University of Chicago Law Review

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Buried within the general phenomenon of democratic decline is a set of cases in which charismatic new leaders are elected by democratic publics and then use their electoral mandates to dismantle by law the constitutional systems they inherited. These leaders aim to consolidate power and to remain in office indefinitely, eventually eliminating the ability of democratic publics to exercise their basic democratic rights, to hold leaders accountable, and to change their leaders peacefully. Because these “legalistic autocrats” deploy the law to achieve their aims, impending autocracy may not be evident at the start. But we can learn to spot the legalistic autocrats before autocratic constitutionalism becomes fatal because they are often following a script using tactics that they borrow from each other. This Essay explains the paths that these autocratic legalists take, the danger signals that accompany their legal reforms, and the methods they use to dismantle liberal constitutions. The Essay also suggests how the legalistic autocrats may be stopped.

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