The Pro-Trump Intellectuals Arguing He Won't Be a Dictator
Category: News & PoliticsVia: jbb • 4 weeks ago • 8 comments
By: David Freedlander (Intelligencer)
The prospect of a Trump restoration is alarming in ways almost too numerous to count, too egregious even to bother to enumerate. There is what we have already seen: the chaos, the subsuming of government to personal and political ends, the overt racism and sexism tinged (to say the least) with the prospect of violence, and the sparking of a riot to overturn the previous election. And then, if Trump were to win again, there are all the ways it could be even worse: He promises to prosecute political opponents and deport millions of immigrants, and he muses on turning the military loose on Americans.
That another President Trump will spell the end of the American experiment has become canon on the left and in parts of the media. The Atlantic recently devoted an entire issue to the danger a second Trump term poses, and Washington Post contributor Robert Kagan declared, "A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending." This all seems self-evident to me, but headlines can hype up the threats, and liberal bubbles have a way of reinforcing themselves.
The thing I have craved as a second Trump term comes to look increasingly possible is for someone outside the press corps and the liberal bubbles to make a case for why this prediction would be wrong. So I went looking on the right, past the Never Trumpers and the MAGA acolytes, hoping to find someone who, in good faith, could reassure the anxious among us that a second Trump presidency won't spell the end of democracy as we have known it.
First, I reached out to Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, a highbrow journal of arts and ideas. Its most recent issue included a defense of Henry Kissinger, a lament comparing brutalist architecture to the increased acceptance of tattoos (which digressed into a complaint about the popularity of women's soccer in Europe), and a review of a new translation of Plato's dialogues. Kimball himself has written several books and essays that warn against what he says are declining cultural standards. He seemed like the perfect person to place Trump in a historical context and show that our fears are overblown and that he is simply the latest iteration of the hurly-burly of American politics — rough around the edges, perhaps, but not much different from what we have faced before.
"I went back and looked this up," Kimball told me. "Every Republican, at least since Ronald Reagan, has been described as literally Hitler. Even the Grecian Formula candidate, Mitt Romney, of whom no more milquetoast Republican can be imagined, was described as literally Hitler."
This is certainly true. Anyone who lived through the early aughts can recall George W. Bush being likened to the Nazi leader, or at least the memes, signs, and bumper stickers that proliferated after his elections, such as "United States of Canada vs. Jesusland" and "Dear World: We Are Sorry."
The reason for this, Kimball said — citing John Stuart Mill, George Orwell, and the political philosopher James Burnham — is that those on the left "don't just believe that people on the right are mistaken, they believe they are evil. Their view simply represents what any virtuous person would believe, and so it's only people who dissent from the left-wing view of reality that have a politics."
Trump, Kimball claimed, was liked by the left before he ran for president, noting the Clintons' presence at his third wedding and how he'd said he didn't want to cut Social Security or Medicare. Only after he became a Republican and a president did Democrats decide he was evil, Kimball said. Besides, Trump hadn't managed to become much of a dictator, but he was successful, Kimball added — having secured the border, grown the economy, increased oil production, signed the Abraham Accords on Middle East peace, and cut taxes.
"And all of this," he said, "was, of course, upturned by the Chinese flu."
From there, it was off to the races, as Kimball — who has written extensively on how postmodernity has undermined truth and scientific rationality — claimed Joe Biden was the real mishandler of classified documents, storing them in "hundreds of boxes in Chinatown." Kimball also pointed to a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar that featured a Trump-like figure as the murdered Roman dictator perpetuo as well as the time Kathy Griffin was photographed holding Trump's fake severed head. As for overturning the 2020 election, Kimball referenced Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris as some of the Democrats who he said called Trump's victory illegitimate.
Here I had to jump in. Surely there is a difference between people saying something one time when asked and a monthslong campaign to discredit an election, without evidence, culminating in an attack on Congress by your supporters.
"You seem to be saying it's one thing to say things, and it's another thing to say things. What did Trump actually say that day?" Kimball asked. "He said he believed that the 2020 election was rigged, that it was in important ways illegitimate. I happen to believe that as well. But that's water under the bridge at this point. What Trump said on January 6 was that you should proceed down and patriotically make your voice known. That is called petitioning Congress. There is a constitutional right to do that, and the more you look at what happened on January 6, the weirder it looks. There were clearly scores of federal agents in the crowd abetting people."
