The twin challenges of warnings about Trump’s support of authoritarianism

Donald Trump welcomed Hungarian leader Viktor Orban to his Mar-a-Lago home last week, offering unqualified praise for Orban’s strongman approach to politics.

“There’s nobody that’s better, smarter or a better leader than Viktor Orban. He’s fantastic,” Trump said during a reception Friday evening. “He does a great job. He’s a noncontroversial figure because he says, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ and that’s the end of it. Right? He’s the boss.”

This sort of rhetoric is exactly what President Biden and others warn about with Trump’s elevation to his party’s presidential nomination. The former president has repeatedly made obvious his support for centralized, hard-line executive power in the United States and elsewhere, something that is clearly at odds with American democracy and divided government.

Because Trump has effectively framed Biden as behaving as an autocrat to his supporters and because modern autocrats don’t necessarily look like those in the past, many Americans are likely to consider those warnings hollow.

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In February 2023, YouGov asked Americans to evaluate whether certain countries qualified as democracies. Among those with an opinion, most people agreed that China, Russia and Saudi Arabia didn’t and that the United States and Ukraine did. (Among those with an opinion, Democrats were 16 points more likely to identify Ukraine as a democracy than were Republicans.)

In the middle were countries like Turkey and Hungary, places where strongman leaders have eroded democracy in recent years. Only about a third of those with an opinion still viewed Turkey as a democracy — but half of those with an opinion said Hungary was. Republicans were quite a bit more likely to say Hungary was a democracy.

Under Orban, Hungarian democracy has withered. There are still elections, but ones in which there are no significant threats to his ruling coalition. Orban has often allied with the autocratic leaders of China and Russia against other European nations and against NATO. But understanding of this shift hasn’t permeated the American consciousness, allowing Orban to be celebrated as a strong leader by Trump and the broader right without the baggage that comes from, say, bolstering positions held by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After meeting with Trump, Orban publicly endorsed the former president’s 2024 bid (as Trump had endorsed Orban’s reelection). He predicated the endorsement largely on Trump’s foreign policy positions, saying on state TV that Trump wouldn’t provide any new funding for Ukraine should he return to the White House.

Contrast Orban’s public embrace of Trump with Putin. Putin — unpopular and understood as the leader he is — claimed last month that he’d rather see President Biden win reelection because “he’s more experienced, more predictable, he’s a politician of the old formation.” Perhaps that’s true. But it seems more likely that Putin, who demonstrably sought to aid Trump’s election in 2016, would rather have a president hostile to NATO than one who isn’t. Calling Biden “predictable” and “a politician of the old formation” is, of course, very much in line with how Trump presents his own advantages.

Meanwhile, Trump has been very deliberate about trying to cast Biden, not himself, as the threat to democracy. This is in keeping with his long-standing efforts to muddy every issue on which he is vulnerable by leveling the same claims against his critics. But it is effective, at least with Republicans, both because of partisan hostility toward the president and because of how fervently Trump and his allies have framed Trump’s indictments as politically motivated.

In December, YouGov asked Americans to evaluate whether certain authoritarian actions by the government were or might soon be taking place. Republicans were consistently more likely to say they were or would be — with more than a quarter saying that critics of the government were already being severely punished and 1 in 6 Republicans saying that America was already ruled by a dictator.

The same poll found that 14 percent of Republicans thought America would be ruled by a dictator in their lifetimes, slightly fewer than said that among Democrats. That suggests that part of this is simply partisan reaction, anger at Biden’s presidency manifested in claiming that he’s a dictator. But about 1 in 11 Americans overall agreed that America is already being ruled by a dictator — meaning that warnings about how Trump might shift democracy face the hurdle of differentiating those predictions from the perceived reality of the moment.

When Americans have been asked how they feel in the abstract about the broader prospect of a strongman leader — such as whether presidents should be empowered to break rules or to subvert the media, Republicans and conservatives have been more supportive of those ideas than have liberals or Americans overall.

Among them is Donald Trump, seeking to return to the White House and with plans in hand to make the government more authoritarian. Drawing comparisons to Hungary or contrasts with Biden, though, might not have the intended effect among Republicans.

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