The First Days of the Trump Regime

The president has interpreted the Republican-controlled Senate’s vote to acquit as a writ of absolute power.

Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux

There are two kinds of Republican senators who voted to acquit Donald Trump in his impeachment trial two weeks ago: those who acknowledged he was guilty and voted to acquit anyway, and those who pretended the president had done nothing wrong.

“It was wrong for President Trump to mention former Vice President Biden on that phone call, and it was wrong for him to ask a foreign country to investigate a political rival,” Senator Susan Collins of Maine declared, but added that removing him “could have unpredictable and potentially adverse consequences for public confidence in our electoral process.”

But Collins, like her Republican colleagues Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, was an outlier in admitting the president’s conduct was wrong. Most others in the caucus, like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, deliberately missed the point, insisting that Democrats wanted the president removed for “pausing aid to Ukraine for a few weeks.”

What all these senators share is a willingness to ignore the nature of the offense. Both Collins, who has worked in government in some capacity since the 1970s, and Cotton, a Harvard-educated attorney, understood the basic constitutional arguments for removing a president who attempts to rig a reelection campaign in his favor, which is why they simply ignored them. Collins insisted that the matter be decided by the forthcoming election, disregarding the fact that Trump was impeached because he tried to use his official powers to manipulate that election, while Cotton simply pretended to be clueless about what was at issue.

The ambiguity of these two positions obscures the clarity with which the president and his attorney general, William Barr, have interpreted the acquittal vote. The Senate’s vote to acquit Trump of the impeachment charges he faced, despite the incontrovertible proof that he sought to use his official powers to force a foreign country to falsely implicate a political rival, was not simply a vote to keep him in office until the electorate can render its verdict. Republican senators affirmatively voted to allow the president to use his official powers to suppress the opposition party, to purge government employees who proved more loyal to the Constitution than to Trump, and to potentially prosecute or otherwise criminally implicate his political enemies without lawful cause, while shielding Trump allies from legal sanction. The acquittal vote ratified the authoritarian instincts of the president and the ideological convictions of his attorney general.

The most generous interpretation of the votes of Collins, Murkowski, and Alexander is that the senators believed they were staving off a greater crisis of democracy. But in the eyes of the president, their votes for acquittal were cast to install him as a strongman.

Authoritarian nations come in many different stripes, but they all share a fundamental characteristic: The people who live in them are not allowed to freely choose their own leaders. This is why Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, in his speech announcing his vote to convict on the first article of impeachment, said that “corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”

Democracies are sustained through the formal process by which power is contested and exchanged. Once that process is corrupted, you have merely the trappings of democracy within an authoritarian regime. Such governments may retain elections and courts and legislatures, but those institutions have no power to enforce the rule of law. America is not there yet—but the acquittal vote was a fateful step in that direction.

The process by which a democracy becomes an authoritarian regime is what social scientists call authoritarianization. The process does not need to be sudden and dramatic. Often, democratic mechanisms are eroded over a period of months or years, slowly degrading the ability of the public to choose its leaders or hold them to account.

Legislators in functioning democracies need not agree on substantive policy matters—they might fight over environmental safeguards, for example, or tax rates, or immigration, or health care. But no matter the party or ideology they support, they must hold sacred the right of the people to choose their own leaders. The entire Senate Republican Conference has only one legislator willing to act on that principle. The lesson Trump has learned from impeachment is that the Republican Party will let him get away with anything he wants to do.

After calling the accusation that Trump collaborated with foreign powers in an effort to swing American elections a "hoax," Barr set up an official channel for the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to funnel foreign dirt on Trump’s rivals to the Justice Department. After falsely claiming that Joe Biden had demanded the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect his son, Trump has engaged in the exact act he accused Biden of engaging in, by attempting to shield his henchman Roger Stone from legal consequences for breaking the law on his behalf, leading to the resignation of the prosecutors working on the case. Barr also has handpicked advisers “reviewing” the case against Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia officials during the transition. The day of Trump’s acquittal, the Justice Department announced that Barr would have to approve any investigations into the 2020 presidential candidates, giving him the authority to shut down criminal investigations of the president’s associates or approve inquiries into his rivals. Speaking to reporters, Trump claimed the “absolute right” to determine who is and who is not prosecuted by the Justice Department. There is no law but Trump.

