, which you can read here).
The rise of authoritarianism 2.0
Counterfeit democracies became the dominant system of governance across the globe after the end of the Cold War. Before 1991, vast numbers of countries didn’t even bother trying to pretend to be democratic. They were happy to be one-party autocracies, authoritarian regimes that were protected from international criticism purely because they were allies of one of the two major international patrons: the United States or the Soviet Union.
That broadly changed when the Soviet Union collapsed. Suddenly, the only superpower was a democracy—the United States—and it began to flex its international muscles. A new norm emerged: countries were expected to move toward democracy. A considerable amount of foreign aid became conditional on some form of democratic governance. The number of multi-party elections surged. Dozens of countries became quasi-democratic in a comparative blink of global history.
But that surge largely stalled in counterfeit democracy, as most countries did the bare minimum simply to avoid international condemnation or the loss of aid.
This gave rise to what I call authoritarianism 2.0, which is more sophisticated and savvy than the Cold War-era incarnation of autocracy. Rather than just ban elections, they held elections, but rigged them. They established the mirage of judicial oversight, but stacked the courts with loyalists. Rather than only allowing state propaganda, they allowed a press, but muzzled or intimidated journalists who went too far.
This has given rise to two distinct regime types under my umbrella term of counterfeit democracies: competitive authoritarian regimes and electoral authoritarian regimes.
The competitive authoritarian regimes are a bit closer to democracy than to dictatorship. Think of them a bit like a boxing match in which a heavyweight (the regime) takes on a featherweight (the opposition) but with the featherweight having one hand tied behind their back. It’s an unfair fight. The system allows competition, but provides an enormous advantage to the regime—by design. However, every so often, the regime miscalculates and the opposition lands a punch. As a result, the competition isn’t meaningless. It may not be a fair fight, but it’s a fight worth having.
The electoral authoritarian regimes, by contrast, are closer to dictatorship than democracy. These are places where elections are held, but they’re completely rigged, stage managed to produce the illusion of democracy without genuine competition. These are regimes like Russia, where opposition candidates allowed to run against Putin are often handpicked by the Kremlin, little more than actors paid by the regime to help fool extremely gullible people. Putin is therefore a dictator, in charge of an electoral authoritarian regime, but a different kind of dictatorship than North Korea.
These terms aren’t just meaningless political science trivia. They can help us better understand where Trump might drag the United States if he continues his systematic attacks on America’s democracy. Unfortunately, the answer is that he could certainly succeed at turning the United States into a competitive authoritarian regime, more akin to Hungary or Turkey or the Philippines than Russia or North Korea.
So, how would American democracy die? And what would an authoritarian America actually look like?