Donald Trump invites authoritarianism to America - Macleans.ca
 

Donald Trump invites authoritarianism to America

America’s scary flirtation with authoritarianism threatens its democratic foundations—and it’ll take a concerted global effort to push back


 

If you’re not worried right now, you’re not paying attention. Or perhaps you’re a partisan whose capacity to warp reality to fit your world view is on par with the ability of large bodies to significantly alter space-time. Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States was abnormal, and the very early days of his administration have given us more reason to be concerned about the future of America and the global order than we had even in the tumultuous months following his victory.

Politicians, academics, commentators, and journalists have regularly compared Trump’s rise to that of fascist and authoritarian leaders. In the halcyon days of only a year ago, it was impolite at best—and absurd at worst—to mention either fascism or authoritarianism in a conversation about mainstream American politics. Indeed, back then, Godwin’s Law marked the outer limits of civil discussion: the claim that the longer a discussion (on the Internet) continues, the more likely it is that Hitler will be invoked as a comparison meant to criticize another’s extremism. Now, epithets such as “Hitler” or “Nazi” or “authoritarian” are just plausible enough that they betray a reasonable, growing anxiety.

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At best, Trump exercises authoritarian tendencies. (At worst, he and his supporters’ words and actions come disconcertingly close to authoritarianism’s most virulent and nationalist variety, fascism.) Authoritarianism, to slightly adapt political scientist Juan Linz’s definition, is a way of governing marked by severe limits to freedom—the centralization of authority in the hands of a single leader or small group of leaders who may use power to benefit personally (for instance, by using the state to generate personal wealth), and impose limits on civil society. As a way of directing the affairs of state, authoritarianism is enabled and sustained by force—or the threat of force—and is further underwritten by supporters who demonstrate a deep, often emotional attachment to the leader and the regime.

Perhaps all of that is starting to sound familiar.

The Oval Office’s newest tenant owns a politics marked by compulsive, blatant, and sustained lying aimed at generating a cult of personality, rallying his supporters, undermining his opponents, and putting the press on their back heels. On Saturday, Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, stood in the White House briefing room and lied to the assembled media about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” he said.

It wasn’t. But his boss lives in a perpetual campaign and his cult of personality demands ongoing veneration. So, this time, a small, blatant lie was told.

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Since then, Trump has declared his inauguration a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion,” ordered the construction of a border wall with Mexico, advocated torture, silenced government agencies, launched an investigation into (non-existent) voter fraud, and doubled-down on his promise to ramp up deportations while also limiting entrance to the United States by refugees and Muslims. At the same time, his advisers have been disputing reality, with one, Kellyanne Conway, claiming the existence of “alternative facts.”

In a November essay, political theorist Jacob Levy highlighted that the power to speak untruths and to make others repeat them is a time-worn tactic of oppression: “Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them…Arendt analyzed the huge lies and blatant reversals of language associated with the Holocaust. Havel documented the pervasive little lies, lies that everyone knew to be lies, of late Communism. And Orwell gave us the vivid ‘2+2=5.’ ”

Coupled with attempts to bend reality to his will, Trump sorts the world into simple groups, characterizes them as enemies of one another, and then takes sides. His nativism, nationalism, and isolationism reflect his one-dimensional thinking. In his inaugural address, he began by claiming “Today’s ceremony…has very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures while walking with wife Melania and son Barron during the Inaugural Parade in Washington, January 20, 2017. Donald Trump was sworn in earlier as the 45th President of the United States. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures while walking with wife Melania and son Barron during the Inaugural Parade in Washington, January 20, 2017. Donald Trump was sworn in earlier as the 45th President of the United States. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

While he speaks to a long-standing concern—that American politicians don’t serve the interests of the people they’re elected to represent—his division of the world into “elites” and “the people” is deliberately antagonistic. Moreover, his solution to the problems facing the United States is to use the power of the presidency to do battle rather than to work to find solutions. His default operating mode is belligerence—and belligerence requires enemies. This characterization of politics is the antithesis of pluralist liberal democracy.

When Trump says “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he is referencing not crime, but an idea of the United States as a nearly post-apocalyptic hellscape marked by unchecked violence and widespread decay, porous borders across which would-be terrorists are constantly moving, and foreign enemies whose only interest is in the decline and fall of the Republic. He divides the world into heroes (the People) and villains (foreigners, criminals, terrorists, elites). To do battle, extraordinary commitment is required. So are extraordinary powers.

