Seven Things to Look for in an Authoritarian Crackdown

This week, Pres­i­dent Trump act­ed to silence all pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice, and the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture. While the rea­sons for this cen­sor­ship is unclear, the deci­sion is send­ing rip­ples across the gov­ern­ment as fed­er­al employ­ees fear a mas­sive crack­down on their abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate their work to the pub­lic. Sci­en­tists are won­der­ing if they can eth­i­cal­ly con­tin­ue to work for their agen­cies, and the admin­is­tra­tion appears to be dis­ap­pear­ing all gov­ern­ment infor­ma­tion about cli­mate change from its web­sites.

Yet these deci­sions by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion are not hap­pen­ing in a vac­u­um. We are in the midst of a glob­al crack­down on human rights defend­ers and civ­il soci­ety advo­cates, part of a broad wave of anti-lib­er­al regres­sion that has been mov­ing from coun­try to coun­try in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin Amer­i­ca, and now North Amer­i­ca too.

So what does this wave look like? What are the com­mon fac­tors in play, that we should look for as indi­ca­tors of a crack­down on civ­il soci­ety here in Amer­i­ca? Below are some ideas of what we can expect when a crack­down begins. While indi­vid­ual coun­tries are high­light­ed as exam­ples of spe­cif­ic phe­nom­e­na, many of those coun­tries could be sub­sti­tut­ed for each oth­er — most coun­tries are engaged in a mul­ti-pronged attack on lib­er­al­ism, and it will most like­ly hap­pen that way here too.


  1. Focus­ing on reli­gious val­ues
    In Hun­gary, the rul­ing Fidesz par­ty, a rough ana­log to the GOP, has swung wild­ly to the right. After the extrem­ist Job­bik par­ty gained a huge share of seats in the 2014 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, prime min­is­ter Vik­tor Orban announced that Hun­gary would become an “illib­er­al democ­ra­cy” that focused on Chris­t­ian val­ues. He has ori­ent­ed Hun­gar­i­an pol­i­cy around attack­ing reli­gious minori­ties, whether Mus­lim refugees or Jews.
  2. Deny­ing the right to vote
    In the UK, Con­ser­v­a­tive par­ty that appoint­ed prime min­is­ter There­sa May (cur­rent­ly busy attempt­ing to ful­fill the terms of the Brex­it vote) is seek­ing to enact a restric­tive vot­er ID law that would pre­vent up to 7.5% of the coun­try for vot­ing in the next round of elec­tions. The peo­ple who are least able to secure new ID cards to vote tend to be very poor and minori­ties.
  3. Restrict­ing the media
    In Ethiopia the rul­ing Ethiopi­an Peo­ple’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Demo­c­ra­t­ic Front has become open­ly hos­tile to the media. After sev­er­al waves of anti-gov­ern­ment protests that occa­sion­al­ly turned vio­lent, the gov­ern­ment enact­ed bans on social media and chat­ting apps as the lat­est round of a years-long cam­paign to fine, legal­ly harass, and restrict basic media free­doms. It began soft­ly, with con­cerns about “defam­ing the gov­ern­ment,” but quick­ly built into an all-out assault on any media voice crit­i­cal of the EPRD­F’s poli­cies.
  4. Lim­it­ing the right to protest
    Ecuador’s pres­i­dent Raphael Cor­rea rose to pow­er as a part of a wave of left wing pop­ulists in Latin Amer­i­ca that even­tu­al­ly descend­ed into author­i­tar­i­an­ism. Amid a range of restric­tions on basic civ­il lib­er­ties in the coun­try, Pres­i­dent Cor­rea has vio­lent­ly dis­rupt­ed protests against his envi­ron­men­tal and social poli­cies, and broad­ly crim­i­nal­ized the right of asso­ci­a­tion and assem­bly. It has become so extreme that even applaud­ing a protest can land a per­son in prison.
  5. Engag­ing in a trans­par­ent dou­ble stan­dard
    In India, the crack­down under Naren­dra Modi is two-fold. India has a Cold War-era law restrict­ing “for­eign donors” from con­tribut­ing to Indi­an orga­ni­za­tions. Modi mod­i­fied that law to nor­mal­ize his par­ty’s expa­tri­ate donors in Lon­don and else­where (the very def­i­n­i­tion of “for­eign donors”). At the same time, the for­eign donor laws for civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions were enforced much more strin­gent­ly and on a tighter time­line — essen­tial­ly halt­ing their oper­a­tions. The orga­ni­za­tions that were tar­get­ed the hard­est were also those most focused on Modi him­self.
  6. Attack­ing advo­ca­cy groups
    In Turkey, Pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan has respond­ed to grow­ing unrest about his illib­er­al rule with a ban on thou­sands of NGOs. These non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions pro­vid­ed ser­vices to peo­ple and engaged in advo­ca­cy for civ­il lib­er­ties, reli­gious free­doms, the rights of eth­nic and sex­u­al minori­ties, for due process, and for media rights. The rul­ing AKP par­ty has essen­tial­ly crim­i­nal­ized all devi­a­tion from their poli­cies. Even with­out direct­ly oppos­ing the par­ty, NGOs that engage in advo­ca­cy deemed inap­pro­pri­ate are fac­ing cen­sure and clo­sure.
  7. Obsess­ing with state ene­mies
    In Azer­bai­jan, the gov­ern­ment ruled by Ilham Aliyev had defined even innocu­ous activ­i­ty as being the work of state ene­mies. Along with crim­i­nal­iz­ing pub­lic crit­i­cism of gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy as “defam­ing” the gov­ern­ment, this has led to a mas­sive crack­down on all oppo­nents of the regime. Even jour­nal­ists have been put on tri­al for trea­son sim­ply for oppos­ing cer­tain poli­cies and polit­i­cal fig­ures.

There are hints that some of these phe­nom­e­na are being put into place in the U.S. right now — though few are beyond the ideas stage. But the expe­ri­ence of oth­er coun­tries, as they suc­cumb to mass pop­ulism and author­i­tar­i­an­ism, should nev­er­the­less serve as a warn­ing to us. Take the words of our lead­ers seri­ous­ly. When they promise to engage in some form of repres­sion, they prob­a­bly mean it.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.