By Trudy Rubin
A couple of weeks ago, as I moderated a discussion at the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House on the heated battle to control Israel's courts, the talk turned to "the elected autocrat's playbook."
That snappy political science term refers to steps taken by elected officials in ongoing democracies like Israel to undermine democracy by democratic means.
Government efforts to politicize Israel's courts fit right into the so-called playbook. Israel is effectively imitating similar steps taken by elected autocrats in Poland and Hungary (whose antisemitic leader, Viktor Orban, is openly admired by Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, and the Republican Party).
The playbook also perfectly describes what Trump and his imitators tried to do when he was in office, and what they still advocate in pre-2024 campaign efforts. Mercifully, the complex U.S. political system has made the playbook harder to follow, but the efforts won't stop.
So it's worthwhile to check out the playbook's rules, step by step.
"There is a pretty standard elected autocrat's playbook," explained Rutgers professor R. Daniel Kelemen, who studies backsliding democracies such as Poland and Hungary. The term, he says, describes a process by which a freely elected leader transforms a constitutional democracy into an electoral autocracy by legal methods.
"The ruling party tilts the playing field so decisively by legal methods that the opposition can't win," Kelemen continued, "while maintaining a facade of elections."
Step One is to capture the referees, meaning the judicial system and the media. "The judiciary is the key first step," said Kelemen, in order for would-be autocrats to remove the systemic checks and balances that hold elected officials to account.
Once the judiciary and media are brought to heel, the next steps become easier because they cannot be challenged in court. Step Two is to demonize the opposition, and Step Three is to change the electoral rules.
It is amazing to see how swiftly some supposedly democratic governments were able to bring the judiciary systems to heel ― legally.
In Budapest, said Keleman, the illiberal Prime Minister Orban lowered the retirement age for the highest court, the Constitutional Court, ridding him of experienced judges. Then he rammed a new law through parliament creating a separate court system dealing with elections, the right to assembly, and complaints of police violence. He then, legally, set up a new office to appoint judges, and headed it with a friend.
Meantime, in Poland, where the ultraconservative government had less parliamentary power, it simply refused to publish court rulings that objected to some new laws, thereby rendering court decisions moot. "Then the government took over the body appointing judges," Kelemen noted.
As for controlling the media, the methods have been subtle and manipulatively legal. In Hungary, a rich oligarch and friend of Orban bought and shut down the best Hungarian newspaper and scrubbed its website. "Orban created a huge trust that now owns most of Hungarian media," Kelemen added.
In both Hungary and Poland, the governments have manipulated libel laws to threaten any media criticism. State-controlled media constantly demonize their opponents and monopolize the public airwaves.
Despite huge public protests in Poland, and despite strong pressure from the European Union against these antidemocratic moves, neither Warsaw nor Budapest has relented. "If these [judicial] proposals go through," said Keleman, "they are very hard to reverse."
This, of course, is why the Israeli demonstrations have been so huge against Prime Minister Netanyahu's plans to gut judicial independence. Even before the legislation has been rammed through, his governing coalition has been implementing Step Two. Government ministers have been demonizing peaceful demonstrators as "traitors" and calling for violence to be used against them ― although they represent more than half the country and include technocrats, military reservists, and a broad political spectrum of those unwilling to see democracy die.
And there are already Israeli ministers who hope to suppress the votes of Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose numbers are vital if the opposition is ever to return to power. Such laws would be overturned if the Supreme Court remains independent. Yet if the court is neutered, Step Three ― changing the electoral rules ― is the inevitable next step.
And what about the applicability of the elected autocrat's playbook to the United States?
Trump and his GOP followers tried to take Step One, to control and politicize the judiciary. "They would have liked to do the playbook," analyzes Kelemen, "but they didn't have the consolidated power."
Trump publicly threatened judges whose decisions he disliked (as well as owners of non-Trumpist media), which put them in personal danger. Then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the Democratic appointment of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court, in a major breach of past practice, while pushing through the GOP choice of Amy Coney Barrett in disgraceful fashion.
Meantime, Republican appointees to the Supreme Court, such as Clarence Thomas, indulge in shocking political conflicts of interest, leading to a highly politicized court.
I find it regrettable that the first-ever indictment of an ex-president is based on small-beer allegations of hush money and campaign finance violations, which looks unduly political, unlike the powerful case against Trump's election interference in Georgia.
It is the Georgia case that most clearly displays Trump's dangerous embrace of Steps One and Three in the playbook: his efforts to ensure he wins elections by twisting or ignoring electoral laws and by ignoring adverse court rulings.
Luckily, our complex federal judicial system has, so far, made it impossible for any party to control the U.S. judiciary in one fell swoop. And there remain large numbers of independent-minded federal court judges, nominated by both parties, as illustrated by the rejection of Trump's false claims of a stolen election in courts across the land.
Yet it would be foolish to assume that the elected autocrat's playbook won't figure in America's future, as Trump threatens any institution that does not bow to him, and other GOP candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis disdain democratic norms.
That is why it is so important to watch how the Israeli judicial drama plays out, even if that system is very different from ours and the population small. If Israel's democracy ― which has huge warts, as does ours ― falls prey to elected autocrats, that will provide yet another example of how democracy could be slowly dismantled here.
Trudy Rubin (email@example.com) is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer. This column was distributed by Tribune Content Agency.