2016 Election

Searching for the Authoritarian Trump


- May 8th, 2018
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A lot of public intellectuals and writers are pushing an alarming thesis: President Trump is a menace to the American Republic and a threat to American liberties. The criticism is not exclusively partisan; it’s shared by prominent conservatives, liberals, and libertarians.

From his perch at the New York Times, David Brooks declares Trump is “pursuing authoritarian ends” and threatens to kill Democracy. Margaret Thatcher biographer Claire Berlinski opines in a World Affairs interview: “It’s as if a hostile foreign power seized the U.S. government and is by remote control steering it toward the maximum possible catastrophe.” Trump is “the closest thing to a Third World potentate” warns Reason’s Shikha Sood Dalmia  in a Facebook post. Moving further left, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman holds out hope George W. Bush and Barack Obama will join forces to somehow check Trump and avert a looming constitutional crisis. Meantime, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright queries whether we can stop Trump before fascism descends on America.

The list of accusers goes on. It’s heated, heady stuff. But, assessing Trump’s first year in office, someone needs to confront these doomsayers and ask: Seriously, what are you talking about?! What authoritarian things has Trump done? Where are the political arrests? The banana prosecutions, detention camps, press seizures, and network shutdowns? What justifies your apocalyptic rhetoric?

Because so many elites believe Trump should be impeached, or at least shunned and rendered impotent, it’s important to agree on terms for serious discussion. Authoritarian means demanding absolute obedience to a designated authority. It means that somewhere, someone, has unlimited power. Turning the focus to Trump, after 15 months in office, it’s impossible to assign him any of those descriptions. One compelling illustration of the absurdity comes, interestingly, from the left-leaning Guardian newspaper: “Many of Hitler’s opponents did initially dismiss him as a buffoon. But one year into power? They either were dead, in concentration camps or running for their lives.”

The Guardian notes that within a year, Hitler had filled the Kemma concentration camp with up to 5,000 Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists, whose frequent screams tormented neighbors several hundred yards away.

That’s a dictator.

If Trump aspires to the big leagues, how does he compare to the Godwin standard? One year into his presidency, there are no concentration camps or political arrests. Rather, the #Resistance ranges from fervent to rabid. Hollywood and media’s brightest stars regularly gather at galas to crudely declare their contempt for Trump and his deplorable supporters. Academics and reporters lodged in elite faculty lounges and ivory towers regularly malign his brains, judgment, and temperament. Activists gather in thousands on the streets to denounce Trump and his voters. None of these people believe Trump is an autocrat, or, if they do they are ignorant of the word’s meaning. None fear for their lives, liberty, or property.

Still, other elites pile on. Federal judges provide legal backup, contriving frivolous theories to block administrations moves. Some rule Trump lacks even the authority to undo by executive order things Obama himself introduced by executive order. Governors from states like California, Oregon and New York announce they will not cooperate with administration policy (current law, really) on immigration, the environment, and other issues.

Amidst such widespread rebellion, waged with impunity against the constitutionally elected president, the critics’ dark warnings that America faces a dictator are more than wrong; they are surreal and damnable. They are what amounts to the howl of that half the nation still refusing to accept election results it dislikes.

Conceding Trump lacks an inmate or body count, critics still offer theories to categorize him in genus monsterus. The main arguments cite Trump’s patented belligerent personality and undisciplined tweets, his use of executive orders; his alleged obstruction in firing James Comey and criticizing Robert Mueller, his blasts at the media, and his immigration policies. These attacks weigh less than the paper they might be printed on.

Trump’s personality doubtless is sui generis for national office. If he doesn’t occasionally offend listeners they probably aren’t listening. But so what? Personality is not policy. A sensibility is not a platform, and bluster and spittle are not coercive state action. The Human Jerk-o-meter could measure Trump in the 99th percentile, and the effect would not change one law, eliminate one right, or jail one critic.

Executive Orders are misunderstood. All modern presidents used them. There is nothing wrong in concept with executive orders. Some are constitutional some are not. What matters is whether they direct executive priorities within U.S. statutes or try to push authority beyond the law to change the rights and duties of citizens. For example, a president might order the EPA to focus on the Clean Air Act more than the Clean Water Act, or vice versa. That is fine. But, if a president orders the EPA to regulate how much people can water their lawns or what kind of lawns to plant, the president is trying to legislate and create new controls. That is unconstitutional.

Many of Obama’s executive orders were transgressive and unconstitutional. Most of Trump’s executive orders are within the law, and constitutional. However that debate turns out, though, it is silly to argue the issue implicates authoritarianism.

The partisan arguments over Trump’s response to the special counsel also miss key points. Presidents have authority to fire subordinates. The recommendation authored by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein provides abundant reason for Trump to have fired James Comey, who increasingly is seen as a bitter anti-Trump campaigner. As for Robert Mueller, criticizing is not usurping. Mueller’s investigation continues, but now readily is perceived as a target shoot, unmoored from the original accusations about Russia, in search of any reason to draw blood from Trump. Criticizing that is not dictatorial, it is reasonable.

No doubt Trump criticizes the media more than many modern presidents. But criticism is not oppression. It attacks not freedom of the press but the credibility of the press. That is civically uncomfortable, but the fact is, the war of words between Trump and the media is mutual. The media attacks Trump constantly, ferociously and very often inaccurately as Mollie Hemingway and Glenn Greenwald document from different political perspectives. Trump fighting back is not asserting government control. It is just challenging media assumptions and narratives in a way no president ever has. Reporters don’t like it, so they call it oppression. They are crybabies.

Finally, the accusation that Trump wants to enforce the border under current U.S. laws, as well as better vet immigration from a handful of failed states in the Middle East with significant militant activity hardly makes him a tyrant. Voters elected Trump to step up border enforcement. Scrutinizing immigrants from a handful of countries with known terrorist networks is not a “Muslim ban.” The idea insults the intelligence since there are about 65 majority Muslim countries the order does not touch.

Trump is not Hitler. Critics’ attacks are policy disputes, not examples of authoritarianism. The debate is driven by sore losers who are willing to erode norms that have preserved the republic for 240 years.

Photo credit: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

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