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Trump, Threat Inflation, and Authoritarianism

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FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, 77 years old with President Richard Nixon after returning to Washington Saturday, Dec. 31, 1971. (AP Photo/JP)

I have a piece at the Washington Post’s PostEverything that tries to cut through some of the debate over Trump and authoritarianism.

Those of you who follow this debate will quickly recognize my concerns. There are people who have an incentive to overhype the threat posed by Trump out of legitimate fears of democratic backsliding. There are those who welcome this kind of “threat inflation” because it provides them with a way of discrediting those of us deeply concerned about the fate of American liberal democracy. And there are those who recoil at it on substantive grounds: because it adopts a pollyannish view of American history. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of what we’re seeing in discussions of Russia-Trump, where’s there’s a similar convergence among those invested in defending Trump and those who think that it’s a distraction.

True, Trump shows little intrinsic regard for democratic norms, values and institutions. Many Americans familiar with the rhetoric and tactics favored by leaders of authoritarian and hybrid regimes find the president and his administration deeply disquieting. But optimists, whether Trump supporters or the president’s more sanguine opponents, are right to point out that the American elections in 2017 were as free and fair as they were in 2016; the judiciary still has acted to check the executive branch; our libel laws remain the same; and plenty of functioning democracies adopt much more restrictive immigration policies than does the United States. In fact, current trends point toward a brutal 2018 for Republican officeholders. This hardly seems the stuff of authoritarianism, let alone totalitarianism.

Still, the real fear is that democratic institutions can seem robust until they collapse. Each encroachment, especially if accomplished under the cloak of formal legitimacy, can be waved away; norms, once breached, can be difficult to put back into place. Pessimists point to Hungary’s self-proclaimed illiberal democracy or Turkey’s slide into de facto dictatorship.

This suggests a dilemma. Hype the threat too much, and you risk discrediting the cause. Downplay the threat, and risk standing by while the bottom falls out. It doesn’t help matters that we really have little idea why Trump has failed to make good on his rhetoric. It might be the strength of institutional checks, the presence of “cooler heads” that keep him under control, his personal incompetence or a general lack of seriousness behind his threats and boasting. But, at some basic level, it is deeply irresponsible to simply dismiss the threats and boasts of the president.

I argue that, unfortunately, much of the evidence used to downplay the threat of democratic backsliding is precisely what should make us afraid. America’s past, especially in terms of the treatment of minorities, points to the country’s tolerance for ‘pocket’ authoritarianism. Which turns out to look a lot like illiberal democracy.

It demonstrates that there’s no “special sauce” that insulates the United States from autocratic policies, kleptocracy and zones of outright authoritarianism. Many look back fondly on past periods of American prosperity and global power. Trump built his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” around this nostalgia. But as critics argued during the 2016 campaign, the America that Trump invoked could be a brutal place for ethnic and religious minorities, people who violated prevailing gender norms and sexual morality and those accused of communist sympathies.

This kind of selective tyranny, in fact, is endemic to autocratic and hybrid regimes. As Thomas Pepinksy writes, “Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is … boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered … they are going to be frustrated.”

You’ve seen these arguments from me, in various contexts, before. But check it out.

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