Modern authoritarian institutions diligently seek to preserve the appearance of democratic accountability. Perhaps for this reason, Barr has insisted publicly that he is protecting the independence of the Justice Department. “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody,” he told reporters last week. Barr insisted, “If Trump were to say ‘Go investigate somebody,’ and you sense it’s because they’re a political opponent, then an attorney general shouldn’t carry that out, wouldn’t carry that out.” This is a lawyerly dodge masquerading as bluster—Barr does not need to be bullied into shielding Trump and his friends or pursuing his enemies. Indeed, Barr’s task is to do so while maintaining a veneer of legitimacy over the process, which is impossible to do when Trump makes such demands publicly. Privately, Trump seethes that Barr has not thrown more of his critics in prison, as Barr and his underlings scheme to sate the president’s rage.

Although in nearly every other context, Barr has been an advocate for the harshest possible punishments, it would be wrong to say his insistence on leniency for Stone is inconsistent or out of character. He has attacked the reform-minded district attorneys who are pursuing less harsh punishments as “anti-law-enforcement DAs” who are seeking “pathetically lenient” sentences. And he has warned critics of police misconduct that if they don’t “respect” law enforcement, “they might find themselves without the police protection they need”—turning policing from a public service into a protection racket. But Barr is also the man who pushed for pardons for high-ranking government officials who broke federal law in the Iran-Contra affair. The underlying principle here, from Stone to Iran-Contra, is authoritarian but consistent: Members of the ruling clique are entitled to criticize law enforcement without sanction, and entitled to leniency when they commit crimes on the boss’s behalf. Everyone else is entitled to kneel.

Trump has also engaged in a purge of officials who testified truthfully—some of them only somewhat truthfully—in the impeachment hearings. Trump fired his ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, who confirmed that Trump had conditioned aid to Ukraine on procuring an announcement that Biden’s son Hunter was under investigation by Ukrainian authorities. He removed not only Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman but also his twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, from the White House staff after Vindman’s truthful testimony that the president sought to coerce Ukraine into falsely implicating the Bidens. Trump mocked Alexander Vindman on Twitter after his ouster by putting his rank in scare quotes, a marked contrast to his effusive praise for war criminals. Similarly, the former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie Liu, had her nomination for a top position in the Treasury Department withdrawn after Trump publicly attacked prosecutors in her office for their handling of the Stone case.

In any administration, political appointees serve at the pleasure of the president. But these officials did not somehow fail in performing their official duties or even clash with official policy. As Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma put it, “People were supposed to have loyalty. Obviously they didn’t.”

Public officials swear an oath to the Constitution, not to Donald Trump. The purged officials were removed for their disloyalty to the latter, not the former. With the exception of Romney, who voted against acquittal on the first of the two charges, the GOP now makes no distinction between fealty to Trump and loyalty to the country. The Founders devised the impeachment clause as a remedy for a chief executive who abuses his power to stay in office. But as there were no parties at the time of the founding, they did not foresee that such a chief executive would be shielded by toadies who envision their civic obligations as beginning and ending with devotion to the leader.

Much has been made of Trump’s unfitness for office. But if Trump were the only one who were unfit, his authoritarian impulses would have been easier to contain. Instead, the Republican Party is slowly transforming into a regime party, one whose primary duty is to maintain its control of the government at all costs. The benefits here are mutual: By keeping Trump in power, the party retains power. Individuals who want to rise in the Republican Party and its associated organizations today must be unwavering in their devotion to the leader—that is the only way to have a career in the GOP, let alone reap the associated political and financial benefits. Allowing Trump to fall would render all the humiliations, compromises, and sacrifices the party has made to keep him in power meaningless.