What do Americans get in return?

As Trump said in his inaugural, which reads like it might have been written for a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, “There should be no fear. We are protected and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.”

Americans get to be safe. Secure. Protected. Just trust and follow the leader.

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In advanced democracies, a first line of defence against encroaching authoritarianism is elections. If you don’t elect would-be authoritarians, their path to power is much more difficult. Downstream, there are other formal and informal institutions meant to prevent the rise of such people: The Constitution, the courts, law-making bodies, sub-state units, the press, and civil society.

It’s unclear if American institutions will now be able to effectively check Trump. The American system of checks and balances was designed to enable branches of government to resist overreach by their counterparts. To the extent that there was to be an institutionalized adversarial relationship, political parties weren’t the primary mode of organization—branches of government were.

Today, deep polarization between Republicans and Democrats, Republican domination of Congress and state legislatures, and a Supreme Court that will soon feature a majority of Republican-appointed justices could enable Trump to stretch his authority further than other presidents have before as the Red Team squares off against the Blue Team.

None of us knows what comes next. The United States is in uncharted territory and consequently so is the rest of the world. What is to become of the American experiment and the global order? Will America slowly drown in the rising tide of authoritarianism? The fact that it now seems at least plausible that it might, the rapid and bold and frightening steps that Trump has taken in his first days as president, and the uncertainty about the future on so many fronts means that resistance to extremism—and active support for rights and democracy—are more important now than they have been at any time since the Second World War.

A more stable future now hinges on the institutions we have collectively built over the course of decades and, in some cases, centuries. Democracy and rights can only exist through the continued support of a critical mass of those committed to them. Sustained civic action combined with rigorous, critical press coverage will be necessary but not sufficient elements for a bold response. Preserving the best of both America and the world as we know them will also require millions of people believing that democracy and human rights are not just the ways of the past and the present—but also the path toward a more just future. For Americans, that might require reflection on the revolutionary origins of their country and a reminder that liberty can never be taken for granted.

David Moscrop is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia and a writer. He’s currently working on a book about why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones. He’s at @david_moscrop on Twitter.


 

Donald Trump invites authoritarianism to America

  1. 5 days into his term and the US is already looking to remove him.

    • No it’s the alt-left trying to remove him-those who elected him are very pleased-he’s moving his promised agenda ahead at full speed.

      • Don’t bother talking to me Jerome….every time you’re proven wrong [and you always are] you run and hide.

        • I suspect a lot of commentators are howling with me about your response!!

      • There is no such thing as the “Alt-left”.

        There IS an “Alt-Right”, though- Bannon came up with that- and his publication, Breitbart..
        They are proud of the name.

      • The “alt-left” would be the majority of US voters, then? The guy won a rigged election.

    • No just the wackadoodle leftists.

  2. Good read! Small typing mistake here: The fact that it now seems at least plausible that it might, the rapid and bold and frightening steps that Trump has taken in his first days and president, (…)

    I think you meant “(…)the rapid and bold and frightening steps that Trump has taken in his first days AS president (…)”

    • “Small typing mistake …”? The whole piece is a typing mistake.

  3. Media now seem comfortable calling a spade a spade.

    • Hard to find non-left media these days but FOX which has more viewership than CNN and MSNBC combined are the ones that call a spade a spade. You should watch it.

      • Wow…by your standard you’d be happy in a fascist paradise. If FOX is your TV source what print media contributes to your world view, the National Enquirer?

        Demagogues like the Duck rely on copious supplies of ignorance reinforced by infotainment dispensaries like FOX, and consumed by people who think that getting to vote for their favoured performer on a TV show means they live in a democracy, and who wonder why movies like “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer” aren’t on the Documentary Channel.

  4. The last time a guy did silly things with his hair and his hands it shut the free world down for a few years until we could get rid of him. He had his followers too.

  5. Half of the U.S. voters did not agree with you. This is not authoritarianism, but democracy.

    • In addition to an overwhelming Electoral College win, Trump also won the popular vote in every state except California. The Dems should appoint Hillary to be the Queen of California and move on.

      • What??? He won the popular vote in every state other than CA? You haven’t been paying attention-not even to FOX have you.

