China calls itself a democratic dictatorship, so it looks like the title’s question is a very odd one to ask. You can find various indices that measure countries on a line with dictatorship at one end and democracy at the other. So how can a country actually be (rather than call itself) a democratic dictatorship?
Consider Hungary. Its Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has pledged to create an illiberal state like Russia or China. Perhaps as a result, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a 2015 EU summit dispensed with diplomatic protocol to greet Orbán with a "Hello, dictator." To further this aim he has gone about controlling the media and courts either directly or through placement of allies, with complete success. Yet he and his party remain popular in part because of the lethal combination of extreme nationalism, scaremongering about migrants and antagonism against Muslims and Jews. In addition NGOs have been attacked, which has led to legal proceedings by the European Commission. A host of public bodies like its fiscal council, the central bank, and the national elections commission, have been abolished or their independence limited.
Yet Hungary is still a democracy in the sense of having reasonably genuine elections. As the opposition is fragmented there is little need to resort to the kind of tactics used in other democracies, such as Turkey. When occasionally the opposition does win a local election, Orbán unleashes the full might of his nationalist, enemies at the door, enemies within narrative at them. With almost total control of the media and civil institutions, he can make life very difficult for the opposition. He won his last election with ease. It is an effective model that could survive for many years.
So would it be reasonable to call Hungary a democratic dictatorship , or is that just a contradiction in terms? Hungary is no longer a pluralist democracy, by which I mean there are no independent centres of power. But there are still elections, which are not a complete fiction. But you cannot call elections where one side completely controls the media fair. The acid test would be if a unified opposition under a credible leader ever did appear whether he would ever be allowed to win.
Trump makes no secret of his admiration for dictators. In a way it does not really matter if Putin has ‘something on him’ in the form of a tape of whatever, as Trump admires Putin anyway as a strong man leading his nation. His natural enemy is Europe: hence his attack on Merkel and his constant and incorrect references to rising crime as a cost of immigration in Europe.
Another way of looking at this is to consider human rights and their suppression. Hungary has just passed a law making it illegal to provide legal help to undocumented immigrants seeking asylum, as part of a set of bills incredibly called ‘Stop Soros’. George Soros has become Orbán’s bogeyman. Trump separates the children of illegal immigrants from their families. As Fintan O’Toole says, this has not been a ‘mistake’ by Trump, but a trial run
“to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group”
Arguments that democracy is still safe in the US seem rather naive. A Washington Post piece from just a year ago says there are four barriers to the US becoming a ‘populist’ state. The four are the independence of congress and the judiciary, being restrained by the Republican party, limited patronage powers, and the absence of any crisis. The first two have not done too well and the last two do not seem to matter. Tyler Cowan thinks the US government is just too large and complex for one man or group to take control. He is correct insofar as Mueller has been allowed to continue. But there is little chance of Trump being impeached by this Republican party. Whether Mueller is allowed to continue depends a lot on whether he goes after Trump family members, and Mueller probably understands that. The important point is that Trump does not need to control every part of government to control what happens.
Trump certainly acts like a dictator would act. The barriers to Trump becoming an Orbán type figure are that his supporters do not control most of the media, and he faces a single and organised opposition party. These are the two threads by which this pluralist democracy hangs. You might think it an exaggeration to call these two only threads, and I hope we will see that it is in the midterms, but there are worrying signs in the US and elsewhere that popular support for democracy is falling, as documented by Yascha Mounk in a book reviewed here. The fact that Trump could be elected and then supported in the first place by one of the two main political parties in the US is a clear sign that all is not well with US democracy. Those, like Paul Krugman, who have for a long time appeared ‘shrill’ about what was happening to the Republican party have been fully justified in their fears.
The rise of the far right and democratic dictatorships in the West have happen before, of course. It is no coincidence that in the 1930s and now economies were scarred by deep recessions followed by bad policy. That may be important in part because it fosters intolerance of ‘outsiders’, particularly immigrants, which parties of both the far right and unfortunately the centre right have exploited. (In the UK, and also in Hungary and Poland, the EU has also become an outsider.) Since perhaps Nixon, the Republicans have exploited race: more explicitly and vigorously as time has gone on. Parties of the right do this in part because their backers want to avoid redistribution being used as a way of mitigating the impact of bad economic times, and focusing on social conservatism can capture voters who would otherwise vote left on economic issues. I have described both the bad policies (austerity and fears about immigration) as forms of deceit (using debt as a cover for reducing the state and setting targets for immigration without intending to meet them), and collectively as neoliberal overreach.
If the demonisation of immigrants is the common thread in these moves towards democratic dictatorships, then it becomes important to resist the early stages of this process. One lesson of the experience across countries is that popular concern is not primarily about numbers. It is not the reaction of citizens worried about being overwhelmed by immigrants. Less than 5% of the population in Hungary are immigrants: 3% if you count only immigrants from outside the EU. Nor is it true that attitudes to immigration are always going to be hostile. This year for the first time in a decade more people in the US think legal immigration should be increased rather than decreased.
But this idea is difficult to get across. In the UK for example it is true that rising concern about immigration follows rising numbers, but it follows increased newspaper coverage even more closely, and which newspapers people read is the best explainer of immigration concern.  With a few important exceptions the concern is generally about immigration ‘in the country’ rather than locally. In the UK stoking fear about immigration may not as yet have created the conditions for a democratic dictatorship, but it has spawned a ‘hostile environment’ policy that led people to be locked up and deported illegally, and of course it was critical in forcing the country make one of its biggest policy errors for a generation.
I have heard people say that we have to have Brexit because otherwise half the country will feel betrayed (as opposed to the other half already feeling that). But in reality the opposite is true. Xenophobia becomes strong when economic conditions are bad, and Brexit will make them worse. Brexiters are going to feel betrayed anyway when they realised they have been sold snake oil. If we are to avoid a self reinforcing cycle of economic and political decline, we must give priority to the economy and stop scapegoating immigrants for each policy failure.
 Whether the term dictatorship is more accurate than one party state or the term plutocracy that I have used before is interesting, but not I think critical for the discussion here.
 Let me try and be clear what I mean by immigration concern not being about numbers. Of course large numbers of immigrants make it easier for newspapers to talk about ‘floods’ and ‘being overwhelmed’. The mistake is to think that if only the numbers could be reduced somewhat, the concern would disappear. It will not because it is not in the interests of those whipping up concern for that to happen. Any attempt to appease the concern by, for example, vetting patients in A&E only gives credibility to the idea that immigrants are responsible for reduced access to the NHS: in reality the opposite is true.