Meet the Author: How Autocrats Abuse Power, Attack Expertise and Seek Power

Richard Abel, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Richard Abel, who has published three thematically connected books with Routledge: How Autocrats Abuse Power and How Autocrats Attack Expertise (both published in December 2023), and finally, How Autocrats Seek Power, due for publication in March 2024

What are these books about?

These three books offer a comprehensive account of both the existential threat that Trump and his followers pose to American liberal democracy and the forms and success of resistance. “How Autocrats Seek Power” examines Trump’s strategies in the 2016 election (he lost the popular vote by 3 million but won the Electoral College), including the role of Russia, and then focuses on Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election (which he lost by 7 million votes). Decisions by federal judges, state and local election workers, and ultimately Vice President Pence upheld the integrity of the electoral process, though just barely. 

How Autocrats Abuse Power addresses two of Trump’s central threats to liberal democracy. His racist anti-immigrant policies challenged the central precept of equality. Because Republicans did not control Congress, Trump had to rely on executive orders. Public interest lawyers successfully challenged every one of these, except the third Muslim ban upheld by Republican appointees on the Supreme Court. Trump also politicized the criminal justice system to protect his cronies by replacing career prosecutors and ultimately wielding his unlimited pardon power. How Autocrats Attack Expertise analyzes Trump’s disastrous response to the COVID pandemic, which cost an avoidable 1 million deaths. He relied on quack remedies pushed by the right-wing media and on marginal scientists prepared to say what he wanted to hear. He pressured the pharmaceutical industry and federal regulatory agencies to produce a vaccine in time for the 2020 election. Although career scientists successfully pushed back, Trump’s attacks undermined public trust in science and reduced take-up of the vaccine. Next year, I will produce a fourth book for Routledge, How Autocrats Are Held Accountable, examining those efforts from the January 6, 2021 insurrection through the November 2024 election.

Although these books focus on the United States, the issues they analyze are increasingly global. Autocrats are threatening democracy in Hungary, Poland, India, South Africa, Israel and exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment to seek power in many other countries.

Why did I write them?

I have been engaged with similar issues for many decades. In 1995 I published a book with Routledge about the role of law in the successful struggle against apartheid: Politics by Other Means. Exposure of U.S. torture in Abu Ghraib prison led me devote 14 years to analyzing the defense of the rule of law in the U.S. “war on terror,” resulting in two books with Cambridge University Press in 2018: Law’s Wars and Law’s Trials. When I spoke about those books, people asked whether I would write another about Trump. I demurred: however critical I had been of Bush and Obama, Trump was an entirely different animal. But throughout his four years I continued to record his egregious violations of liberal democracy; and at the end of his term I felt compelled to write—what turned out to be four books.

Trump and his supporters represent the greatest threat to liberal democracy in my 82 years. American institutions were sufficiently resilient to frustrate his worst efforts. But he has boasted that he will redouble them in a second term, installing apparatchiki who will do his bidding, further packing the federal courts, drastically reducing the political independence of civil servants, and curtailing voting. I wrote these books to identify the sources of resistance and offer guidance about what does and does not work.

What was my research strategy?

The problem was not to obtain material but to filter, evaluate, and organize it. The media have been criticized for giving Trump too much visibility—but the alternative would have been to ignore the real threats he posed. Trump developed a symbiotic relationship with the right-wing press and aggressively used social media. His words and actions are fully documented. Since the end of his term, insiders have sought to justify themselves. The House Special Committee on the January 6th Insurrection also uncovered a wealth of information.