Donald Trump is not an autocrat yet, and he may never become one. But his administration continues to broadcast autocratic views on politics. It is worth highlighting some of these statements simply because a kind of discourse that once would have been considered shocking has quickly become routine.
This morning, Trump repeated one of his favorite authoritarian tropes by insisting that protesters against him have been secretly paid — “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters,” he ranted on Twitter. Kellyanne Conway, meanwhile, insists that protests are not democratic. “There’s nothing peaceful and nothing democratic about folks who are out there just trying to re-litigate the election and protesting things they know nothing about,” she tells Sean Hannity. The election result, in Conway’s view, settled all political questions, and any protest against Trump’s policies is therefore undemocratic.
Trump likewise believes that he is entitled to a greater level of deference and respect because he controls the presidency. Conway (whose influence with Trump lies in her ability and willingness to articulate his beliefs in the media) made this complaint a few weeks ago: “We got no forbearance, we got nothing, we got no respect. We … this man is president of the United States.” Yesterday, in the same interview, Conway made the case that reporters should treat Trump more deferentially now than they did during the campaign:
I only care, Sean, if people are being disrespectful to the President of the United States. That is unacceptable. I was raised to respect the office of the president and its current occupant no matter who it’s been, and I just think you can’t really show a difference in the coverage of Donald Trump among some of these outlets and some of these reporters and tweeters, between when he was running for president, when he became the nominee for the Republicans, when he was the president-elect, and now when he’s president. The coverage never changed, it never progressed, it never matured. It never took on the aura of respect that it deserved, and if you are not showing the president and his main spokespeople respect, then you’re not showing the office respect …
It is true that Trump gets worse coverage than the typical newly inaugurated president. But this is because he has persisted in his campaign practices of telling comically obvious untruths (33 of them so far by Trump alone, by one count) and shredding long-standing ethical standards. Conway believes that Trump is entitled to friendly, or at least friendlier, coverage as a matter of respect for the office that he holds. The Trump administration believes the proper time for public criticism and accountability ended with the campaign. The survival of American democracy will hinge upon whether it gets the chance to put its beliefs into practice.