Wake up call: What happened when other Trump-like leaders got re-elected?

  • 11/04/2020 11:56 am ET Nada Zohdy
Shot from the RNC


As we anxiously await what our future holds post-Election Day, we would do well to learn from other countries’ recent struggles with democracy, to help envision our possible future and better prepare for any scenario that may come. A glance at recent re-elections of Trump-like leaders in India, Russia, and Hungary shows how quickly our democratic norms could further erode in a possible second Trump term.

When we study democracies and dictatorships abroad, we see how time and again, getting re-elected will embolden any leader with anti-democratic tendencies. This is true even if the election is not seen as fully free and fair. Re-election gives a sense of legitimacy for further acts of democratic degradation that are hard to recover from.

Of course, the problems facing our democracy do not start with and will not end with Trump. America’s democratic crisis — with entrenched polarization at its core — has been building for decades and needs to be addressed in multiple, systematic ways.

Yet while the US has fallen in global rankings on democracy since Trump was elected in 2016, we must prepare for an even more disturbing escalation of our democratic crisis if Trump is re-elected. Looking at similar re-elected leaders around the world can show us both why and how.

In India last year — barely 6 months after Prime Minister Modi’s was re-elected to his second term — a sweeping citizenship law was passed that effectively stripped 15% of the population (Indian Muslims) of citizenship overnight. Modi has clear support from India’s far-right Hindu nationalist movement, just like Trump has clear support from the US far-right white supremacist movement. Both of them have enabled racial tension, which has escalated racially-motivated violence to new levels. India shows us how quickly deep-seated xenophobia and racism could become enshrined into law.

Or look to Russian authoritarianism under Putin (a master power-grabber). Putin is already currently serving his fourth presidential term. And now, earlier this summer, Russia passed sweeping constitutional reforms under his leadership, including the removal of Presidential term limits, allowing Putin to serve two additional terms. Trump and his administration have shown clear admiration for and closeness to Putin and his administration on several occasions. Authoritarian leaders often mimic each other and follow a similar playbook.

We can also look at what happened in Hungary. Barely a year after Prime Minister Victor Orban was re-elected, his government passed a new Constitution altogether in 2011, including controversial election reform. Orban’s Hungary has since been marked by his systematic efforts to crush all forms of opposition and dissent across media and civil society. Most recently, his government mounted a deft “coronavirus coup” in the early days of the pandemic this year — creating an indefinite state of emergency and granting Orban the ability to rule by decree. And a recent study revealed how the Republican Party has been behaving in strikingly similar ways to Orban’s party in Hungary, moving away from democratic norms to demonize opponents and even encourage violence against them.

So, the very bad news is that all four of these populist plutocrats — who use their popular support to benefit themselves and an elite few, and who openly admire each other — become even more unbearable once they are re-elected.

But there’s still some good news: it’s a lot harder to steal a landslide election. And, it’s a lot harder for a leader like Trump to steamroll democratic norms and institutions in a second term if he faces strategic, united, and peaceful popular resistance.

The bottom line: if you’re not entirely worried yet, you should be. We’ve seen other countries quickly go down the road of democratic backsliding with a Trump-like leader at the helm, especially in a second term. So we need to do everything in our power to stop his re-election.


First, vote today (if you haven’t yet)!

Second, stay calm and collected in the days ahead until all votes are truly counted, and help others do the same. We know 2020 is an unusual year and it will take some time for the final legitimate vote count this time around!

Finally, to help avoid the ugly recent anti-democratic outcomes in India, Hungary, and Russia, we should all be vigilant and ready to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience in the coming weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day to help ensure our democracy continues to be resilient and this election is truly free and fair, with every vote counted and honest results that are upheld — we all have a role to play.

Nada Zohdy is Director of the Open Gov Hub, a network of 50 organizations advocacy transparency, accountability and civic participation around the world.

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