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The anti-anti authoritarians

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I would say last Wednesday’s events settled the debate between people who saw the dangers Trump posed to American democracy and anti-anti Trumpers of both the left and “moderate” right, had the debate not been settled to anyone not in deep denial long before. Still, Trump pressuring legislators to throw out the results of an election while lynch mobs he incited invaded the Capitol, and getting most of the House Republican conference to go along after the terrorist attacks, does throw the question into particularly sharp relief. Particularly useless was the “Trump is not literally Hitler” argument:

Some of the intellectuals who questioned the seriousness of Trump’s authoritarianism, like Ross Douthat and Shadi Hamid, have graciously confessed their error. Others have quietly slunk away. Now that most of Trump’s defenders have been duly chagrined, it is worth revisiting the debate before it disappears into history. What did the anti-anti-Trumpers get so wrong?

The case for complacency consisted of two major themes. First, it defined the danger as “fascism,” a hyperbolic term used by some of Trump’s more reckless opponents, which obscured the more subtle threat he posed. (“So much for Donald Mussolini,” scoffed a 2017 Wall Street Journal editorial.) Second, it insisted Trump was too lazy and incompetent to do any serious damage to the democratic system. “If authoritarianism is looming in the U.S., how come Donald Trump looks so weak?” asked left-wing columnist Corey Robin, whose argument consisted of an extended, favorable comparison of the climate of dissent in Trump’s America in 2018 to that of Germany circa 1934.

What frightened so many scholars of democracy about Trump was the danger of eroding the health of the system along a broad array of fronts, from encouraging political violence to undermining the legitimacy of elections. Their fear was less a sudden plunge into dictatorship than a slow process of democratic backsliding of the sort engineered by authoritarian leaders in places like Hungary and Turkey. The anti-anti-authoritarians, by contrast, liked to imagine government as a flip switch with two modes: “democracy” and “Nazi Germany.” And since Trump obviously did not have Hitler-like control of the government, then the authoritarian scare must be a figment of the liberal imagination.

The most serious misjudgment of the anti-anti-authoritarian set concerned Trump’s character. The president was hapless, incompetent, and easily rolled by Congress, which made it easy to mock the fear that he was building an autocracy. The most intelligent version of this skeptical claim was put forth by Douthat, who reasoned that Trump “doesn’t want authority,” and therefore cannot be an authoritarian.

In fact Trump very much did crave authority — just not the kind of authority traditional presidents paid much attention. He demanded authority over the federal government, relentlessly blasting away at the walls meant to separate his personal interests from those of the state. His (first) impeachment centered on a version of this demand: Trump perverted U.S. policy toward Ukraine into leverage to smear a political rival. This was in keeping with his general belief that every employee of the federal government, from the attorney general to the Pentagon to the printing office at the Treasury Department, should cater to his needs as slavishly as the doorman at Trump Tower.

It’s particularly strange to leap right for Nazi Germany with the Jim Crow model of authoritarianism sitting right there. But of course in most cases, these arguments began with a core assumption: that it was fine-to-desirable not to support the only candidate who could beat Trump in 2016, whether because “muh taxes and neocofederate judges” [on the right] or “the Democrats could only be worth supporting if they nominated one specific left-liberal” [on the left]. The “Trump is not Hitler and the U.S. in 2016 is not Weimar Germany, and therefore Trump poses no threat to American democracy” was reverse engineered from there.

Relatedly, the false equivalence is only one problem with this particular dismissal of Trumpism:

The idea that you can make the powerful reactionary faction that doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the opposition to govern go away by doing good policy is a pernicious and ahistorical delusion. The very first election after the enactment of the Great Society, Nixon and Wallace got 57% of the vote, and the next election (after Nixon had escalated in Vietnam, less you be tempted to use that to explain the immediate reactionary backlash) Nixon bumped that over 60% while Wallace got nearly a quarter of the Dem primary electorate. The dangers posed by Trumpism are real, deep-rooted, and there’s no One Magic Trick to defeating them.

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