From democracy to dictatorship, could it happen here?

Phil Heimlich* – Opinion contributor, Cincinnati Enquirer

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend around the world: A leader is democratically elected and then gradually transforms his country into a dictatorship.

In Turkey, ruled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “the tweet has been turned into a crime,” according to The Washington Post, “and a troubled democracy is being turned into a dictatorship. Gradually but inexorably, a nation that once aspired to be an exemplar of enlightened moderation is being transformed by Mr. Erdogan into a dreary totalitarian prison.”

Erdogan has closed some media outlets, forced others into new ownership and used show trials to jail his perceived enemies in the press, academia and law enforcement. More than 60,000 have been arrested, and 150,000 forced from their jobs. He is reportedly planning an assault on internet broadcasting and free expression online.

Similarly, Victor Orban has effectively transformed Hungary into a one-party state by changing the country’s constitution to give him a two-thirds majority in Parliament with 44% of the votes. The media and judges serve his Fidesz Party, not the public. He used a “state of emergency” to send his opponents to prison for “spreading false information.”

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte was elected as a populist – since then, he has closed the country’s major news broadcaster and assassinated journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. Worse, his death squads have murdered upwards of 29,000 people in a so-called “drug war.” He controls 11 of the 15 judges on the High Court, which ensures the killers will not be brought to justice.

The question I’ve pondered is: Could this happen here? Dictatorships throughout history seem to have three characteristics:

They’re built on a “Big Lie.” In the words of Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” For example, to justify persecution of the Jews, Nazis used the blood libel myth that Jews murder non-Jews, especially non-Jewish children, in order to use their blood to perform religious rituals. 

Violence is an essential element, whether Duterte’s killing of journalists or Vladimir Putin’s poisoning of his adversaries.

Authoritarians could not succeed without willing accomplices in the press and government.

The scary thing is these traits seem to be trending in this country. We just spent several months listening to former President Donald Trump claim that his “landslide” election victory was stolen by the Democrats. With 60 court cases finding no evidence of illegal voting and his own Attorney General admitting there was no fraud, Trump pulled off a feat that would impress Goebbels: convincing 36% of voters and 76% of Republicans that he was robbed.

We’ve also witnessed unprecedented political violence, namely the attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6. And this uprising would not have occurred without the ex-president’s allies in Congress and the media spreading the election lie, along with a host of conspiracy theories.

I may seem like an alarmist suggesting that our democracy is at risk, but Republican legislators in 43 states have proposed at least 250 new laws to restrict voting rights, not so unlike the anti-democratic measures pushed through in Turkey and Hungary. Former President Trump, in fact, is a strong admirer of Turkish leader Erdogan, whom he called “a great ally,” and Hungarian President Orban, whom he said “has done a tremendous job in so many different ways.” In reference to the murderous reign of Duterte, Trump congratulated the Philippines’ ruler for “the great job you are doing.”

Trump’s acquiescence to violence is reflected in the encouragement he gave to the insurrectionists on Jan. 6: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly and unfairly treated for so long,” he tweeted. “…We love you, you’re very special… Remember this day forever!”

The power of Trumpism is reflected in the U.S. Senate race in Ohio where the two leading Republican candidates are competing over who is more pro-Trump. The danger that this movement poses to our rights should alarm every one of us. Unless patriotic Americans take action to defeat it, we may end up like other nations whose elected leaders stole their freedoms.


*Phil Heimlich is a former assistant prosecutor in Cincinnati. He has served as a Republican on Cincinnati City Council and the Hamilton County Commission. During the 2020 campaign he helped lead Operation Grant, the Ohio affiliate of Republican Voters Against Trump. Twitter: @philheimlich.