As US President Donald Trump’s single term limps to an end, we should revisit a question that has dominated mainstream punditry for the past four years: Was America on the brink of an authoritarian takeover? Never before have so many commentators – including knowledgeable academics, seen-it-all-before political operatives, cynical journalists, and former government officials – argued as seriously that the United States was on the verge of a Weimar-style constitutional collapse. And yet, if Trump was an autocrat, he was a singularly ineffective one. When he wasn’t raging at the moon, he advanced his policies – most of them standard Republican fare – through constitutionally approved procedures.
Trump certainly provided ample material for books with titles like The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, Surviving Autocracy, and Trumpocalypse. From the start, he has lied relentlessly, expressed admiration for dictators, denigrated and threatened to jail his political opponents, disparaged judges and other public officials, vilified Muslims and foreigners, demonised journalists, and inflamed racial divisions. Even if some of his rhetoric was tongue-in-cheek or garbled, that hardly excuses him.
Trump also mixed his financial interests with government business, placed his children and son-in-law in positions of power, and frequently talked as if the government were his personal fiefdom. His presidency finally collapsed after his baseless claims of electoral fraud and spurious litigation efforts failed to gain traction.
The doomsayers will insist that the events of the past month and a half easily could have swung in Trump’s favour. But, constitutionally speaking, Trump has always been more bark than bite. His main accomplishments – a tax cut and the appointment of conservative federal judges – involved Congress, as the Constitution requires. Similarly, his efforts to reduce the flow of illegal immigration drew on longstanding statutory authority.
Indeed, from a strictly legal standpoint, Trump’s migration-related enforcement actions were less controversial than were President Barack Obama’s unilateral executive orders to protect people who were brought to the country illegally as children. Even Trump’s highly controversial travel ban targeting migrants from Muslim-majority countries was upheld by the Supreme Court on more-or-less settled doctrinal grounds.
Trump’s efforts to weaken environmental, safety, and financial regulations have also drawn on statutory authority. In foreign policy, Trump initiated a sea change by weakening US global commitments, withdrawing from international agreements and multilateral organisations, imposing tariffs on trading partners, and recklessly criticising allies while cozying up to dictators. Again, Trump was drawing on the legal powers of his office, which are at their broadest in foreign affairs. Congress has given the president almost limitless power to adjust tariffs, and courts have ruled time and again that it is the president who conducts US foreign policy. Moreover, Trump – unlike most of his recent predecessors – did not launch any major foreign wars or enter treaties through constitutionally dubious circumvention of Congress.
Yes, Trump did try to interfere with the Russia investigation, and to withhold military aid from Ukraine to compel its government to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. But both of these constitutionally suspect efforts were largely unsuccessful. Finally, Trump has abused his power by dangling pardons to cronies who were under investigation.
All these actions were morally wrong and politically irresponsible. But in terms of their impact, and of their role in the exercise or expansion of the president’s power, they seem relatively minor. Virtually every president has cut corners. If Trump ruled as an autocrat and pushed the boundaries of his power, then so did every other president since Reagan. Yet none of those previous administrations came close to ending democracy in America.
Trump stands out not so much for his actions as for his words. The hue and cry against him is a reaction to his incendiary rhetoric, inattentiveness to the duties of his office, ignorance about the world, juvenile delight in the trappings of power, and obnoxious narcissism.
To be sure, the line between rhetoric and action is not always clear. Presidents rule through words – by issuing orders to subordinates, who either obey or disregard them. Trump’s claims of election fraud could have led judges and Republican election officials to fix the outcome for him. They did not. His various calls to lock up his opponents could have encouraged ambitious Department of Justice lawyers or US Attorneys to launch investigations. They did not. Once judges, politicians, and other officeholders stopped heeding Trump’s words, he was helpless.
Some people believe that constitutional democracy survived Trump because the system of checks and balances worked. Others give credit to the integrity of judges, government bureaucrats, the press, or Democratic (and a few Republican) elected officials.
But another explanation is that there was a basic contradiction in Trump’s method. In 2016, he sought power by attacking the very government institutions that he would need to exercise power. As president, he kept up his attacks on the government that he headed, acting as his own opposition.
This had two effects that undermined his position. First, Trump’s own appointees – including judges and executive-branch officials – could not have felt much loyalty to a boss who was constantly undermining their status, power, and position. And indeed, many of them refused to do his bidding. Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Attorney General William Barr refused to challenge the election results. The judges Trump appointed – including three Supreme Court justices – refused to rule that the election was flawed. The FBI refused to heed Trump’s call for investigations of his political opponents. And the military refused to suppress protests.
Second, Trump asked voters to believe that the government was incompetent, biased, and infiltrated by a “deep state,” while using that same government to expel undocumented aliens, suppress riots, wage a trade war with China, distribute pandemic aid, and hold elections. In fact, Republican politicians in Georgia, which will hold two Senate run-off elections on January 5, fear that Trump’s attacks on the electoral system will convince some supporters not to bother voting. Likewise, lack of trust in science or the health authorities, encouraged by Trump, may undermine his signature accomplishment – Operation Warp Speed, which resulted in the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.
Real authoritarians, like Chinese President Xi Jinping, propagate an image of governmental excellence so that people will meekly submit to the police, courts, and regulators. While many Republican voters remain personally loyal to Trump, those who abandoned him for Biden while still voting for down-ballot Republicans must have realised that Republican policies could not be implemented if the government was a smoking ruin.
This paradox does not mean that authoritarianism is impossible in the US. But it does suggest that Trump himself did not pose as grave a threat to liberal democracy as many had feared.
Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump (All Points Books, 2020). This content is © Project Syndicate, 2020, and is here with permission.