The Trump-Modi Playbook

The illiberal tendencies of the American and Indian leaders have long-term impacts on democracy.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump pose with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi.
Imtiyaz Khan / Anadolu Agency via Getty

During his inaugural presidential visit to India, Donald Trump was greeted with a rally at the world’s largest cricket stadium. In an atmosphere reminiscent of a typical Trump event back home in the United States, he waxed lyrical about an electoral win. Only this time, he wasn’t referring to his own.

“Last year, more than 600 million people went to the polls and gave him a landslide victory like no other, in the largest democratic election ever held anywhere on the face of the Earth,” Trump said of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing a crowd of more than 100,000 people in Ahmedabad, the first stop on his two-day tour of the country. Trump praised Modi for being an “exceptional leader” and a “very tough negotiator,” calling his ascent to the premiership an “incredible rise.”

Trump has a well-documented affinity for his host, and it’s not hard to see why. The pair share a number of similarities, including a nativist governing philosophy and a strongman appeal. Perhaps their greatest commonality, though, is their adherence to a familiar autocratic playbook, the likes of which have been adopted by other democratically elected leaders around the world.

What makes an autocrat? In the most narrow sense, it is a ruler who governs with absolute power. Though neither Trump nor Modi can lay claim to exercising that kind of influence (both India and the U.S. have robust, albeit strained, democratic institutions), their illiberal tendencies offer some insight into what a democracy in autocratic transition might look like. As the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies, their shared disregard for norms, disdain for dissent (from the media and elsewhere), and dedication to strengthening their own executive power at the expense of state institutions designed to curb it have made them emblematic of the democratic deterioration that has been taking place in recent years.

A mainstay of autocratic rule is the consolidation of executive power. In some countries, this tactic plays out in a sort of piecemeal way. For example, Trump’s bid to extend his presidential authority in the U.S. has steadily increased over time, from his attempts to defy Congress and the Constitution over his hard-line immigration policies to his impeachment-spurring efforts to withhold congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine. In both cases, Trump’s rationale was largely the same: to invoke presidential privilege or, in autocratic speak, to declare himself constitutionally above the law. Similarly, Modi has tested the limits of his authority in India—most recently by unilaterally revoking the constitutionally enshrined autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state; by establishing new limits on India’s citizenship laws that discriminate against Muslims; and by imposing violent crackdowns on protests across the country.

This extension of executive power takes more blatant forms in other democratic countries, however. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has overseen a raft of reforms designed to grant him sweeping new powers, including the authority to appoint senior officials and declare states of emergency. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party has gone to great lengths to impose its authority over the country’s judicial system. And in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has bypassed due process altogether, overseeing a “war on drugs” in the country that has resulted in the extrajudicial killing of tens of thousands of people, according to rights groups.

Another hallmark of autocratic rule is the repression of dissent—particularly that from the media. In the U.S., this has largely come in the form of the White House withholding press briefings and attacking news outlets and journalists perceived as critical. In India, the government’s relationship with the press has gone well beyond condemnation, with Modi opting to amend accreditation guidelines in order to weed out “fake news,” exacerbating self-censorship, and, in one case, even revoking a form of Indian citizenship from a critical journalist.

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.

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.

“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.”