the national interest

Trump Authoritarianism Denial Is Over Now

Trump loyalists attacking the Capitol, January 6, 2020. Photo: Leah Millis/REUTERS

From the beginning, the danger presented by Donald Trump was so insultingly obvious it hardly required analysis: Here was an unfit leader driven by contempt for democratic rules and norms. From this observation, the conclusion was equally simple: Supporting the political opposition — i.e., the Democratic Party — was the only responsible course of action.

The logic was clear enough to just enough Americans in just enough states to end the Trump experiment after a single term. But one of the confounding things about this era is how many otherwise intelligent people have been unable or unwilling to grasp the obvious. What these skeptics shared was a distaste for the remedy of supporting the Democrats, even temporarily, which motivated them to deny the underlying malady. If they wished to support Trump, or at least not to give the Democrats unreserved support, then they had to demonstrate that Trump did not pose any special danger to the Republic.

Even after four years of Trump abusing power, fomenting violence, and actively attempting to rig the vote while claiming any prospect of defeat must be fraudulent, his supporters denied any danger. “I have a lot more concern about Democrats accepting the results of a Trump reelection than Trump accepting results of a loss,” argued Republican adviser Josh Holmes, ignoring the fact that the only candidate who had questioned the 2016 election result was Trump himself. “Say what you will about Trump violating norms, he has never tried to redo the balance of power by irregular means,” insisted Ari Fleischer in an October column endorsing Trump.

The debate came to a sudden end last week, when Trump directed a mob to storm the Capitol, in an attempt to pressure Mike Pence and the Senate to carry out a wild plan to nullify the results of the election. George Orwell once wrote, “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right,” but “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.” In this case, the battle took place not on a field but the marble halls of Congress.

Some of the intellectuals who questioned the seriousness of Trump’s authoritarianism, like Ross Douthat and Shadi Hamid, have graciously confessed their error. Others have quietly slunk away. Now that most of Trump’s defenders have been duly chagrined, it is worth revisiting the debate before it disappears into history. What did the anti-anti-Trumpers get so wrong?

The case for complacency consisted of two major themes. First, it defined the danger as “fascism,” a hyperbolic term used by some of Trump’s more reckless opponents, which obscured the more subtle threat he posed. (“So much for Donald Mussolini,” scoffed a 2017 Wall Street Journal editorial.) Second, it insisted Trump was too lazy and incompetent to do any serious damage to the democratic system. “If authoritarianism is looming in the U.S., how come Donald Trump looks so weak?” asked left-wing columnist Corey Robin, whose argument consisted of an extended, favorable comparison of the climate of dissent in Trump’s America in 2018 to that of Germany circa 1934.

What frightened so many scholars of democracy about Trump was the danger of eroding the health of the system along a broad array of fronts, from encouraging political violence to undermining the legitimacy of elections. Their fear was less a sudden plunge into dictatorship than a slow process of democratic backsliding of the sort engineered by authoritarian leaders in places like Hungary and Turkey. The anti-anti-authoritarians, by contrast, liked to imagine government as a flip switch with two modes: “democracy” and “Nazi Germany.” And since Trump obviously did not have Hitler-like control of the government, then the authoritarian scare must be a figment of the liberal imagination.

The most serious misjudgment of the anti-anti-authoritarian set concerned Trump’s character. The president was hapless, incompetent, and easily rolled by Congress, which made it easy to mock the fear that he was building an autocracy. The most intelligent version of this skeptical claim was put forth by Douthat, who reasoned that Trump “doesn’t want authority,” and therefore cannot be an authoritarian.

In fact Trump very much did crave authority — just not the kind of authority traditional presidents paid much attention. He demanded authority over the federal government, relentlessly blasting away at the walls meant to separate his personal interests from those of the state. His (first) impeachment centered on a version of this demand: Trump perverted U.S. policy toward Ukraine into leverage to smear a political rival. This was in keeping with his general belief that every employee of the federal government, from the attorney general to the Pentagon to the printing office at the Treasury Department, should cater to his needs as slavishly as the doorman at Trump Tower.

Trump demanded, and received, a level of personal deference from his party that no president has ever been granted. His subordinates slathered him with rituals of praise that seemed almost North Korean. He gleefully ended the careers of numerous Republicans, both in politics and media, who had dared defy him. Every time Trump crossed a new line, Republicans had to decide whether speaking up against it was worth the likelihood that they would never work in politics again.

As indifferent as Trump may have been to the workings of, say, his Department of Health and Human Services, he paid obsessive attention to the right-wing media apparatus. His obsession with television and social media may have been simple-minded and lazy, but it also reflected an innate grasp of the tools he needed to control what was, in effect, state media for red America. Trump cajoled, bullied, and manipulated the conservative media world with the care and skill of Lyndon Johnson muscling a bill through Congress. He would devote hours chatting with Fox News personalities and its rivals, on air and off, playing them against each other and forcing an endless competition for his approval.

In turn, he was rewarded with a cult whose devotion intimidated any Republican who might think of stepping out of line. Representative Peter Meijer, a Republican from western Michigan, told Reason that some of his colleagues in the House refused to certify the Electoral College result — this was the night after Trump’s mob sacked the Capitol — because they “felt that that vote would put their families in danger.” Representative Kevin Brady now warns Democrats not to impeach Trump because doing so would inflame his supporters and “could well incite further violence.” Six days after the riot, Brian Kilmeade would appear on Fox & Friends and warn Congress that offending Trump’s angriest supporters by impeaching him risked bloodshed: “We see what’s happening around this country, how 50 statehouses are being threatened on Inauguration Day, this is the last thing you want to do.”

Bear this dynamic in mind when you recall the argument that congressional Republicans were really in control all along. When they fear alienating Trump’s supporters will not only risk their careers, but will possibly endanger their lives and those of their family, did they feel like they were in charge?

In the end, Trump was unable to overturn an election defeat. But more revealing than his failure is how close he came to succeeding. Had the race been just a few tenths of a point closer, it could have fallen into the range where his challenges to late-arriving mail ballots — challenges the Supreme Court appeared open to supporting — might have proven decisive. His pressure campaign to force Georgia to “find” the necessary votes to flip the state foundered on Brad Raffensperger’s unusual willingness to sacrifice his political ambitions for principle. Trump’s January 6 mob was never going to occupy and hold the Capitol, but it came within seconds, and perhaps a wrong turn, of placing militant fanatics in the same room as defenseless members of congressional leadership.

The danger posed by Trump’s contempt for democratic values was one of probabilities. The worst possible outcomes did not transpire. Even so, the minds that spent four years dismissing the danger, often to justify giving Trump even more power, hardly look any better for it. We entrusted a sociopathic instinctive authoritarian with the most powerful office in the world. What did we think would happen?

Trump Authoritarianism Denial Is Over Now