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Any Republican President Would Be Terrible. Trump Is Even Worse.

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Cue endless screaming
Cue endless screaming

In the most recent thread, someone asked if Corey Robin had revised his view that Trump is just a more incompetent version of Rubio or Jeb! in light of the Comey firing. At least in terms of his initial reaction, the answer is apparently “no”:

I must confess that I don’t understand the argument here at all. The phrase “going after the FBI” is very misleading. It’s true enough that the FBI has authoritarian tendencies of its own, and if Comey had been fired for his election tampering or for the FBI not policing local police brutality enough, this would not be authoritarian. Firing the Director of the FBI in order to obstruct investigations into you and your aides after explicitly demanding a guarantee of personal loyalty is…pretty much Authoritarianism 101. Both Chait and Dan have laid out the reasons why this is so deeply concerning, but I have no idea how this point could even be controversial. If this isn’t evidence of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies I’m not sure what the evidence would even look like.

Still, Twitter isn’t the ideal forum for argument, and perhaps he’ll explain his reasoning at greater length. In the meantime, perhaps I should point out why I wasn’t persuaded by the earlier argument that Trump doesn’t have distinctive authoritarian tendencies. (I suppose I might disagree with Chait here too, although I think this is reading too much into the title — AFACT Chait has been freaking out plenty.) Corey cites three major reasons to doubt Trump’s authoritarianism. The first concerns his slow-walking of executive branch appointments:

Trump, in other words, has failed to fill 85% of the positions in the executive branch that he needs to fill in order to run the government to his specifications. It’s a strange kind of authoritarian who fails, as the first order of business, to seize control of the state apparatus: not because there’s been pushback from the Senate but because, in most instances, he hasn’t even tried.

I think this is material to Trump’s competence, but not really to his authoritarianism. Having unconfirmed acting heads of various departments would work just fine. In addition — I’ll come back to this — Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are more about his personal power that larger policy goals. I don’t think “run[ing] the government to his specifications” is particularly important to Trump as long as nothing is interfering with his ability to loot the treasury and private individuals or making him look bad.

The second argument is that Trump has not, yet, defied any of the court orders he’s complained about. This could be a data point, but given the substantial likelihood that the Supreme Court will uphold some version of the travel ban I’d hold off on reaching any conclusions yet. I’ll also note that there’s more than one form of noncompliance: what matters is not just whether Trump announces he’s defying the order but whether the officials under his command are willing to comply.

The the third, weaker argument concerns public opinion:

In March, I was on a panel of liberal scholars and writers where it was the universal consensus that Trump had an almost intuitive grasp of and control over public opinion – as evidenced by his tweets, which were held to be the invisible puppet strings of the American mind.

He’s elaborated on this point here:

Not only has he had the worst approval ratings of any president at this point in his term, but he’s also been singularly incapable of moving the needle of public opinion toward his positions. As I pointed out in my Guardian article last Tuesday, two of Trump’s signature positions—against immigration and free trade—are today more unpopular, almost by record levels, than they were when Trump was elected. Ironically, for all the talk (from people like Jeet Heer) that Trump’s words are a form of action, the main action that his words, qua words, have produced in the realm of public opinion is a movement away from his positions.

I’ve never encountered anyone on the left who thinks Trump is popular, myself, but certainly the consensus of the panel was obviously wrong. But this isn’t relevant to Trump’s authoritarianism, simply because both Corey and the unnamed liberals are mistaken about the potential of the president to control public opinion. Trump has failed to move public opinion not because he isn’t authoritarian but because with some exceptions in times of war no president — irrespective of their adherence to democratic norms — can. (Tax cuts and defense spending, for example, were less popular after Reagan left office than when he was first elected. Republicans took over Congress because in a nearly inevitable realignment marginal conservative voters in the South started voting for more conservative Republicans instead of relatively conservative Democrats. And Republicans have remained electorally competitive not because Regan or Bush or Trump persuaded a majority to support their unpopular agenda, but because the framers in their Infinite Wisdom created institutions that massively overrepresent their core constituencies.)

Trump’s unsurprising inability to move the public opinion needle is neither here nor there. What matters is his adherence to basic rules and norms, and here there’s a lot to be concerned about. His refusal to release his tax returns — not because of principled privacy reasons, but because he evidently has a lot to hide — followed by his open corruption is very disturbing. His immigration orders and how they were produced are very disturbing. It’s true that some of his authoritarian tendencies — most notably vote suppression — are shared by mainstream Republicans, but that doesn’t make them less authoritarian. And while it’s true that most of his cabinet appointments are generic Republican hacks, I don’t think any other Republican candidate would have nominated Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Any Republican victory would mean an increase in arbitrary violence against people — especially people of color and/or the poor — but Trump/Sessions are likely to be worse that the already bad Republican norm.

Still, with all there always was to be concerned about, the Comey firing –which Trump isn’t even denying was done for fundamentally authoritarian reasons — is really bad. I suppose we can disagree about whether it’s the clearest evidence for Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, but it’s clear evidence.

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