You Don’t Have to Think Trump Is an Authoritarian to Worry about His Presidency


American history is littered with presidents who trampled on the Constitution. None of them were Mussolini-style tyrants.

Jonathan Last has an interesting piece over at The Weekly Standard, in which he attempts to track “the evolving taxonomy of conservatives in the age of Trump.” Last’s thesis is that there are three types of conservative at present: “Trumpers,” who believe that “Trump has made good appointments” and is “working to keep campaign promises” and should therefore “be vigorously defended from criticism”; anti-Trumpers, whose “argument is that despite the areas of policy agreement between conservatives and Trump, Trump’s characterological problems present” a sufficiently large peril as to make realistic the prospect that he will “[lose] the republic”; and “anti-anti-Trumpers,” who are “reluctant to criticize Trump, but who aren’t particularly interested in defending him, directly.”
Broadly, this seems fair. But I must quibble with Last’s definition of an “anti-Trumper,” which is extreme enough in its implication to exclude almost everybody, and which rests upon a thesis that is historically incorrect. As an example of the archetypal anti-Trumper, Last cites David Frum, to whom he ascribes the following position:

My friend David Frum has been a persistent critic of Trump. His argument is that despite the areas of policy agreement between conservatives and Trump, Trump’s characterological problems present a larger peril. In short: What does it profit a conservative if he gains the Supreme Court, but loses the republic? Which is not to say that Trump is a Mussolini-style authoritarian, but that he might be a soft-authoritarian.

If signing onto this contention is necessary to make one an “anti-Trumper,” then I suppose that you can count me out. My opposition to Trump was never predicated upon the fear that he was likely to become an “authoritarian” who might preside over the end of the republic, nor was that prognostication necessary for me to consider myself “anti-Trump.” Rather, I was concerned that Trump lacks character and knowledge; that he is a habitual liar; that he has an embarrassing tendency to lash out verbally at anyone he dislikes; and that, on balance, he might end up ruining the party he was conscripted to lead. In describing him, I used the word “authoritarian” on more than one occasion, but my intent in so doing was to warn against Trump’s approach, not to hype the likelihood of his rendering America a tyranny. I was, and remain, infinitely more worried about ignorance than about autocracy; about incompetence than about five-year-plans; and about corruption than about the midnight knock on the door. I fear, that is, that Trump is Roderick Spode, rather than any of the dictators Spode was drawn up to lampoon. As I have argued since I arrived in this country, the American system is ingeniously designed and remarkably robust, and the culture is strong enough to withstand a bad man. In parchment, Madison lives.

Where, I wonder, does that leave me in Last’s taxonomy? I’m certainly not “pro-Trump.” And I’m not “anti-anti-Trump,” either. If asked, I would describe myself as “anti-Trump” (though not “pro-Democrat,” which is a distinction that many on the Left are struggling to draw). Yet I don’t think we’re headed for the abyss. Am I homeless?

That brings me to my second objection to Last’s essay, which continues thus:

And that “might be” is crucial: Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the chances of Trump moving in an anti-democratic, authoritarian direction are very low. Maybe 1-in-100. On the one hand, those are pretty good odds. On the other hand, since the Civil War, the chances of authoritarianism manifesting in America has been roughly 0.0000 percent. As Peter Thiel would remind us, the biggest jump is from zero to one.

Last’s claim that “since the Civil War, the chances of authoritarianism manifesting in America has been roughly 0.0000 percent” is, frankly, an astonishing one. Let us leave aside for now that, in Jim Crow, America did indeed host a monstrous tyranny within its borders for nearly a century after the Civil War, and focus instead on the role that presidents have played in guiding the U.S. toward authoritarianism. Can it be said with a straight face that the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt presented a “roughly 0.0000 percent” chance “of authoritarianism manifesting in America”? Throughout his life, Wilson was openly hostile to the Constitution, had nothing but loathing for the separation of powers, described as “nonsense” the “inalienable rights of the individual,” and submitted that the United States should move “beyond the Declaration of Independence.” Predictably, these instincts followed him to Washington. As president, he championed the Espionage and Sedition Acts (under which it was a crime to criticize America’s efforts in World War I, to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” against the federal government, and to mail opinions critical of the state through the U.S. Postal Service); had tens of thousands of Americans arrested and prosecuted — including after the war (see: Palmer Raids); and, in 1915, uttered these incredible words during his State of the Union address:

