How to Build an Autocracy
In the March cover story, David Frum wrote that corruption and intimidation by the president is possible “only if many people other than Donald Trump agree to permit it. It can all be stopped, if individual citizens and public officials make the right choices.”
I am currently a senior in high school studying comparative politics. The part of this article that struck me the most was the near-dystopian prediction of life under the rule of President Trump. I was not shocked by the course of action that the president may choose to take, but rather by the docile state of the American population that Frum described—it seems the least feasible of all his predictions. Political participation has become a part of daily life, whether in the form of Facebook posts, conversations at the dinner table, or seemingly constant demonstrations. On top of that, media outlets such as The Atlantic are circulating ideas that push citizens to telephone their senators and to support laws that force Trump to expose his own autocratic ways. Although the state of democracy may seem bleak in our government, democracy has never been stronger in the public sphere.
Mr. Frum painted a very interesting portrait, but it has some major problems. The first is his apparent underestimation of the place of demonstrations and marches. There is good reason to believe that massive popular resistance to the government will play a big role during Donald Trump’s presidency. Because of this oversight, Mr. Frum’s analysis also fails to consider the probable character of the Trump administration’s response to such resistance. The manifestly authoritarian characteristics of the man and many of his advisers lead me to think that a violent crackdown is highly likely. I would also predict much more domestic surveillance, as well as harassment of opposition groups. A violent crackdown could be the start of attempts by the administration to curb democracy, and possibly even shut down democratic institutions. Will congressional Republicans regard these moves as justified? Or will they decide there is an imperative to impeach?
The second major flaw that I see in Mr. Frum’s fascinating analysis concerns his assessment of the role that is likely to be played by international events, crises, and war. It would hardly be surprising if Trump’s bellicosity and recklessness got us into one or several military conflicts, leading to massive demonstrations and other resistance in the United States and around the world. Once again, given Trump’s cruel and authoritarian disposition, this could all lead to a violent crackdown.
Finally, although Mr. Frum is right that Trump might oversee a period of economic expansion that raises wages for the working class, it is at least as likely that international economic instability will outweigh those gains, causing increased unemployment and lower wages.
My view is that we’ll see a more turbulent period than Mr. Frum projects.
Political-science professor, Touro College and University System
“How to Build an Autocracy,” is a chilling read. “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered,” [Frum] writes. The argument works because its component parts are so plausible. Frum does not imagine a coup or a crisis. He does not lean on the deus ex machina of a terrorist attack or a failed assassination attempt. The picture he paints is not one in which everything is different, but one in which everything is the same.
He imagines a Trumpian autocracy built upon the most ordinary of foundations: a growing economy, a cynical public, a cowed media, a self-interested business community, and a compliant Republican Party. The picture resonates because it combines two forces many sense at work—Trump’s will to power and the fecklessness of the institutions meant to stop him—into one future everyone fears: autocracy in America.
But what Frum imagines is not an autocracy. It is what we might call a partyocracy—a quasi-strongman leader empowered only because the independently elected legislators from his party empower him …
If Trump builds an autocracy, his congressional enablers will, if anything, be more responsible than him. After all, in amassing power and breaking … norms, Trump will be doing what the Founders expected. But in letting any president do that, Congress will be violating the role [it was] built to play …
There is much talk of the resistance to the Trump administration, and many protests happening outside the White House. But it is in Congress members’ districts—at their town halls, in their offices, at their coffee shops—where this fight will be won or lost. This is why it matters that the anti-Trump movement has begun adopting the tactics the Tea Party used to great success against President Obama in 2010: Those tactics focused on congressional offices, and that’s why they worked …
But this is the beginning, not the end, of Trump’s opposition seeing Congress as the core battleground. The real test will be in 2018 … Turnout tends to plummet in midterm elections, and overall turnout was historically low in 2014. The result, as political scientist Seth Masket writes, is that [politicians] are more afraid of their primary voters than general-election voters. Their behavior will change if and when that changes.
And that should change. It should change in 2018, and it should change thereafter. Congress is more powerful than the president. It comes first in the Constitution for a reason. The public should demand more of it, and care more who runs it.
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I’m a typical Canadian liberal and would usually be ashamed of David Frum, another Canadian, supporting conservative ideals. But today I wrap my arms around him and say, “Well done.” Although I’m not an American, I am a member of the free world and will have to endure Donald Trump’s leadership. Hence my motivation to comment.