        Suggestion, set aside some time, find a nice comfy place to sit, and read a book [one that doesn’t come with crayons]. Everybody should have e a new experience once in their lives.

        This done, come back and share with us one idea you found in the book. We’ll wait.

        • BTW-by way of full disclosure, I’m part of the “elite” as it would be defined in your world, having read a book myself.

        • What rock do you live under? That Trump won every state but California is an outright lie. Or is that one of the “alternative facts” that the right uses. The real facts are that Hillary won the popular vote in 20 states and the District of Columbia. She also won the total popular vote by 3 million votes.

          • Hillary lost. There is no more love there. Will you, now, go away. There is a real need to make America great again.

          • Jerome is actually correct to a large degree. Hillary carried California by 4 million votes, but only carried the national vote by 2.5 million. Trump’s margin of victory for 49 states excluding California was 1.5 million votes. Yes Clinton carried several states, but her vote totals on those states were still lower than what Trump got, with the exception of California.

          • @ B. Causeiknow

            It is not me that needs to go away. Typical Republican can’t tolerate any facts. FYI it was not Hillary who lost but it was the citizens of the US who lost.

            @ Bill Greenwood

            Is that right wing math? You can claim that Trump won every state and yet he did not win all the electoral seats except California’s. Does that mean the voters in the other states do not count unless the voted for Trump? The statement that Trump won every state cannot be applied since all states have different populations. Would you believe it if I said that Hillary won every state with the exception of Texas?

  6. “Or perhaps you’re a partisan whose capacity to warp reality to fit your worldview”

    Or maybe you are a Reform Hater in Canada.

    Let’s speak louder against this trend for anonymous haters, hiding behind social media, feeling that they can trash Canada at will while they cheer Trump, in the hope that he will help trash Canada. Don’t say you have not noticed. All you need to do is look in the National Post, Globe and Mail and other major paper comment sections. Canada’s enemies within can clearly be seen there. We are in a battle for Canada.

    And no, we can disagree in our democracy, but trashing Canada or wishing ill on our country should be clearly off limits. The Reform Haters have no regard for that.

    • Very true- it is indeed discouraging to read the vitriol in the comment sections.

      I have never been prouder to be a Canadian than I am now (and I am older than sin).

  7. As an American thank you for this story. People who are resisting Trump were buoyed by the demonstrations around the world, including Canada. Forty people from here in Northern NY joined the 6-8000 in Ottawa and many others demonstrated locally and in DC. The article is right, we may not get out of this hard right turn into a historical dead end for a long time, if Republicans press their advantage and effectively create one party rule. Democracy is not a spectator sport. I have thought “stand on guard for thee” a bit of an odd formulation but it is absolutely right. Be vigilant and guard your democracy in Canada. It may also be time for the rest of the world to move on without the US on any number of issues, trade, climate change, and a clean energy economy. If our crisis deepens, boycott US companies–they understand economic pressure, and if necessary, move from the US dollar as a reserve currency to a basket of currencies. Always remember that a majority of Americans voted against Trump and his agenda. Many of us are resisting, and will continue to do. People are organizing and acting on their own with Daily Acts of Resistance–letter, phone calls, donations. Please pray for us.

    • Your desire to be governed by Hillary and, later, Sharia law, leaves me speechless.

      • I beleive your example is a bit extreme. That being said, a lot of people failed to recognize that one of the speakers/organisers of the Women’s March (Linda Sarsour) is a staunch supporter of Sharia law and what it entails. That by no means is representtive of the whole march , but rather exposes how many people are knowingly/unknowingly casting a blind eye to inconvenient truths.

      • You obviously get your ‘new” from Breitbart, InfoWars and the like.

        You might want to try widening your horizons. No one is advocating sharia law in America or Canada.

        • Where ever the Muslim population has exceeded 5% in any European city there are zones where Sharia law exists and the local police consider it “a no go zone”.

        • Peg; You view through pink spectacles is made even worse by closing your eyes. Go to YouTube and search because your grandchildren will thank you for that.

    • Thank you for your comment- and your obvious concern for your country.
      You are not alone- keep fighting.