I am sorry to say that the gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue. Their number is not great as compared with the whole number of those sturdy hosts by which our nation has been enriched in recent generations out of virile foreign stock; but it is great enough to have brought deep disgrace upon us and to have made it necessary that we should promptly make use of processes of law by which we may be purged of their corrupt distempers.

Wilson also took it upon himself to re-segregate Washington, D.C., thereby reversing one of the few civil-rights victories of the post-bellum world.

Franklin Roosevelt was no stranger to authority, either. On speech, he was better than Wilson, but elsewhere he exhibited many of the same instincts as the 20th-president, among them a chronic disregard for institutional norms; a dangerous hostility toward the courts; a reflexive disdain for Congress; a willingness to use the government to go after his enemies; and, worst of all, an admiration for foreign despots. That much of what Roosevelt did was popular is neither here nor there; properly understood, authoritarianism is structural, not substantive. Indeed, as David Frum warns in the essay Last cites, “many of the worst and most subversive things Trump will do will be highly popular.”

I do not bring this up to score points against the past, nor because I have any great desire to defend Trump preemptively. Rather, I mention it because I believe strongly that we cannot understand where we are if we do not know where we’ve been, and because I don’t think that Last’s model gives us “anti-Trumpers” a solid grasp of where we’ve been. Writing in response to Frum, The Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch conceded the following:

For this article, I set out to develop a list of telltales that the president is endangering the Constitution and threatening democracy. I failed. In fact, I concluded that there can be no such list, because many of the worrisome things that an antidemocratic president might do look just like things that other presidents have done. Use presidential power to bully corporations? Truman and Kennedy did that. Distort or exaggerate facts to initiate or escalate a war? Johnson and George W. Bush did that. Lie point-blank to the public? Eisenhower did that. Defy orders from the Supreme Court? Lincoln did that. Suspend habeas corpus? Lincoln did that, too. Spy on American activists? Kennedy and Johnson did that. Start wars at will, without congressional approval? Truman did that. Censor “disloyal” speech and fire “disloyal” civil servants? Wilson did that. Incarcerate U.S. citizens of foreign extraction? Franklin D. Roosevelt did that. Use shady schemes to circumvent congressional strictures? Reagan did that. Preempt Justice Department prosecutors? Obama did that. Assert sweeping powers to lock people up without trial or judicial review? George W. Bush did that. Declare an open-ended national emergency? Bush did that, and Obama continued it. Use regulatory authority aggressively and, according to the courts, sometimes illegally? Obama did that. Kill a U.S. citizen abroad? Obama did that, too. Grant favors to political friends, and make mischief for political enemies? All presidents do that.

Depending on our politics, we will weight these transgressions differently. For some, free speech is the sine qua non of liberty. For others, it is safety from drones or habeas corpus or the integrity of the separation of powers. But whatever one’s preference, we should acknowledge that all of these things happened, and that they all seemed like crises at the time. Moreover, we should try to avoid the worst form of arrogant hindsight, under which we conclude that because we’re okay now we must never have been under threat in the first place. “All’s well that ends well” is a fine moral for a fairy tale or a difficult afternoon, but not for a nation in which the individual is sacred. Yes, America survived Wilson. It survived all the other presidents, too. But one can only presume that Last’s “0.0000 percent” line would seem glib to Schenck, Rosansky, and Debs; to the victims of Order 9066; and to the congressmen who opposed the war in Korea. We always think that our age is different. Rarely, if ever, is that true. Should the case against Trump require a surfeit of eschatology, it will not be a case that persuades.

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