Trump’s Incompetent Authoritarianism Failed, But A Smarter Trump Looms
Dr. Matthias Wasser studies the formation of fascist movements and states in the inter-war period, as well as the development of labor relations in the British Caribbean in the aftermath of abolition.
With the dust settling, it will be clear that Trump left the White House as he entered it: with utter contempt for democratic institutions, themselves alarmingly weak, but mercifully without the competence or vision to implement an alternative. The tragedy of the rise of illiberal nationalism has among its farces the weakly gestured attempt of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping putsch – a series of conspiracy theories, never-attempted legal maneuvers involving state legislatures, and lawsuits that seem more redolent of a stunt for fundraising than a serious attempt to overturn an election.
If few Republicans (with elections to win) were willing to stick out their necks to protest these attempts, it’s equally notable that few were willing to stick their necks to implement them, either. The institutional Republican Party mostly got what it wanted out of Trump – judges and tax policy – and is no doubt happy to have him gone. To the extent that the Republican Party engaged in anti-democratic action, it was through the normal and eminently legal channels of redistricting, court decisions, and exploiting the pre-existing biases of the Constitution.
In the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis remarks that every great villain needs some virtue to become great. Providence seemed to spare the world a truly great Trump by such devices as his disinterest in policy, short attention span, inability to control factionalism within his own team, and, perhaps above all, inability to win over any major power centers on both the most short-term and transactional level. The outgoing President provoked contempt from the leadership of the military and intelligence services; among the power base of traditional authoritarian rule, only the ordinary police seem to have found any love for the man. The media and tech companies that control the flow of information were alienated more or less by design; the industrial sector that was courted seems to have had little loyalty.
We dodged a bullet. Trump’s personal character flaws will leave the national stage with him, but the weaknesses of our system are still with us, and it is unclear how they would deal with an illiberal political leader with greater acumen and lower time preference. Elections have become both less responsive and less legitimate, economic and political power have concentrated at the top, and no one can pretend there is not an audience for the ugliest forms of nationalism.
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The willingness of much of the country to believe Trump’s election fraud claims did not proceed from his own questionable charisma; over the past two decades, Americans of both major political stripes have become increasingly unwilling to imagine that they could lose a Presidential election legitimately. This started understandably enough with the party-line Supreme Court ruling in Bush v. Gore, and then proceeded to ‘birther’ conspiracy theories that Obama was not a U.S. citizen, then to conspiracy theories that Russians had not only made posts on social media but had actively stolen the election for Trump via voter machine hacking. The notion that Hugo Chavez bribed Republican governors into complicity with massive ballot-stuffing for Joe Biden will probably have no more immediate effect than previous fantasies; in the short term, indeed, they probably have the salutary effect of salving bruised egos. But it is hard to imagine this trend reversing, harder still to imagine its long-term effects healthy.
From the Cold War through War on Terror, we have seen a progressive consolidation of power within the executive branch sometimes referred to by political historians as the “Imperial Presidency.” These extend from the development of internal and external spy agencies with little oversight and geometrically expanding surveillance power to the formal doctrine that the President may legally order the extrajudicial assassination of any person, including American citizens, anywhere in the world.
To be sure, the United States probably engages in much less violent repression today than it did in the 1960s and 1970s – but half a century ago, there was a much more active dissent to threaten its policies, reflecting a far more vibrant and active civil society. Labor unions, liberal Christianity, local journalism, and many other features of what made up associational life in the US are dead, with little sign of functional replacements. (Dylan Riley is probably right that fascism per se, as a middle-class associational movement itself, could not arise outside of the context of dense civil society. But a vigorous democracy is unlikely to survive outside of it either, while a more incoherent and opportunistic kind of authoritarian rule most certainly can.)
At the same time, traditional mass media has become more consolidated, and social media – long thought of as the bottom-up alternative – has become consolidated into a few sites. Those sites are also taking a more active approach to content moderation. Applauding this is – in my view – a deep mistake. When people are mocked or criticized by their peers for making absurd statements, that is an important, if sometimes ugly, part of free public discussion. When a few private corporations (coordinating closely with themselves, and with states for whom they are often contractors) arrogate the power to determine who will be seen, that is a tremendous investment in power, often cloaked behind policies that are not publicly available.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
These policies are often justified as a response to disinformation, and indeed, with false information being cheaper to manufacture than the true kind, open platforms find themselves inundated with the former. But while there is no question that right-wing conspiracists spread vile and false content, there is a great deal of question whether these companies are responsible enough to wield the power to decide what kinds of content shall be explicitly disallowed or simply algorithmically silenced, power that has been used against left-wing as well as right-wing voices. There is also the question of how a future authoritarian administration could leverage this private power, especially given the extent to which many technology companies are dependent on federal contracts.
If there is one structural factor that limited the extent of the radical right’s initial ambitions – one that would carry over to the next time – it is a lack of experienced cadres. Among professional civil servants or those who could competently serve as such, there are few radical right activists. Republican Party old hands – and a rogue’s gallery of former business associates and sundry entertaining characters with neither experience nor clear ideological commitments – filled in far more of the outgoing administration’s revolving door of staff than would-be revolutionaries against liberalism did, especially in the first half of Trump’s term.
While radical right zealots like Stephen Miller did hold power throughout the administration, Steve Bannon was outmaneuvered relatively early on, with not even an abandoned monastery to train new cadres in. As Ronald Reagan said, staffing is policy. But this could change.
In short, the Trump administration arrived with both the inclination and the weaponry to subvert democratic institutions but was limited by its alienation of the allies it would need to do it, as well as by its own incompetence and infighting. These are fortunate, as is, of course, his failure to win re-election. These are not fortunes that we can rely on in the future.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.