Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Imagining an Authoritarian

Nicholas Kristof wonders if Trump is our first president with autocratic tendencies. Where has he been for the past 15 years?
Trump is America

The late writer Christopher Hitchens had what you might call an intellectual jumper cable routine: he would wake up in the morning, open the New York Times, read its front page motto “All the News Fit to Print,” and allow that hackneyed boast to enrage him into carrying out his polemical duties. Lately I’ve found myself accidentally mimicking Hitchens, but with the Washington Post, which since Trump’s election has been running with the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” So long as that shamelessly self-aggrandizing, wokeness-overdosed, low-rent Dashboard Confessional refrain-cum-greasy fortune cookie slip remains the ethos of my local paper, it’ll only take one cup of coffee to wake me up, thanks.

This week, though, it’s the Times that’s got my goat, probably because, unlike the Post, I read as much of it as possible every morning (for its excellent foreign coverage, not its masthead). Last week the Gray Lady published a column by op-ed page fixture Nicholas Kristof, the Tom Bergeron of liberal internationalism, titled “Trump’s Threat to Democracy.” Kristof cites two political science academics at Harvard who list four omens as to whether a “political leader is a dangerous authoritarian”: he “shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules,” “denies the legitimacy of opponents,” “tolerates violence,” and “shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.” “Donald Trump,” the profs ruefully announce, “met them all.” And then the clincher: “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century.”

Come again?

That timespan easily covers Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, during which the mildly anti-civil liberty policy of rounding up 120,000 Japanese Americans and interning them in camps was implemented. But you don’t even need to go back that far to refute Kristof’s professors: events still in the public memory can provide. The George W. Bush administration instituted a surveillance regime that stretched the Fourth Amendment into cellophane, and then tried to browbeat a hospitalized (and possibly addled) John Ashcroft into granting it his approval; it allowed prisoners to be indefinitely detained and tortured, and even mulled using the military against terrorism suspects on U.S. soil. Barack Obama assassinated American citizens with drones, invoked the Espionage Act to spy on reporter James Rosen, launched a war against Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi without congressional authorization, and set a record for the most Freedom of Information Act requests denied in American history. Bush and Obama didn’t just “show some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media,” to use the academics’ soupy words; they rammed right through them with the brunt power of the federal government.

There was some pushback against these executive overreaches: the final years of the Bush administration at times felt like an exercise in republican renewal and Obama suffered through his “scandalabra” days in 2013. But the corrective even back then was never commensurate to the degree of constitutional offense. Civil libertarians at the time warned that such concentrations of arbitrary power were dangerous, not just in the contexts of the Bush and Obama administrations, but by setting precedents for a hypothetical authoritarian of the future. A major justification for Obamacare was that federal health programs had left behind a “donut hole” in prescription drug coverage, which necessitated more government action to close it. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ cretinous “fire in a crowded theater” formulation is frequently cited by “hate speech” opponents as grounds for censorship. Government power good and bad functions on the “if you give a mouse a cookie” principle, and previous presidencies, particularly the last two, bequeathed to us plenty of abusive precedents, precedents that in the hands of someone diabolical could be contorted towards darker ends. This is especially the case given the nature of authoritarianism in the 21st century, which tends to creep and not stomp, bend existing norms to its ends rather than smash them outright.

Trump, so far as we’ve seen, isn’t much of a tyrant. If anything, his magic-lantern mind seems under a tyranny of its own, in thrall to the last lickspittle who talked to him and conscripted into battle by every breath of TV criticism, too undisciplined and obsessed with the trivial to subvert our constitutional order. But then why do pundits like Kristof consider him uniquely dictatorial? Why are the klaxons sounding only now? One reason, I think, is that Washington elites are biased towards the traditions and constitutional rights that protect themselves: so the First Amendment is invoked far more exuberantly to defend journalists (even Obama came under criticism for this) than is the Second Amendment to defend gun owners, for example. And because Trump’s excesses have largely come at the expense of those familiar to the political class—reporters, the intelligence services, the Clintons—their reaction has been fiercer than it was when Bush handed more authority to those wonderful NSA professionals up the highway. Another reason is simple fashion: Barack Obama is considered cool in D.C. and Trump is not.

But the main cause behind this selective panic is that Trump plays the role. He encourages political violence, muses about prosecuting his political opponents, sounds in general like he should be standing on a balcony whipping up a crowd in stentorian tones—and so it’s naturally assumed he’ll do just that. Trump’s rhetoric is indeed dangerous and I don’t mean to downplay it—but we can’t afford to ignore other quieter abuses that have made our present situation all the more precarious. Twitter is swollen with nostalgia right now for the George W. Bush presidency because, whatever you thought of its policies, they say, you knew the White House was occupied by a man of sterling character. Yet Bush’s personal decency didn’t stop the signing statements, the wretchedly immoral torture memos, the relentless partisan pressure on the Justice Department and CIA; imbued with great power, even the best of us start reaching for more. It’s laws and traditions that are supposed to prevent elected officials from doing that, but too many of those were trampled long before Trump ever came along.

My former professor, Dr. Claes Ryn, used to talk a good deal about the “moral imagination,” a concept invoked by Edmund Burke and Irving Babbitt, under which moral decision-making is seen as a process of dynamic creative thinking that applies principles to reality’s constant flux, informed by prior wisdom and mindful of the future. The same idea should be adopted for governance. Might the Iraq war have stretched into forever, empowered Iran, cost trillions, engendered a nationalist backlash at home? Might the Obama administration, despite its winsome public face, have quietly indulged some autocratic tendencies? Might an American Caesar one day lumber into the Oval Office and exploit our freshly unshackled executive branch? Too many of our political elites lacked the imagination to ask those questions. Yes, they might seem speculative, but our Founders spent a good deal of time worrying about hypothetical threats to our liberty. Contrast them with our current legislators who just voted through another lease of surveillance powers to an executive branch that many of them think is currently run by an authoritarian.

Preserving our nation doesn’t mean firing off superlatives during the abnormal; it means governing prudently during the normal so America remains steady during the abnormal. It means foreseeing the possible consequences of our decisions and admitting that the unthinkable can happen here, too. Maybe it even means conceding that I’ve been ungallant to the the Washington Post. Democracy really does die in darkness, but the light we need is that of creativity, historical understanding, wise restraint, not just journalistic oversight.

Matt Purple is managing editor of The American Conservative.