Trump doesn’t fit our stereotype of foreign dictators — because he’s an American authoritarian
Ever since Donald Trump descended on a gilded escalator, soaking up the flash of cameras and reveling in the applause of lookers-on, many Americans have seen something far different in him than the typical pageantry of politics: We saw the orchestrations of a would-be authoritarian.
Perhaps it was the preening display of wealth and power as a substitute for substance or qualification. It could have been the paid actors lining the balcony in an insincere but obligatory display of support. Or, perhaps it was the fact that the first words out of his mouth were a self-serving untruth, pretending that “thousands” of people packed the lobby, as tens of people cheered.
And yet, when someone points out the president’s authoritarian tendencies and proclivities, it’s met with scorn, even by many who oppose him. That word — “authoritarian” — is just too loaded. We imagine powerful dictators wearing absurd uniforms — and for all his showmanship, Trump simply doesn’t fit that picture.
That’s not because Trump isn’t an authoritarian — it’s because those who are born and raised in countries with weak limits on power and high tolerance for corruption can express their wanton self-interest more completely. Trump, born and raised within robust legal structures and widely accepted norms, cannot.
While the autocrat in a country with a legacy of theft and abuse knows he can wield indefinite power, the tyrant who evolves out of a rigid constitution is forced to crash headlong into the legal boundaries of power, colliding with the constitutional guardrails… repeatedly, until they crack or give way.
That is the genius of our Constitutional republic. It is chock full of restrictions and tripwires designed to restrain would-be tyrants, or at least to raise public alarm and reaction from the other branches when the restrictions are breached. But that system is only as strong as our commitment to it. If we watch as the authoritarian dismantles these safeguards, succored by the fact that his outbursts and overreaches don’t look the same as the worst offenders elsewhere in the world, we will soon find ourselves with no check on the presidency and little in the way of freedom.
It is true, though, that Trump hasn’t arrested or murdered journalists, like his favorite dictator, Vladimir Putin. Instead, he’s popularized a rallying cry dictators now use against journalism around the world, labeled journalists “the enemy of the people” for negative stories, and praised violence against reporters. He can’t arrest journalists, but he has threatened to criminalize their reporting, revoked access to critics and given it to friendly conspiracy theorists, changed the rules for White House access to block even more journalists and functionally abolished regular press briefings.
He hasn’t murdered or jailed political dissidents like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philipinnes. But that hasn’t stopped him from leading chants to imprison opponents, warning that his supporters would get violent if he lost elections, ordering politically motivated investigations into law enforcement officials investigating his misdeeds, and accusing them of treason. That’s to say nothing of the plan to send his personal attorney to Ukraine to demand they prosecute the son of a rival.
He also hasn’t murdered or imprisoned minorities like Xi Jinping of China. But he did enact 2 different bans on visitors from Muslim majority countries, build tent cities on the border where children have been separated from their families and some have even died. He’s pushed “zero tolerance” for asylum seekers, fired officials for not being cruel enough, and lamented that the military wouldn’t attack border crossers.
He hasn’t stolen from the treasury, like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. But at every opportunity, he’s worked to make sure that tax and campaign dollars benefit his businesses. Even when visiting foreign leaders, the president has tried to force them to meet at his properties, ensuring the price of state business goes straight into his pockets. That’s to say nothing of what he rakes in from lobbyists and foreign dignitaries staying at Trump hotel to curry favor.
Perhaps most importantly, he hasn’t overturned elections like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. But he did create a commission to investigate non-existent voter fraud. It disbanded without finding anything. He also helped spread a now completely debunked claim about voter fraud in Texas, routinely and publicly misrepresented that his political opponents were illegally stealing elections, and famously refused to commit to accepting the outcome of his own election. As for his own tenure, he’s suggested that he’s owed more years in power and opined on how “great” it would be to serve for life.
When couched in terms of politics and law, Trump’s abuses lack the spectacular brutality of the most notorious dictators — but an American authoritarian is no less real and no less dangerous.
Under the strain of scrutiny by Congress, Trump recently announced he wouldn’t work with Democrats until they stop investigating. This isn’t a mere childish “take my ball and leave” mentality. It’s using the power he has — to sign and execute laws — to try to force his political opponents into giving up efforts to hold him accountable.
In this case, he’s hoping to use his party’s support to prevent infrastructure improvements — bridges, dams, roads, communications systems all put on hold to protect the president from scrutiny. He’d rather halt modernization for rural communities and risk infrastructure disasters than face Congressional oversight.
That is how an American authoritarian uses his power.
If we don’t recognize him for what he is, we may not be able to halt the slide of democracy. Even if Trump never gets to the point of a Putin, Duterte, or Erdogan, ignoring his outrages only opens the door for more and worse authoritarians in our future. It’s time to stop pretending that Trump’s behavior is anything but dictatorial. It’s time to stop making excuses. An authoritarian is in the Oval Office, and we have to buttress the walls of the republic.
Mike Ongstad is a former speech writer to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and presidential campaign adviser to Evan McMullin/Mindy Finn. He is currently the communications director for the pro-democracy organization, Stand Up Republic. Follow him on Twitter @MikeOngstad.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.