At various points in his career, Donald Trump has praised authoritarian rulers in places like Russia, China, and North Korea for having the ruthlessness to crush their political opponents. His worship of strength, contempt for reason, and appeal to base emotions has made many observers liken him to an authoritarian ruler, and even debate whether he is an actual fascist. But what would authoritarianism look like in the United States, as practiced by Trump? It would probably take the form of Trump using the powers of the federal government to intimidate his critics in the media — one of the key tools Vladimir Putin used to push Russia’s (far more fragile) democracy into outright despotism. In an interview Thursday night with quasi-official mouthpiece Sean Hannity, Trump responded to Washington Post investigations into his life by casually threatening retribution against its owner, Jeff Bezos:
It’s interesting that you say that, because every hour we’re getting calls from reporters from the Washington Post asking ridiculous questions. And I will tell you. This is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos, who controls Amazon. Amazon is getting away with murder, tax-wise. He’s using the Washington Post for power. So that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed. He’s getting absolutely away — he’s worried about me, and I think he said that to somebody … it was in some article, where he thinks I would go after him for antitrust. Because he’s got a huge antitrust problem because he’s controlling so much. Amazon is controlling so much of what they’re doing.
And what they’ve done is he bought this paper for practically nothing. And he’s using that as a tool for political power against me and against other people. And I’ll tell you what: We can’t let him get away with it. So he’s got about 20, 25 — I just heard they’re taking these really bad stories — I mean, they, you know, wrong, I wouldn’t even say bad. They’re wrong. And in many cases they have no proper information. And they’re putting them together, they’re slopping them together. And they’re gonna do a book. And the book is gonna be all false stuff because the stories are so wrong. And the reporters — I mean, one after another — so what they’re doing is he’s using that as a political instrument to try and stop antitrust, which he thinks I believe he’s antitrust, in other words, what he’s got is a monopoly. And he wants to make sure I don’t get in. So, it’s one of those things. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. What he’s doing’s wrong. And the people are being — the whole system is rigged. You see a case like that. The whole system is rigged. Whether it’s Hillary or whether it’s Bezos.
Obviously, one can debate Amazon’s antitrust practices (a case can be made it is a monopoly) or its tax levels. But Trump is making no pretense of evaluating these questions as public policies to be settled on their merits. His diatribe weaves in and out of Bezos’s finances and the Post’s coverage, and back again repeatedly, leaving no doubt that, in Trump’s mind, the two are one and the same.
Trump is making nice with the leaders of his party now, and the Republican holdouts have been reduced to a stubborn handful. But the GOP leaders going along with Trump should be under no illusion about the likelihood that the candidate they support, if elected, would turn the United States into at least a quasi-authoritarian state. And the ease with which he has brought other Republicans to heel gives every indication that they would help him do it.