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Trump’s Figurehead Presidency Is Driving a New Authoritarianism

As Trump demeans his office, power is moving to the streets and to the military.

Drew Angerer/Getty

As Donald Trump bellowed, smirked, and grimaced his way through two high-profile speeches this week, the public ignored him, even as he swung between contrasting poles. That a power vacuum is forming at the top of the American political system can no longer be denied. The people, it seems, are tuning out the president—a sensible enough reaction to Trump’s dysfunctional and embarrassing term in office, but also one that runs the risk of undermining a cornerstone of America’s democracy.

On Monday, President Jekyll read a teleprompter as he articulated a troop build-up in Afghanistan that goes against his own longstanding stance that Americans should withdraw from the country. On Tuesday, in Phoenix, President Hyde returned to the full-on savagery of his campaign, castigating the press as traitors to the country and letting loose with language designed to rile up his hard-core white-nationalist base. The response of America to both Trumps—the puppet politician who is just repeating what his military advisers are telling him and the demagogic racist—was essentially the same: meh.

The Monday speech received very poor ratings, drawing less than half the number of viewers President Obama did when he spoke on the same subject in the first year of his presidency, and the Phoenix rally was poorly attended, with plenty of room at the back of the venue for bored fans to mill around. In other words, Trump is losing his audience, and they’re starting to look elsewhere. To a show-business veteran accustomed to orchestrated fawning, this must be coming as a nasty surprise.

It could also be a blow to democracy. Trump—derided, distrusted, and singularly ineffective—is a weak president, but more important, he is weakening the presidency. One of the key presidential powers is access to the bully-pulpit, which Trump is remarkably inept at commanding despite (or perhaps because) of his long career as a showman. Without it, Trump has been unable to persuade those outside his base to go along with him, so instead he reverts to hectoring and browbeating, tactics that he’s increasingly using against Republicans as his political support shrinks. He has trouble getting his own party, let alone Democrats, to line up behind major legislation.

There’s more than one man’s vanity at stake. What Trump may not realize is that after all the campaigning is over, a president’s influence comes not from any gyrations of his charisma but from the accumulated legitimacy of the office. The presidency is a quasi-monarchical institution, and so citizens are taught to respect the commander in chief, no matter what the party. The American political system as it exists needs a president the people can respect, if only to keep this legitimacy from withering away. As a polarizing president with a history of bigoted comments, Trump has had trouble assuming moral authority from the start, but with his response to this month’s neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, he has lost whatever chance he had of earning it.

And that’s a problem. The office of the president isn’t just a collection of its duties, such as signing legislation or setting foreign policy; it is the focal point that keeps other visions of concentrated leadership, some deeply authoritarian, from creeping into the foreground.

Now that the United States no longer has a functional president, the public is turning its expectations elsewhere. Some are looking to the generals; others are looking to the streets.

Among the elite we see a rise of one flavor of authoritarianism, with “the generals” (Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster) being praised as saviors who will preserve the government from Trump’s dereliction of duty. Earlier this month, Politico pointed to the growing cohesion of this group:

During the first seven months of his administration, the generals have emerged as a fairly coherent bloc of foreign-policy thinkers whose views have put at least the most extreme fears of critics to rest. Through both experience and military education, the generals are pragmatic realists and internationalists, committed to the United States’ leadership role in the world. Internally, they’ve been a strong counterweight to the nationalist/populist faction in the White House led by chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Now, of course, Steve Bannon is gone from the White House, which means “the generals” are even stronger. Many mainstream observers have welcomed this development, considering it a superior alternative to Trump and his nationalist cronies making decisions. As Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker tweeted:

Writing in collaboration with his colleague Robert Costa on Monday, Rucker argued that “high-ranking military officials have become an increasingly ubiquitous presence in American political life during Donald Trump’s presidency, repeatedly winning arguments inside the West Wing, publicly contradicting the president and even balking at implementing one of his most controversial policies.”

This explains the otherwise inexplicable praise that Monday’s speech received from some journalists, even as TV ratings bottomed out. On Monday night, Rucker tweeted:

The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman called the speech the president’s best yet:

Rucker and Haberman are of course savvy enough to know that Trump was reading words others have written, which the president himself almost certainly doesn’t believe. So their praise of the speech carries a hidden message: Thank God, they are saying, that the generals are in charge and that Trump is following orders.

It’s understandable that some Americans are turning to the generals, since the alternative is watching Trump botch the final decisions of life and death that we usually trust a president to make. Still, the truth is that any rule by the generals that stretches beyond their established role can only be deeply anti-democratic. The military is supposed to offer policy choices to the president, not the other way around. Trump is ceding presidential power to his military advisers, and this subtle move toward authoritarianism is winning bipartisan support.

The rise of the generals is aided and abetted by Congress when it fails to do its constitutional duty and check the president. Congress has many remedies available for holding a president accountable, ranging from blocking his nominations all the way up to impeachment, but so far, under Republican control, Congress has been loath to exercise them. Instead of relying on constitutional measures, lawmakers too are putting trust in the generals, hoping that they’ll keep Trump from any truly reckless act.

As Congress neglects its constitutional duties and elites cheer on Trump’s band of military men, political conflict is likely to move to the streets. This could be a good thing; it could also be a very bad thing. In street activism lies hope for progressive reforms to democracy, but when such activism is also symptomatic of a total loss of faith in existing democratic institutions, it can work in the service of authoritarianism. What makes this situation truly dangerous is that the president seems intent on encouraging his own form of street theater. Post-Charlottesville, Trump is peppering his messages with winks and nods to some of the only people who still seem to be taking him seriously: white-nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the KKK. This is a recipe for more Charlottesville-style clashes, with Trump shoring up his base by stoking their fear of radical leftist protesters. He did just that in Phoenix, growling, “You know, they show up in the helmets and the black masks, and they’ve got clubs and they’ve got everything—Antifa!”

Democracy does not work with a power vacuum for a president. As Trump makes a mockery of his office, he has left America to drift in two fundamentally anti-democratic directions, with the military exercising ever greater power as neo-Nazi street protesters form militias of their own. People of good faith around the country may be trying desperately to counter both, but this is fundamentally a political crisis that has to have a political solution. The president is unfit to serve, and until Congress comes to its senses and remembers its constitutional powers, this is what we can expect: a weakened president subservient to the military egging on armed fascists as they take to the streets.