I’ve been warning about the risks of confirmation bias when it comes to the strength of American political norms and institutions. That is, I worry about the American tendency to read our history neither as a series of significant shifts in the nature of those norms and institutions, nor as a long series of near failures. This was a major component of a post that I wrote in November that garnered—from my perspective—a surprising amount of attention. I alluded to another variation of this theme recently: the assumption that just because ‘things work out okay’—or even that because they are likely to work out okay—there’s no crisis.
I mention all of this in light of the Trump tweet that Rob posted earlier. Here it is again:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
And here’s my reaction, also in the form of a tweet:
1. If he walks like an authoritarian, talks like an authoritarian, & tweets like an authoritarian—then he’s an authoritarian.
— Daniel Nexon (@dhnexon) February 18, 2017
This tweet is actually the start of a rant. You are free to read it, but here I want to expand on a few issues found there.
One of the basic challenges in dealing with Donald Trump is that he’s a confidence artist. This makes it rather difficult to pin down his actual beliefs. It’s why many voters simply refused to accept that he really intended to do many of the things that he said he would. It also makes it easy to dismiss critics as overly alarmist. After all, perhaps he just comes across as an authoritarian because he’s a thin-skinned narcissist. He’s not really an authoritarian in the political sense.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t matter. Sure, the risks are different. The sources of Trump’s demagoguery will affect how this national nightmare plays out. But the President of the United States has been talking like an authoritarian for quite some time. Whether he calls tough media the “enemy of the American People” because he’s unhinged, so wounded that he’s lashing out as his critics, building his brand, or a dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian—well, we wind up in the same place.
Right now, Trump is an authoritarian operating in a democratic system. American institutions and norms are facing yet another stress test. Some overestimate their strength. Some underestimate it. Some have it right. But we won’t know who is actually correct until the crisis plays itself out. This means complacency is not an option. It also means that political action to protect our institutions must do just that: we cannot destroy them to save them.
Jonathan Rauch makes this point well in The Atlantic:
The 45th president, Donald Trump, might pose the gravest threat to the constitutional order since the 37th. Of course, he might not. Perhaps we’ll get Grown-up Trump, an unorthodox and controversial president who, whatever one may think of his policies and personality, proves to be responsible and effective as a chief executive. But we might get Infantile Trump, an undisciplined narcissist who throws tantrums and governs haphazardly. Or perhaps, worse yet, we’ll get Strongman Trump, who turns out to have been telegraphing his real intentions when, during the campaign, he spread innuendo and misinformation, winked at political violence, and proposed multiple violations of the Constitution and basic decency. Quite probably we’ll get some combination of all three (and possibly others).
If we get Strongman Trump or Infantile Trump, how would we protect our democratic institutions and norms? “Don’t be complacent,” warns Timothy Naftali, a New York University historian who was the founding director of the Nixon presidential library. “Don’t assume the system is so strong that a bad president will be sent packing. We have someone now saying things that imply unconstitutional impulses. If he acts on those impulses, we’re going to be in the political struggle of our lifetimes.” Meeting that challenge, I think, hinges on whether civil society can mobilize to contain and channel Trump.
I worry that Grown-up Trump is a pundit’s hedge. A fantasy. More likely, if Trump “succeeds”—leads the GOP to conservatopia, wins himself a second term and the adulation he so craves, and lines his family’s pockets at the same time—it will be in spite of himself. And there’s no more “if” on the other possibilities. Calling the press the “enemy of the American People” is not idle chatter: it’s a political act. And it’s an authoritarian one.
Top image by Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons