As we’ve seen in countries including Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, populist leaders are at first hamstrung in their ability to concentrate power in their own hands. Many key institutions, including courts and electoral commissions, are still dominated by independent-minded professionals who do not owe their appointment to the new regime. Media outlets are still able and willing to report on scandals, forcing the government to tread somewhat carefully.
Once these governments win reelection, these constraints begin to fall away. As the independent-minded judges and civil servants depart, populist leaders feel emboldened to pursue their illiberal dreams.
Read: When is a protest too late?
Poland’s populist government, which won reelection this fall, is a particularly scary example of this tendency. In his party’s first term in office, Jarosław Kaczyński started to undermine the independence of the judiciary, to turn the state broadcaster into a powerful propaganda outlet, and to erode the rights of various minority groups. But conscious of the need to win reelection, he also compromised on some of his most extreme reforms: When millions of women marched in the streets of Poland’s major cities to protest a law that would have banned abortion even in cases of rape, his party—Law and Justice—withdrew the proposed reform to the country’s already strict laws. And when a report by by the European Union admonished Law and Justice for its blatant attacks on judicial independence, the government refrained from bringing the supreme court under its direct control.
Now Kaczyński is tending to his unfinished business. A new law states that judges may be fired for a number of vaguely defined offenses, including expressing their political opinions. In effect, it would allow the government to demote any judge whose decisions it dislikes. As the members of the Polish Supreme Court said in a statement, the reform amounts to “a continuation of the lawlessness of the 1980s,” when the country was ruled by martial law.
In his first term in office, Donald Trump has done plenty of damage to the rule of law. His firm control of the Republican Party has made it virtually impossible for Congress to act as a check on the executive. He has exercised enormous influence over institutions ranging from the FBI to the State Department. And it is now evident that he has abused the powers of his office to damage the electoral prospects of his most likely opponent in the 2020 election.
Even so, some of the most extreme predictions about Trump’s tenure in office have, so far, proved unfounded. Madeleine Albright’s warning about impending fascism in the United States, for example, seems a bit much: For all the tremendous damage Trump has inflicted on the institutions of the American republic, there are no stormtroopers in sight.