Donald Trump is regularly accused of acting as an authoritarian leader. Those who assert the president is an autocrat do so by extrapolating meaning from a blend of credulous rhetorical analysis and two-bit armchair psychology. Unsurprisingly, the proclamations of authoritarianism usually come from sycophantic access journalists clutching their pearls talking about the importance of a beloved media and pop-academics in the American political sphere while simultaneously stridently avoiding institutional analysis.
In many ways, it is sensible to fear bombastic language from a man capable of unilaterally employing a nuclear strike anywhere on the globe. Still, accusing the sitting U.S. president of being or becoming a dictator should require clear evidence.
In general, there have been two interrelated analytical approaches that the media class draws from when its members discuss Trump and his supporters that can help shed light on how they understand a lawfully-elected president to be a rising autocrat.
One common approach to hinting at Trump’s authoritarianism has been to analyze his individual supporters grievances and dispositions to create a snap psychological profile of his average voter. Under this view, Trump is just a manifestation of a broader societal shift towards more change-averse xenophobic preferences on an individual level that enable authoritarian rule.
It is easy to find evidence of the many media outlets’ attempts to place Trump support in this psychoanalytical light. Take, for example, a Vox profile of Trump fans throughout his primary campaign.
In a video analysis of Trump supporters, the intrepid Vox journalist Joe Posner courageously treks into the hinterlands of Iowa and interviews a few select Trump backers about their views on Muslims and immigrants. The presentation starts out relatively innocuous, but the viewer is supposed to increasingly feel that these individuals are enemies of a tolerant America. After a slurry of interviews with people qualifying their unwillingness to welcome Muslim refugees with phrases akin to “I’m not racist, but…,” Posner links their views to the uptick of violent crime against Muslims in the United States without a modicum of justification beyond rhetorical similarity. Posner posits, pointing to other Republican primary candidates’ anti-Muslim rhetoric, that Trump is just the articulation of the collective bigotry of Americans.
Setting aside the fallacious idea that candidates do not influence broader society and other political candidates, for purposes of discussing Donald Trump and his alleged burgeoning dictatorship, these lay psychological analytical tools are incorrect and dangerous.
Data from the 2016 election shows, in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton supporters’ talking points about the irredeemable racism and sexism of vast areas of the country, that people voted for Trump despite his racism and sexism rather than because of it. The armchair psychological diagnoses posited by various media figures as evidence of Trump’s authoritarianism simply do not fit the post-election understanding. On the surface, this should have been obvious. Humans are not reducible to single-motivation automatons and to say otherwise is to caricaturize a massive portion of America down to their prejudices. In the collective mind of the liberal polity, Trump’s Midwestern supporters were willing to go bankrupt through health care expenses rather than have a woman as president, which is a patently insane interpretation on its face.
To be clear, the increase in violence against Muslims is horrendous and likely the outcome from the growing sense of social legitimation for xenophobia that Trump is helping propel into the mainstream. At the same time, these types of analyses assume that Trump support is monolithic as a result of a deep-seated desire to submit to authority and a fear of change. To the extent that there is a fear of change, though, it is a fear of the redistribution of wealth to the coasts and the hollowing out of communities. However, these sorts of concerns humanize the very people the media are unwilling to understand and take a measure of joy in condescending to or, at a minimum, mocking.
The other media approach accuses Trump of acting as an autocrat by making comparisons between the president and famous totalitarian leaders and the MAGA crowd and Nazi partisans, assuming Trump supporters to be a singular collective mass. The most popular manifestation of this is using Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism to explain Trump. In the wake of November’s presidential election, the book has flown off the shelves and memes about the book have proliferated throughout social and traditional media. As Emmett Rensin argued recently, the doomsayers of Trump authoritarianism have deeply identified with a hackneyed Arendt via their Twitter-fueled social psychological understanding of Trump’s supporters.
Arendt’s type of analysis assumes the mass susceptibility and desire of the population to be whipped into a froth of ideological fervor on behalf of a racist movement that, in turn, dissolves individual identity into a mass-mobilized whole rather than merely a large group of individuals.
In Arendt’s view, the population’s mobilization capacity partially originates from an increased sense of alienation in society that can be sourced to imperialist expansion that, in turn, causes a nationalistic backlash that exceeds even the bounds of nationalism. The reaction against imperialistic entities originates when the state is increasingly non-representative of collective national interest. Instead, imperial policy and its advocates focus on developing an administrative and ideological apparatus that serves the internationalized interests of a certain segment of the population but pretends its values are universal, in order to mitigate the perceptions of selfishness. The movement reacting to the imperial state supersedes any paltry social structure like a party or, even, the state as it not only represents the concept of what it claims, such as “Justice” or “Righteousness,” but also asserts its members are the collective embodiment of those concepts on the basis of race or, in the case of Stalinism, class. Put simply, the population in totalitarian rule is mobilized inexorably into a dangerous ideological state of ecstasy such that they are beyond reason.
