Trump Is Hollowing out Our Democracy, Leaving Us Vulnerable to a True Authoritarian
Well before the Russia scandal became a national soap opera, comparisons between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin were a media staple. Trump encouraged these comparisons by praising the Russian president, widely regarded as an authoritarian, dozens of times in the past four years.
But the more apt analogy may be post-Soviet Russia’s first president, the late Boris Yeltsin, who served from the eve of the Soviet breakup in 1991 to 1999, when he handpicked Putin as his successor. Initially greeted in the West as a hero and a democratizer, Yeltsin is now regarded as an embarrassing failure in Russia. Famed for his public alcoholism and erratic behavior, he became an international laughingstock while allowing the oligarchs who surrounded him to loot the country. Yeltsin was also known for issuing heavy-handed, unconstitutional decrees in a failed attempt to exert authority, and for the war crimes committed in his botched war in Chechnya. His approval ratings were consistently pathetic, as he oversaw a collapse in living standards due to the rigged privatization of the economy, which his advisers forced through with minimal public oversight. Nevertheless, he was reelected due to media manipulation, and arguably, the covert interference of a foreign power, the United States. In retrospect, Yeltsin's catastrophic tenure is seen as paving the way for Putin’s strongman presidency.
The parallels are inexact and shouldn’t be overstated. The point is that Trump isn't much of an autocrat, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t doing lasting damage to American democracy. He lacks some of the tools of an effective authoritarian, like a centralized secret police force that would give him control over the everyday lives of Americans; moreover, he lacks the discipline and intelligence to build and operate such an apparatus. Unlike Barack Obama, who could hardly be called a dictator, he lacks even the discipline and intelligence to pass major legislation. But it is precisely Trump’s absence of authority that makes his presidency so dangerous. He has created a vacuum in the executive branch, and the worst forces in American life have rushed to fill it.
Despite his pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington, Trump's policymaking has amounted to little more than an open house for industry lobbyists to draft executive orders and legislation aimed at enriching themselves at the public’s expense. The prospect of historic tax reform legislation in particular has buoyed markets for most of Trump’s presidency, regardless of his dismal approval ratings or constant scandals. Far from viewing Trump as a threat to their power, corporate executives and the mainstream Republicans who represent them in Congress understand the Trump presidency as a unique opportunity to defund the government, including vital programs like Medicaid, and rack up profits. Early in his tenure, Putin famously jailed, exiled or marginalized those oligarchs who threatened him politically, to ensure loyalty from the rest. By contrast, Trump’s presidency has benefited all of the wealthiest Americans, including the ones who find him distasteful.
But it isn’t just industry lobbyists and wealthy donors who are exploiting Trump’s weak presidency. The president can be influenced by anyone, from white supremacists and conspiracists like his adviser Steve Bannon to national security establishment figures like Defense Secretary James Mattis and even the Russian government. While the idea of Trump as a Manchurian candidate has always seemed over the top, what is likely closer to the truth (as far as one can tell during an ongoing murky investigation) is that Russia was able to compromise key Trump advisers, such as Michael Flynn, any other president would have avoided. This suggests not that Trump is a Russian sleeper agent, but that he’s uniquely vulnerable to influence by foreign powers in a way that compromises U.S. interests.
Indeed, it was recently revealed that Flynn successfully pushed policies favorable to Turkey in the U.S. campaign against ISIS, after accepting large sums of money from the Turkish government. That doesn’t make Trump a Russian or a Turkish puppet, it makes him a dupe whose policies can easily be swayed by rival powers. This was certainly on display in his visit to Riyadh on Sunday, where he posed menacingly with a glowing orb beside Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egypt’s dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after signing off on a massive arms deal with the country he once blamed for the 9/11 attacks.
As of this writing, it seems plausible either that Trump could be removed from power within months, or that he could serve out at least one full term. Regardless, he is likely to leave the presidency a diminished office. While this might seem to have some upsides, given longstanding concerns about the dangers of an imperial presidency, in practice it means power will have been ceded to corporate and overseas actors—an ironic outcome given Trump’s superficially populist and nationalist campaign. An intelligent and well-intentioned president can serve as the one nationally accountable figure in the dysfunctional American government, the role Obama saw himself as playing for eight years. In the absence of such a president, Washington devolves into little more than a free-for-all for unaccountable wealthy interests.
It’s also worth considering who might succeed Trump. One hopes Americans will rebound from his failed, humiliating presidency by electing a progressive Democrat who will stand up for the interests of regular Americans in 2020. But it is also possible that Trump, like Yeltsin, will leave behind a demoralized, traumatized and cynical country, where the social contract lies in tatters and faith in existing institutions is weaker than ever. Under such circumstances, America would be ripe for a genuine authoritarian. Surveying Trump’s party, it’s not hard to identify figures who might relish the role—starting with Vice President Mike Pence, whose newly launched PAC and far-right tenure as governor of Indiana suggest an impatience to govern with the kind of ruthlessness Trump seems incapable of summoning.
Trump, in short, is no strongman, but his presidency is the kind of emergency that makes a strongman seem like a reasonable alternative.