Trump Wasn’t a Dictator, but He Played One on TV
My fellow Americans, our long National Infrastructure Week is over. The whole thing’s been exhausting: a four-year assault on the sensibilities and senses at a relentless death-metal pace. Every day brought a new enormity, from that uncomfortably Freudian spat with Kim Jong Un about whose “nuclear button” was “bigger & more powerful” to the eerie “I’m meltinggg!” rants about voter fraud near the end. Midway through Donald J. Trump’s tenure, in a desperate attempt at self-care, I moved my iPhone from nightstand to dresser—just to delay my what-fresh-hell-is-this early morning scan of the president’s Twitter feed until I was actually upright.
But was it all as radically disjunctive as it felt? Humor me: Try, if you can, to mentally mute @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter feed; conjure up a President Trump who in his public conduct is as impeccably boring as Vice President Mike Pence. Thus limited to concrete actions taken and new powers seized, you might be able to make out something that looks closer to a bog-standard version of the imperial presidency—not quite as “not normal” as the Trump presidency seemed.
America’s “thought leaders” find that notion unthinkable. Trump is “the closest we have ever come to a dictator,” declares former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. The mere prospect of 45’s reelection “poses the greatest threat to American democracy since the Second World War,” the New York Times editorial board insisted as Election Day loomed. Trump “stands without any real rivals as the worst American president in modern history,” the Gray Lady gasped, having “outstripped decades of presidential wrongdoing in a single term.”
It’s usually a mistake to reach for historical superlatives about a presidency we’ve barely finished living through. Even so, I could entertain a couple for our newly departed 45th: “least competent” or “most rhetorically unhinged.”
But the closest we’ve ever come to a dictator? C’mon, man. Contemplate the Four Seasons Total Landscaping incident four days after the election. Aiming to schedule a key press conference about legal challenges to President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, the Trump team shot for the Philadelphia Four Seasons but accidentally landed at a lawn-care outfit between a crematorium and the Fantasy Island adult bookstore. What should have been obvious long before had become gut-bustingly apparent: If this bunch were actually hellbent on implementing fascism, they’d get lost en route to the Reichstag and end up torching a garden supply store by mistake.
None of the above should be particularly comforting. Attempting to overturn a democratic election is no less deplorable just because you’re comically bad at it. The fact that our 45th president lacked the competence, self-discipline, and functional attention span to bring his worst autocratic impulses to fruition was certainly better than the alternative. But Trump’s manifest unfitness for office cut both ways. Those same character deficits helped magnify the toll of “American carnage” in the epically bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And even if Trump’s authoritarian bluster rarely cashed out into any real-world seizure of new powers for the president, it was far from harmless. Four years of 100-proof strongman rhetoric may have the effect of building up our tolerance if and when the real thing comes around in a smoother blend. When (at least) half of the political class feels driven by partisan loyalty to defend or downplay open contempt for constitutional limits, it’s likely to make well-planned assaults on those limits that much easier to execute. Donald Trump may yet end up being a “transformational” president, not because of the abuses he managed to carry out but thanks to the dangerous possibilities he revealed.
As Seen on TV
If you were even half paying attention, as Trump’s tenure wore on you should’ve noticed how infrequently the man’s authoritarian brain-spasms made the transition from alarming tweet to nefarious plan.
In the first three years of his term, for instance, the president threatened, among other things, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller; revoke birthright citizenship with the stroke of a pen; shut down the Mexican border entirely (“I’m not playing games!”); and “hereby order” American companies to stop doing business with China. The power of my tweets compels you!
In each case, Trump basked in the resulting media frenzy, then did nothing whatsoever to follow through. It always ended up being a more unnerving version of “Dude: Let’s buy Greenland!” It wasn’t like it was ever going to happen.
Then came the pandemic, a workable excuse for a presidential power grab if ever there was one. The modern imperial presidency had been forged in three great crises: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Here was a national emergency that, in terms of lives lost and economic damage, rapidly eclipsed the two prior crises of the 21st century: 9/11 and the financial collapse of 2008.
This was one of the rare occasions where some Hamiltonian “energy in the executive,” intelligently directed, could have been welcome. It’s hard to imagine any of the available alternatives from the 2016 race standing up a gimcrack testing program and hammering the U.S. “curve” down to South Korean levels, but a replacement-level president might have had the decency not to make a terrible situation worse. Instead, President Trump spent his time jawboning the stock market and downplaying
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