Is Trump an 'Aspiring Despot' or a 'Bumbling Showman'? Why Not Both?
The presidency of Donald Trump has forced the American people to confront questions most of us had never before considered possible. What happens when a president has no respect for the Constitution and the country's democratic institutions and traditions? When a president and his allies consider themselves above the law, what is to be done? If a president creates his own version of reality by behaving like a political cult leader, what forms of resistance are effective -- or even possible? Is the president of the United States a fascist and demagogue who may be under the influence of the country's enemies?
Too many Americans believed their country to be exceptional and unique. This blinded them to the threat to democracy embodied by Donald Trump -- as well as other members of the extreme right-wing -- until it was too late to stop him from stealing control. Moreover, the rise of Trump's authoritarian movement (dishonestly operating under the mask of "populism") has both empowered and revealed the tens of millions of Americans who have authoritarian or fascist leanings. The threat to American democracy is deep; it will take a long time to purge this civic sickness and political disease from the body politic.
In an effort to understand the true dimensions of Trump's rise to power as a direct threat to American democracy, I recently spoke with Brian Klaas. He is a fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. In addition to writing columns and essays that have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, Foreign Affairs and numerous other publications, Klaas is the author of several books. His latest, published in November, is "The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy."
In our conversation, Klass explained his view that Trump is an aspiring despot whose behavior mimics other authoritarians both past and present, the role of Fox News and other elements of the right-wing media in maintaining and expanding Trump's malignant reality and power, and the decline of the country's prestige and influence abroad because of Trump's regime.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How was Donald Trump able to win the White House?
I think that there are people who have been legitimately disaffected by stagnant wages for 30 years and growing income inequality. That is part of the story. But that is not the main story, given the backlash against immigration as well as Obama's presidency and what that tells us about race relations. We also cannot overlook the fact that Trump's voters have a median household income of about $72,000 a year.
We also have a third and often not-spoken-about trend where there simply are lots of authoritarian voters in every Western country. Effectively these are people who do not care about democratic processes or procedures; they don't care about democratic values; they care about winning and they care about the government doing for them.
What previously existed was a sort of unspoken agreement that elites did not encourage these people. What Trump has done that will have lasting ramifications for the United States is that he has broken that dam and brought fringe elements into the mainstream -- and there are now elites who will actually cater to them. But I fear it's going to be many years, if not decades, before the proverbial Trump genie can be put in the back in the bottle and democracy can be restored to its full and proper functioning.
Why did the mainstream news media normalize Trump? What explains the allure of the narrative that Trump's election was somehow about "economic anxiety" as opposed to white racism and racial backlash?
Because it is a nice story that many of us would like to believe. White racism is central to the story of the rise of Trumpism, and for the media to tell the story about America that basically says, "This president was elected because we have racial problems," is much harder for people to square with the country's mythology. I also think many journalists and other observers have very little experience with authoritarianism. I think minorities also saw this coming and were much more aware of it and much more prescient in seeing how damaging Trumpism could be than white people.
Is Trump a fascist? Why do you think so many in the mainstream media and America's political class are afraid to describe him using that language, or at a minimum to label him an authoritarian?
He is an aspiring despot. That distinction is important because I have studied fully authoritarian societies where there are no checks and balances, no free media, no different branches of government, and it is far worse than the United States. But in terms of tactics, there is in immense amount of evidence to support the fact that Trump is behaving like an authoritarian and that he is mainstreaming fascism. Like other despots throughout history, Trump scapegoats minorities and demonizes politically unpopular groups. Trump is racist. He uses his own racism in the service of a divide-and-rule strategy, which is one way that unpopular leaders and dictators maintain power. If you aren't delivering for the people and you're not doing what you said you were going to do, then you need to blame somebody else. Trump has a lot of people to blame.
Others who want to deny that Trump is a fascist or authoritarian will object that he is too bumbling and incompetent for such strong labels to apply.
I completely disagree. You do not have to be effective to be destructive. Most despots are bumbling. Around the world we have seen examples of how they are often comical idiots and egotistical head cases. Despots are not necessarily the smartest people.
Trump is extremely destructive. The analogy I use is the idea that democracy is like a sand castle. It takes a long time to build and much longer to perfect. Trump is just washing it away. He is a wave and the castle is not going to be knocked down in one single tide. But the castle, and our democracy, gets eroded steadily over time. That is where we are now. How does a democracy function when a third of its people are cheering authoritarian tactics, embracing them, pushing for more candidates to mimic them, and fundamentally believe a huge number of things that are false? Because if you think about what democracy is, at its core it requires a shared reality to create consent of the governed.
The long-term corrosion of democracy that Trump is inviting is not going to end when he leaves office. It is going to be a persistent problem where he has opened up the possibility for a much more insidious and effective successor.
Moreover, I always thought that a Trump-like figure had the potential to break down the barriers between democracy and authoritarianism in America. The dazzling showmanship is essential. So if you imagine a genuinely scary authoritarian, a Mussolini in America type, we would actually stop that person very quickly. By comparison, Trump has this distracting quality because he's a bumbling showman who seems harmless to some people because of those traits. This has created a creeping authoritarianism where the envelope is being pushed farther all the time.
Another important aspect of how Trumpism and his petit-fascist movement have taken hold is that the Republican Party is largely in agreement with his agenda. Political polarization and gerrymandering have made Republicans largely immune from accountability by the American people.
