To Former Residents of Autocracies, Trump Looks Uncomfortably Familiar

by Justin Salhani –

He’s not a dictator. But he is “radical” and “alarming.”

Said Nuri grew up in a political family in Azerbaijan. Ever since President Ilham Aliyev took over the Caspian nation in 2003, Nuri’s family has been in the opposition.

“I grew up in that atmosphere, so when I went to university, I became actively involved in politics. And in 2004 I started my own political movement,” Nuri told ThinkProgress by telephone from Chicago, where he now lives as a U.S. citizen. “In 2005, we became really popular, so the government cracked down on us.”

Nuri was arrested in September of that year and released two months later on a five year house arrest sentence. Seeing the increase in authoritarianism at home, he made his way to the U.S. embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, and immigrated to the United States via Moscow.

He has since traveled back to his homeland four times on an American passport. The last time was two years ago amid a massive government crackdown on civil society. While there, he was arrested for a second time, interrogated, and was initially banned from leaving the country before effectively being deported. He’s now blacklisted and can’t return.

While the United States remains considerably more democratic than a full-on autocracy like Azerbaijan, Donald Trump’s presidency has startled many political observers and experts on authoritarianism. Nuri and other people former subjects of authoritarian regimes see concerning parallels in the behavior of the Trump administration.

Negar Mortazavi is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who immigrated from Iran to the United States in 2002. After the contested 2009 presidential elections in Iran led to the emergence of a movement opposed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a number of Iranian journalists and activists fled Iran to avoid a government crackdown. While Mortazavi was already in the United States, she was lumped in with the persona non-grata. Now an American citizen, she is also in forced exile from Iran.

Mortazavi told ThinkProgress that some of the Trump administration’s policies emanating from the new White House administration are reminiscent of those held by the post-2009 by Iranian hardliners.

“One of the things the government did [after 2009] was look through social media accounts [and demand] passwords to social media accounts,” Mortazavi said, drawing parallels to recent reports that U.S. border agents areasking Muslim Americans for access to their social media accounts and for passwords to open their mobile phones.

Trump’s own behavior often draws comparisons with other autocratic rulers.

“I’m struck by the similarities between Egypt in the 2012–2013 period [and the U.S. now], where we saw a president come in who was deeply resented and a deeply polarizing figure,” Issandr El Amrani, an analyst of Middle Eastern Affairs and a former journalist who has written extensively about the deep state and polarization in Egypt, told ThinkProgress by phone from Brussels.

During that period, Egypt’s revolution brought the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi to power. “A good part of the population really didn’t like him and sought to undermine him from the get go, and he compounded this situation by making severe errors in judgement,” said El Amrani. “The past month of Trump’s presidency reminds me of that, in that Trump flouts commonly accepted unwritten rules of how a president should behave.”

Trump’s rhetoric against the press, the lack of respect for procedural rules and norms, and declarations — particularly on Twitter — against judicial decisions “all reminds me of how Morsi behaved,” El Amrani said.

In a twist of irony, the White House has considered adding Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Muslim Brotherhood to the list of the State Department’s Foreign Terror Organizations. Given the similarity in some of their behavior, it begs one to wonder if Trump might consider labeling his own policies as terrorism, if he were Muslim.

Nuri said comparing Trump to dictators like the one in Azerbaijan isn’t quite appropriate. Checks and balances and the strength of the Constitution will keep Trump from doing anything too out of line, said Nuri. He did, however, add that some of Trump’s actions were not compatible with American democratic norms.

“It’s definitely a disappointment that those people who had refugee status or visas were not allowed by authorities to enter,” Nuri, who self-identifies as a Republican but not a Trump fan, told ThinkProgress. “I was told it is a temporary ban, but it is still disappointing and not [aligned with] American values. It sends the wrong message to our allies in tough times.”

Trump has already faced pushback on the Muslim ban from federal courts — something that would not happen in an outright dictatorship. But even if Trump can’t rule as an authoritarian, political observers with experience reporting on authoritarian regimes say there is still plenty of damage to be done.

While more Americans said they felt the Obama presidency divided the country more than it united it, it seems Trump’s rise and rule is only further polarizing the nation. Trump’s opponents need to be rational and pointed in their criticisms, said El Amrani, because if the trend of polarization continues, Trump’s agenda could become even more radical.

“The atmosphere of polarization is lose-lose and creates an atmosphere of permissiveness of measures that would not normally be accepted,” El Amrani said. “Republicans will dominate Congress the next two years at least. And [Trump] sees he’s dealing with irrational people out to get him systematically, with no sincere will to engage, the risk is it will further encourage him to double down — and triple down — on his radical agenda.”

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress