What are the chances the United States will slide into tyranny now that we have Donald Trump as our president? Low. American democracy — the world’s oldest — isn’t just a gentleman's agreement: In addition to “fragile norms,” it has a number of hard-wired rules. Some of those rules are noxious: for example, the constitutional albatross known as the electoral college, which allowed Trump to seize the presidency while losing the election by more than 2.6 million votes. But here’s the nub: Some of those very same 18th-century grotesqueries will help prevent Trump from becoming an autocrat.
Although it's terrifying to contemplate Strongman Trump, the “democracy risk” — or the threat that Trump will shred our political system — feared by #NeverTrump Republicans like David Frum, anti-Putin journalists like Masha Gessen, and fascism scholars like Timothy Snyder is overstated. Meanwhile, “policy risk” — the threat that Republicans will roll back social progress and eviscerate the safety net — is getting too little attention. Some argue this is a false choice — can't we worry about both? Maybe, maybe not. On the one hand, ginning up authoritarian anxieties could drive a wedge between the White House and Congress; on the other hand, it could needlessly exalt Trump, strengthening what looks like a weak hand. There are probably drawbacks to treating Trump like Mussolini if he’s really Berlusconi.
There are reasons the United States is often claimed to be unusually resilient to authoritarianism. “One plausible depiction of our whole constitutional design,” said David Pozen, a professor at Columbia Law School, “is that it’s premised on a liberalism of fear.” Our ungainly system of checks and balances, which generates almost intolerable gridlock in normal times, also protects against tyrannical excess. Pozen suggested picturing the distribution of policy outcomes as a bell curve. “On one end are really, really horrible outcomes, on the other are really great outcomes, and both ends of the distribution are lopped off by our constitutional system.”
Historically, the most important check on presidential power comes from the Senate, which has the power to appropriate money, and where 60 votes are required to pass most legislation. Trump is riding high right now because Republican senators are lying low, feigning deference. This is a mirage, though. Republican senators are highly incentivized to give Trump everything he wants until they accomplish their only true objective: a gargantuan, budget-busting, historically irresponsible tax cut. Tax cuts are likely to happen in Trump’s first hundred days. After the treasury has been looted, though, the dynamic between Trump and Congress is likely to shift. At that point we might discover that Trump is actually a figurehead. Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, will be cackling from the steakhouse.
There are reasons the US is often claimed to be unusually resilient to authoritarianism.
McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, is a doctrinaire conservative with a flair for constitutional hardball. He’s likely to team up with Trump to obliterate Obamacare, roll back environmental regulations, and destroy consumer protections. Paul Ryan’s House of Representatives is less important because we already know it will pass soul-pinchingly cruel, regressive legislation — the House has been doing that for years. It’s the Senate, though, which will decide which conservative lunacies actually become law, and many of Ryan’s most ambitious goals — privatizing Medicare, repealing Dodd-Frank — have little chance of overcoming a Democratic filibuster (pending the outcome of this Saturday’s runoff election in Louisiana, the Republicans will likely control 52 seats).
But couldn’t Trump steamroll the Senate with angry tweets, bending that august institution to his totalitarian will? Maybe, but previous presidents with much bigger mandates and far friendlier press coverage haven’t had much success doing so. FDR, for example, whom many feared might become an autocrat, entered office at a time of national emergency with huge Democratic majorities. He won reelection three times. After the first term, though, the Senate rejected most of his New Deal initiatives, as well as his notorious court-packing plan. Like Trump, FDR marshaled popular support by contacting the American people directly (through radio). Unlike Trump, public opinion was solidly in his corner. But when FDR tried to oust the Democratic senators who stalled his agenda — traveling, wheelchair bound, to stump against them in their home states in the 1938 midterms — he failed to take down a single target. While the political climate is different today in all kinds of ways, it’s not clear that it’s any more favorable to the executive. For all the talk of Tea-Party-fueled anti-establishment fervor, the high water mark for taking down incumbent senators was 2010. Since then, each election has been better for incumbents than the last.
