Trump said Mrs. Clinton would “be in jail” if he were president. Credit Doug Mills/The New York TimeS
When Donald J. Trump told Hillary Clinton at Sunday’s presidential debate that if he were president, “you’d be in jail,” he was threatening more than just his opponent. He was suggesting that he would strip power from the institutions that normally enforce the law, investing it instead in himself.
Political scientists who study troubled democracies abroad say this is a tactic typical of elected leaders who pull down their systems from within: former President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the fascist leaders of 1930s Europe.
Today’s United States, unlike the countries in those cases, has strong institutions and norms that prevent any president from going that far, these experts stress. But Mr. Trump’s threat to jail his opponent for her deletion of thousands of emails sent from a private server while she was secretary of state, they warned in interviews on Monday, would chip away at the things that make American democracy so resilient.
Mr. Trump’s comment was “a threat to the rule of law, a threat to the stability of our institutions, a threat to basic agreements that are necessary for democracy to function,” said Adrienne LeBas, a political scientist at American University.
“For those of us who work on authoritarian regimes and hybrid regimes,” she added, referring to a kind of government midway between democracy and dictatorship, such as Turkey, “this sort of thing is just eerily familiar.”
Mr. Trump’s remark, then, could be interpreted as a threat not only to Mrs. Clinton, but also to the police agencies, prosecutors and courts that normally apply the law. By suggesting that he alone could determine her fate — appointing a special prosecutor on a case the F.B.I. has already dismissed and predetermining the outcome — Mr. Trump seemed to disregard these institutions as illegitimate.
Professor LeBas called this “the absolute personalization of power,” in which leaders consolidate authority under themselves — something she had seen in “Zimbabwe, Togo, Ethiopia, cases like that, where there are explicit threats to imprison opponents.”
She said the closest parallel was Mr. Chávez, who came to power in 1999 by arguing that elites had corrupted Venezuela’s democracy. Rather than strengthening institutions, he took their power for himself and persecuted opponents, all while riding a wave of populist support.
Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College in New York, emphasized that leaders like Mr. Chávez were able to seize so much power because their states were very weak — something that is not true of the United States.
“Our institutions are strong enough to prevent him from doing anything truly horrific,” she said of Mr. Trump.