WASHINGTON, September 2, 2019 — Last week, a wild-haired, New York-born head of a conservative government decided to invoke little-used powers in a way that would let him circumvent his country’s legislature and make it easier for him to push an unpopular policy into law.
If you have paid any attention to the news over the past year, you might have good reason to think the politician in question was none other than Donald Trump.
After all, it was Trump who invoked little-used emergency powers in February so he could circumvent Article I of the constitution to fund his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he promised Mexico would pay for, and which the U.S. Congress has heretofore declined to underwrite. He also declared a separate national emergency in May to enable his administration to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, in contravention of Congress’ wishes.
But this time, it was not Trump who was testing the bounds of executive authority in one of the world’s oldest constitutional democracies.
This time it was his Downing Street doppelgänger, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who asked Queen Elizabeth II to suspend parliament for the longest period since the end of World War II, cutting the time the House of Commons would have to stop a no-deal Brexit in half.
For scholars of authoritarianism who’ve watched with horror as Trump has ignored Congress’ authority in order to advance unpopular policies, the scene in the UK last week was familiar, and the connection to events “across the pond” undeniable.
“My first thought was that this is a form of contagion — one authoritarian getting away with things in a democracy sets the tone for others,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies fascism, authoritarianism, war, and propaganda.
Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament is part of “a climate of creeping authoritarianism” that has been enabled by Trump, she said.
“When someone like Trump acts the way he does, it legitimizes others to follow suit. In the past the United States being a great defender of democracy and human rights has curbed authoritarian impulses, but that’s no longer the case.”
University College London scholar and “The Despot’s Apprentice” author Brian Klaas said the comparison between Johnson’s actions and Trump’s casting aside of Congress’ wishes is an apt one, but cautioned against wholesale comparisons between the two leaders.
Trump, Klaas said, has thrown up “a series of red flags” for scholars of authoritarianism.
“There are many, many things about Trump that are authoritarian, from his attacks on the press, to the ethics violations, the hiring cronies and nepotism, the constant lies, the cult of personality, the corruption and criminality, you name it,” he said.
“When Trump does anything authoritarian it fits into that pattern and is reason for a major red flag. But if this is the only thing Boris Johnson does, then I wouldn’t put him in that mold.
Still, Klaas called the long prorogation of parliament “a major red flag in and of itself.”
“There are ways in which presidents in democracies can use the rule or letter of the law to pass anti-democratic policies, and that’s what happening here,” he said.
While some opposition has arisen in response to the prorogation, Ben-Ghiat said it is too early to tell if those opposed to Johnson’s move will unite as the Italian opposition did this week “to avoid the disaster of the right-wing authoritarian” by denying the Prime Ministership to Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who many commentators have described as a strongman-in-waiting.
But Johnson, she said, is “testing the [UK’s] system in a huge way.”
“When authoritarians come up in democracies and start testing the system, they do it immediately. It uproots the system and forces people to decide,” she said, offering a prediction that such tests are going to become more commonplace because of leaders like Johnson and Trump.
“Each time they get away with such actions, other countries are watching and other politicians…who would like to do such things are watching,” she said.
Klass agreed that this latest move by Johnson and pro-Brexit forces was “obviously…part of a trend of trying to sidestep elected [legislatures],” but cautioned that one must take into account “the context of degree” when comparing the two leaders.
“There are superficial characteristics that are similar, but I think the authoritarianism is a much more pronounced problem with Trump, particularly because the system in the U.S. is much more polarized in a way that makes that opening possible,” he said, noting that American conservative media, such as Fox News, allows Trump a nearly-open platform to say what he wants without much pushback.
For Klaas, an open question is whether the UK’s institutions will hold in the same way that those in the U.S. have protected it from going the way of countries like Turkey.
“In Turkey, you have a democracy that’s on its deathbed, in Hungary and Poland, you have them lurching towards that,” he said.
“In the U.S. I think the red flags are definitely there, and if it were place of weaker institutions like Turkey or Hungary or Poland, the US would definitely be an authority state [by now].”
“The difference is that the U.S. has so much more robust institutions, that even someone who seems to be more authoritarian in some ways in personality and style, hasn’t had the success in destroying democracy that someone like Erdogan has had in Turkey,” Klaas said, adding that Trump “would have killed democracy in Turkey even faster than Erdogan has done there.”
“The question is: Is this the beginning of Boris going down this road, or is this a fluke because Brexit is such a flagship policy for him that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get it through.”
Klaas stressed that proroguing parliament is a “red flag” that is “just as worrying” as what Trump has done in the U.S., but maintained that it is still “too early to know whether this is isolated or part of a pattern.”
But Ben-Ghiat said that Johnson’s actions since taking over from Theresa May can be directly connected to Trump’s rebuke of the American Congress.
“I do believe that Boris has been influenced by what Trump is doing and the whole climate that’s been set internationally,” she said.