Many feared that FDR would become an autocrat. He didn't.
Trump may never appear to have more power over the Senate than he has right now. Even so, there are plenty of signs that senators are willing to resist him. In his 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl, for example, Trump repeated a campaign pledge to press for congressional term limits. McConnell’s response: “It will not be on the agenda in the Senate.” Rand Paul, who exercises something close to a veto on Secretary of State nominations because of his swing vote on the Foreign Relations Committee, seems to have already derailed several of Trump’s options, including Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton (Paul has even indicated misgivings about Mitt Romney, though Romney would probably attract enough support from Democrats to get confirmed). In response to Trump’s pledge to reinstate waterboarding, John McCain has threatened lawsuits, flatly announcing, “I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do. We will not waterboard.”
Even Trump’s relatively mainstream attacks on flag-burning have been rejected out of hand (“In this country we have a long tradition of respecting unpleasant speech,” said McConnell. “I happen to support the Supreme Court's decision on that matter.") Ditto on tariffs. The chances that Trump will get authorizing legislation — let alone judicial approval — for something as tyrannical as FDR’s internment camps, or a Muslim registry that includes US citizens, are virtually nil. If senatorial opposition to Trump further stiffens, as history suggests is likely, he could end up being one of our weaker presidents. Instead of sweeping away the old political order and inaugurating a new era of Trumpism, many scholars have already suggested, based on preliminary evidence, that Trump seems likelier to emerge as a figure of “disjunction,” staging a last-ditch effort to save the teetering Reaganite coalition while actually presiding over its demise.
The exception — and it’s a doozy — is foreign policy. Trump will have virtually unlimited power to cause mischief in other countries, even if he ends up hamstrung at home. As David Pozen noted, the Obama years continued a decades-long expansion of presidential power, pushing the envelope, in particular, in matters related to drone strikes, Iran policy, Guantanamo, and authorization to prosecute “the War on Terror,” which the administration recently decided now extends to fighting Al-Shabab in Somalia.
Trump is already making a mess of foreign policy with his corrupt and careless phone calls, and he hasn’t even taken office. His self-dealing on behalf of his far-flung hotels should be the least of our worries, though. The real problem with the hotels is they’re irresistible targets for terrorists. How will Trump react when one of his buildings in Turkey, Azerbaijan, or Saudi Arabia comes under attack? The Senate won’t be able to stop him from using drones or tactical nukes. That’s what should keep us up at night.
Trump will have virtually unlimited power to cause mischief in other countries.
Still, It’s worth pointing out that even in the event of a large-scale terrorist attack, Trump won’t be able to nullify democracy as Hitler did in 1933 after the burning of the Reichstag. Somewhat unusually, the US Constitution has no “emergency button.” Unlike “a lot of European constitutions,” said Pozen, ours “does not have an emergency powers mechanism” that allows you to suspend constitutional protections for six months. That’s no small consolation, though it’s cold comfort for foreigners. There’s a grim scenario in which Trump rules simultaneously as president of the United States and dictator of the Middle East.
The narrative that American democracy is sliding into tyranny is appealing to upscale liberals in part because it provides a masterplot for universal victimhood. Since democracy belongs to everyone, we are all targets if Trump undermines democratic norms. The truth, though, is that Trump’s presidency poses a terrible threat not to upscale liberals but to the less-empowered populations he rails against at rallies: undocumented immigrants, foreign Muslims, people on Medicaid.
The question isn’t whether Trump should be “normalized” — he’s one of the most abnormal men on the planet. The question is whether Trump should be diminished. Comparing Trump to Putin probably gives him too much credit. For now, he’s far too weak to be a strongman. He’s well-positioned, on the other hand, to emerge as a puppet — Putin’s puppet, McConnell’s puppet, Jared Kushner’s puppet. While the marionette looks evil, his twisted gyrations shouldn’t make us lose sight of who’s really pulling the strings.