By Jeremy Adelman*
Following Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election in 2016, many pundits predicted a worldwide breakdown of democracy, and some warned of civil war. But, aside from Africa’s Sahel region, military coups remain rare, and civil wars rarer still. Instead, democracies have tended to break down through civilian coups.
Such coups have been of three types in the post-Cold War era. Two have attracted much media attention; the one that should worry us the most, especially given the specter of Trump’s return to power in early 2025, has not.
The first model of democratic retreat is exemplified by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Having passed a draconian media law after returning to power in 2010, Orbán and his political party, Fidesz, have used every major outlet to manipulate fear of immigrants and LGBT activists and to portray the prime minister as a national savior. Orbán also exploits regional tensions, such as the war in Ukraine, to squeeze sponsors – both Russia and the European Union – for resources to fund lavish social spending.
Finally, Fidesz has rewritten Hungary’s election rules to ensure it an unassailable parliamentary majority. This model thus relies not on force, but on spin and the ability to dismantle checks and balances through the political process.
When the right-wing American media personality Tucker Carlson started openly celebrating the Orbán model, many feared that the Hungarian system would appeal to conservatives worldwide. But it didn’t, because few Orbánists beyond Hungary have been able to wield all three weapons, especially the power of a mass party.
The second form of democratic retreat is more common, and can be found in big countries, like Russia under Vladimir Putin, and in small ones, like Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega. In this model, a dramatic national crisis gives rise to a strongman, not a movement, to lead the country and create a patronage network in his image.
In both Russia and Nicaragua, the opportunity came from an economic implosion. The strongman will hyperventilate about threats, especially from America, and use isolation to cement power. Putin, for example, has been expropriatingforeign-company assets to distribute to friends like feudal war booty, while relying on thuggery to muzzle domestic dissent.
The result is a web of cronies who depend on the caudillo and ritualistic, low-turnout elections. Instead of relying on an institutionalized party like Orbán’s, they turn the state into a family-and-friends business, protected by goons in SUVs when necessary.
This second model has also been rarer than many previously feared. A successful family-and-friends strategy implies that democratic institutions were already weak, and the opposition feeble. The private sector depends on the state, and the latter – especially the judicial system – is vulnerable to capture. With few alternative political forces or institutional bases of power, the caudillo has plenty of room to maneuver.
True, checks and balances can degrade gradually and tilt fortunes in favor of a caudillo. But mostly, they tend to hold, partly because would-be caudillos in a well-institutionalized system motivate opposition coalitions that rise up to thwart them, as happened to Trump in 2020.
Trump and his backers will have heeded that lesson, which is why we must be mindful of the third form of autocratic advance. It relies on neither dominant parties nor domineering kleptocrats, but it does still exploit national emergencies (real or manufactured). A contemporary exponent of this approach is El Salvador’s strongman, Nayib Bukele, who has devised a playbook that should worry democrats. After years of trouble, El Salvador’s economy is buoyant, with remittances and lavish public spending powering private consumption.
Moreover, the country’s infamous gang warfare is a thing of the past. A combination of payoffs to gang leaders and mass incarceration has pacified the country’s neighborhoods. In March 2022, Bukele suspended certain civil liberties, notably due process for alleged criminals. The police have arrested almost 70,000 people, mainly men aged 16 to 30, on suspicion of gang membership.
As a result, Bukele enjoys approval ratings that make him the envy of politicos everywhere. He has swatted aside constitutional restrictions barring him from a second term, and current polling suggests he will win re-election in February with a staggering 68.4% of the vote.
This regime-of-exception model formally accepts the importance of rules and checks and balances, and even tolerates domestic discord and dissent, up to a point. In fact, exceptionalists point to them to justify their regime. The argument is that while constraints are vital to republics in normal times, emergencies require their suspension. “See? Congress doesn’t work. See? Our borders are sieves for the unwashed. See? Wokeism has swept our most cherished institutions.” By turning emergency powers into semi-permanent rule, Bukele has established a new regime, one that exempts itself from constraints in the name of restoring the republic.
This is the road to autocracy that we should be worrying about as Trump’s run for the White House shifts into high gear. If he wins, his governing playbook won’t come from Hungary. The Republican Party is too riven, the Democrats are too strong, and the US states are too resilient for that. Nor will Trump have the option of turning government into a friends-and-family business; the US private sector is too autonomous and complex, and his earlier attempts at thuggery backfired in Lafayette Square and on January 6.
Still, the perception of danger at the border, fragile norms in cultural institutions, Ukraine war fatigue, and a quagmire in Congress would embolden Trump to adopt a more muscular approach. Exploiting a state of exception is a handy script for ruling in uncertain times. It allows extreme measures without ending formal democracy. It shifts attention to security (especially at borders) without martial law. And, above all, it preys on disenchantment with democracy without repudiating it.
*Jeremy Adelman is Director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University.