Calling the Trump Era by Its Proper Name

Four terms that may capture the moment, each implying a different danger

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Donald Trump’s first official State of the Union address—which seems as if it happened back in the 19th century, but in reality is five days in the past—highlighted something that was implicit in his campaign and increasingly significant through his time in office: Trump virtually never praises or speaks about, and gives no evidence of respecting or even comprehending, the strengths of the United States as a system, or as an idea.

The United States occupies a particular (very favorable) geographic location, and it has a particular demographic mixture (which has continually changed through its history), and has other traits that make Americans identifiable as a people. For Americans who have lived overseas, one of the most obvious of these tribal traits is the impulse to gather on Thanksgiving Day, which for everyone else is just another Thursday. Another is the sporting festival that some 160 million people, mostly Americans, watched last night.

But from its Founders’ era onward, the country’s leaders have stressed that America the nation is also America the idea. This was an invented nation, in the late 1700s the first of its type the world had seen. And for all of its evident injustices and failings and hypocrisies, in principle it was based on the open-ended quest to become a moreperfect union.”

At the level of high theory, this meant learning about the checks and balances of the Constitution, and the discussions in the Federalist Papers about the intricate machinery of a lasting democracy. In practice it meant respecting the rules of American interaction at least as much as the results, and understanding that those rules included both written strictures and long-established norms. Respecting the process of trial by jury, despite disagreement with a particular verdict. Respecting the followup process of judicial review and appeal. Respecting open elections, even when they go against you. Respecting the obligations of long-term treaties and compacts, even when it would be more convenient to shirk them. Respecting the importance of unfettered debate and criticism, even when you feel—as most politicians do when being criticized—that the people doing the complaining have got it all wrong.

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As we think back over Donald Trump’s years on the public stage—his decades as a mogul-entertainer, his years in politics—it is startling to realize that he almost never says any of this. The “almost” is a fascinating exception illustrating the rule. When I listened to his inaugural address last year, the one that was famed for its “American Carnage” scorched-earth dystopian tone, I noticed that one part rang false to the Trump we had known. That came near the start, when Trump said that “Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power.”

The oddity of that phrase, from this man, was precisely how normal it was. It is the sort of thing that virtually every president says when being sworn in, as a sign that he understands the gravity of the moment and his responsibility as temporary steward of the nation’s ongoing interests. (The first lines of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, for instance, were, “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.” Most other speeches begin with less rhetorically polished versions of the same idea.)

But what is normal for other presidents was out of character for Trump. In the rest of his spoken or tweeted expressions, there’s been practically no evidence of what has preoccupied most other leaders: the centrality, and fragility, of the institutional underpinnings of American life. (“A Republic, if you can keep it,” is the phrase usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin about the fragility of the American constitutional order.)

A system for democratic transfer of power requires respect for elections and their results. But as long as the 2016 results looked as if they would go against Trump, he said in every speech, “They’re rigged, folks, all rigged.” The press? Criticism from it is of course “fake.” Judicial review? If it goes against him, it’s crooked, unfair, or “Mexican.” The intelligence establishment? Disloyal. Treaties and alliances? Cheaty and unfair. Civil servants and their institutional knowledge? Dead weight—or the dead hand of the “deep state.” Norms of transparency or propriety? In place of the implications of “Caesar’s wife” (being above reproach), we have those of “Trump’s children,” elbows-deep in conflicted deals.

I don’t know whether Trump has encountered the phrase l’etat, c’est moi, but he is showing us just what it means. Except for that odd passage in his inaugural address, there’s no evidence I can think of that he recognizes the claims, validity, or importance of a set of rules beyond his personal interests or aggrandizement. (The closest other possibility I can think of is when he responded to Doug Jones’s upset victory, in the Alabama Senate race over Roy Moore, not by claiming the results were rigged, as Moore did, but by tweeting “A win is a win.”)

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We all “know” this about Trump’s behavior. At least I feel I do, after chronicling 150-odd illustrations of his cast of mind during the campaign. But I wonder increasingly about the proper name to give it, which is the occasion for mentioning briefly several books and articles already familiar to Atlantic readers, and another one worth learning about.

Do we call Donald Trump’s approach to power …

Trumpocracy? This is the name of an excellent new book by The Atlantic’s David Frum, related to—but much broader than—his “How to Build an Autocracy” cover story, published just after Trump was sworn in. David describes the interlocking brands of corruption that together keep an autocrat in power, from straight-out financial payoffs (like Trump real-estate deals linked to Trump-administration policies) to the corrosion of law-enforcement standards to the abasement of an entire political party. What I observed when living in China is what the book says is becoming true of this era’s America: “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.” Franklin Foer’s astonishing new cover story about Paul Manafort, “The Plot Against America,” vividly describes how financial and political corruption interact.

