by Edward H. Telfeyan, October 26, 2020
“The ballots are a disgrace. If we do away with the ballots there won’t have to be a transfer of power.”
I’ve been engaged in a semi-serious debate with my older son. Keith does not see Donald Trump as an autocrat or even an autocrat-wannabe. I, on the other hand, think Trump is at least intrigued by the possibility. In fact, I think Trump believes that he has some kind of pre-eminent authority even now, as his first term as president enters its final months. (Regarding the wannabe question, if Trump isn’t one, what explains his affinity for/admiration of Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan, the Philippines’ Duterte, China’s Xi, North Korea’s Kim, and Venezuela’s Maduro? And that’s just a partial list.)
Keith views Trump, much as I do, as a pompous buffoon who is totally disinterested in the details of governing. We both consider him a George W. Bush-type in terms of his intellectual vacuity. But Bush at least tolerated briefings, (even if he didn’t always pay much attention to them, the 9/11 warnings being a definitive example). Trump, based on all reports, has no patience for briefings that last more than a minute unless they are focused on his accomplishments, his self-proclaimed superior intelligence, or his supreme executive authority.
I always thought of W as a Reagan-lite type, which is something less than a compliment. Ronald Reagan was “folksy” about intellectualism. He was a committed ideologue (an anti-Communist, free market conservative), but he didn’t get into the weeds about it. If he thought hard on a subject, he could get over his head quickly (the nuclear shield defense idea – SDI – being a good example), but he was good with platitudes and was easy to like. Bush was also easy to like, in an “aw-shucks” kind of way. He left the heavy lifting on big policy decisions to Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz (much to the nation’s regret). But Trump is in a league of his own when it comes to intellectualizing an issue. He knows what he knows (which is precious little) and doesn’t want to know anything more, especially if it requires a boring briefing by a staff person.
From everything we have learned about Trump from former aides and officials who worked for him, the foregoing description is accurate, perhaps even a bit charitable. No one who has worked for him has ever said he is a policy wonk or a glutton for information or even a workaholic. He’s a lightweight, unless there’s a classification lower than that (maybe featherweight?).
But son Keith views the same person I’ve just described and comes to a wholly different conclusion as to Trump’s inclination to be an autocrat. He thinks Trump would have claimed martial law by now and installed his form of dictatorship if he were so inclined. And because I think others may agree with that assessment, I am compelled to make the case that there is more to fear in a Trump re-election than just another four years of incompetent ignorance.
The encyclopedic definition of autocracy is a government that is ruled by a single leader. Two types of autocracies have traditionally been recognized. They can either be monarchies or dictatorships. Monarchies are built on the belief of the governed that their ruler is their God-given leader. He or she is ordained (by God) with the power to rule. Such individuals are referred to as royalty, and the word “Highness,” as the preferred way of speaking to them, is indicative of the assumption that their power is as “high” as human power can be.
Monarchies are usually won in wars. The British were very good at these in the Middle Ages, and other countries have accepted successive monarchies when one ruling family defeated another (or just killed its rivals). Many of the Middle Eastern succession of sultanates were the result of such bloodbaths, with the masses left with the ruler whose family prevailed. However they are named (e.g., kings, sultans, czars, Caesars), these rulers are dynastic. They reign until they die, at which time their heir takes over as the masses hail their new leader.
Totalitarian dictatorships, however, are not so readily accepted by their subjects. In fact, those living under the rule of totalitarian dictators may strongly (albeit often secretly) oppose the ruler and the edicts that the ruler issues. Adolph Hitler was such a ruler, as was Benito Mussolini, but so, from all we can glean, were Fidel Castro and Mao-tse Tung. Each was their country’s leader for as long as they lived (or desired to remain in power), and each controlled the policies of his country without meaningful opposition.
