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Which recent tyrant is most like Trump?

As the defeated president’s attempts to void an American election continue, we must contemplate a slide into despotism.

President Donald Trump salutes from a White House balcony on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, in Washington, after leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md.
President Donald Trump salutes from a White House balcony as he returns Oct. 5 from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
AP

What makes Donald Trump so terrifying? At least to those of us not lost in adoration and obeisance. It is that he represents a complete break from the past, from American history. Trump isn’t like any previous president. No sitting president has ever tried to subvert the electoral system and undermine the process of casting votes and then counting them, merely because he lost. This is a first. What on Sunday seemed like just another day of the president’s perpetual crybaby act, by midweek feels more like an attempted coup. Crude, flailing, obvious, yes. But a coup nonetheless.

So we wait to see if our country indeed becomes a failed state. Wait to see if our president will be a despot whose power is not based on the will of the people but on legal maneuvering, lies and sham, assisted by corrupt cronies, hand-picked judges and the eager serfs who rejoice in it. Meanwhile, we in the press struggle to find a language to describe what is happening before our eyes.

A Washington Post article, “Strongman leaders take defeat poorly — just like Trump,” looks at dictators from Chile’s Augusto Pinochet to Ugandan madman Idi Amin to Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, for clues to how Trump might finally leave the public stage.

It’s practically giddy compared to The Atlantic. “Trump is just one more example of the many populists on the right who have risen to power around the world: Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Oban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia,” demagogues who “subvert democratic norms: by criminalizing dissent, suppressing or demonizing the media, harassing the opposition and deploying extra-legal mechanisms whenever possible.”

Check, check and check.

Though not “just one more example.” He is the would-be tyrant here, now, in the United States of America. That makes him special.

I’ve played this game myself. After Trump won the Nevada Republican primary in February 2016, I turned to my wife and said, “He’ll be our Silvio Berlusconi.” The venal Italian billionaire was prime minister of Italy for nine years despite being, to quote The Economist, “unfit to be in politics — let alone run Italy.”

Trump himself reaches toward various greats from the fascist past to decorate his neo-fascist present. When called out during his first campaign for retweeting self-aggrandizing quotes from Mussolini (“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”), Trump replied, “Mussolini was Mussolini. ... What difference does it make? It got your attention, didn’t it?”

Yes, Mr. President, it did. I had Mussolini in mind Oct. 5 when Trump returned from this three days fighting COVID at Walter Reed to jut out his chin on the south balcony of the White House and dramatically remove his mask.

“Duce! Duce! Duce!” I chanted at the TV, imitating the adoring Italian crowds. Though I had to ask, as an aside. ‘He does know about the Piazzale Loreto, right?” — the square where Mussolini and his mistress were hung up by their heels.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador at hearings for missing citizens.
When Andrés Manuel López Obrador lost the Mexican presidency in 2006, he formed a shadow government and declared himself president.
Getty

To be fair, populists come from the left as well as the right. My former colleague Esther J. Cepeda pointed out another potential role model for Trump: Andrés Manuel López Obrador. When Obrador lost the Mexican presidential election in 2006, he also cried fraud, also demanded a recount, and declared himself Presidente Legitimo, the “Legitimate President,” forming a shadow government, appointing cabinet ministers and issuing position papers. He held a symbolic inauguration. His supporters camped out for weeks, paralyzing Mexico City. He never recognized the legitimacy of the man who beat him, Felipe Calderon.

“We will never give up,” Obrador said. And he didn’t. He ran again in 2012 and lost again.

But Americans are not alone in their frequent admiration for extra-legal clownery. Obrador ran a third time in 2018 and ... wait for it ... won. He’s president of Mexico right now. A pal of Trump’s, natch, refusing to congratulate winner Joe Biden along with Putin, Bolsonaro, Kim Jong Un and similar ilk.

Tyrants stick together. And they keep coming. Even if Trump, through some miracle, is dragged from the White House, he will be back. Or one of his kids will be back. Or someone who memorized the Trump playbook will be back. This nightmare we have invited into our lives will not end easily. It certainly won’t end soon.