Donald Trump Is Stumbling Into Authoritarianism
Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are a centerpiece of his presidency — But are they a result of incompetence or premeditation?
Generally, we believe that the world is run by Important People who have Important Ideas, important enough to be capitalized, named after them, and studied by future Important People who will come up with their own Important Ideas. It’s how we’ve been conditioned to expect world affairs to work, so it makes sense that everyone, from political junkies to journalists who cover politics for a living, frames everything they see from world leaders and their allies as parts of some overarching doctrine or strategy. This is why so many of Trump’s actions have been framed in the context of his plan to turn America into an authoritarian shadow of its former self.
Trump certainly talks the authoritarian talk, and like all rulers who do not wish to be constrained by such pedestrian concepts as norms, laws, or limits on their power, he attracted a following of Republican enablers. To protect their financial and ideological meal ticket, these Republicans and their allies have resorted to Bircher style conspiracy-mongering on a channel they turned into a vehicle for pitting Americans against each other while they’re busy undermining the rule of law by demanding that law enforcement officials who ask too many questions about Trump are themselves investigated.
Meanwhile, they managed to ignore, if not outright defended his attacks on federal judges’ independence, and only a handful publicly disagreed with his branding of any non-right wing media source as “enemies of the American people.” All but one sat silently as he called Democrats who didn’t applaud him enough during his State of the Union speech treasonous, as if he wasn’t a democratically elected leader of a country that prides itself on having a healthy skepticism of its leaders and a rebellious streak, but a tinpot tyrant ready to send his critics to a “reeducation camp.”
Will he actually jail anyone for opposing him? He did keep threatening Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin on the campaign trail, and again when Mueller began closing in on his inner circle, but the DOJ under his appointees has so far found no cause to actually indict them. But presenting critics as enemies of the state against whom only he can protect the hapless citizens crying out for his help is one of the hallmarks of an authoritarian, and putting prominent opposition in jail or harassing them on, pardon the expression, trumped up charges, is one of the primary ways they rig elections. It’s awfully hard to run for office when you just happen to be in jail for some convenient reason.
Trump to Clinton in 2016: "If I win, I am going to instruct my AG…to look into your situation." Later says, "you'd be in jail." Trump has since called on DOJ to investigate Clinton & her aide to be jailed.
Crooked Hillary Clinton's top aid, Huma Abedin, has been accused of disregarding basic security protocols. She put Classified Passwords into the hands of foreign agents. Remember sailors pictures on submarine? Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act? Also on Comey & others
More likely than not, Trump is just venting and has no plans to actually send his detractors to prison. But he lacks the capacity to realize that his behavior is wildly, obnoxiously, inappropriate, and goes against every American value his party proclaims it wants to uphold. As a malignant narcissist, he will never be happy unless he and only he is all anyone talks about every waking minute of every day, and every word is effusive praise, and maybe not even then. And now, the Republican Party would like us to play into his psychosis as if he was a mad king and our job as serfs were to entertain his mood swings. They even appear to be giving in to his long-running fantasy of a Soviet or French style military parade, something unthinkable since the 1970s.
Trump wanted one during his inauguration and was shot down because that’s not how this nation works. We don’t throw expensive parades to flash our military might. The world is well aware of what we can do, and the money that would be spent on moving hardware could be used to arm our soldiers and care for our veterans. Our strengths are supposed to be in our restraint and soft power. But after visiting France and witnessing a Bastille Day parade, he stomped his feet until he got an agreement to potentially parade our men and women in uniform by his hotel in the nation’s capital on Veteran’s Day as if they were his props, and he really seems incapable of seeing the problem in all this.
Power has warped him into a bizarre combination of dyspeptic, paranoid old man who wants to turn back the clock to a time that only exists in the rose-colored imagination of other conservative old men and his followers who fell for their tall tales of past glories, and a spoiled, wealthy toddler who’s never heard the word “no” that held firm after a screaming fit. Yet, because he has the ability to turn bills into law, his party isn’t in a hurry to stand up to him or uphold the principles that defined this country, and are currently being flaunted with thinly disguised disdain under a shoddy patina of doublespeak.
And with all that in mind, it may be time to revisit the debate about whether Trump is a secret mastermind trying to break America into authoritarianism, or a clueless dullard muddling his way through a job that can reshape much of the world as we know it, yet comes with fewer requirements than managing a coffee shop. After a year in power, one thing is becoming clear: despite being in the aforementioned exclusive club of Important People, The Donald has no Important Ideas and never had them in the first place, which is precisely why he may just slide into dangerous, authoritarian ways as he tries to salvage the mess he’s creating. Let’s consider the evidence.
The Accidental Authoritarian
First, is that by numerous accounts, he had little desire to win the election. His plan was to lose and become a right-wing firebrand who was famously beaten in “a rigged election” and with his trademark oxygen-sucking, larger-than-life presence dominating Fox News or his own version of InfoWars or Breitbart. His worldview didn’t need to evolve past simplistic, half-remembered pieces and buzzwords from conservative media. His fans think he’s a hyper-literate, truth-to-power-speaking genius well-versed in foreign and domestic problems already, and so does he.
