Adolf Hitler retreated to his Führerbunker as the Allies advanced into Germany in the spring of 1945, leaving Germans to their fates. Moammar Gadhafi holed up in his fortress on the outskirts of Tripoli, refusing to surrender when Libyans took up arms against him. And President Donald Trump has turned the White House into his own refuge as he desperately seeks to remain in power despite having lost the presidential election.
It is fitting that he would end up like some of history’s best-known autocrats: hunkered down in his safe space, surrounded by his latest crop of unhinged loyalists.
Trump has followed an authoritarian, rather than a democratic, playbook as president. It is fitting that he would end up like some of history's best-known autocrats: hunkered down in his safe space, surrounded by his latest crop of unhinged loyalists, trying pathetically to escape the reality of his defeat.
On Saturday, Trump literally begged Georgia's secretary of state to overturn the election results. "The people of Georgia are angry. The people in the country are angry," Trump said in the call, a recording of which was obtained by NBC News. "And there's nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you've recalculated."
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The "inner sanctums" of authoritarians take on special importance when things are going badly and their power is threatened. Composed of flatterers and family members, they function to shield the head of state from any information that conflicts with his delusion that he is always right and will stay in power indefinitely. "For God's sake, don't upset the Führer — which means do not tell him bad news — do not mention things which are not as he conceives them to be," the exiled German journalist Karl H. von Wiegand wrote of Hitler in 1939, summarizing a situation familiar to those who have worked for Italy's Benito Mussolini, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the current American president.
Hitler was unusual in keeping the same group of loyalist ministers around him for the entirety of his rule — Joseph Goebbels, with Hitler from the start, committed suicide in the Führerbunker soon after his leader did. Frantic purges of the inner circle also usually occur during the end stage of rule. The head of state shrinks further into his safe spaces (whether headquarters in the nation's capital or remote retreats) and surrounds himself with extremists who are willing to do whatever it takes, even lead the country into civil war, to keep him in power. Gaddafi, in power for 40 years, took this path by refusing to surrender when the Libyan revolution started in 2010.
Trump is hardly Hitler or Gaddafi, and authoritarianism works differently in the 21st century. Today's leaders can come in through elections and then often try to manipulate elections to stay in office — until they get enough power to force the hand of legislative bodies to keep them there indefinitely. It took Vladimir Putin 20 years to amend the Russian constitution to lead until 2036.
Yet Trump's actions are giving Americans a taste of the maneuvers autocrats engage in when they feel desperate to retain power. Days after the election, as Trump inquired about the possibility of military action, he fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper (who had opposed the use of troops to control civilian protests in the summer) and then other top policy and intelligence officials, as well as multiple advisers on government defense oversight boards.
This prepared, in theory, a more receptive climate for more extremist individuals, such as the recently pardoned Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, who had secretly worked for Erdoğan and is now advocating for Trump to declare martial law or invoke the Insurrection Act to stay in office.
Lawyer Sidney Powell was also pressed into service as an end-stage loyalist. At a Dec. 8 news conference, Powell detailed those who have supposedly conspired to steal the election from Trump. The list sums up a century of right-wing authoritarian propaganda: communists, George Soros (the anti-Semitic angle), Antifa and corrupt liberals (here, the Clinton Foundation).
For those who have followed Trump's time in office closely, his recourse to such measures is unsurprising. During his presidency, Americans have witnessed not just the decline of accountability and ethics in government, but also the rise of a political cult that glorified Trump as a man able to get away with what lesser men cannot and replaced expertise with loyalty as a criterion for government service.
Yet because Trump did not succeed in destroying democracy, the media and the political opposition have left a public record of the kinds of authoritarian dynamics we normally hear about only from exiles or dissenters. Large news outlets invested in new investigative teams to cover Trump's corruption, and their fact-checkers were kept busy calling out his lies. "Whistleblowers" across government made the news. Many who served in Trump's inner circle published tell-all books about his chaotic mode of governance or leaked news of his latest autocratic plans to the media while still in his employ.
From start to finish, Trump's administration offered Americans an extraordinary civics lesson in how democratic erosion works and a road map of the weaknesses in our institutions that we can follow to bolster our system.
It is rare in history that a process of authoritarian capture is interrupted, but that's what happened when Americans voted Trump out. Many members of the GOP, still loyal to Trump, are likely to wage war on the Biden administration. The dangers to our republic from illiberal forces are far from over. Yet a new vigilance and activism have gained ground. We will need them, and a robust free media, to protect our democracy in the turbulent years to come.