In 2001, White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer blurted out that people “need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” The line was wrenched largely out of context — he was mainly urging people to avoid offensive statements, and had previously affirmed the right to free speech (“It’s important for all Americans to remember the traditions of our country that make us so strong and so free are tolerance and openness and acceptance.”). The comment provoked a massive furor, and Fleischer proceeded to clarify his meaning and apologize for his original formulation.
As awful as the circa-2001 Republican Party may have been, it had certain shared democratic assumptions, including a belief in the validity of dissent. It is much less true today. Emblemized by the rise of Trump, but in ways that go well beyond him, the Republican Party is evolving toward authoritarianism. It is not a fully authoritarian party, but the direction is depressingly evident. New signposts of this direction appear every day.
Maine governor Paul LePage said not long ago, “We need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country.” David Clarke, who spoke at Trump’s nominating convention and is a reported candidate to lead the Department of Homeland Security, demanded that anti-Trump protests be “quelled.” The president-elect denounced what he called “professional protesters, incited by the media.” (Later this morning he essentially retracted his statement.) Trump was not questioning the legal right to protest, but he was treating protesters as unrepresentative of any source of genuine dissent. This is a classic dictator’s analysis — a refusal to acknowledge the authenticity of dissent, instead depicting it as a front for hidden interests. Months earlier, pressed about his glowing praise of a Russian dictator who murders journalists, Trump defended it: “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country.”
The unimaginable is already upon us. Once-forbidden associations and patterns of thought have opened up in the age of Trump. A party that once shunned white supremacists as beyond the pale now works with them as allies — gingerly, but in a way that would have seemed unimaginable not long ago. Steve Bannon has crawled in from the sewer. Kris Kobach, the arch-restrictionist, spoke before racist organizations. These things are barely even newsworthy anymore. The only question is how much farther it advances.
Masha Gessen, a journalist who has reported bravely from Russia for years, has an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” The essay helpfully applies lessons she learned in the Putinsphere to the Trumpistan she sees unfolding in the United States. Its weakness is that it treats as settled fact that Trump will rule as a full autocrat when it is only a possibility. It is a harrowing and almost unimaginable possibility, and one too few observers have considered seriously.
One reason for the relative complacency greeting the threat Trump’s government poses to democracy has been the casual assumption that normal Republicans will restrain him. Several months ago, I wrote about the lessons to be drawn from Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power, Henry Ashby Turner’s account of the political intrigue that gave power to a figure seen by fellow conservatives as a dangerous clown. Any time Hitler is invoked, it is important to emphasize that a direct comparison is not my intent. Hitler is worse than the worst-case scenario under Trump, who is neither a fascist, genocidal, nor a warmonger. What the history shows instead are certain timeless dynamics. Conservative politicians who feared and abhorred Hitler respected his ability to connect with the public. They believed that they could use him.
The aftermath of the election has reprised that dynamic almost eerily. The Republican lobbying class is vibrating with ecstasy at Trump’s arrival. They are not wrong to believe it. Trump’s agenda will have certain distinct Trumpian touches — infrastructure spending, mass deportation — that don’t directly threaten core right-wing doctrine (and which also make money for construction firms and other contractors). “My phone is ringing off the hook with people who were on the outs asking how they can get into Trump world,” one Trump campaign operative told Politico. Another Republican said, “Paul Ryan will make policy and Donald Trump can Make America Great Again.” The first and most important factor binding the GOP to its president will be the irresistible chance to sign their agenda into law — a chance Republicans rightly believe is unlikely to come again in a rapidly diversifying country that, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s clear national vote majority, has not given the GOP a plurality in a presidential election since 2004. Trump is likely to cede policy to the Ryan wing because he cares very little and knows even less about its details.
The second factor is fear. Since he started his campaign, a year and a half ago, we have grown accustomed to seeing Trump as a figure outside his party and facing deep resistance. That resistance is tiny, and shrinking. Harry Enten finds that, on average, Trump performed just one percentage point worse than Republican Senate candidates. There were regular Republican voters who couldn’t bear to pull the lever for Trump, but they amount to one percent of the public — functionally nonexistent. Alabama Republican Martha Roby, one of a handful of Republicans to call for Trump to step aside in the wake of the Billy Bush tape, barely squeaked into office in her heavily Republican district, because 22,000 of her constituents cast write-in votes to punish her disloyalty.
The handful of conservatives who opposed Trump’s election all envisioned a short exile culminating in a clear Trump defeat, after which they would return to the party fold. Few were prepared to leave permanently. Already, partisan instinct is drawing many of the “Never Trump” conservatives back to the comfortable embrace of the Republican-run government.
The result of all this is a party tightly bound together by self-interest and survival, with no important sources of internal dissent. Any abuses of power Trump may commit — attacking the media; unleashing the Justice Department to prosecute his enemies, or to pardon his cronies; or using other arms of the state to intimidate his opposition — will be accepted and even defended by the overwhelming bulk of the Republican Party. Any controversy will recede into the normal din of endless partisan debate.
Trump may simply govern like an ordinary Republican, or at least a modern one, like George W. Bush. But if Trump decides to marshal his powers to crush his opposition, Republicans will have his back, and to most Americans the controversy will play out much like the Clinton email story or the Billy Bush tape. It will be the partisan war extended incrementally into new frontiers. There won’t be tanks in the streets all of a sudden or a firebombing of the Constitution. It will be the step-by-step acceptance of the unthinkable as normal. Many of those steps have already happened.