The Autocratic Element

Can America recover from the Trump administration?

Like many people, I’ve lately been preoccupied by the mayhem-makers of the radical right, and by those in power who abet their work. But even as Nazis were invading Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, I found myself worrying about a more subtle, but still substantially pernicious, manifestation of democratic decay. This is the apparently deathless attempt by certain rightist Republicans to bring Hillary Clinton to “justice,” a cause rationalized this way by one such Republican, a freshman congressman from Florida named Matt Gaetz: “Just because Hillary Clinton lost the election doesn’t mean we should forget or forgive conduct that is likely criminal.”

Magazine Cover image

Explore the October 2017 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

Let us lay aside the question of whether the charges of criminality leveled against Clinton are specious (they certainly seem to be) and focus instead on the novelty of Gaetz’s mission. The idea he is endorsing—if not on behalf of Donald Trump, then in the spirit of Donald Trump—is that the political party that wins power is duty-bound to hound to the point of actual prosecution the losing party.

This is un-American, and I mean that in a very specific way. I’ve spent much of my reporting career covering countries that are not ruled by law, and that do not venerate the democratic norms of restraint, moderation, forgiveness, and compromise. It is common for autocratic rulers, even those who took office through ostensibly democratic elections, to persecute the individuals and parties that they have vanquished, for reasons ranging from paranoia to simple vindictiveness. America, though, has been different. It is not uncommon in the U.S. for the losers to challenge the victories of the winners, and this is as it should be. But it is a dangerous innovation to use the instruments of state power to harass powerless, defeated political foes. The fractures that this sort of behavior causes are not easily healed.

On matters concerning the possible disintegration of democratic norms, I turn to the most urgent and acute text on the subject, “How to Build an Autocracy,” an Atlantic cover story by David Frum published earlier this year. Frum, a senior writer for the magazine (and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush), made the argument in this groundbreaking article that if autocracy came to America, it would be not in the form of a coup but in the steady, gradual erosion of democratic norms. Frum’s eloquent writing and ruthlessly sharp analysis for The Atlantic has made him an indispensably important—perhaps even the leading—conservative critic of President Trump.

David Frum
David Frum, whose March 2017 cover story explained “How to Build an Autocracy,” says he underestimated how needy Donald Trump is. (Joshua Blanchard / Getty)

I recently asked Frum about the attempt by many Republicans to pursue criminal charges against the losing candidate in last year’s presidential contest. He called this pursuit “sinister,” but then pointed me to something he considered even more pernicious: the quest to punish former National-Security Adviser Susan Rice for “unmasking” people associated with Trump’s campaign whose communications with foreign officials were captured during U.S. intelligence collection.

“Rice was protecting the country from possible subversion, and they’re pursuing her for this,” Frum said. “It is not merely that they are trying to use the mechanisms of the law to attack political opponents; it is that they are trying to use the power of the state to conceal through diversion an attempt by an autocratic government to steal an American election.

“The autocratic element here is the abuse of power, but not only the abuse of power. This represents the reversal of truth.”

I asked Frum to analyze his March cover story. Did he overplay or understate any of the threats? “The thing I got most wrong is that I did not anticipate the sheer chaos and dysfunction and slovenliness of the Trump operation,” he said. “I didn’t sufficiently anticipate how distracted Trump could be by things that are not essential. My model was that he was greedy first and authoritarian second. What I did not see is that he is needy first, greedy second, and authoritarian third. We’d be in a lot worse shape if he were a more meticulous, serious-minded person.”

The Trump presidency is still young, but we thought it would be worthwhile to ask several writers to assess its first several months. Eliot A. Cohen, who served in the State Department under George W. Bush, examines how Trump has affected America’s global standing; Jack Goldsmith, who served as a high official in the Bush Justice Department, investigates the possible damage Trump has done to American institutions. And our national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates refracts the Trump presidency through the prism of race.

As ever, our goal is to pursue the truth—empirical, verifiable truth—wherever it takes us. So I want to thank you, our readers and subscribers, for making our journalism possible. We need you now more than ever.