Arendt’s complex and seemingly prescient analysis of imperialism could be easily applied to 2016 America. Examples of her understanding of imperialism and supra-nationalism can be found everywhere in America. Take the bipartisan sale of public assets in states and municipalities such as Abu Dhabi’s purchase of the rights to Chicago’s parking meters or the attempted sale of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
But the media doesn’t use this broad interpretation of Arendt. Instead, they focus on the beyond-reason mass-delusion of Trump supporters by focusing on Trump’s ideology and the resulting emotional reaction of Trump supporters at his rally.
The day before the 2016 presidential election in an exhaustive piece that tacitly supports devolving power from the citizenry towards the aristocracy, Ezra Klein attempted to interpret the rise of Trump. After offhandedly dismissing Trump’s popularity on the basis of economic realities using national trends like unemployment, rising median income, and “consumer confidence,” Klein explains that the real culprit is partisanship and ideological firmness.
In the media class’ world, Trump supporters are Trump supporters because they’ve been fed a steady diet of conspiracy theories, bad data, and fear-mongering media. Their nationalism is the key explanation of their violent mobilization. To soothe the comfort of their fear and anger, as the Arendt meme goes, they have turned to a strongman who taps into their inner disdain for immigrants, a love of being part of a group, and a total lack of reason
The presentation of the collective whole of Trump supporters as either nascent SS-officers or feverish nihilistic dupes may serve the purposes of individuals hoping to abandon geographically-linked socioeconomic classes in the Midwest and South, but, again, it does not fit today’s America for any honest analysis. If one takes Arendt and the pundits’ bastardization of it as explanatory for Trump’s nascent totalitarianism with the MAGA crowd, then it would imply a level of mobilization that should have, at a minimum, filled the front-seat bleachers of their god-on-Earth’s coronation back in January. Trump support is small and occasionally fervent with violent rhetoric, but if this is the threshold to extrapolate a sense of totalitarianism for a candidate, then most contemporary candidates would fit the bill to some extent.
A more productive analytical approach can be found in policy and institutional analyses over time. In this area, which is the one analytic tool the pundit class has largely avoided outside of Ezra Klein’s castigation of Trump’s ability to capture the Republican Party, Donald Trump fares no better or worse than any other U.S. president in recent history, with the possible exception of his stances on certain immigrants. Even Trump’s most horrific policies, though, are not a large stretch from the Bush and Obama-sanctioned FBI entrapment schemes directed at mosques across the country.
Beyond gay marriage, over the last seventeen years, the rollback of human rights in the United States is staggering. The George W. Bush’s administration began when the candidate lost both the popular and, according to independent reviews, the electoral vote, but managed to win the election through an unelected court system because his brother Jeb - ! - enabled a number of voter suppression policies to assist his victory in Florida. Shortly after, in the wake of 9/11, the Senate and House passed a massive surveillance and policing law that almost no member of Congress had read in its entirety before granting massive power to the U.S. President. From there, Bush was able to conjure up two wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people and destabilized an entire region.
At the beginning of the Obama era the virtually unaccountable surveillance state expanded along with undeclared drone war in a number of countries all over the developing world. As the 2012 election came around, a number of state legislatures realized that, through targeted laws against poor people and minorities, they could swing elections by restricting voting rights through any mechanism but explicit racism. Now, as scores of young black men are murdered in the streets by previously-sanctioned officers, police accountability is virtually nonexistent in many areas of the country.
It may be a truism, but If the basis of authoritarianism is a lack of democracy in the form of political and civil rights, then these problems are all manifestations of American authoritarianism. The most disconcerting aspect of the nightmare policies and systemic problems, though, is not necessarily that they exist, it is that they are all entirely legal and performed within the proper channels allowed by the U.S. Constitution and the current mediating institutions designed to protect the citizenry.
The authority to kill in secret without a modicum of public accountability, the ability to hold immigrants and travelers in indefinite detention, and the massive Orwellian arbitrary law enforcement powers outlined in the now firmly ensconced Patriot Act are all, insanely, legal prerogatives for the executive branch. The presumption in creating them was some sort of executive beneficence, as if the dignity of the White House and horse-race processes of amassing power would only allow levelheaded leadership.