No wonder that the so-called America First doctrine is a meaningless grab-bag of whatever got him worked up after watching Fox & Friends or Hannity and the policies introduced under its auspices fly in the face of well-known and understood data. With crime falling and illegal alien populations in America reaching critical mass many years ago, and slowly but steadily declining, we’re told that the country is being invaded by foreigners, the streets are a bloodbath, and the economy is both booming and suffering at the same time, so we need to start ruinous trade wars and build border walls as if airplanes aren’t things that exist anymore.
The less fear and panic-driven policies of the Trump administration have been little more than gifts to long-standing, old industry corporate interests, and yet another run at the very same trickle-down economics that were last an Important Idea in the 1980s and have given us three recessions, stagnant wages, and runaway income inequality. So, the most charitable thing you can say about America First as a doctrine is that it’s simply a hodgepodge of old ideas and anxieties presented under the notion that giving in to those fears and trying these old, failed ideas is the patriotic thing to do.
Second, consider the countless stories in which exasperated officials, lawmakers, and experts sent to brief Trump on matters of grave importance bemoaned his almost non-existent attention span, chronic ignorance, and temper tantrums. Every topic of importance was eventually met with him zoning out or asking ridiculous questions demonstrating he hadn’t a clue about the most elementary duties of his position or the subject in question. It seemed to have been a genuine revelation to Trump that healthcare was complicated and the situation with North Korea was actually a geopolitical quagmire. He is a man who wants simple solutions to very complicated problems and is either surprised or infuriated when those solutions fail to quickly materialize.
But the catch with simple solutions is that they’re not guaranteed for every problem, and every Important Person worth their salt realizes this when they craft their Important Ideas. But that requires a) a focused, well-articulated worldview, b) an ability to zero in on key issues and research potential solutions to them, and c) the focus to see the idea through from notion to a fully-fledged proposal. Trump is not a political novelty because his ideas are so different or his style of communicating them are so new, but because he doesn’t have any ideas or the ability to execute on them, creating a vast power vacuum at the top of a superpower’s leadership. He is, in effect, what Russians call “an empty spot.”
Third, and finally, Trump’s singular goal in making his wild Twitter edicts appears to be to keep his name in the news. He legitimately does not understand that as president, with the ability to order an actual, honest to goodness nuclear strike with disastrous consequences, random threats of nuclear war on social media because he saw something on Fox News aren’t taken as the venting of some private citizen but mistaken for actual policy. He just wants to respond to the news and his devoted cult praises his narcissistic yelling-back-at-the-idiot-box habit as the great strength and patriotism of a leader America desperately needs.
Far from an authoritarian mastermind with a grand plan, what we have is a petulant man-child given to frequent fits of narcissism, and both an inability and an obvious lack of desire to learn what his job entails, much less actually try to do it or do it well. And this is perhaps the most unsettling thing about his elevation to power. It’s not that he’s a conservative or a Republican, it’s that he’s an aimless ignoramus one would really hope could do a decent job as president because the country depends on it, but shows no interest in, or aptitude to do so.
He’s not deliberately isolating America or undermining the rule of law; he’s just incompetent and too self-enamored to recognize it. He’s trying to project what he thinks makes him look strong and protect himself from enemies, i.e. anyone who doesn’t bow to his agenda with effusive praise. But that said, Trump’s lack of concrete goals or ability to sanely process news and data aren’t an excuse to breathe easier. If anything, he’s actually more dangerous than an authoritarian with a master plan because he’s easily influenced and wildly ignorant of the consequences of his actions.
Authoritarians need to remain popular to wield their powers and preserve people’s trust in key institutions while filling them with servile lackeys and delicately handling the opposition not to alarm too many people until it’s too late. By contrast, Trump has been extremely unpopular for a president during a booming economy and constantly lashes out at the government he’s supposed to be leading, desperately trying to subvert the institutions able to check his power and prevent him from simply imposing his will as he sees fit. What he lacks in popular support, he could theoretically obtain by firing any and all public servants able to deny his less sane and more erratic requests.
Instead of carefully manipulating the levers of power, he’s randomly yanking on them like an angry animal trapped in a spacecraft. And just like spacecraft aren’t designed to have their controls mashed with no strategy by someone who has no idea what any of the buttons do, the American government wasn’t designed to be pulled in five different directions in the same week. There’s going to be a lot of damage in the aftermath, and even Trump himself sees that what he’s doing is not working. But to protect his notoriously fragile ago, he blames others for his own follies.
Meanwhile, our social and corporate equivalents of vultures and monsters now have a warm, technically sentient body capable of signing their wish lists into law and they want said warm body to stay there until they had a shot to get exactly what they want. They have every incentive to protect him from both the media and the consequences of his own actions, so the Republican wagon-rallying around The Donald probably isn’t a conscious effort to turn us into a fascist, white nationalist banana republic, but a selfish free-for-all epitomizing the very worst of Washington D.C. which will end up having a very similar end-result by playing into the hands of those who very much want that exact outcome.
And really, it’s more difficult to tell what’s worse, that Mueller’s investigation and a potential constitutional crisis would be triggered by an evil, cunning authoritarian on a mission to stay in power as long as he pleases, or by self-serving politicians with hearts made of coal protecting a money launderer for foreign oligarchs, trying to make sure their widely reviled policies get signed into law by said money launderer. And something as trivial as the rule of law or upholding the norms that keep this country free, won’t stand in the way of their legislative sure thing.