Efforts to quell dissent have been no less prevalent in other democratic countries led by leaders with autocratic tendencies. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro accused the media of “lying” about the scale of the widely documented Amazon fires last year and has threatened to withhold government advertising funds from outlets deemed to be publishing “fake news.” In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s moves to subjugate the free press have included the establishment of a conglomerate of government-friendly outlets. The most severe examples, however, are in Turkey, which Erdoğan has transformed into the world’s largest jail for journalists, shedding any pretense of freedom of the press.
But perhaps the most common trait among burgeoning autocrats in recent years is the growing appeal to populist and nationalist sentiment. This has been most pronounced in India through Modi’s efforts to transform the country from a secular democracy into a theocratic, nationalist one that dominates its minorities. In the U.S., Trump has made his nativist rhetoric about immigration a hallmark of his administration. And in Hungary, much of Orbán’s populist rhetoric against the “elites” has been leveled almost exclusively at one person in particular: the prominent Hungarian-born financier George Soros, who founded the vilified Central European University.
Read: How to build an autocracy
This “autocratization of democracies” hasn’t compelled any of these countries to renounce their democratic credentials, Shelley Inglis, the executive director of the University of Dayton’s Human Rights Center, told me. On the contrary, she said, many of these countries “firmly place their identity on [their] democratic structures,” adding that even countries regarded as more fragile democracies, such as Brazil and the Philippines, continue to tout their democratic identity. (This sets these countries apart from regimes such as China and North Korea, neither of which claims any sort of democratic legitimacy.)
Nor have citizens of these countries necessarily turned on their leaders either. In the case of Trump and Modi, both remain relatively popular with their base despite political challenges at home (for Trump, impeachment; for Modi, the political fallout of his Hindu-nationalist project paired with an economic slowdown). Others, such as Duterte, remain wildly popular nationwide. When I asked Inglis whether this approval should register as tacit support for these leaders’ autocratic tendencies, she said it would be better to interpret it within the broader trust deficit in democratic institutions.
Read: This is how democracy dies
“There is an overall declining trust in institutions—in government, in civil society, in [the] media,” she said. “That makes it easier to somehow rationalize the behavior of leaders that would otherwise probably be more concerning.”