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 …