  8. What’s up Mr. Moscrop, did she make you sleep on the sofa last night?

  9. Last time I checked, the authoritarianism is stemming from liberal colleges and universities in the States. We also have the same problem here on Canadian campuses. Today, authoritarianism and a more marxist world view is rampant amongst liberals and the left. It has gotten so bad and is so engrained on campus that many liberals don’t even realize they have become authoritarians. If you don’t beleive me, google any incident where a student or professor on campuses in the US or Canada bring up a dissenting opinion from the campus majority. You will also see this when speakers with differing opinions are censored on campus and students protest and disrupt the events. None of this admonishes Trump in any sense…..but we also have to recognize that the majority of authoritarianism today is actually coming from the left. So, let’s try to fix BOTH the problems with a Trump administration AND the rampant spread of authoritarianistic thinking that has taken over the left. However, to say that the Trump administration is the main source of authoritarian thinking in the USA is just not based in reality.

  10. “Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States was abnormal, and the very early days of his administration have given us more reason to be concerned about the future of America and the global order than we had even in the tumultuous months following his victory.” ????????????
    Obama’s entire 8 years were abnormal:
    -biggest spending spree in history with the largest debt ever with very little to show for it.
    -unaffordable universal health care.
    -worst race relations since the ’60’s
    -pandering completely to environuts. Even Trudeau has tried to strike some balance in Canada.
    -failed foreign policy around the world.
    -early withdrawal from Iraq and not ensuring the person he left in charge and, who had agreed to be inclusive, was fair to Sunnis led directly to ISIS.
    -etc.
    Trump has committed to address all of these things and is moving at a speed to do so that the political system cannot comprehend. It’s the way one advances a great company for the advantage of its shareholders-in this case those who elected him to do exactly what he is doing.
    Those who don’t like his plan (which obviously includes the writer of the article) were insufficient to ensure he didn’t get elected. And by the way, he won the popular vote in every state but California. So I think the Democrats should put Hillary as the Queen of California and move on.

  11. I think many of you commentators, and perhaps most of the media, is missing the point. Sure, America elected this clown and now they can see what all of his election promises get them. The threat is his absolute disregard for fact and accountability. His constant lying and questioning the free media will erode any ability by the greater government and American public to appreciate the real optics of a Trump presidency. His gross exaggerations and outright lies may actually fool ally of the uneducated masses, which is all he needs to keep going. I wouldn’t be surprized if he challenges the two term presidency law, and we all know what happens after that.

    • As I said before, we are somewhat living a previous period again. I remember when the same things were said about the early Hitler regime. And then there are rightists like Jerome around to encourage that attitude. The trend of the left wing referred to above also has an analogy of the fear of the communist movement of the nineteen thirties as demonstrated i n Russian madness and the Spanish civil war. I was just a sprout then but I recognize the same bells tolling.

      • And the alt-leftists like BLACKTOP are in denial about how desperate things are in the US after 8 years of Obama who is fully responsible for causing the mess that got Trump elected to fix the mess Obama caused.
        Sure looks like the markets like his economic policies-records now achieved for both the DOW and the TSX,

        • Jerome, your memory is faulty. If you will recall, I was a supporter of Harper. I am conservative financially and progressive socially.

          You have in your postings demonstrated many of the aspects of being what would have been called Fascist, as has Donald Trump. Your arguments about the state of the US are similar to arguments against the Wiemar government if you care to make the comparisons. And you should know who was waiting in the wings to “correct” that.

          Things are not desperate in the US as you say. The auto industry has been in dire straits because their products are crap, unlike Toyota, Honda and other similar producers. Much of the problems that Obama faced and fixed and resulted in spending were to save GM and Chrysler.

          Many other sectors are depressed because American corporations send the specs to China and other Asian countries to have the product made with cheaper labor. So you want Trump to force them to produce in the US and set up tariff barriers against other countries (such as Canada)? While that may temporarily make a few jobs but will in short order stultify international trade which the real source of wealth creation.

          I am sorry to use so many words. Emily could have done it in a couple of acerbic sentences.

          The market reacts to any change and the DOW and TSX reactions are because Trump promises lower taxes to corporations, not because he is suggesting real cures iof benefit to the people and the economy. In fact any change of magnitude such as his irrational outbursts creates changes in the stock markets, but they are NOT the economy.

          I think that as Trump assumed the presidency darkness will descend in many places as well as the US.