And yet, the two examples of Hitler and Castro suggest a spectrum of possibilities for this kind of leader. Hitler was lawfully elected by a democratic process in post-World War I Germany. He converted the German democracy to a dictatorship by gaining control of the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament). “Gained control” is a euphemism for what really happened. He forced the members of opposing political parties out of office (usually by accusing them of treason or other criminal acts) and had them replaced by Nazis. Once he had enough votes to pass a bill outlawing all parties but the Nazi Party, his dictatorship was established. Then it was just a matter of deciding how dictatorial he wanted to be. By 1934 he was the Fuehrer (leader of the Nazi Party and Chancellor of Germany).
Fidel Castro’s dictatorship was the result of a totally different process. Castro was the leader of a rebellion against the totalitarian rule of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar (Batista). Batista was a sergeant in Cuba’s army who took control of the armed forces in an earlier coup. (Cuba had a long history of dictatorships, beginning in the years following the first World War.) Batista was a fascist (Central American-style), and Castro’s rebellion had popular support from the masses, who were starving under the Batista regime.
When Batista was overthrown, Castro declared his government to be a communist satellite of the Soviet Union, and he assumed dictatorial control of the government with the full support of the Cuban people. He ruled Cuba for over 50 years, and, when he died, he was still beloved by many Cubans for the socialism he had established in the country.
The tale of these two dictators suggests that autocracies are not uniform in form or substance. Some are power grabs by megalomaniacs (Hitler would most definitively represent this group) and others are driven by idealistic rebellion (Castro, at least initially). In between are the war lords and fiefdoms that are controlled by leaders who are the prototypical “strongmen,” the Tony Sopranos who move from criminal syndicates to government takeovers.
Thus, the different types of autocracies can be viewed as a continuum of possible forms with a wide variety of individuals as the possible dictators. Hitler was driven by a mix of bigoted attitudes and demagogic claims that led to the Holocaust and World War II. Castro was an ideologue who wanted to create a more just society that eventually became a corrupt regime. Other countries lose their democracies to elected leaders who find it more “convenient” to subvert the institutions that give the democracy life.
So, where does Donald Trump belong on the autocratic spectrum if he belongs on it at all? I submit that if he does have a spot on the spectrum, that spot is far closer to Adolph Hitler than Fidel Castro.
First of all, there’s the obvious: Trump, like Hitler, was popularly/constitutionally elected. (Trump lost the popular vote, but the U.S. Constitution doesn’t provide for presidential election by popular vote.) He won an undisputed first term, albeit by winning the Electoral College votes of three states (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania) by less than 80,000 total votes. No one seriously disputed his victory under the Constitution.
And as the nation’s president, Trump has, to his minimal credit, bided by the basic constitutional rules. To be specific, he has implicitly acknowledged the role of Congress to pass legislation and the Judiciary to ensure that the laws are lawful/constitutional. And he is running for re-election, as opposed to declaring himself president for life or some such flagrant dictatorial move (à la the Mussolini model).
Trump has also not, to this point, declared martial law (even though the rioting in some parts of the country have provided opportunities), closed down the press or other media platforms (despite frequently referring to them as “an enemy of the people”), prosecuted political opponents (although he claims some should be “locked up”), or even sent the country to war without Congressional authorization.
In other words, the actual evidence to date supports son Keith’s perspective.
But Trump still might qualify for a place on the autocracy spectrum, and I think he has made a good case for that argument throughout his first term, but especially in the last year.
As early as his first months in office, Trump exhibited autocratic leanings. The reports of his demand for personal loyalty from constitutional officers (James Comey’s report, in his memoir, being perhaps the most blatant) at least suggested Constitutional defiance.
He has fired without compunction those whom he felt were personally disloyal (Comey, McMaster, and Jeff Sessions being the most prominent) and he has gone through a succession of cabinet officers and chiefs of staff, almost always replacing a minimally competent and marginally qualified individual with someone less competent and qualified but more “loyal” to his personal demands and needs.
Those appointments are all still constitutional, however, even if they suggest a consolidation of presidential authority via sycophants who follow the boss’s directive irrespective of their constitutional responsibilities.
That pattern of consolidated autonomy can be traced through all four years of Trump’s presidency, but it has become increasingly blatant in the last year. It began with the revelation that he had used his state department to further his personal political goals (the Ukraine scandal, for which he was impeached).
