Trump Solidifies Place In History Among Failed Right-Wing Dictators

No US President has attempted to overthrow democracy and assault the peaceful transition of power. Trump is more akin to history's failed dictators.
President Donald Trump listens during an event on immigration alongside family members affected by crime committed by undocumented immigrants, at the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex, Friday, June 22, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump listens during an event on immigration alongside family members affected by crime committed by undocumented immigrants, at the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex, Friday, June 22, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

Trump is on the way out the door.  Following his incitement of a radical right terrorist attack on the US Capitol on January 6, the House has impeached him for the second time, an unprecedented rebuke.

Barring a general right-wing insurrection to keep him in power, Trump will be retired from the presidency at noon on January 20.  His desperate wish to retain the presidency makes sense given what awaits him on the other side. Not only does he have some underlying need not to be a ‘loser’ along with a strong need to dominate all those around him. But he is also likely to face quite tangible threats as a private citizen. By all accounts, he has an enormous personal debt that needs to be paid or serviced shortly after he resumes his career as a businessman.  More worrying still, Trump seems likely to face a number of tax-related civil complaints and criminal charges after leaving office. He may now also faces charges related to this insurrection.

As right-wing political leaders go, Trump appears unusual in a number of ways.  He shares with many of them demagogic skills at mobilizing a mass audience of ardently committed and resentment-filled followers.  He also has been adept at exploiting various forms of racial and religious bigotry.  Nationalism, or integral nationalism, has been a consistent theme in his rhetoric,  themes consistent with other right-wing leaders.

On the other hand, virtually none of his right-wing peers have been caught referring to members of the military, including those who have been killed in action, as ‘suckers’ and ‘losers’.  Ordinarily, right-wing demagogues go out of their way to extol the heroism and bravery of their country’s military. Trump pays lip service to these patriotic values, but the media have reported his true feelings uttered in private conversations with aides.

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Also, few right-wing leaders in past decades have treated their positions of power as money-making opportunities.  Trump is a businessman who has exploited his political office for personal and family profit-making, e.g. encouraging those wishing to do business with the federal government to stay at his Washington DC hotel and his various other resort properties. This puts him among the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Trump also stands apart from 20th-century right-wing leaders because of his age.  Here is a list of 8 right-wing rulers  and their ages at the time they took over their countries:

  • Francisco Franco (Spain)  — 34 (1939)
  • Antonio Salazar ( Portugal) – 57 (1932)
  • Juan Peron (Argentina) – 51 (1946)
  • Georgios Papadopoulos( Greece) – 48 (1967)
  • Adolf Hitler (Germany) – 44 (1933)
  • Benito Mussolini (Italy) – 39 (1922)
  • Miklós Horthy (Hungary)  – 62 (1920)
  • Anton Antonescu (Romania) – 58 (1940)

The average age of these right-wing leaders when they assumed or seized control of their countries was 55.  Franco was an exception having become Spain’s unchallenged leader at the age of 34 at the end of the Civil War (He was 29 when he launched the insurrection in 1936!).  For the most part, though we are dealing with men in mid to late middle age.  Most though not all of them had backgrounds in the armed forces.  Antonio Salazar was a professional economist. Hitler and Mussolini, gifted public speakers, were specialists in para-military violence and rabble-rousing.

We might quibble about Mussolini and Hitler, but Trump was the only one of these right-wing leaders who came to power by winning an open democratic election.  It was also the first time he had run for public office.

Trump also stands apart from these 20th-century right-wing rulers because of his age. He was past 70 when elected US president in 2016. This makes him a generation older than the other figures.  Even if Trump and his advisers had succeeded in overcoming his election defeat and keeping him in the White House for another four-year term (or longer) his ability to transform the US along authoritarian lines would have been limited by old age. He will be 74 at the end of his term, unlikely to have the stamina needed to launch another assault on constitutional democracy.

If we step outside the European and North American regions, it might be argued that Trump’s career path bears some resemblance to that of Recep Erdogan, the President of Turkey. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party did come to power via the ballot box in 2003.  After overcoming a military coup attempt in 2016, President Erdogan has transformed the Turkish republic along authoritarian lines and shows few signs of leaving office. Still in 2016 Erdogan was 62 (born in 1954) when he launched his authoritarian project.

Endings: Are there lessons to be learned from the end of the rule for these 20th-century right-wing leaders?  Hard to say.  Marshall Antonescu was shot by firing squad. Mussolini was executed by Italian partisans. Hitler committed suicide. Salazar, the Portuguese ruler, was deposed by a coup in 1970. Papadopoulos and other members of Greece’s military junta were toppled in 1973 following a humiliating defeat by Turkey over the fate of Cyprus.  Hungary’s Admiral Horthy was deposed by the Nazi occupiers in 1944. Juan Peron was overthrown by other members of the Argentine military in 1955.  After close to two decades in exile, he was re-elected to the presidency in 1973, only to die in office shortly afterward Francisco Franco, Spain’s caudillo remained in power until his death in 1976. A happy ending? Not for most Spaniards.

Trump’s fate appears to be different. Trump very well may end up serving jail time. And even if he’s not convicted for the crimes he committed before and during his presidency, Trump’s brand is irreparably tarnished. After the insurrection, major corporations are cutting ties with Trump, including the PGA canceling its 2022 golf tournament at Trump’s golf clubs and Deutsche Bank cutting off future lending. Given his age, it appears unlikely he’ll have much time to remaster the art of the comeback.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // Authoritarianism / CARR / Donald Trump / Radical Right