President Donald Trump can’t get a health care law passed. So should we still be worried that he’s going to assume absolute power?
The president’s detractors often accuse him of having authoritarian aspirations. And he has given them many good reasons to worry. He displays contempt for the rule of law and the separation of powers. He denounces the press as the “enemy of the American people.” He shows flagrant disregard for the truth and deftly marshals populist appeals to the grubbier emotions. And last but not least, he openly admires authoritarian leaders and heaps scorn on democratic allies. (This is a short list, of course.)
Yet, there’s another narrative of Trump’s first six months in office that doesn’t necessarily sync with the scenario of a march toward personal rule. Quite simply, the president has shown himself to be incompetent at governing. His party controls both houses of Congress, yet he has no major legislative achievements to show for it. He knows how to gin up his base, but he’s often his own worst enemy, making public statements that alienate his allies and undercut his own political (and legal) positions. He doesn’t really seem to understand what government is or how it’s supposed to work — perhaps not much of a surprise, considering that he had zero experience in public administration before he came to the job.
Many of his voters, of course, chose him for precisely that reason. He was the political outsider who would blow the whole thing up. The fact that he has few coherent positions, and that he can change them on a dime depending on a touching photo or a bit of powerful storytelling, doesn’t bother his base at all. He blusters and bumbles, and the business of government limps along despite him, rather than following his lead.
But is this how a future dictator prepares the way for a seizure of power? It looks a lot more like the thrashings of a man who got his training for leadership on the set of “The Apprentice.” Trump is a dilettante, and it shows.
Consider some of our real modern-day strongmen. Vladimir Putin served in government for his entire adult life, in a wide variety of positions, before he finally ascended to the Russian presidency in 2000. He had intimate knowledge of the levers of power, and once he’d secured the top job he proceeded patiently and methodically to undermine his opponents and hollow out what was left of the country’s democratic institutions.
The rise of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan offers a similar lesson in the art of building personal rule. Through clever manipulation of law enforcement and the courts, he pulled off the extraordinary feat of neutralizing his country’s long-feared military — a bureaucratic tour de force. Later on, once it was no longer needed, he turned on the group that had served as his main ally in that campaign — and shattered it, too.
Needless to say, democratic institutions in Turkey and Russia are weak. Trump faces far more constraints on his power than either Putin or Erdogan face — from independent courts to an active citizenry to a free press. For a U.S. president to overcome the barriers to personal rule, he would need a highly sophisticated and well-executed strategy.
Trump, all too obviously, has no plan. He is a man of the moment, reacting to each stimulus as it arrives. Rather than using the machinery of government to serve his own ends, he has systematically alienated the intelligence agencies, the FBI, the State Department and other large swaths of the federal bureaucracy. His disapproval rating stands at 58 percent. The Republican Party continues to pay him verbal tribute but is increasingly showing through its actions that it neither respects nor fears him. Though Fox News still stands by him, even here cracks are beginning to appear. That leaves his hard-core base, about one-third of the total population. Not exactly a good foundation for personal rule.
We cannot dismiss the possibility entirely, of course. Another mass-casualty terrorist attack in the United States could change things dramatically, giving the president an opening to expand his authority. Yet as things stand now, Trump has already created a whole constellation of opponents — institutional and otherwise — who would be prone to resist an all-too-excessive grab for power even in that most dire of scenarios.
This is not an argument for complacency. Even if Trump isn’t really a dictator-in-the-making, his attacks on our institutions are profoundly destructive. He doesn’t have to be a would-be Hitler or Stalin to inflict immense damage on our democracy. But by dwelling too excessively on the ghosts of dictators past, we run the risk of creating a climate of hysteria that will play into the hands of the president’s supporters. Let’s focus instead on the real harm that Trump is doing right now. Even a political amateur can be dangerous.
Christian Caryl is an editor with The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section.