For purposes of functional opposition politics, an analysis of authoritarianism in the United States should not rely on social psychological analyses of the same Republican base that has been around since Goldwater or some sort esoteric discussion of electoral processes. The real issue for developed democracies is the capacity of the regime framework to allow for the state to become captured by authoritarian policies and a narrow distribution of power. Given the slew of political and human rights catastrophes implemented throughout the aughts and 2010s, it is abundantly clear the American democratic frameworks fall far short of any metric of resilience.
The existing analyses of Trump authoritarianism are necessarily facile because many of those most willing to sound the alarm currently are the same class of individuals that lauded - often to the point of glee - decisionmaking propped up by vast executive authority throughout the Obama era. The question for most of the Trump-is-a-dictator accusers has never been a function of the value of executive authority generally, but who is in control of the vast powerful presidential apparatus specifically. The same things that make Donald Trump an authoritarian are the same things that made both Bush and Obama predisposed towards authoritarianism and it is this fact that is far more terrifying than Trump insulting the press, as precedent often becomes perpetual reality.
The only solution to America’s potential for authoritarian capture is grassroots mobilization and electoral successes that enable a restructuring of the institutions that devolve or centralize power in the highest echelons of governance. Without attempting to acquire power, opposition politics is merely cultural and performative in the vein of “I watched Melissa McCarthy make fun of ‘Spicy’ so I am done for the week.” The question, therefore, is, if Trump’s authoritarian personality is enabled by existing power distribution frameworks, then how do you go about dismantling them?
Aside from the absolutely essential abandonment of the Democratic Party’s enamorment of executive authority, the key to achieve a less arbitrary state starts with the most logical place in the political supply chain: state legislatures.
Despite the clear platform messaging and voter base growth capability enabled by regional politics, state and local policy is often overlooked by the Democratic media and political apparatus beyond a few key issues important to the wealthy donor base such as the environment and reproductive rights. This was a tacit centerpiece of the DNC chair debate with both Tom Perez and Keith Ellison vying to demonstrate their local organizing bona fides. The articulation of the goal to focus on state and local politics in this forum, though, was mainly in the context of how the Democrats could lose so many national elections. The importance of regional politics was, if anything, downplayed during the DNC chair discussions.
First, localizing issues engages new communities whose ideological preferences stretch across generations. From the eighteen year-olds at rural Midwestern universities who, knowing nothing about the senile war criminal, fashion themselves Reagan Republicans to the now-septuagenarian Goldwater and John Birch Society generation who came to power in the executive branch decades later, state politics is the incubator for future ideological supremacy.
Second, absent superseding federal policy, states and municipalities alone often decide major policy arenas that enhance or restrict democracy. As a result of recent Supreme Court rulings, states are the last bastions of campaign finance regulations. Similarly, municipalities often determine voter access in places like Chicago, where voting can be informally curtailed through resource allocation and poll location obfuscation. Even more importantly for many is how effectively various states have gutted abortion access and destroyed labor representation in government.
Finally - and potentially of the most interest to the Democratic Party elite - reacquiring Congress to check abuses of power will remain nearly impossible without county-level mobilization in the United States. For the most part, the outcome of any given state’s U.S. House redistricting process is derived from the party distribution of its state legislature. Naturally, then, the most sensible places to start would be states with a plethora of U.S. House seats and a relatively open state legislative environment. Missouri, for example, cost $50,883 per state house candidate in 2014 and while this may seem like a large sum of money, it certainly is more affordable than the twenty-one million dollars spent on Claire McCaskill’s race.
Even setting aside the capture of the House specifically, it would be natural to assume that the DNC and other liberal “wonks” - with their data-obsession and three-dimensional chutes and ladders - would dump money and advertisements into cheap states like North Dakota where the average State House and State Senate races in 2014 cost $6,763 and $11,765.19, respectively. For context, the aggregated cost of all North Dakota state legislative races was 0.04% of Hillary Clinton’s total presidential campaign fundraising. In the same year, there were 1,056 open-seat state legislative races and in almost 2,500 state legislative races the winners ran unopposed nationwide. Despite these clear soft targets and platform-localizing potential, the DNC has been remarkably reluctant to fund mobilization, ad campaigns, and local candidates for what are likely cultural reasons around who is worth engaging in society.
While Donald Trump’s authoritarianism differs only in rhetoric and immigration to date, there is no reason to assume that he is insincere about Muslim internment. To date, most of his campaign promises, beyond dealing with corruption, have been implemented in policy attempts or frameworks, if haltingly and incompetently. With the buildup of executive authority under Bush and Obama, Trump has no check on power and therefore all politics is deadly serious. You cannot Tweet your way to a new society. The opposition Democratic Party should act accordingly.