There's a Lot of Worry That Trump Is a Dangerous Authoritarian - Could It Be That We Barely Have a President at All?

The dominant fear surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency has been that it would introduce authoritarianism to the United States. Perhaps most comprehensively expressed in an Atlantic cover story by David Frum in March, the parallels between Trump and other strongmen, past and present, became a media mainstay even before he took office. Trump has been frequently compared to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both of whom he has praised, and sometimes even to Adolf Hitler. Given Trump’s demonizing of ethnic minorities and educated elites, as well as his palpable contempt for democratic norms and the rule of law, these analogies haven’t seemed far-fetched.

But while Trump sometimes postures as a thuggish dictator, it’s worth considering another possibility: that he is the weakest president in decades, and that he is creating a vacuum in the executive branch. Right now America barely has a leader at all, much less an all-powerful tyrant.

Behold Trump’s record so far: He has passed no significant legislation, and unless 50 senators want to vote to take away health insurance from millions of Americans via reconciliation, that seems likely to remain true despite the House’s passage of the American Health Care Act. The bipartisan budget deal reached this week had no meaningful input from him and ignored his repeated insistence on funding for his signature issue, a wall on the Mexican border. His most draconian executive orders, such as those banning visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries or cracking down on sanctuary cities, have been successfully blocked by district courts. And on foreign policy, again and again he has bowed to the Beltway consensus, backing down from threats to pull out of NAFTA, to force NATO allies to pay the U.S. to defend them, and to pressure North Korea without regard to China’s interests.

Less than four months into his term, both foreign and domestic leaders are learning not to take Trump’s reckless words seriously. The president, photographed beside Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel, or health insurance executives, consistently appears awkward and out of touch, and it’s clear no one relies on conversations with him to hash out the substance of policy. His most flamboyantly illiberal advisers, including Michael Flynn, Steven Bannon, and Sebastian Gorka, have resigned or been sidelined, and sober, establishment-approved figures like Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have provided some reassurance that Trump will not start a third World War. Instead, Trump seems to be little more than a rubber stamp for standard conservative Republican priorities, exactly what one might have expected from a Marco Rubio presidency.

George W. Bush, who actually did manage to invade two countries and pass consequential legislation abrogating civil liberties, famously described himself as “the decider.” But Trump is less a decider than an avatar for a dysfunctional executive branch. Reporting on his administration—and thanks to constant leaks from disgruntled staffers, there has been plenty of it—portrays an impressionable president who doesn’t read policy briefs and responds only to the simplest presentations. The real power lies with those who inform Trump: his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who functions as a liaison to the GOP-controlled Congress; his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, whose main goal seems to be personal profit; and anyone with any agenda who can manage to appear on cable news, which is the most reliable way to get Trump’s attention. A standard authoritarian takes control of TV news and uses it to disseminate his ideology. But in Trump’s America, cable news channels function as a set of independent power bases, each of which has at least as much influence on the president as he has on them.

One less intimidating figure Trump has been compared to is the late Rob Ford, the vulgar, substance-abusing former mayor of Toronto. Ford and Trump share some obvious parallels, including their appeal to white working- and middle-class citizens who felt disenfranchised and threatened by both urban elites and immigrant communities, and their ability to dominate news cycles by saying outrageous things. But Ford occupied a weak office. The mayor of Toronto is really just an elevated city council member, and as a result, Toronto was able to function more or less normally under his administration. His primary role was to be a standing global embarrassment to the city’s downtown ruling class, to the delight of his fans in the sprawling “Ford Nation.”

The presidency of the United States, of course, is ostensibly the most powerful office on earth, and its occupants have steadily increased its power over time. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, used the very real problem of sustained congressional dysfunction to justify a series of major executive orders in his second term. But whatever his fringe right critics might have claimed, Obama didn’t run for president to be a Marxist dictator. For most of his presidency he attempted, often to the consternation of his supporters, to govern moderately and to seek consensus with Republicans in Congress. His embrace of executive power was a reluctant, belated, and defensible response to the failure of that approach.

Trump, by contrast, took office promising to cut huge deals to make America great again. He vowed to win and insulted everyone who might stand in his way. What he has quickly found is that the system is not responsive to that kind of blatant bullying. Paradoxically, attempting to govern as a strongman has left him weak and dependent on a bureaucracy he didn’t appoint, and which owes him nothing. It has also left him beholden to the far-right agenda of congressional Republicans, which he seems capable of neither shaping nor checking. Unless something changes, Trump’s legacy may turn out to be a shrunken presidency.

This is not to say Trump isn’t doing great damage. He has emboldened ICE agents, who operate on the fringes of the law, to step up deportations of undocumented immigrants. When he orders airstrikes in Yemen or Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, real people die. His Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, will help maintain the judiciary’s rightward tilt for decades. And if he does sign AHCA into law, countless Americans will go bankrupt and die as a result. But these are not the actions of a cunning dictator. Rather, they are the predictable outcomes of a national security state on autopilot, a weak Democratic opposition, and a Republican Party cynical enough to install a senile reality show host in the White House as the price for power.


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