And in that impeachment trial, he established his dominance over the Republican members of Congress in both the House and the Senate, where only two votes (one in each chamber) were cast by members of his own party for his removal from office.
If a president can flagrantly abuse his presidential powers by seeking political gain in a blatant quid pro quo deal with a foreign leader, that president is acting autocratically. And the case against Trump—despite the Republican efforts to deny the facts, ignore the acts, and deflect the blame to Hunter Biden or the “deep state”—was clear cut: Trump tried to coerce a foreign leader into political chicanery for his personal benefit by withholding Congressionally directed aid to the foreign leader’s country.
And he got away with it when the pathetic excuse for an impeachment trial was railroaded to an acquittal without so much as a single witness giving testimony before the jury of the U.S. Senate.
Emboldened by that victory, Trump has used the Justice Department as if it is his own law firm. With Bill Barr taking on the role with apparent relish, the Attorney General is now acting on behalf of the president in stopping valid prosecutions (Michael Flynn’s) and ordering bogus investigations (of the FBI’s Russia investigation). These acts are not unconstitutional, but they are assertions of presidential authority far beyond any that past presidents have taken.
And then there are the little things (little because they are less prominently reported) that Trump has been doing continually. A most recent example is the executive order he signed last week that allows all federal agencies to reclassify most workers from career civil service status. The order potentially allows Trump to depopulate the “administrative deep state,” as he refers to it. If a re-elected Trump then so wished, he could turn the apolitical agencies that maintain institutional integrity into the kind of power structure that true autocracies require.
Trump’s reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has perhaps been the most blatant exercise of autocratic rule. As we now know, by way of the recorded interviews Trump gave to Bob Woodward (documented in Woodward’s best-selling blockbuster, “Rage”), Trump lied to the American people about the threat presented by the disease and thereby betrayed his Constitutional oath to protect the country and its populace. And now, with over 225,000 U.S. deaths and counting, Trump knows that his re-election is unlikely. The latest polls show him losing at close to landslide proportions.
Whether he fears defeat or just cannot abide being found unworthy of the praise he so easily bestows upon himself, Trump has set the stage for a true constitutional crisis by suggesting that he will not accept the result of the election. Of course, he is trying very hard to make sure he wins, not by normal campaigning, but by seeking to suppress the vote.
And he may well succeed in that effort, as his appointed Postmaster General sought to decrease the ability to process mailed ballots in a series of orders to the nation’s post offices. Republican-controlled legislatures and Republican state officials are also doing their part in a number of swing states by making mail ballots harder to get and/or turn in.
And as a backstop if those efforts fail, Trump has begun to question the integrity of those mail-in ballots that are cast, claiming, without any evidence, that many of them will be fraudulent. Trump’s presumed plan is to claim victory based on early returns in enough states to give him an Electoral College lead and then force court cases on any late tallies that turn the tide against him.
His ultimate goal is all-too-obvious: get the election before the Supreme Court, where he will have three of his own appointees and three other justices who were appointed by Republican presidents waiting to find some basis for declaring him the victor. A number of plausible scenarios exist by which Trump could pull off this “coup.” Part of the plan will involve a mobilized militia of alt-right crazies, who will take to the streets with lawfully-owned guns to cower those protesters on the left into retreat.
Or he may just rely on Republican-controlled state legislatures to refuse to recognize the Electoral College votes for Biden, thereby throwing the election to the House of Representatives, where each state gets one vote. Republicans currently have majority delegations in 26 states (just enough for a Trump win).
Or he could just refuse to leave and mobilize his civilian militia into civil war status. That move would probably also get him to a Supreme Court decision, and I wouldn’t count on anything at that point.
So where is Trump on the autocracy spectrum? The coming weeks will tell us, but anyone who thinks the foregoing is idle fancy isn’t a student of history. Adolph Hitler was duly elected Chancellor of Germany before he assumed dictatorial control of the government and the country. It happened there; don’t think it can’t happen here.