the national interest

Trump’s Incompetence Does Not Excuse His Authoritarianism

The not-so-great dictator. Photo: Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

Three weeks from now, President Trump will probably — probably — lose a reelection campaign to an opponent he has trailed consistently for three years. And he will probably — probably — lose by a large enough margin to moot any efforts to steal it by either legal or quasi-legal means. What lesson should we take from this, should it come to pass? Ross Douthat argues that it will vindicate the case he has been making all along, that Trump’s authoritarian threats have never amounted to anything serious.

“Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup,” he argues, “because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks.” Douthat runs through various ways in which the bureaucracy has pushed back on some of his most unhinged demands, which certainly has occurred in several cases. But he omits any mention of the areas where Trump’s attack on democratic norms has succeeded. Most glaringly, his column does not make any reference to William Barr.

From the moment Trump’s election became plausible, the most intelligent fears of his abusive potential turned immediately to the Justice Department. “The soft spot, the least tyrant-proof part of the government, is the U.S. Department of Justice and the larger law enforcement and regulatory apparatus of the United States government,” warned Ben Wittes in May, 2016.

Trump bungled his first pass at corrupting the department by appointing an attorney general who had to recuse himself from the investigation most central to Trump’s own concerns. But his second try, Barr, has had chilling success. The attorney general has intervened to drop charges against Trump’s co-conspirators, launched investigations into his adversaries, and prepared to intervene in voting disputes. While these maneuvers have been met with protests and even resignations from staffers, none of them have foiled Barr’s increasingly transparent schemes.

Douthat likewise fails to mention Trump’s many corrupt uses of government power to advance his reelection, from putting his name on stimulus checks or food aid to diverting several hundred million dollars from the government to thinly disguised reelection spending. Trump has successfully blocked House oversight and intimidated or fired inspectors general, limiting public exposure of his actions, but it stands to reason there are plenty more abuses that have not come to light.

Nor does Douthat make any reference to the ongoing, successful efforts by Republican legislators and judges to restrict the franchise. In Florida, the GOP enacted a poll tax so deviously forbidding that even those ex-felons who have enough savings to pay the fine literally cannot do it, because the state lacks the administrative capacity to inform them how much they need to pay in order to vote. In Texas, the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, imposed a transparent scheme to limit every county to one drop box for mail-in ballots, so that Harris County (with a population of 4.7 million and the land area of Rhode Island) shares a single box, as do sparsely populated small towns. Abbott’s ploy was upheld by a Republican-controlled court.

“The threat of far-right violence is certainly real,” Douthat concedes, “but America’s streets belong to the anti-Trump left.” It’s true that anti-Trump protesters have a numeric advantage over their right-wing counterparts, but the right has far more weapons. More important, Douthat ignores the role of police, who may not be the pure brownshirt militia Trump wants them to be, but have been infiltrated by white supremacists and frequently eager to engage in illegal, unaccountable violence. It’s hardly a given that the streets “belong” to anti-Trump protesters when a monopoly on violence belongs to his allies.

The main underlying flaw in Douthat’s analysis is one common to many conservative elites who disdain Trump’s personality but dismiss him as a serious threat. They are incapable of seeing his authoritarianism as anything but an idiosyncratic personal project. They define his undemocratic maneuvers as actions he is taking on his own, without the cooperation of Republicans. And since it’s essentially impossible for a single person (even a president) to undermine democracy without the assistance of a party, nothing Trump does without the party can be a serious threat by definition.

It’s a circular argument: Trump is not an authoritarian menace, these conservatives believe, because they only define his authoritarianism as actions other Republicans refuse to support. This is a logical assumption for people who might worry about Trump’s behavior but implicitly trust the Republican Party to safeguard democratic norms. But if you aren’t encumbered by naïve faith in the good intentions of Mitch McConnell and the Republican judiciary, and you expand the analysis to include anti-democratic actions that have their blessing, then the picture is much more disturbing.

Douthat likewise touts the pushback Trump has received from within his own government as evidence of his weakness. Trump “has been constantly at war with his own C.I.A. and F.B.I.,” and therefore unable to harness their powers to his authoritarian ambitions. It is true that Trump has mostly failed to discipline these agencies, by firing their directors and attempting to replace them with loyalists, only to discover that his loyalists were not actually loyal.

However, this is perhaps the only aspect of his job where Trump has shown genuine improvement. The administration’s ranks have always contained a mix of secret dissidents hoping to restrain Trump and genuine authoritarian enthusiasts. Trump had no experience in politics and almost no understanding of how government worked, but he found a core of diehards who have combed through the bureaucracy and weeded out secret dissidents. Johnny McEntee has implanted political commissars in numerous agencies, including the CIA, who are directly in charge of national intelligence. While his incumbent FBI director and Defense secretary have indicated their unwillingness to engage in blatant crimes, Trump is clearly signaling his desire to fire both after the election. One former Trump administration staffer told me that the ratio has flipped, from 70-30 at the outset of his president to 20-80 the other way.

If you look at the average condition of the bureaucracy throughout Trump’s term, the picture is encouraging. If you consider the trend and the future direction, it is altogether more disturbing.

All this is probably too late to save him. Trump’s political haplessness has done more to hamper his reelection than his underhanded schemes have done to help it. But here is another way in which Douthat’s case for complacency is circular logic. He assumes Trump will lose, and since authoritarianism is a system that makes it difficult for the ruling party to lose power, then his assumption means Trump can’t be authoritarian.

But the chance of Trump somehow prevailing is not zero. And the unlikely-yet-extant scenario in which the presidency defies the odds again is likely to usher in a second term very different than the first. A vindicated Trump would have a far more unified bureaucracy. He would not be burdened by the assumption of failure that has emboldened outside forces to resist his pressure. (The owners of CNN and the Washington Post refused to clamp down on their reporters, in part because they assumed Trump would be gone in four years.) The opposition would be mentally shattered and probably plunged into internecine fighting. The country could find itself very far along the path to Orbán’s Hungary. That is a fairly consequential outcome for a probability in excess of 10 percent.

This is an outcome almost the entire Republican Party is working to bring about. Douthat wishes us to treat the probable-but-not-certain failure of their project as an excuse. What’s the harm in some light voter suppression and brownshirt-cosplay given that we all knew it was going to be for naught? Trump, he pleads, should be seen as mere “a feckless tribune for the discontented rather than an autocratic menace.” Except the menace had the support of a major party. And it still might prevail. And if it doesn’t, it seems poised to use its failure as an excuse to avoid any reckoning with its eager complicity in its assault on the republic.

Trump’s Incompetence Does Not Excuse His Authoritarianism