Since the start of the Reagan era, American politics has revolved around a war over the role of government in the economy. The Republican Party is set apart from major conservative parties across the world in its intensely ideological rejection of the state. And, despite his past rhetorical inconsistency, Donald Trump has faithfully adopted those positions. Yet that war has been largely absent not only from the rhetoric in Cleveland, which revolved around nationalism and identity, but in Philadelphia, too. The Democratic speakers have almost entirely ignored Trump’s proposals to deregulate carbon pollution and the finance industry, lavish tax cuts on the very rich, and snatch health insurance from 20 million people. This is not because Democrats lack the confidence in their ability to win an election centered on these issues. (They did it in 2012.) It is because they have chosen to reframe the election as a contest over the much larger question of the sanctity of American democracy.
President Obama put a point on this message in his speech Wednesday night. He referred obliquely to the extraordinary stakes in the election when he lumped the Republican nominee in with authoritarian enemies — “anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues.” Later in the address, he put a finer point on it: “It’s not just a choice between parties or policies, the usual debates between left and right. This is a more fundamental choice — about who we are as a people, and whether we stay true to this great American experiment in self-government.”
Amazingly, even as Democrats painted Trump as an authoritarian menace, he continued to confirm the point on the ground. Weeks earlier, Trump’s campaign had banned the Washington Post, whose coverage it found objectionable, from campaign events. The ban had only symbolic meaning, though. It merely prevented reporters from working within the official media area. They could still attend speeches, just as any other person, and cover it from within the crowd. (The far more disturbing threat of retribution was Trump’s vow to retaliate against the newspaper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, through tax and regulatory policy.) But yesterday, the Trump campaign extended its ban from the symbolic to the real by preventing Post reporter Jose DelReal from entering a public speech by Trump’s vice-presidential nominee, Mike Pence. Private security first told DelReal he could not enter the rally with his laptop and phone. DelReal asked if other attendees were allowed to bring phones and was told, “Not if they work for the Washington Post.” DelReal placed the items in his car, returned, was patted down by security, and then still told he could not enter. Later, Pence’s staffers insisted it had all been a mistake, blaming overzealous local staffers. This sort of iterative, inconsistent, and even chaotic sequence of events fits a common pattern of how political authoritarians break down rules and norms.
This morning, Trump confirmed the impression of his authoritarianism yet again, in an interview with Fox News. Vladimir Putin, he offered, is “a better leader than Obama because Obama’s not a leader. He’s certainly doing a better job than Obama is.”
One would expect a Republican to form a low impression of Obama’s leadership skills. But it is bizarre to compare the “leadership” of a democratically elected president to that of Putin, who leads his country by intimidating and suppressing its opposition. Obviously, an executive’s “leadership” is more likely to take hold if they can silence, imprison, or murder their opponents. Last December, when Trump praised Putin, Joe Scarborough pointed out that Putin had killed journalists. Trump replied, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader. You know, unlike what we have in this country.”
Trump’s frequent media appearances, for which he does little preparation, make him prone to strange rhetorical forays. But this is not one of them. In his scattered musings on politics over his career as a celebrity, Trump has meandered back and forth on nearly every issue — not only on things like abortion, health care, and taxes, but even immigration and trade, the supposed bedrocks of his worldview. The one consistent through line of his beliefs is authoritarianism. It is important to understand what makes Trump’s beliefs about authoritarianism so unusual. Alliances with dictators are a sadly normal feature of foreign policy in the United States and other democracies, and have run from the American Revolution, which relied on support from the French monarchy, through the World War II alliance with Stalin to the present day. But Trump does not merely praise dictators as necessary allies in order to stave off some greater evil. Their authoritarianism is precisely the quality he admires. After the Chinese government suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989, he said, “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.” On Kim Jong-un, last January, he explained, “You gotta give him credit. How many young guys — he was like 26 or 25 when his father died — take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden … he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss.” On Saddam Hussein, he said this year, “They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. Over.”
Trump has declared over and over, over a long period of time and with no incentive to do so, that strong leadership entails the suppression of dissent. He does not draw a distinction between the exercise of this form of leadership in a democracy and in a dictatorship. Instead, he compares the former unfavorably against the latter.
When you begin to take seriously Trump’s belief in “strength” as the measure of effective leadership, and the actions that flesh out those beliefs, then it overrides every other issue. The election is not fundamentally about whether a Democrat will beat a Republican. It is about whether a small-d democrat will defeat an authoritarian, and her election should be the cause not only of Democrats but anybody who cares about democracy.