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Why Is Trump’s Authoritarianism So Hard for Some to Recognize?

Responding to Corey Robin

Corey Robin asks, “If authoritarianism is looming in the U.S., how come Trump looks so weak?” He has posed this question many times in the past year, and always to the same effect: Trump looks weak because he is weak, and his weakness proves that “authoritarianism” is not “looming.”

Robin likes to take aim at the rhetoric of liberal journalists like Matthew Yglesias, who recently tweeted that Trump is “consolidating an authoritarian regime.” Robin is correct to challenge such exaggerated rhetoric. The U.S. is not (yet?) an “authoritarian regime,” much less one that is “consolidating” (as Robin knows, no political scientist worth her salt would speak of such “consolidation.”) He is also correct to note that the U.S. political system is far from the crisis-ridden Weimar Republic (formed in 1918 after a catastrophic world war and only 15 years old when the Nazis came to power); that Trump is not Hitler; and that Year One of the Trump administration has been nothing like Year One of Hitler’s “Third Reich.”

True that. And yet what serious analyst has said otherwise? Yes, I know, the rhetoric of “fascism” and “Hitler” has frequently been invoked, typically to sound alarm, and to articulate real fear. And historical parallels have been drawn, and lessons have been inferred, by scholars, such as Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levistky, interested in serious historical analogies and disanalogies. But demonstrating that Trump’s Republican administration is no Nazi regime proves very little of relevance to a serious analysis of the challenges that Trump presents to us now.

It is worth unpacking the elements of Robin’s argument: “weakness,” “authoritarianism,” and “looming” are the keywords to examine.

Robin claims that Trump looks weak. In the ways that Robin notes, this is obviously true. But as he also knows, there exists no standpoint — independent place from which to observe such things. And it is worth considering whether there are some standpoints, rooted in real experience, from which Trump looks not weak but powerful and frightening by virtue of his power. I wonder if so-called DACA children and their families see Trump and his administration as “weak.” Or women, associated with #MeToo and a range of long-standing groups and causes, women who have experienced sexual harassment and violence or who fear it, and who are distressed that a serial abuser holds the most powerful position in the country. Are African-American youth paying attention to Trump’s supposed weakness when he encourages police to break some heads?

Are there not real constituencies, numbering in the millions of people, who experience the way Trump regularly incites, mobilizes, and enacts racism, sexism, and xenophobia? Can we imagine that they see not “weakness,” but powerful and energizing rhetoric, sometimes linked to actual policy efforts, and sometimes to actual violence, that threatens them?

Does this mean that Trump is a proto-Hitler? No. But does it mean that Trump appears dangerously powerful and powerfully dangerous to many citizens, and that serious political analysis ought to take account of this? Yes.

Robin slides from the claim that Trump looks weak to the claim that Trump is weak. The distinction is important. It does not follow from the fact that many people fear Trump that all of their fears are justified. And while Robin’s assertion that Trump looks weak is too cavalier, he is not wrong to note the real limits to Trump’s — or any president’s — power. Furthermore, Trump is in many ways personally incompetent. His administration, as an organization, is chaotic and in many ways dysfunctional. Many of his most outrageous policy initiatives—the Mexican wall, the Muslim ban, the Affordable Care Act repeal — have been delayed, stymied, or defeated in the courts or in Congress. A constitutional separation of powers is still in effect. The Bill of Rights has not been abolished. Further, Trump’s Presidency has exposed real fissures in the Republican party, which is genuinely vulnerable in the 2018 elections. In all of these ways, Trump’s Presidency is flawed, limited, and even politically precarious. Trump is no Hitler, or Putin, or Erdogan.

At the same time, Trump has succeeded in some important ways, and has leveraged his power to forward key conservative agendas. While some of these successes — the Gorsuch appointment, the stacking of lower courts with conservative extremists, the recent tax legislation– clearly involve more “ordinary” Republican party priorities, others — the gutting of the federal bureaucracy, and especially the use of the Departments of Justice and Labor to roll back important civil and labor rights — represent a more authoritarian turn. Trump’s repeal of DACA has thus far been stalled. But will there be mass deportations that far exceed those of the Obama administration, and that include hundreds of thousands of DACA children? It is too early to tell. Will Trump’s verbal attacks on the press lead to legal infringements of press freedom? Again, it is too early to tell.

What is not too early to tell is that in a single year Trump, through his rhetoric and his ham-fisted policy efforts, has mobilized race hatred and incited violence; eviscerated environmental protection and assaulted the very idea of civil service professionalism; and has moved the Republican party much further towards being a party of “white nationalism.” Perhaps most importantly, he has used the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency, buoyed by the tremendous reach of his Twitter feed, to intimidate his critics, promote hostility to the rule of law, and to lie and dissimulate in a way that profoundly undermines elemental notions of factual truth. Trump has not started from scratch in these things, and he draws on broader tendencies in our politics. But he has extended the boundaries of what is considered acceptable far beyond any recent predecessor. It is true that Trump’s Presidency is above all else a rhetorical Presidency. It is also true that his rhetoric is poison; that its purpose is to enrich his family, to externalize his anger, and most importantly to elevate himself; and that in this sense, Trump governs — if “governs” is the right word — in a way that can only be described as autocratic.

Has Trump instituted a new, “authoritarian” regime? No.

Is his Presidency profoundly authoritarian in its approach to the rhetoric and the enactment of political power? Yes.

Does authoritarianism “loom,” as a dark shadow cast upon everything, and as a frightening possibility thus far forestalled by determined forms of political opposition and civic resistance?

Of course it does.

This does not make Trump a Putin or even an Orban. It simply makes him a dangerous demagogue in his own right, with autocratic tendencies and ideological affinities with Putin or Orban.

