Here are some of the events that have transpired in the United States over the last week. The ruling party has portrayed the opposition as an unruly mob that would pose a threat to law and order if allowed to share power. The president has called independent news media the “enemy of the people” and asserted that its critical reporting is to blame for a wave of attempted bombings against it. He has portrayed a small caravan of refugees hundreds of miles from the border as an existential threat and deployed thousands of soldiers to the border. And he has floated a plan to alter the Constitution through executive order.
The thinking person’s rationalization is that this is all just so much hot air. “Trump is a dictator on Twitter, a Dear Leader in his own mind, but in the real world there is no Trumpocracy because Trump cannot even rule himself,” reasoned Ross Douthat earlier this year.
This Pollyannaish account is not necessarily wrong, but it does assume that Trump’s autocratic impulses can and will be stopped by something. Douthat credits the Republican Establishment for “normalizing Trump’s cabinet and judicial appointments” and “repeatedly, patiently talking the president out of his most disruptive or dangerous ideas.” This, in turn, assumes that the Republican Party as a whole is committed to democratic values, and possesses both the desire and the ability to stop the president well before he crosses any threshold of autocracy.
Hold that assumption in your head when you consider the jovial response in The Wall Street Journal to the election of right-wing authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of Brazil. While not nearly as broad in its reach as Fox News, the Journal is the crown jewel of the Murdoch media empire, and its editorial page may be the most prestigious organ in the conservative movement.
Earlier this month, the Journal likened Bolsonaro, not inaccurately, to Trump himself. Calling him the “Brazilian Swamp Drainer,” an excited editorial all but endorsed the Trumpy right-wing insurgent. The editorial does allow that Bolsonaro “often says politically incorrect things about identity politics that inflame his opponents.” (To wit, he has said it is better to be dead than gay, called a woman too ugly to be worth raping, and described the Afro-Brazilian minority as worthless.)
Bolsonaro has long expressed contempt for democracy. “I would perform a coup on the same day,” he said in 1999. “The Congress today is useless … let’s do the coup already. Let’s go straight to the dictatorship.” During his recent, successful campaign, he threatened his opponents: “Either they go overseas, or they go to jail … These red outlaws will be banished from our homeland. It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.”
National Security Adviser John Bolton gave a speech welcoming Bolsonaro as a “like-minded” partner for “commitment to free-market principles, and open, transparent, and accountable governance,” a bizarre description for a figure whose commitment to democracy is at best unproven. In a new editorial celebrating Bolsonaro’s victory, the Journal savors the right-wing reforms it anticipates from his government. It breezily dismisses the fear that Bolsonaro will undermine democracy by insisting the voters didn’t want it: “Brazilians didn’t vote for fascism or a military coup. They voted for hope and change, and they will throw Mr. Bolsonaro out if he fails to honor his promises.”
Well, then! Problem solved!
But wait — what if Bolsonaro acts on his long-standing, explicit goal of establishing a dictatorship even though the voters didn’t want it? And then what if the voters try to throw him out, but can’t because he has imposed a dictatorship? Nothing in the editorial considers such a possibility. This is a pretty large loophole to ignore when you’re celebrating the handing of supreme executive authority to an avowed authoritarian.
The truly chilling passage in the editorial is its casual observation that a “good sign” can be found in Bolsonaro’s University of Chicago–trained economic adviser, who might be counted on to usher in “Chile-style privatization.” Chile, of course, is the country where General Augusto Pinochet carried out a bloody coup, murdered his socialist opposition, and then imposed pro-market reforms with the advice of Chicago-trained economists and the general support of the American right. The not-very-subtle comparison suggests that, while the Journal hopes Bolsonaro steers clear of his threats of bloodshed and iron hand, it’s not a deal-breaker. The Journal and American conservatives would support him, dictatorship or not, as long as he keeps taxes on the rich low and regulation of business lax.
Here in the United States, Trump is not yet halfway through his first term. Over the next two years, the system will either fully adjust to total Republican control of government or have to accommodate a power-sharing arrangement that Trump has depicted as a threat to the regime itself. Will Trump accept a Democratic House (or Senate) and its power to hold investigations and issue subpoenas? Will he accept the independent workings of a legal system, given his exposure to a wide array of legal charges ranging from collusion with Russia to defaming former subjects of sexual harassment to outright business fraud? (The news cycle has spun at such a manic pace that yesterday’s news brought word of a new suit credibly charging Trump with racketeering and serial business fraud, and it hardly broke through.)
At some point, Trump may deprive his defenders of the ability to dismiss his authoritarian instincts as just so much hot air, and force them either to stand behind their leader or repudiate him. It is hard to muster much confidence in the outcome of such a test.
*This post has been updated.