Donald Trump is an authoritarian by instinct. He displays the classic traits of an authoritarian personality — a man obsessed with domination and humiliation, and unable to tolerate cognitive dissonance. (Guidance for Trump’s presidential daily brief directs that his memos not only be short but, Ashley Dejean reports, “should only include facts that support their analyses.”) For years he has lavished praise upon authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, North Korea, and Iraq for having the strength to crush their opponents. And the first month of his presidency has seen Trump metamorphose from a reality-television-populist-outsider candidate into an actual president who sounds — but, so far, at least, only sounds — like the strongman leaders he has always admired.
The prospect that President Trump will degrade or destroy American democracy is the most important question of the new political era. It has received important scholarly attention from two basic sources, which have approached it in importantly different fashions. Scholars of authoritarian regimes (principally Russia) have used their knowledge of authoritarian history to paint a road map by which Trump could Putinize this country. Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and other students of Putin’s methods have essentially treated Putinization as the likely future, and worked backward to the present. A second category of knowledge has come from scholars of democracy and authoritarianism, who have compared the strengths and weaknesses of the American system of government both to countries elsewhere that have succumbed to authoritarianism and those that have not. Their approach has, more appropriately, treated Trump’s authoritarian designs as an open question. Trump might launch an assault on the foundations of the republic. On the other hand, he might not.
What are the signs of impending authoritarianism? Trump has rhetorically hyped violence, real or imaginary, committed by enemy groups, while downplaying or ignoring violence or threats from friendlier sources. He said nothing about a white-supremacist terror attack in Canada that killed six people before denouncing a knife attack a few days later by an Islamist radical in France that killed nobody. He quickly directed a government program on countering violent extremism to focus exclusively on Muslim radicalism and stop work halting white-supremacist terrorism. Just as he urged his campaign crowds to rough up protesters, he treated news that pro-Trump bikers would patrol his inauguration not as a threat to create chaos but as a welcome paramilitary force. “That’s like additional security with those guys, and they’re rough,” he gleefully told reporters. Trump’s rhetoric follows a pattern of politicizing violence, simultaneously justifying stringent government action against enemies he has designated while tacitly justifying vigilantism by extremists sympathetic to his cause.
Since his election, Trump has obsessively fabricated a narrative in which he is the incarnate of the will of the people. According to his own concocted history, he won a historically large Electoral College victory, and would have also won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal votes. He has dismissed protesters against him as paid agents, denied the legitimacy of courts to overrule his actions, and, most recently, called mainstream media “enemies of the people.” This is an especially chilling phrase to hear from an American president. Totalitarian dictators like Stalin and Mao used designation of a political figure or a social class as an “enemy of the people” as a prelude to mass murder.
At this point, just a month into Trump’s presidency, this pattern of authoritarian discourse is only that — discourse. A threat as dire as the potential disintegration of American democracy hardly requires certainty before justifying a response. The question is, what response is necessary?
It is worth noting that, so far, normal political countermobilization seems to be working quite well. “The Resistance,” as anti-Trump activists have come to be known, has already rattled the once-complacent Republican majorities in Congress, which Trump needs to quash investigations of his corruption and opaque ties to Russia. Whatever pressure Trump has tried to apply to the news media has backfired spectacularly. His sneering contempt has inspired a wave of subscriptions that have driven new revenue to national media, which have blanketed the administration with independent coverage. Popular culture outlets, rather than responding to Trump’s election by tempering their mockery, have instead stepped it up, enraging the president.
The most plausible (to me) mechanism by which Trump might ensconce himself in power was laid out by Matthew Yglesias three months ago. The scenario Yglesias described would be one in which Trump used the authority of the federal government to compel large firms to give him political support. Companies that opposed him, or who even refused to offer support, might be punished with selectively punitive regulation, while those that played ball might be rewarded with lax enforcement of labor, antitrust, or other regulation.
So far there is no evidence such a scenario is playing out. To be sure, Trump is attempting, sporadically, to bully the private sector. But the effort has backfired. Firms whose leaders make favorable statements about the president have seen their stock get hammered. A long list of prominent CEOs has openly criticized Trump. The reason for this is obvious. Trump’s supporters may have disproportionate power in the Electoral College, but his opponents have disproportionate power in the marketplace. Firms cater in their advertising to the young, who overwhelming oppose Trump, rather than to the old, who strongly support him.
If Trump has a plan to crush his adversaries, he has not yet revealed it. His authoritarian rage thus far is mostly impotent, the president as angry Fox-News-watching grandfather screaming threats at his television that he never carries out. The danger to the republic may come later, or never. In the first month of Trump’s presidency, the resistance has the upper hand.