Kimball got off the phone soon after, and it was just as well, given his case for Trump was that January 6 was an inside job and that everything was great until COVID happened.
Next, I reached out to Martin Gurri, a Cuban-born former CIA analyst and fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University whose 2014 book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, often gets trotted out as one of those tomes that explain How We Got Here. Last month, he wrote a piece in UnHerd, the online contrarian-opinion magazine, titled "Why All This Trump Hysteria?" In it, he raised the prospect of authoritarianism as a real one, positioning himself as an anti-Trumper but positing that the former president "is too old, too isolated, and too ADD to have a shot at dictatorship."
Gurri challenged me: "Give me the path by which Donald Trump can become a dictator. Once you step outside the panic crowd, look at it coldly, as you would if it were happening in another country. How can this man take power in a dictatorial way? You know, there has never been a dictator in the United States of America. There are certain structural requirements that you need to have if you're a dictator. You need to have an institutional power base. You need certain personality traits if you are going to become a dictator. There needs to be an intersection between your life trajectory and the historical moment. And none of that applies."
This struck me as a fair point. Trump's presiding over military exercises festooned in bogus medals while the populace sings praise songs in his honor does seem, as much as he would appreciate it, unlikely. But if that is the standard, we are defining dictatorship downward. Trump may not need to insist that he be addressed as His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Doctor, and Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the Democrats in order to turn the country into something unrecognizable. If it is not full-on authoritarianism to threaten or even attempt, as Trump did in his first term, to unleash the regulatory state on CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post, and so on for criticizing him or to urge the Justice Department to prosecute his political enemies, it is not particularly democratic, either.
Yes, no president has attempted to become a dictator, but no president had ever disrupted the peaceful transfer of power, either, until Trump did. Ceding power and recognizing the legitimacy of the opposition is crucial for a democracy to function, a point that Gurri, who stressed how he didn't vote for Trump either time and wouldn't in 2024, said he agreed with.
But January 6, Gurri insisted, showed the weakness of the arguments that Trump will be a dictator. What looked to me like a constitutional order, preserved mostly by the Capitol Police's bravery and savvy, to prevent a bloodbath was never quite so dire to Gurri, who dismissed the riot as more "Marx Brothers than Macbeth."
"You know, I think January 6th was irresponsible, I think it was reprehensible, the whole country was rightly disgusted by him," he said. "But it was also a protest that got out of hand. It has happened in Washington before, and it will happen in Washington again. And by the way, the vote was taken, right? Trump stepped down, and here we are with Joe Biden as president. Trump allowed a person to go into office who is now prosecuting him criminally. So what kind of dictator does that?"
Except that Trump tried hard to stay in office — pressuring state lawmakers to put forward fake pro-Trump electors and, infamously, the Georgia secretary of state to "find" just enough Trump votes to reverse Biden's victory there, along with, of course, urging the mob to head to the Capitol — and stopped only once all these efforts had failed. More than 1,000 people have been charged over the riot Trump instigated, and he is facing federal and state charges related to these efforts.
Hoping for some further intellectual ballast, I reached out to Adam L. Fuller, a professor of political science at Youngstown State University who has argued that the future of the GOP is the Party of Trump, not the Party of Reagan.
"I am not really sure what the alarm is about, really," Fuller told me. "They don't like Donald Trump, and I understand why they don't like Donald Trump. But what I don't understand is why, if he is elected, it is going to be such a travesty for democracy."
This struck me as ridiculous. Can he really not understand why people are concerned about this, not even a little?
"Not even a little," Fuller said. "Trump says what he thinks and what he thinks his supporters want to hear. The fact that he does not limit what he says to be politically correct bothers a lot of people. But I'm not sure what the concern is that he is going to bring us to the totalitarian brink."
Fuller conceded that democratic legitimacy is incumbent on both sides' acceptance of electoral outcomes as legitimate — and then compared Trump to Stacey Abrams. She comes up a lot when Trump supporters talk about January 6 because, after losing the race for Georgia governor to her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, she said her postelection speech was "not a speech of concession. Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true, or proper." Abrams was angry that Kemp had purged 300,000 people from the voter rolls in his capacity as secretary of state. She concluded by saying, "I will pray for the success of Brian Kemp." None of her supporters subsequently sacked the state capitol.
