An American Dictator

“Xi is a great gentleman. He’s now president for life [laughter]. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday [laughter and cheering].” — President Donald Trump speaking about Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Republican fundraiser at his Mar-a-Lago estate, March 3, 2018. [Audio tape obtained by CNN.]

Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump shaking hands

Maybe he was joking. Maybe not. After all, President Donald Trump has long expressed fondness for some of the world’s most authoritarian and disreputable leaders. He praised Vladimir Putin as “a very strong leader for Russia,” favoring Putin over Barack Obama. He also has spoken approvingly of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iraq’s deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. 

Trump frequently emulates the actions of the dictators he admires. He has attacked the press, calling it an “enemy of the people” and threatening to tighten libel laws. In addition to undermining the First Amendment, Trump has taken aim at the “due process” clause of the Constitution, and he has ridden roughshod over the Constitution’s emoluments clause, treating the United States as a kleptocracy. When not enriching himself and his family, the president has adopted policies — such as opening up public lands to exploitation — beneficial to his wealthy supporters.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin

Will Trump become a Xi or a Putin? Probably not, though not for a lack of desire. Trump may admire strongmen, but, fortunately, he lacks their tenacity. The truth is, being a dictator is hard work. It is hard to become one and hard to remain one. It takes a certain kind of discipline that, again, fortunately, our current lazy president and putative authoritarian leader lacks. To take one example from history: As Stephen Kotkin makes clear in his monumental multi-volume biography of Josef Stalin, the Soviet despot labored feverishly to assist the rise of the Bolsheviks to power, ruthlessly disposed of his rivals in the jockeying for power after Lenin’s death, and used an iron hand to maintain his authority. A workaholic, Stalin also held sway over every facet of Soviet policy.

Trump lacks a dictator’s work ethic. He cannot even control the White House, with aides fleeing in droves and hard-to-ignore reports of chaos and disarray. Trump either does not know how to do the job, is unable to perform the normal functions of president, or is unwilling to learn. Or, more probably, all three. He has been all over the map on issues such as gun control and immigration with the result that nothing gets done. A number of White House policy rollouts have landed like duds — heard anything lately about infrastructure rebuilding? — or are so jumbled and poorly drafted — immigration bans come to mind — that they cannot withstand court tests.

Nazi stormtroopers, or brownshirts, marching in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1929.

Nor has Trump done anything to prepare the way for an authoritarian takeover. He has not built a cadre of activists — like the Bolsheviks before the November revolution — who could lead a coup or an army of thugs — like Hitler’s brownshirts and Mussolini’s blackshirts — to take to the streets in an attempt to undermine national stability. Trump has his loyal one-third of the voters who will support him regardless of his behavior, but the Trumpistas, at least so far, appear disorganized and not ready for extralegal actions. (Though the audience that heard Trump’s remarks praising Chinese President Xi’s power grab cheered enthusiastically.)

But, none of this means Trump is not a danger. His delegitimizing of important national institutions — the FBI, the media — does lasting damage to the body politic. His constant lying undermines truth, his reliance on conspiracy theories provides grist for the unthinking, and his unwillingness to accept the precepts of science gives encouragement and even haven to the uneducated. Most importantly, his shady moral character and his bullying weaken our public ethos and subvert civility.

Trump may not be equipped to become the first American ruler-for-life, but his irrationality, his lack of civility, his willingness to treat the United States as an agency for family enrichment, his contempt for the normal workings of the American Republic, and his predilection to use the legal system against his political opponents (“Lock her up!” is not the way America has treated election losers) may enable the next threat to American democracy. It may be hard to recover faith in the rule of law. It may not be easy to restore civility in the two-party system. Donald Trump’s corrosiveness may well have lasting effect. Imagine a Donald Trump with intelligence, with knowledge of the workings of the American political system and government, and with willingness to work hard (and no interest in golf). And, then, imagine that leader with an army of street thugs terrorizing his political opponents. 

It could happen here.

Posted March 9, 2018


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