The World’s Dumbest Authoritarian

What would the U.S. media say if the president of another country was threatening to hobble his nation’s postal service in hopes of suppressing ballots ahead of an election?

Every once in a while, an American journalist gets this notion: to imagine how the national press would cover a particular domestic story, whether it be white nationalist violence or protests against racist policing, as if it were happening in another country. It’s a venerable and sometimes illuminating frame—a way for Americans, given to believing in their own exceptionalism, to see themselves and their country’s troubles from a different vantage.

But in the postal case, and increasingly in the age of Trump, the “if it happened there” test proves of little use. It is 2020, after all, and there is no global shortage of demagogues and authoritarians making a joke of democratic processes. They stuff ballot boxes, jail opposition leaders, harass journalists, and threaten voters. They exploit all the tools at their disposal to rig an election in their favor. They increasingly welcome elections, in fact, with recent scholarship showing “that elections can actually prolong dictatorships in the longer term,” as three European political scientists put it.

What they don’t do is adopt the bizarre tactic President Trump has. Neither I nor any of the political scientists and journalistic colleagues I consulted could come up with an example of a national leader trying to preemptively invalidate the upcoming election that he’s forecast to possibly lose. Generally, it’s opposition parties—some of whom may, of course, be aspiring autocrats—that attack the legitimacy of an upcoming referendum, not the guy in power. Yet that is precisely what Trump is doing with his ceaseless warbling about nonexistent voter fraud and the need, amid an unprecedented killer viral pandemic, to kill mail-in voting.

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