Donald Trump Poses an Unprecedented Threat to American Democracy

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Donald Trump Hold Campaign Rally In Orlando, Florida
Donald Trump, authoritarian. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Last month, I made the case that a Donald Trump nomination would be better for America than the nomination of one of his Republican rivals. I no longer believe that. I began to change my mind when a report circulated highlighting his 1990 interview with Playboy in which he praised the brutality of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. This is not the first time I had seen Trump praise dictators. (He has effused over Vladimir Putin.) But Trump’s admiration for Putin seemed to spring from a more ordinary Republican partisan contempt for President Obama, and closely echoed pro-Putin comments made by fellow Republicans like Rudy Giuliani. Trump’s quarter-century-old endorsement of Chinese Communist Party repression went well beyond the familiar derangement of the modern GOP. This was not hatred of Obama, or some obnoxious drive to stick it to his supporters; it was evidence of an authentic and long-standing ideology. Trump has changed his mind about many things, but a through line can be drawn from the comments Trump made in 1990 and the message of his campaign now: “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”

My previous view of Trump was as a kind of vaccine. The Republican Party relies on the covert mobilization of racial resentment and nationalism. Trump, as I saw it, was bringing into the open that which had been intentionally submerged. It seemed like a containable dose of disease, too small to take over its host, but large enough to set off a counterreaction of healthy blood cells. But the outbreak of violence this weekend suggests the disease may be spreading far wider than I believed, and infecting healthy elements of the body politic.

I remain convinced that Trump cannot win the presidency. But what I failed to account for was the possibility that his authoritarian style could degrade American politics even in defeat. There is a whiff in the air of the notion that the election will be settled in the streets — a poisonous idea that is unsafe in even the smallest doses.

Here is another factor I failed to predict. Trump, as I’ve noted, lies substantively within the modern Republican racial political tradition that seamlessly incorporates such things as the Willie Horton ads and the uncontroversial service of Louisiana representative Steve Scalise, who once called himself “David Duke without the baggage,” as House Majority Whip. But Trump’s amplification of white racial resentment matters. His campaign has dominated the national discourse. Millions of Americans who have never heard of Steve Scalise are seized with mortal terror of Trump, whose ubiquity in campaign coverage makes him seem larger and more unstoppable than he is. And terror is corrosive.

Marco Rubio, channeling the conservative movement’s response to Trump, has tried to connect him to President Obama, a figure who is Trump’s antithesis in every respect. Rubio has compared Trump’s rhetoric to “third-world strongmen,” an analogy he has in the past used to describe Obama (“It was rhetoric, I thought, that was more appropriate for some left-wing strongman than for the president of the United States.”). Rubio has fixated on the notion that Obama’s appeals to racial tolerance amount to an assault on white America, even condemning the president for speaking at a mosque. Speaking on Fox News Friday night, Rubio connected Obama’s style to the political correctness found on many college campuses and other left-wing outposts:

President Obama has spent the last eight years dividing Americans along haves and have-nots, along ethnic lines, racial lines, gender lines in order to win elections. I think this has gone to the next level here and you know, we're seeing the consequences of it and that, in combination with the fact that, you know, I think there's a need to remind people that the first amendment allows people to disagree with issues and say things you don't agree with, which obviously is just being lost here. And then this sort of sense now on the left that if you don't like what someone is saying, you have the right to just shut them down as you see happen on many college campuses across America and you saw tonight there in Chicago.

This is mostly laughable. Obama has condemned political correctness on several occasions, urging liberals not to try to prevent political opponents (even the most offensive ones) from making their case, but to win arguments with them instead.

But Rubio is not wrong to draw a connection between political correctness and elements of the left’s response to Trump. Donald Trump may or may not have been forthright about citing safety fears in canceling his speech Friday night in Chicago, and disrupting the speech may or may not have been the protesters’ goal. But it is clear that protesters view the cancellation of the speech as a victory, breaking out in cheers of “We stopped Trump!”

Preventing speakers one finds offensive from delivering public remarks is commonplace on campuses. Indeed, more than 300 faculty members at the University of Illinois at Chicago signed a letter asking the university administration not to allow Trump to speak. I polled my Twitter followers about whether they consider disrupting Trump’s speeches an acceptable response to his racism. Two-thirds replied that it is. Obviously, this is not a scientific poll, but it indicates a far broader acceptance than I expected.

Because Trump is so grotesque, and because he has violated liberal norms himself so repeatedly, the full horror of the goal of stopping Trump from campaigning (as opposed to merely counterdemonstrating against him) has not come across. But the whole premise of democracy is that rules need to be applied in every case without regard to the merit of the underlying cause to which it is attached. If you defend the morality of a tactic against Trump, then you should be prepared to defend its morality against any candidate. Now imagine that right-wing protesters had set out to disrupt Barack Obama’s speeches in 2008. If you’re not okay with that scenario, you should not be okay with protesters doing it to Trump.

Of course it is Trump who has let loose the wave of fear rippling out from the campaign. And it is Trump who has singled out African-Americans peacefully attending his speeches for mistreatment, and Trump who has glorified sucker-punching attacks on nonviolent protesters. This is part of the effectiveness of authoritarian politics. The perception that Trump poses a threat to democracy legitimizes undemocratic responses — if you believe you are faced with the rise of an American Mussolini, why let liberal norms hold you back? The anti-Trumpian glory falls not upon the normal, boring practitioners of liberal politics — Hillary Clinton with her earnest speeches about universal pre-K and stronger financial regulation — but the street fighters who will muster against Trump the kind of response he appears to require. Just the other day, a man charged Trump as he spoke, and came disturbingly close to reaching him. More of this seems likely to follow, and it can spread from Trump’s rallies to those of other candidates.

A huge majority of the public finds Trump repellent. Some of his current unpopularity is the soft opposition of Republican voters who are currently listening to anti-Trump messaging from party sources and would return to the fold if he wins the nomination. But there is simply no evidence that the country that elected Barack Obama twice, and which is growing steadily more diverse, stands any likelihood of electing Trump. He can and must be defeated through democratic means. He is spreading poisons throughout the system that could linger beyond his defeat. Anybody who cares about the health of American democracy should hope for its end as swiftly as possible.