January 30, 2017 (Washington, D.C.)— One of the chief vulnerabilities of America’s political system is its reliance on the president to be restrained by his own ethics and public spirit. But what happens if somebody assumes the office lacking those qualities? In The Atlantic’s March cover story, published now at TheAtlantic.com, senior editor David Frum argues that if Congress is quiescent and the public listless, President Donald Trump can set the country down a path toward illiberalism, institutional subversion, and endemic graft.
“How to Build an Autocracy” is online now, ahead of the full release of The Atlantic’s March issue, where there is also an audio-version of the article. In conjunction with the piece, Atlantic Studios has debuted an original video in which Frum lays out his central arguments.
Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, explained the decision to publish the cover story a week earlier than planned: “These unusual times demand unusual publishing decisions. Given the precipitous nature of the decision by the White House to issue an executive order concerning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, I thought that it would be better for people to read this piece sooner, rather than later.”
Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has been one of the sharpest conservative critics of the president, remaining so throughout Donald Trump’s campaign, election, and now presidency. In the piece, he lays out a playbook for how America could potentially swing from democratic to autocratic under Trump’s watch, pointing to parallels in countries like Hungary, Venezuela, and the Philippines—and threatened now in France and Poland.
Frum writes: “Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource. Trump will likely want not to repress it, but to publicize it—and the conservative entertainment-outrage complex will eagerly assist him. Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags; Black Lives Matter demonstrators bearing anti-police slogans—these are the images of the opposition that Trump will wish his supporters to see. The more offensively the protesters behave, the more pleased Trump will be. Calculated outrage is an old political trick, but nobody in the history of American politics has deployed it as aggressively, as repeatedly, or with such success as Donald Trump.”
And the shift to autocracy, in many instances, won’t be that obvious: elections will still be held, just not quite as fairly; the press will remain free, but its standing will be undermined; life will go on as normal for most, but the economy and culture will slowly bend toward corruption.
Frum predicts that “Trump will try hard during his presidency to create an atmosphere of munificence ... in which graft does not matter because rules and institutions do not matter. He’ll want to associate economic benefit with personal favor … That, over time, is what truly subverts institutions of democracy and the rule of law.”
The Atlantic’s March issue will be online and on newsstands in its entirety next week. Additional features online now include Alex Wagner on the “Hollywood List Everyone Wants to Be On;”and Graeme Wood’s report on the “American Climbing the Ranks of ISIS.”
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