Authoritarianism can be defined in multiple ways, officially it is defined as ‘favouring complete obedience or subjection to authority as opposed to individual freedom’ however when looking at whether authoritarianism is making a global comeback you should consider a looser definition. Across the world we have seen a shift in the overton window towards the right with the rise in popularity of nationalist and far right parties. There are examples of far-right parties in office, other parties have become the main opposition voice and others have just forced centrist and left wing politicians to adapt and conform with the change to the window of discourse. This change to global politics has paved the way to a rise in examples of authoritarianism across the world. I will explore global examples demonstrating that authoritarianism is making a global comeback.
The Chinese government has kept tight wraps over its media for a long time in order to prevent the undermining of its autonomy. They deploy monitoring systems and firewalls, water down publications and websites, and lock up ‘defective’ journalists. In recent years China’s strict censorship laws have come into the global eye because of the Norwegian Nobel committee’s decision to grant the 2010 peace prize to incarcerated Chinese activist, Liu Xiaobo, as well as this in 2013 google attempted to ‘combat online censorship in china’(Josh Halliday, 2013) by installing a notification feature to warn Chinese users when they were viewing politically sensitive material, this Cat and Mouse battle between the American company and Chinese government projected the extent of Chinese censorship into global news.
According to China’s constitution its citizens have freedom of speech and press, but blurred lines within Chinese media regulations grants authorities the ability to snuff out news stories which they deem to expose state secrets and potentially put the country at risk. However, the definition of both state secrets and risk are vague, the state exploits this rule to facilitate any censorship of anything it deems to be negative to their political aims. Elizabeth C. Economy, senior fellow and director for Asia studies at the council on foreign relations said that the Chinese government is in a state of “schizophrenia” when it comes to media policy due to the fact it “goes back and forth, testing the line, knowing they need press freedom and the information it provides, but worried about opening the door to the type of freedoms that could lead to the regimes downfall” (E.C Economy, 2016). This worry that the extension of freedom could lead to the regimes downfall shows an innate fear of change and resorting to censorship to protect the regime is a clear representation of authoritarianism in our world today.
The Chinese government issued a “white paper” in May 2010, it outlined a concept for internet sovereignty whereby all Chinese citizens and foreign companies operating in China had to abide by the Chinese regulations. As well as this all new Chinese internet companies, must sign the “public pledge on self-regulation and professional ethics for China internet industry” (China Daily, 2016) which created even stricter laws for companies to follow. In February 2016, Chinese president XI Jinping stated “all the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity. (Xi Jinping, 2016). This demonstrates how the Communist party of China requires that the state media aligns themselves with the ‘thought, politics and actions’ of the party leadership. In China, the nations media outlets are essential to political stability this is inherently authoritarian as using the influence of the media to control public opinion in order to keep political power is not democratic at all.
The control of the media is a key aspect of any authoritarian regime. The United states has a long tradition of democracy, a vast array of different media outlets and a large voter demographic. Authoritarianism in the US doesn’t expose itself in the same way as it would in China or Russia, with journalists being killed in mysterious situations for example. In America, the strong system of checks and balances does not allow for a US president to silence dissent as easily as Putin can over in Russia. In Trumps America, he has managed to dismantle his critics opposition through continuous story-telling and lying aided by friends within the private sector, creating an era of “fake news” whereby he can effectively ignore any negative news by claiming it is made up. Through both his twitter account and from public speaking Trump has peddled so many lies that half of the American population believe that the media create stories about Trump to negatively affect him. “25 % of the American population believe Trumps 2016 claim that millions of US voters committed fraud in the election” (Jake Sherman, 2017) despite the lack of any evidence. As well as cleverly influencing the media, Trump has powerful friends at both Fox news and the right-wing news channel, Breitbart. This means that negative stories can be withheld from the public. Evident when in 2017 as news of accusations of fraud against Paul Manafort, Trumps previous campaign manager, where being reported both Breitbart and Fox decided not to run the story and to instead to run stories on Hillary Clinton.
American-style authoritarianism depends massively on the weaponization of the powers gifted to the president. These presidential powers could allow Trump to aggressively enforce laws against his competitors in business, pardon his inner circle or to direct institutions to create laws that would benefit his affiliates all the while hiding behind an illusion of legitimacy.
The abuse of these powers is already evident within American society. Trumps Justice Department attempted to block the merger between AT&T and Time Warner, who own Trumps main rival within the media, CNN. Trump effectively blocked a merger in order to protect himself from his critics within the media gaining more power, the implications of these actions demonstrate Trumps attempt to influence and control the media. As well as this Trumps Federal Trade Commission has revoked a law in order to allow the amalgamation of the right-wing media, allowing the pro-trump Sinclair Broadcast Group to merge with Tribune extending Trumps right wing media outlets to control “An estimated 72 percent of American households “(Jake Sherman ,2017). This shows us how Trump is happy to consolidate media outlets when it benefits his regime, this is a clear autocratic ploy attempting to extend control of the media. Trump also personally attacked Hillary Clinton without evidence of her involvement in the selling of 20% of the US uranium to Russia, attempting to bring federal charges against Clinton. In an attempt to intimidate Jeff Bozos, the founder of Amazon and another of Trumps rivals, the president threatened him with anti-trust laws accusing him of using the Washington post to hide Amazon’s monopolistic tendencies. As well as this Trump attempted to remove the security clearance of John Brennan, previous director of the CIA, because Brennan was publically criticising Trump both in person and on social media. This abuse of power to protect himself from his enemies and threaten his competitors shows that trump is not motivated by the protection of the American people and liberal democracy, but more on the protection of personal goals.
Comparatively Trump has used his powers to benefit those who are members of his inner circle. Trump used his ability of pardoning to excuse both; ‘Americas toughest sheriff’ Joe Arpaio who was accused of overseeing the worst pattern of racial profiling in American history, as well as Dinesh D’Souza who was responsible for straw donor contributions to a US senate campaign. Trumps ability to protect his inner circle and act in a way which is detrimental to his competitors shows that trump has managed to weaponize his presidential powers therefore I believe that authoritarianism is making a global comeback.
In Conclusion when you look at the authoritarian structures of the 20th century, leaders such as Hitler, Stalin or Pinochet, a key aspect to their power is the control of the media and the weaponization of their political powers. In Germany Hitler employed General Goebbels as his Minister for Propaganda, funding him as he made films depicting the Jews as ‘Rats’ as they both believed that the media and film played a vital role in influencing public opinion in order to ingrain the Nazi agenda onto the public. In this essay, I have shown how in China they use strict censorship laws to control what the public see. Believing that the state media should reflect the ‘thought, politics and actions’ of the party leadership’. I have also shown how in America Trump has weaponized his political powers to protect those closest to him, and to dismantle and undermine those opposed to him leading to a culture of ‘fake news’. Both the Chinese and American governments use authoritarian tactics to protect the power of the state, therefore demonstrating that authoritarianism is in fact making a global comeback.
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