Since Trump won the Electoral College, there have been dismissals of the threat he posed to democratic norms. The most recent of these comes from Ross Douthat, who essentially argues that Trump is too incompetent to be authoritarian: “real political authority, the power to rule and not just to survive, is something that Donald Trump conspicuously does not seem to want.” While it’s true that Trump’s response to COVID-19 has been focused on trying to evade responsibility, as Chait says incompetence and authoritarianism are more compatible than such arguments allow:
But effective public management and effective attacks on democratic norms are different skills. Douthat undersells the very real success Trump has had in the latter area. Trump has not “suddenly discovered how to use his authority for dictatorial or democracy-defying purpose,” he asserts.
Well no, perhaps not “suddenly.” He has instead worked his way there through trial and error. But Trump’s progress after three years is undeniable.
Trump’s first success came immediately: He disabled the norms walling off presidents from private interests. Restraints that were once so strong that Jimmy Carter had to sell off his peanut farm lest any pro-peanut bias infect his decision-making have essentially disappeared altogether. The entire Republican congressional party, and much of its judicial wing, have lined up behind Trump’s claim that he doesn’t need to even disclose his financial interests, let alone cut them loose. Conservatives literally use “Emoluments Clause” as a punchline — after all, it was never enforced before, since nobody until Trump bothered violating it. Just about the only small price Trump pays anymore is regular stories by David Fahrenholdt detailing the government overpaying at his properties.
He has likewise disabled congressional oversight. Where previous presidents skirmished over the boundaries and extent of Congress’s authority to probe their administrations, Trump has dismissed it wholesale. The fact that Congress has political rivalries with the executive — the very dynamic the Founders intentionally counted on to restrain overreach by any branch of government — is, for Trump, proof that competing branches have no legitimacy. “These aren’t, like, impartial people. The Democrats are trying to win 2020,” he said, by way of explaining his blanket refusal to respect any subpoena.
His apparently successful purge of inspectors general has stripped away yet another layer of accountability. It has met the usual response from the GOP: initial scolding from a couple members, followed by silence, followed by a chorus of approval. “He is certainly within his authority. He gets to hire and fire under the Constitution all people in the executive branch,” said Mitch McConnell, laying out the party line.
The problem, of course, is that the president’s formal authority is terrifyingly vast. The Saturday Night Massacre was within the president’s formal authority. So is replacing the Justice Department with pure partisan loyalists who harass his rivals and protect his allies. That is why a system of norms was built to restrain that authority in the first place.
William Barr’s reign at the Justice Department has been the most effective fulfillment of Trump’s ambitions. Trump’s impulsiveness has certainly impaired Barr’s work by making the ruse so obvious, a fact that Barr has even had to complain about loudly. It’s now forgotten, but three months ago, Barr threatened to quit if Trump wouldn’t stop tweeting out demands that the Justice Department become a weapon of vengeance.
Trump hasn’t stopped, and Barr hasn’t quit. He continues to patiently lay the predicate to criminalize all of Trump’s Deep State enemies, and to exonerate his allies. Paul Manafort has skipped to the front of the line and had his sentence reduced to “home confinement” (i.e., what most of us are doing these days anyway). The prosecutors of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn have quit after Barr undercut them, and even if Barr’s maneuvers fail, both will likely win pardons. The message sent across the bureaucracy is crystal clear.
His success at dismantling congressional oversight into his systematic looting of the federal treasury and weaponization of the Justice Department is hardly a trivial matter. And he’s also succeeded at delivering what his core supporters actually want:
It is true that Trump has frequently undercut his ambitions with his ineptitude. Shortly before the pandemic arrived in the United States, conservative economist Tyler Cowen coined a phrase to describe the future of American libertarianism. The phrase he came up with was “State-capacity Libertarianism.” He sketched out a worldview that was skeptical of redistribution, hostile to “the polarizing left,” (hence the libertarian part) but eager to expand the government’s ability to efficiently manage infrastructure, control climate change, and other public goods. He gave a nod to the influence of Trumpist libertarian Peter Thiel.
Trump has delivered in spades on the hostility to the left and to redistribution. (One suspects these are the core demands for most libertarians — certainly they are for Thiel.) The state capacity, not so much. The actual governing synthesis Trump has produced could be called “State Incapacity Authoritarianism.”
State Incapacity Authoritarianism, like its inverse, sounds a bit like an oxymoron. But in practice, the pieces fit together well enough. Its key constituents get out of it the things they want most. Trump and his cronies get looting. The business class gets lavish tax cuts and self-regulation. Republican believers get to humiliate and defy the liberals.
You can dismiss it all as lacking “authority,” and you might be right. But the truth about authoritarians is that, while they usually promise to make the trains run on time, they often fail to deliver. Making the failure not matter is the point of it.
And while it’s true that one of the most important things Trump has done — ensure a Supreme Court majority remains hostile to voting rights and allows Republican state legislatures to insulate themselves from democratic elections — is a goal broadly shared by the Republican establishment, that doesn’t make it less authoritarian.