But keeping Trump in office is not the ultimate goal, despite party members’ obsequious public performances toward Trump. Rather, the purpose is to preserve the authoritarian structure Trump and Barr are building, so that it can be inherited by the next Republican president. To be more specific, the Trump administration is not fighting a “deep state”; it is seeking to build one that will outlast him.

These recent events are not the only evidence that the United States has entered a process of authoritarianization. Aside from Trump’s claim, effectively uncontested by Senate Republicans, that he can unilaterally direct the Justice Department to prosecute anyone he wants, Trump has asserted blanket authority to block congressional oversight. His office has claimed that he can blithely ignore congressional appropriations as he sees fit. The Republican-controlled Senate has ratified Trump’s authority to interfere in American elections, while helping install judges who understand that their paramount obligation is to shield Trump from accountability. The president’s public attacks on political opponents and detractors, and his demands that they be sanctioned or prosecuted, have had the intended effect of silencing elite criticism of the administration—most former high-ranking military officials would only anonymously rebuke the president’s purge of the Vindmans and his subsequent attacks on them. Potential future dissidents are meant to note the folly of placing their civic obligations before the whims of the president.

Let us pause for a moment to take stock of this vision of government. It is a state in which the legislature can neither oversee the executive branch nor pass laws that constrain it. A state in which legal requests for government records on those associated with the political opposition are satisfied immediately, and such requests related to the sitting executive are denied wholesale. It is a system in which the executive can be neither investigated for criminal activity nor removed by the legislature for breaking the law. It is a government in which only the regime party may make enforceable demands, and where the opposition party may compete in elections, but only against the efforts of federal law enforcement to marginalize them for their opposition to the president. It is a vision of government in which members of the civil service may break the law on the leader’s behalf, but commit an unforgivable crime should they reveal such malfeasance to the public.

Were it in any other nation, how would you describe a government that functions this way?

Trump’s record of success in the courts is one reason the U.S. has yet to cross another dangerous threshold—as long as the judiciary remains sympathetic to Trump, he has little motivation to openly defy a court order. But if the day comes when he chooses to do so, we can be certain that Republican legislators will do exactly what they have done every other time Trump has broken the law: nothing.

People may think of authoritarian nations in Cold War terms, as states with bombastic leaders who grant themselves extravagant titles and weigh their chests down with meaningless medals. These are nations without legislatures, without courts, with populations cowed by armies of secret police.

This is not how many authoritarian nations work today. Most have elections, legislatures, courts; they possess all the trappings of democracy. In fact, most deny that they are authoritarian at all. “Few contemporary dictatorships admit that they are just that,” writes the scholar Milan Svolik in The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. “If we were to trust dictators’ declarations about their regimes, most of them would be democracies.”

But the democratic institutions that authoritarian nations retain are largely vestigial or have little power to check the executive, either because they are under regime control, or because they are cowed or co-opted into submission.

Similarly, the typical image of an authoritarian nation involves violently suppressing dissent and assassinating or imprisoning political opponents and journalists. But violent suppression has tremendous risks and costs, and so authoritarians have developed more subtle methods of repression.

“Rather than using brute force to maintain control, today’s authoritarian regimes use strategies that are subtler and more ambiguous in nature to silence, deter, and demobilize opponents,” the scholar Erica Frantz writes. “Doing so serves a number of purposes. It attracts less attention, enables them to plausibly deny a role in what occurred, makes it difficult for opponents to launch a decisive response, and helps the regime feign compliance with democratic norms of behavior.”

The collapse of Joe Biden’s campaign is a case in point. If not for an anonymous whistle-blower, Americans might never have learned of Trump’s effort to use public funds to extort Ukraine into falsely implicating Biden in a crime. But the months-long discussion of baseless allegations of corruption against Biden likely served the same purpose, spooking Democratic primary voters who might have otherwise considered supporting him.

