In a recent piece in the Guardian, Corey Robin argues that “liberals” exaggerate the danger posed by Donald Trump, and do so because they pay “almost exclusive attention to what Trump says rather than what he does.” He attributes to liberals — “journalists such as Vox’s Ezra Klein and academics such as Yale historian Timothy Snyder ” — the belief that Trump has a “master plan” to seize control of and then “deconstruct” the state. He then points to the obvious fact that Trump is erratic, ineffective, and contradictory in his actions. “It’s a strange kind of authoritarian who fails, as the first order of business, to seize control of the state apparatus.” Robin claims that while Trump talks like an authoritarian, he hasn’t done all that much, especially in the matter of legislation; and the things he has done are mainly unexceptional: “They reflect no peculiar authoritarianism on Trump’s part; they’re just the revanchist stock-in-trade of the American right, which any Republican president would pursue.”
Robin is correct. Trump is not yet a Mussolini or a Putin or even an Orban. Not yet. And indeed, it is quite possible that he will never be a leader like these authoritarians. But he has only been in office for three months, and it is too early to tell. Most of the liberals, myself included, who have spoken about Trump’s authoritarianism have not claimed that he has radically transformed the state. They have claimed that his actions, his words — which are actions — and the forces he has mobilized pose a clear and present danger to America’s already compromised system of constitutional democracy. It is true that Trump rules over a chaotic administration (so did Hitler) and a divided Republican Party, and that many of his policy proposals are conventional right-wing Republican proposals. But it is also true that Trump rules over this administration and this party in a particularly toxic way, and given the powers of the Presidency, he is capable of great harm.
Trump has not instituted an authoritarian regime. Yet. But he is an authoritarian, in at least these four ways:
First, he is a narcissistic egomaniac who has a history of ruling his domain — his family, his business, which are indeed the same, and now the US government — by decree, and who exhibits an extreme form of authoritarian personality. With the possible exception of Richard Nixon — whose “authoritarianism” frightened many people in his time — no President in modern history has evinced the idea that “you are either with me or against me” more than Trump. Trump is a dictatorial individual; by disposition, he is an authoritarian.
Second, his administration is the most nepotistic, and kleptocratic, US administration in memory. He has brazenly ignored every convention, rule, and law governing conflicts of interest, and he uses his office to advance the business interests of his friends, his family, and himself. That his conduct resembles Papa Doc Duvalier more than it does Franco or Mussolini does not make it any less authoritarian. True, this corruption can be seen as a “petty” aspect of Trump’s authoritarianism. But it is also a means of projecting his grandiose image and of maintaining his power. And it is a serious abuse of power.
Third, while only in his early months in office, Trump has sought to institute some seriously authoritarian measures. He has appointed a number of individuals with neo-fascist leanings to his administration. He has declared an intention to crack down on the Sanctuary movement and to punish Sanctuary cities. He has created a climate of fear among the agencies charged with regulating environmental health and safety. He has endorsed repressive, “Guliani-time” policies designed to empower police. Robin concedes that “There’s little doubt that Trump’s administration has pursued policies designed to make life crueler and harder for immigrants , people of color and women. There’s also little doubt that some in his administration, particularly his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, will be successful in doing so.” Do these efforts reflect a “peculiar authoritarianism on Trump’s part?” Some clearly do. Others don’t. Trump, after all, did not create Jeff Sessions, who enjoyed a malevolent career long before he joined his fate to that of Trump. Nonetheless, Trump has empowered Sessions to curtail civil liberties and eviscerate voting rights monitoring and enforcement and to empower an even more draconian regime of border control and enforcement. His efforts have already ruined many lives, even if some of these efforts have been constrained by court rulings. Trump’s commitments draw on a broader repertoire of Republican reaction, and he has made common cause with other conservatives. Does this make his authoritarian aspirations and efforts any less authoritarian? And does the fact that he has thus far experienced failures, and sometimes resistances, make the authoritarianism any less frightening?
Finally, Trump is above all a performer who uses social media, and mass media, and staged public events, and massive, Hitlerian rallies, to denounce, bully, and attack his opponents, and to mobilize angry crowds of supporters around resentful, xenophobic slogans such “Make America Great Again” and “America First” and hateful chants like “USA, USA, USA” and “Lock Her Up!” His supporters attack protesters, and indeed his rhetoric has clearly encouraged many in the so-called “alt-right” to demonstrate, harass, and organize. Such behavior, on the part of a political leader who commands the attention of a US President, represents a form of authoritarianism par excellence.
Robin writes: “’Strong leader’ is a slogan for Trump, a rhetoric, a performance, but that’s about it. Trump has always thought his words were more real than reality.” It is true that Trump has a megalomaniacal belief in the power of his own words. But it is not true that there are his words on one side, and “reality” on the other. As Robin well understands, politics is all about words, and meanings, and rhetorical enactments. Trump’s words — Tweeted daily to tens of millions, and broadcast to hundreds of millions — are real. They are political acts. Trump’s words mobilize hatred against “foreigners.” They denounce and demonize journalists and independent news organizations. They enact, and encourage, an utter cynicism about the distinction between truth and falsity. They incite anger and hostility towards judges, and the rule of law, and regulations and procedures that stand in the way of the decisive action of The Leader.
If that is not “authoritarianism,” then what is?
True enough, in some ways Trump represents a lethal mutation of previously experienced forms of American reaction. And in many ways he is feckless, and has not yet realized his most frightening promises. This is partly due to confusion. It is partly due to the fact that a great deal of opposition has been mobilized against Trump’s authoritarianism. It is partly due to the resilience of a political system that is very obstructive to change. Authoritarianism does not always succeed. But it is none the less authoritarian for that. Indeed, it is reasonable to believe that authoritarianism is more likely to fail when it is identified, named and opposed for what it is. And calling it “typical Republicanism” doesn’t really do it. It is also mistaken. For Trump is not a typical Republican.
Trump is an authoritarian leader who uses bullshit to justify and to mobilize. Most of Trump’s liberal critics are not taken in by his bullshit. They are legitimately frightened by the way it is being used, by an arrogant and authoritarian individual, to serve genuinely authoritarian aspirations. Perhaps it is time that certain left critics of liberals treat what liberal writers say with a little more care, and treat what Trump says, and does, with a little more concern.