Polarization is absolutely essential as a precursor to authoritarianism because you need to have political tribalism. Republicans are afraid of their base. They are not afraid of a Democrat beating them. This is partly because of demographic clustering, but it's also largely due to gerrymandering. And gerrymandering intensifies all of the incentives to be extreme. Consequently, if a Republican does not march in lockstep with Trump, he or she may face a primary challenger. The alternative is winning an easy election against a Democrat. On top of that you have Fox News and a broader right-wing echo chamber that are de facto outlets for Trump, akin to some type of state-sponsored media in an authoritarian or dictatorial regime.
Is there a magic number where a certain percentage of the population has to support an authoritarian for that democracy to fully fail?
I do not believe that there is necessarily a specific number. What is ultimately most important is the longevity of the person in power and how much of a rebuke they get from the public.
Therefore, one of the few positive scenarios I have for looking into the future is what I label as "Trump vaccine." This is basically the idea that because Trump embodies bumbling recklessness and impulsivity, he is a weakened form of authoritarian populist. This means there is a plausible scenario where a sufficient backlash effectively neutralizes him, yet he also exposes all the weaknesses in our democratic system. Ultimately, Trump acts like a vaccine who strengthens the immune system of American democracy.
But I do not think that is going to happen because America is experiencing the slow decline of its democracy. You see this all the time in places like Turkey or Russia or Belarus, where a quasi-democratic system is getting hollowed out. This pattern of testing the waters is very familiar to me -- it’s exactly what [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has done in Turkey. He just pushes the envelope every day. And the less backlash there is, the more he does it.
How much of Trump's strategy is intentional? Is he just a useful idiot for the Republican Party and other elements of the radical right-wing?
Regarding consequences, the distinction is less important. But in terms of intentionality, it is important to understand why someone does what they do. Some of the worst authoritarians in history are not necessarily strategic thinkers.
I don’t know whether Trump has some sort of grand strategy. Frankly, I would be extremely surprised if he did because virtually nothing Trump does fits into a strategic framework. Many of his goals are being passed and advanced in spite of him, as opposed to because of him. Authoritarians don’t need to have a grand strategy. Because they are narcissists, they are often making it up as they go along.
What role does the Russia collusion scandal and Trump's response to Robert Mueller's investigation play in your analysis of America's descent into authoritarianism?
Any democracy needs to have a functioning rule of law that is separate from politics. In authoritarian states the rule of law is a weapon that the leader uses against his enemies and to reward his friends. The people who are guilty are whoever the authoritarian leader says are guilty. We are sliding down that path before our eyes every day. Trump has threatened Hillary Clinton with jail. He has pardoned a political ally, [former Phoenix sheriff] Joe Arpaio. This is a clear signal from Trump to anybody who is involved in the Russia investigation that he will reward his allies with pardons, and if they turn, that avenue will get cut off. This is very common under authoritarian rule, where justice is dealt out based on alliances and there are investigations of opponents.
I think the other aspect is obviously related to the notion that the president is above the law. For example, the question is absolutely settled that Donald Trump's campaign at least attempted to collude with Russia. If they didn’t succeed, then fine. But that does not make the intent any less insidious. It is the equivalent of trying to commit a crime and failing. This is where when Trump gets cornered, if it is between him and the system, there is no question he will try to tear down the system. If politicized rule of law becomes the new normal, how do you return to normal? Trump and his allies are opening up a Pandora’s box that may serve him in the short term politically but is a massive affront to the functioning of American democracy over the long term.
You are in London now. You have also traveled all over the world. How does America under Donald Trump look to our allies and also to our enemies?
It is an unprecedented disaster in terms of America's reputation in the world. He has decimated longstanding alliances and the country's gravitas across the globe in a matter of months. A survey in June 2017 looked at the change of confidence in United States leadership between Obama and Trump. It fell 75 percent in Germany, 71 percent in South Korea, 70 percent in France, 57 percent in the United Kingdom and 54 percent in Japan. These statistics obscure the fact that the rest of the world sees the United States as a tragic joke. It is immensely embarrassing to be an American abroad. They don’t understand how this person was not absolutely demolished in the election.
There are also long-term strategic problems that come from what Trump has done to America. People don’t understand that "America First" is actually code for America alone. The more Trump pushes for short-term transactional diplomacy that really does not advance our long-term national interests, the more U.S. power is going to decline and the 21st century is going to be dictated by China.
Even for the people who want to have a muscular strong America in the world, Trump is an unmitigated disaster.
What scares you about America under Donald Trump? Is there anything that gives you hope for the future?
The scariest thing about Trump is the lack of backlash against him. This is enabling the Republican Party's complicity with him and perhaps causing irreparable damage to American democracy. Trump could have been contained much more effectively if Republicans had stood up to him and upheld the values they professed for a long time in terms of democratic principles.
I am hopeful because I have many friends who did not care about politics a year ago and do now. If the American people are to save democracy, they must use their voice to impact the system. We are in a critical moment where the way that citizens behave in response to Trump will dictate whether this is a break that can be repaired or the start of some very disturbing developments and the slow death of American democracy.
The hope lies in the possibility that people stand together, and the 66 percent of the country that does not like Trump sets aside the partisan bickering and says, “We can agree that this person is not fit to be president and that the way that he is behaving is a threat to our democracy.” If this happens, then American democracy can survive and actually improve. It is the only way that Trump and what he has unleashed can potentially have a positive ending.