And it is here that Robin’s argument goes most off the rails. In his understandable annoyance at certain forms of fear-mongering, and his equally understandable revulsion at a certain uniquely American refusal to acknowledge the deep failings of the U.S. political system, Robin has reproduced the worst error of self-congratulatory American exceptionalism: the idea that the U.S. can be treated as a case unto itself.

When Trump speaks, he acts. And when he speaks, he is heard not simply in Brooklyn or Chicago but throughout the entire U.S. and indeed throughout the entire world.

And while he is no Putin or Orban or Erdogan, what he says echoes what they say, and it also gives credence to what they say. In this respect, Trumpism is part of a broader pattern of right-wing populism that threatens both social justice and the minimal forms of liberal democracy we currently enjoy.

It is strange that Robin has so little concern for this.

Consider, by contrast, the recent words of Nancy Fraser:

“Our political crisis, if that’s what it is, is not just American, but global. . . [involving] a dramatic weakening, if not a simple breakdown, of the authority of the established political classes and political parties. It is as if masses of people throughout the world had stopped believing in the reigning common sense that underpinned political domination for the last several decades . . . . Donald Trump is the poster child for this hegemonic crisis. But we cannot understand his ascent unless we clarify the conditions that enabled it. And that means identifying the worldview that Trumpism displaced and charting the process through which it unraveled.”

Fraser reads Trump as a symptom of a systemic crisis of neoliberalism, one that can only be solved through a counter-hegemonic project of transforming capitalism. I agree with some of her diagnosis. I disagree with her prescription. But I fully agree that “Trump” is not merely an individual but a phenomenon that is linked to deep failings and broad challenges to normal liberal democratic politics in the U.S., throughout Europe, and indeed globally. And the phenomenon in question stands for revanchist, exclusionary, populist nationalism. Scores of serious commentators across the political spectrum have concerned themselves with this (one good overview is Takis Pappas, “The Specter Haunting Europe: Distinguishing Liberal Democracy’s Challengers,” in Journal of Democracy, October 2016). And yet Robin writes as if Trump is simply an uncouth version of Clinton or Bush or Obama. And he is not.

Our world is not the world of 1914 or 1929 or 1933. Trump is not Hitler. We are not likely to see another Hitler.

But Trump is a distinctly American version of a broader global trend: the rise of authoritarian populist leaders who use new media platforms to attack already eroded forms of party politics and mass communication, attack independent judicial, civil service, and media institutions, and incite populist resentment as a way of building a base of political power.

Trump has thus far been less successful than many other authoritarian populist leaders, because of his own personal defects, because of the relative resilience of American institutions, and also because there has been very strong opposition to his efforts. This opposition has been energized by the very concern that Robin dismisses: that authoritarianism is a looming danger that must be contested.

I do not understand why it is so difficult for Robin to acknowledge this. Doing so does not mean that Trump is some kind of demiurgic evil. It does not exonerate the U.S. political system from its serious failings, including long-standing authoritarian tendencies linked to “the national security state.” It simply means that Trump represents something new and dangerous, an exacerbation of some of the worst tendencies of our politics, and that contesting him and what he represents is a necessary, though surely not sufficient, challenge for those who care about democracy.

Robin almost concedes as much, in passing, at the very end of his piece, when he declares: “There’s little doubt that Trump’s regime is a cause for concern, on multiple grounds, as I and many others have written. But we should not mistake mood for moment.” But this really won’t do. Because the force of his piece, like the December Guardian piece that he cites, is to diminish concern and indeed to disparage those who express it for being hyperbolists or, worse, smug liberals. In this way, his piece is itself more about mood — the mood of knowing nostalgia — than it is about moment.

The 1974 Philip Roth quote with which Robin ends his piece is powerful, and I remember that time well. It is good to be reminded that before there was Trump there was Nixon, and that now is not the first time that serious people have worried about what Hannah Arendt then called  The Crisis of the Republic (1972).

It is also good to wonder what our own intellectual world would be like if Arendt had not written the essays comprising that book, or if Roth had not written his piece, because some clever writer had convinced them that people had also worried about the crises of the republic in the 1930’s, and there are always people who worry about such things, and maybe it’s time for us to stop with all the worrying. The answer is clear: we would be intellectually impoverished. Because those interventions mattered at  their moment. And now, four decades later, we occupy a different moment. In the U.S. we face not Nixon but Trump and what he represents. And in the world at large, we face a powerful tide of populist anti-liberalism that genuinely threatens many of the gains of the past.

As I noted, Robin closes his essay by quoting Roth from 1974. Roth still lives. And about a year ago he gave an interview to the New Yorker that appeared in print as “Roth on Trump.” In that interview Roth compared Trump unfavorably to Charles Lindbergh, the fascist who inspired his 2004 novel The Plot Against America. He went on: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.” Acknowledging that the U.S. in the age of Trump is not (yet) a dictatorship, he concludes: “As for how Trump threatens us, I would say that, like the anxious and fear-ridden families in my book, what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”

It is ironic that Robin’s piece came out in the Guardian the same day that the people of Hawaii were terrorized by a false alarm of a nuclear attack, one that had become all too credible by the repeated threats of Donald Trump to start a nuclear war with North Korea.

We live in dangerous times. They are not the first dangerous times, and they won’t be the last. But our dangers are our own. Trumpism is not Hitlerism. It is Trumpism. It threatens us. We ought to take the full measure of the threat, so that we can better argue and deliberate about how best to counter it.

I agree with Robin when he writes that “there’s little doubt that Trump’s regime is a cause for concern, on multiple grounds.” And this is why I  disagree with him: serious discussion of Trump’s authoritarianism is needed now more than ever.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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