Ultimately, no one can ever know whether Biden’s campaign collapsed because he is a poor candidate, because his policies were unpopular, because he was out-campaigned by his rivals, or because the president successfully used his official powers to destroy a political enemy. One could hardly imagine a more successful example of what Frantz calls “low intensity” political repression—a threat was neutralized with minimal consequences to the Trump administration, indeed without even a clear burden of responsibility for the outcome. If the president’s frame-up of Biden was not a perfect crime, it was close.

The frequent worries that it can happen here are arrogant in one respect: It already has happened here. American democracy has always been most vulnerable to an ideology that reserves democratic rights to one specific demographic group, raising that faction as the only one that possesses a fundamentally heritable claim to self-government. Those who are not members of this faction are rendered, by definition, an existential threat.

In the aftermath of the Compromise of 1877, the Republican Party abandoned black voters in the South to authoritarian rule for nearly a century. But the Southern Democrats who destroyed the Reconstruction governments and imposed one-party despotism imagined themselves to be not effacing democracy, but rescuing it from the tyranny of the unworthy and ignorant. “Genuine democracy,” declared the terrorist turned South Carolina governor and senator Ben Tillman, was “the rule of the people—of all the white people, rich and poor alike.”

Similarly, many members of the Republican elite have transitioned seamlessly from attempting to restrain Trump’s authoritarian impulses to enabling them, all the while telling themselves they are acting in the best interests of democracy. This delusion is necessary, a version of the apocalyptic fantasy that conservative pundits have fed their audiences. In this self-justifying myth, only Trump stands between conservative Americans and a left-wing armageddon in which effete white liberals and the black and brown masses they control shut the right out of power forever.

As the president’s adviser and Fox News host Tucker Carlson has said, Democrats “want to replace you, the American voters, with newly amnestied citizens and an ever-increasing number of chain migrants.” Barr envisions his defense of the regime as a rational response to a “holy war,” waged by “so-called progressives” whose “mission is to use the coercive power of the State to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection.” Michael Anton, the former Trump national-security aide, wrote prior to the 2016 election that “the Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of a permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties. Because they are.”

To save “democracy” then, they must, at any cost, preserve a system in which only those who are worthy—that is, those who vote Republican—may select leaders and make policy. If that means disenfranchising nonwhite voters, so be it. If it means imposing a nationwide racial gerrymander to enhance the power of white voters at the expense of everyone else, then that is what must be done. And if it means allowing the president to use his authority to prevent the opposition from competing in free and fair elections, then that is but a small price to pay. The irony is no less visible to today’s Trumpists than it was to Tillman, and it is no more an impediment.

The insistence, by Cotton and other Trump defenders, that “the Democrats have never accepted that Donald Trump won the 2016 election, and they will never forgive him, either” has it exactly backwards. Democrats impeached Trump to preserve a democratic system in which they have a chance of winning, in which the president cannot blithely frame his rivals for invented crimes. Republicans acquitted him because they fear that a system not rigged in their favor is one in which they will never win again.

On Thursday, February 6, millions of Americans went about their lives as they would have any other day. They came home from overnight shifts, took the bus to work, made lunch for their children, cursed the traffic on their commute, or went out for a drink with friends. Yet the nation they live in may have been fundamentally changed the day before.

Democratic backsliding can be arrested. But that is an arduous task, and a Trump defeat in November is a necessary but not sufficient step. Many Americans have doubtless failed to recognize what has occurred, or how quickly the nation is hurtling toward a state of unfreedom that may prove impossible to reverse. How long the Trump administration lasts should be up to the American people to decide. But this president would never risk allowing them to freely make such a choice. The Republican Party has shown that nothing would cause it to restrain the president, and so he has no reason to restrain himself.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the American imagination of catastrophe has been limited to sudden, shocking events, the kind that shatter a sunny day in a storm of blood. That has left Americans unprepared for a different kind of catastrophe, the kind that spreads slowly and does not abruptly announce itself. For that reason, for most Americans, that Thursday morning felt like any other. But it was not—the Senate acquittal marked the beginning of a fundamental transition of the United States from a democracy, however flawed, toward authoritarianization. It was, in short, the end of the Trump administration, and the first day of the would-be Trump Regime.