Fuller brought up, as Kimball and Gurri had, that some Democrats considered the 2016 election illegitimate because they falsely believed Russia had rigged voting machines for Trump: "And it's the same case here. There are some people who believe the election was stolen." I told him it didn't matter what some people believed; they could believe the Earth is flat, but we don't take their ideas seriously.
"It's not a good comparison," I continued. "There is just overwhelming evidence that the Earth is round; there is no evidence whatsoever that the 2020 election was fraudulent. You can't prove it."
In fact, Fuller said, people claiming election fraud shouldn't have to provide proof — it was incumbent upon the government to prove an election wasn't fraudulent.
This was all turning out to be rather bleak. In an effort to be reassured that Trump was not a danger, I had been treated to a litany of whataboutism, conspiracism, moral relativism, and historical revisionism. I reached out next to Matthew Schmitz, a founding editor of Compact, a magazine that attempts to fuse right and left populism into a new kind of politics and takes aim at, as its mission statement reads, "the overclass that controls government, culture, and capital."
Schmitz told me he didn't support Trump in 2016, believing the warnings from many on the right about his character, but he did in 2020, in part after seeing the overreaction of Blue America to his presidency. He was undecided for 2024 but said he wasn't particularly fearful of an authoritarian turn.
"If Trump is elected and then we see his Justice Department prosecute Biden, or if the Trump Justice Department brings a case against the likely 2028 Democratic nominee, that would be a cause for concern," he said. "But this is what we've seen happen with Biden against Trump. And so when people talk about the dangers our democracy is facing, I think they are trying to avoid confronting the troubling things that are already occurring."
But this was unsatisfying too. If you care about the rule of law and the meshing of the political and legal apparatus, then letting Trump off because he is a candidate would raise just as many complications.
Schmitz agreed but said Trump values adoration more than fear: "He cares what New York Magazine and the New York Times say about him; he cultivates these contacts in the media. So I think the notion that he is some kind of hard-edge figure who has no respect for conventional opinion has to be qualified in light of that desire to be liked."
Plus, Schmitz said, even if Trump wanted to suspend the Constitution and run for a third term, he would face the kind of disapprobation from his fellow party members that would prevent him from doing so.
Schmitz was thoughtful and the first person I spoke with who didn't reach back into the archives to find some obscure Hollywood celebrity who had once said something on par with what Trump had done, but his point didn't seem right either. Many elected Republican officials thought Trump was a lunatic and a threat to the Constitution but — even after a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol — claimed still to revere both Trump and the Constitution and are supporting him for a second term. There is nothing in recent history to suggest that Trump is hemmed in by either elite opinion or his voters, who have shown a remarkable ability to just go along with what he asks of them.
Despairing, I reached out to Matthew Continetti, a journalist whose most recent book, The Right, traces the arguments conservatives have been having over the past century. Continetti, whose father-in-law is the Republican luminary turned anti-Trump warrior Bill Kristol, is anti-Trump himself but wasn't particularly alarmed by the prospect of a Trump restoration. He told me institutions would keep Trump in check and pointed out that Trump couldn't even bring himself to fire Anthony Fauci.
"Trump is an entertainer more than anything else," Continetti said, "so it's just going to be a big show if he is elected president again. And that show is going to have a lot of downsides. The country is going to be seriously riven by another Trump term. After the 2020 election especially, Trump displayed a pattern of behavior that should be held against him. I would not want him in a position of authority again. But I am not sure the upshot of another term is dictatorship."
He argued that fears of Trump trying to stay in office beyond 2028 are overblown, even as Trump has repeatedly intimated that he should. The country's federal structure and diffuse electoral system can't just be tossed out, Continetti said. More likely, to him, is that Trump would be a lame duck from the moment he is sworn in and that Republicans would be scrambling to succeed him. Plus, although he didn't want to see this happen, Continetti predicted that the left, which has been relatively quiet during the Biden era, would once again assert itself and a new generation of Squad-like figures would emerge to battle the new administration.
Perhaps, then, this is the best reassurance available from Trump's intellectual defenders: that he will come into office too disinterested to do too much damage and that, as he turns 78 this year, his time on the stage won't last much longer. That the next four years of the Trump Show will resemble the previous four, a time of deep division and hostility that left the nation weakened but intact. Continetti quoted Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist, who was asked at the start of the pandemic what the future holds. The future, he responded, will be just like the present. Only a little bit worse.
I'm not sure I believe it. I want to, but I am not sure I do.