I was particularly aroused by Frum’s comment that “people who expect to hear only lies can hardly complain when a lie is exposed.” This circumstance has existed in the United States for years, maybe decades. I continually hear that misleading statements made during a campaign are discounted, almost expected. I know that if my prospective employer is aware that I lied during a job interview, then I don’t get the job. Americans have been hiring presidents for years who have knowingly misled them during the campaign. Maybe if this habit were not condoned and if there were a way of highlighting these “alternative facts,” Americans could be better positioned to hire the right man or woman.
David Frum points out how the erosion of political institutions and of the very concept of truth can help render Donald Trump unchallengeable. But I wonder if Frum, my fellow Canadian, albeit one with dual American citizenship, shares the peculiar blind spot most Americans have to the firmware of true fascism, which has to do with supporters carrying actual guns, and not mere robots and internet trolls that make miserable the life of dissenters (let us not yet call them dissidents). Trump’s most ardent followers live in traditionally red states with a high percentage of gun ownership. The presence of armed supporters at political rallies has a chilling effect on people’s desire to freely speak their minds, especially after the horrifying shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, which also resulted in the deaths of six people, including U.S. District Judge John Roll and a young girl who came to watch an exercise in civics. The National Rifle Association has become more and more extreme, and it spent at least $30 million on ads for Trump’s election campaign. Should armed agents provocateurs infiltrate anti-Trump rallies, it is not hard to imagine just how extreme the police response could become. Any kind of mass-violence scenario would play into Trump’s assertion that America has become irredeemably violent, and can only benefit Trump’s “law and order” brand.
Trump also calls the kind of attack that occurred in San Bernardino a terrorist story, rather than a massive failure of gun control, while blithely ignoring most incidents of domestic terror and hatred, especially when those who are shot happen to be black or Sikh or gay or female. Trump has great fondness not just for the soft power of prevarication, but for the hard power exercised by those who are willing and able to use guns as a last resort. That is the greatest, most unspeakable, and arguably most repressed truth of America.
Trump recently signed a measure ensuring that the mentally ill can obtain firearms. This from a man who promises to keep Americans safe with his rather arbitrary travel ban. Fascism is now the elephant in the room—but the unconscionable lack of gun control is the skeleton in the closet.
Ron Charach, M.D.
Many of our fellow citizens—and as a result, much of our government—could care less about objective information. Logic and analysis are fading while emotionally satisfying, chest-pounding crazy talk and impulsive actions replace them. The goal seems to be to restrict Americans to an unchanging and therefore unrealistic place where they imagine they’ll be okay again. Donald Trump and the Republicans are creating a tribe of Me and Mine while no longer even recognizing a democratic society of Us and Ours.
We have to face up to the reality that our country has embraced unreality. We need to figure out how to create arguments that play to feelings at least as much as they present facts. And we need to be smart about converting those arguments to results.
The Big Question: What was the most significant fad of all time?
(On TheAtlantic.com, readers answered April’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)
5. The Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century was the first well-documented financial bubble. The widespread speculation on bulbs was a sign of things to come.
— Pat Southward
4. The biggest fad of all time is presently being re-experienced by Americans. White nationalism helped shape Western civilization and may now lead to its decline and irrelevance.
— Robert Schmoldt
3. Texting. It has, in one fell swoop, removed face-to-face conversations between humans and transformed them into letters, digits, and mindless emoticons.
— Wayne Johnson
2. Television has transcended its instant fad status, leaving a lasting impression upon the way societies receive and understand news, culture, and entertainment.
— Brett Kucharski
1. Tobacco smoking defined “cool” for many years and has led to many early deaths from heart disease, cancer, and other causes.
— Bruce Brandt
“Can Wall Street Save Trump From Himself?,” by William D. Cohan (April), said that Senator Elizabeth Warren espoused the view that anyone who has worked on Wall Street should be disqualified from government service. In fact, Warren has voted to confirm nominees with Wall Street experience, including Stanley Fischer and Jack Lew. “What Your Therapist Doesn’t Know,” by Tony Rousmaniere (April), said that in a survey by Columbia University’s Matt Blanchard and Barry Farber, 93 percent of clients reported whitewashing feedback to their therapists. The correct figure is 70 percent. “Breaking Faith,” by Peter Beinart (April), misspelled the last name of Ludvig Broomé while citing his undergraduate thesis. April’s Study of Studies (“How to Buy Happiness,” by Isabella Kwai) misspelled the last name of Leaf Van Boven, a co-author of “To Do or to Have? That Is the Question,” from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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