You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Weak, Effective Authoritarian

Trump's critics are dividing into two camps, but their respective arguments aren't as mutually exclusive as they seem.


Last May, President Donald Trump reportedly summoned Andrew McCabe, then the acting director of the FBI, and asked: Who did you vote for in the 2016 election? McCabe deflected the question by saying that he didn’t vote, but that didn’t stop Trump from fuming about McCabe’s wife, a Democrat who made a failed bid for the Virginia Senate. The Washington Post, which broke the story about the meeting on Tuesday, reported that McCabe told colleagues the encounter was “disturbing.” Trump’s treatment of McCabe is reminiscent of the president’s earlier attempt to suborn “loyalty” from then-FBI Director James Comey in early 2017. Meanwhile, Axios reported on Tuesday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions pressed FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire McCabe, a move Wray resisted by threatening to resign.

Paralleling these backroom machinations are a concerted media campaign by Trump’s allies to discredit the FBI and the ongoing special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller. Last month, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro called for a wholesale purge of federal law enforcement. “There is a cleansing needed in our FBI and Department of Justice,” Pirro said. “It needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired, but who need to be taken out in cuffs.” McCabe was among the FBI officials she singled out for arrest.

The president and his allies are trying to cow law enforcement officials, making them subservient to him rather than the rule of law. This reality has prompted disparate reactions among his opponents, who can divided between pessimists (or realists, some might say) and optimists. The former worry that Trump is an authoritarian wrecking ball that threatens to crush U.S. democracy. The latter argue that the system is working: Trump might dream of ruling as a strong man, but he’s been remarkably ineffective (Wray ignored the president, after all, and McCabe is still the bureau’s deputy director).

This division transcends the normal political spectrum. Major voices sounding the alarm include conservative Atlantic editor David Frum and liberal New York
magazine writer Jonathan Chait, versus complacent observers like conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and leftist political scientist Corey Robin. But perhaps they’re both right, in a way: Trump’s very weakness is fueling his extremist rhetoric, which is reshaping the Republican Party and corroding democracy.

Writing in the Guardian, Robin argues that “the discourse of Trump’s authoritarianism ignores or minimizes the ways in which democratic citizens and institutions—the media, the courts, the opposition party, social movements—are opposing Trump, with seemingly little fear of intimidation.” Pressing the point further, Douthat notes that Trump’s own party and administration have often derailed his preferred policies. “A vast gulf between the things Trump says he wants—which are, indeed, often authoritarian—and the things that actually happen is the essential characteristic of his presidency’s first year,” Douthat wrote recently.

Douthat provides an impressive list of Trump’s failures and retreats:

He promised to bring back waterboarding and worse; he was easily talked out of it. He promised a Muslim ban; a much more modest travel ban is now tied up in the courts. He launched a voter fraud commission, which his critics regarded as a step toward massive vote suppression; it was ineffective and broke up. He keeps threatening to change the libel laws; they aren’t changing, and the anti-Trump press is thriving. NATO and Nafta are both still there; the trade war with China has been postponed; we are not at war with Iran or (yes, I know, yet) with North Korea; the scope of the Russia investigation has only widened since Trump’s hamfisted intervention.

Responding to Douthat’s argument that Trump is a weak leader, Frum notes, “Trump is a kleptocrat first. He hates criticism and contradiction, yes, but he mostly seeks to plunder. In order to get away with the plunder—and also with his improper connections to Russia—Trump must in self-preservation turn off the ‘burglar alarms’ of the American state. He has attacked the F.B.I. and other means of upholding public integrity.”

Put another way, governance is not just a matter of enacting policies, but having stable norms. Among those norms is to respect the autonomy of those referee institutions which hold power accountable (law enforcement, the media). It’s hardly an accident that Trump has spent so much time attacking these referees, which he and his supporters have labelled “the Deep State” and “Fake News,” respectively.

Even worse, Trump has refashioned the Republican Party as an instrument for echoing his talking points. As Chait notes, “From the standpoint of democratic backsliding, the most alarming development over the last year has been the Republican Party’s almost total abdication of independent responsibility. Even before he took office, Trump shredded long-standing anti-corruption norms requiring a president to disclose tax returns and place his wealth in a blind trust. Even the vague fig leaf Trump offered of donating foreign profits has been completely ignored. House Republicans have assisted him by repeatedly blocking votes to compel the publication of his tax returns.”

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, often portrayed as a moderate Republican, appeared on Fox News on Tuesday and claimed there was a “secret society” within the FBI that was carrying out an anti-Trump agenda. “There’s so much smoke here,” Johnson said. “There’s so much suspicion.” Johnson walked back his claims on Wednesday, but the damage had been done. A senator had thrown fuel into the conspiracy theory fire, in a way that will undermine trust in law enforcement.

In their new book How Democracies Die, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, usefully compare the U.S. to other democracies that backslid into authoritarianism. They argue that “the guardrails of American democracy are weakening. The erosion of our democratic norms began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s. By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans in particular questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary.”

The dynamic Levitsky and Ziblatt are describing has been accelerated by Trump’s ineffectiveness in the policy realm. Precisely because Trump is a weak president who doesn’t know how to achieve his agenda, he’s given to strident rhetoric attacking the legitimacy of his political foes and the institutions that stand in his way.

Democracy depends on faith in the system. One sign of Trump’s success in undermining that faith is that even his critics are now longing for a more authoritarian ruler. In his exchange with Frum, Douthat posits that America might need a smarter, more policy-savvy Trump to break through the nation’s political impasse: “Trump is the wrong kind of Caesar, but some version of what he represents, some authoritarianism-skirting leader, might in fact be a necessary figure for our polarized and increasingly dysfunctional politics.” With even a sensible, Never Trump conservative yearning for a more competent Caesar, who can deny that Trump, weak as he is, isn’t undermining democracy?