          • -How can me stating the facts about Obama’s failures be interpreted as Fascist?
            -Obama didn’t spend $21 TRILLION helping the auto industry-the total was $87 BILLION. You’re missing over $20 TRILLION!!
            -He has no plans for tariffs against Canada since our trade is essentially in balance. This was clarified by his staff visiting Calgary to meet with Trudeau’s reps.
            -On BNN their view was that the market response was due to 3 things: lower personal taxes across the board resulting in more disposable income; lower corporate taxes; and the removal of unnecessary regulation both of which would help both large and small companies to grow and hire more people who in turn will have money to spend. Sounds beneficial to his people in my view.
            Since we are the major trading partner with the US, as their economy surges , so will Canada’s. It’ll finally be “sunny ways” here!!

          • Blacktop; would you care to mention the ‘elephant-in-the-room’, Islamophobia.

    • Wow…cognitive dissonance on your part. :-)

  12. I read somewhere the best part of Trump being elected is the complete melt down of the left and I agree. The writer of this article supports this view. His new book “why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones” just vote Liberal guys, its never wrong…going to be a one pager.
    The voters have spoken see you in four years. Remember when PM Harper got voted in, guns on the streets, women’s rights in peril, the left sure can be authoritarian.

  13. Saying something untrue and getting your supporters to repeat it with a straight face – you know like when everyone said it was a movie that got the Ambassador killed. Was not an act of terrorism, stuff like that…

    • How about another Intelligence solid conclusion that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That misinformation has resulted in 100’s of thousands dying with more to come.

      • Thank you for supporting my comment; All Presidents and other world leaders do it, but Trump does it and he is Hitler…my comment is in no way being supportive of this man, he is a despicable person, but so were several Presidents before him…

  14. I like how they push the popular vote, Hillary actually won the election. They should push democratic reform like the Liberals wanted, well until they won without the popular vote. I think we can all agree President Lincoln was a pretty good president, yet he won with 40% of the popular vote…meaningless.

  15. Well…reading this tripe was a great big waste of time.

  16. Do you people ever do any real journalism? On the afternoon of his inauguration, Trump ordered that “bureaucrats authorized to administer and enforce the law, and who have the discretion to determine the place, time, and severity of the penalty of infraction” shall err on the side of the citizen and not the government. If you can post the YouTube video of the mental gymnastics required to interpret that as authoritarian, I’m guessing the Russian judge will give it a 5.8 or a 5.9.
    Relatedly, Trump has also given notice that the EPA shall not be granted immunity from prosecution and civil suits for damages caused when it unleashed millions of gallons of mine waste into Colorado’s Animas River. Just a few weeks previous, the EPA had declared that it was above prosecution for the disaster.
    Again, how upholding the citizenry’s right to hold government agencies accountable for the consequences of their mistakes constitutes authoritarianism requires some serious cognitive dissonance.
    You guys crack me up.

  17. What a disgrace of a column. Count on Canadian media to distort the realities of democracy and the people’s choice. The real authoritarians are the left, socialist authoritarians, and is why DT was elected, to hand the power back to the people from progressive lunatics.

    • “…distort the realities of democracy and the people’s choice…” Last time I checked the idea of “democracy” was founded on government with the consent of the majority. This is something that’s not demonstrated in Trump’s presidency or, for the most part, in Canadian history.

      The idea that Billionaire Trump intends to represent the interests of “the people” is beyond laughable. The fact that you and millions of others continue to mouth this claptrap explains how its possible for the inmates to be in charge of the asylum.

  18. NEWS FLASH! Trump didn’t need to invite authoritarianism to America – it’s been there from the outset and is doing comfortably well…

  19. Everyone, please stop for a moment!

    I, usually, dislike the word, but the Islamic ‘conspiracy’ seems to be ignored in this discussion. During the last 24 hours, approximately 28 aircraft have entered the U.S. from various Islamic countries, each one carrying approximately 150 passengers. Consider this happening 365 times and wonder, why, within one generation, the screaming Islamic protesters at airports will be uncontrollable, and unpunishable due to the increasing number of Muslims in positions of power.

    The problem is that although Muslim immigrants are said to be, on the whole, peaceful, nevertheless, they are all sympathetic to the rules of Qu’ran-based Sharia law (Otherwise, they wouldn’t be true Muslims). Therein lies a serious dichotomy.

    There is bound to be a need for some people to read this more than once.

  20. Great article! Down south we can always depend on our Canadian neighbors to call BS on us when they see it. That’s what friends are for. This grave situation is what it smells like.