A “dying” of democracy? That is the implication of the new book How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard. Like Frum’s book, this one works against an “it can’t happen here” complacency about the durability of American institutions. The country is so strong, it has bounced back from so much, it has withstood so many “end is nigh!” warnings, that it becomes natural to think that its health and resilience are guaranteed.

Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that democracy is far more fragile and less resilient than it seems, and that there is such a thing as irreversible damage—many signs of which we can observe now. (The refusal of one political party to consider a Supreme Court nomination was a significant step in this regard.) The book makes clear that the survival of democracies depends on participants agreeing to observe rules, and “norms,” even if they can’t be absolutely forced to comply. When the Supreme Court ruled against Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal in his White House tapes case, he acquiesced to its power. A generation later, so did Al Gore, in the face of the historically embarrassing Bush v. Gore ruling. A man like Trump might have tried to dig in his heels and see what other institutions could make him do. (After all, he has seen that no one can make him release his tax returns, or abide by the emoluments clause, or recognize other accepted limits on his power.) And a party like today’s McConnell-Ryan congressional Republicans might have failed to stand up to him.

Perhaps this is “tribalism,” a term I’ve discussed in a series of posts last year,  especially for the current Republican pattern of converting any judgment about “right” or “wrong” into whether it helps or hurts Trump. Andrew Sullivan has a strong new piece on this theme, which begins: “The problem with tribalism is that it knows no real limiting principle.” Anything that helps “us,” and hurts “them,” can be justified, no matter what it means for norms, balance, or the survival of the democratic system in the long run.

… Or it is time to call this era flat-out a return to fascism? This is the argument of another brand-new book, by the Dutch writer (and friend of mine ) Rob Riemen. Its title is To Fight Against This Age; it’s a combination of two long essays that received wide attention in Europe; and for American readers its central importance will be Riemen’s contention that it matters to call today’s political disorders by their real name. For him that is not “populism” (or the U.S. version, “economic anxiety,”) nor garden-variety corruption nor even longer-term democratic distress. Instead it is the reawakening of the force that began destroying Europe a century ago, outright fascism:

The term populism, being the preferred description for a modern-day revolt of the masses, will not provide any meaningful understanding concerning that phenomenon … The use of the term populist is only one more way to cultivate the denial that the ghost of fascism is haunting our societies again and to deny the fact that liberal democracies have turned into their opposite: mass democracies deprived of the spirit of democracy.

Why does the naming matter? In reading Riemen’s book, I thought frequently of two works by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates that appear in his new book We Were Eight Years in Power. One was “Case for Reparations”; the other, his article about Trump as “The First White President.” Each of them powerfully argued that calling things by their explicit, deliberately undiplomatic names was a crucial intellectual and political step. He was not writing about America’s “racial problems.” He was forcing attention on state-sponsored white racial supremacy. If you don’t like that term, or the idea of Trump as “first white president,” then, Ta-Nehisi is saying, you should examine the realities he is presenting.

From an American perspective, Riemen’s mission seems similar. He argues that we are again confronting fascism, and says that the bluntness of the term (as with “white racial supremacy”) focuses attention on the unpleasant realities and what can be done about them. On a visit to The Atlantic’s office in Washington last month, he mentioned an implicit parallel between his argument and Ta-Nehisi’s. “You Americans have a sense of the racial dynamics of some issues, that Europeans may lack,” he said. The history of the United States is all about race; consciously or not, most Americans have some awareness of the racial implications of words and actions here. (By “most Americans” I mean many white Americans and all non-whites.) “We Europeans have a sense about fascism. We know the signs.”

In the latest New York Times Book Review, Damon Linker explained why he respected the book but disagreed with Riemen about “fascism.” Linker argues that it is a distracting and inflammatory rather than clarifying term. Judge for yourself; the argument, again, has parallels to criticism of Ta-Nehisi Coates for insisting on terms like “white supremacy.” Linker also has a deeper difference with Riemen, over “universal” versus particularistic values in politics. (“Politics is about more existential issues: this bounded community in this place with this history and heritage, determining its own character for itself, deciding who is and who is not a citizen, who will rule and in the name of which vision of the good life.”) Again, consider it for yourself. I am on Riemen’s side of that argument, and I find that his case for considering today’s developments “fascist” is, in fact, useful in thinking about responses.

And whether you prefer “Trumpocracy,” “dying democracy,” “tribalism,” or “fascism” to describe the disease, these books leave no doubt that treatment is needed, now.