Monday, August 20, 2018


E.J. Dionne believes America is "slouching toward autocracy" -- but although what Dionne describes is terrible, "autocracy" isn't the right word for it. It has autocratic elements, however:
... Trump revoked former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance in retaliation for Brennan’s criticism of him (and, as Trump confessed in a Wall Street Journal interview, because he objected to Brennan doing his job in 2016 by probing connections between Trump’s campaign and Russia)....

The list of ominous signs goes on and on: Trump invoking Stalin’s phrase “enemies of the people” to describe a free press; the firing, one after another, of public servants who moved to expose potential wrongdoing, starting with then-FBI Director James B. Comey; Trump’s effusive praise of foreign despots; his extravagantly abusive (and often racially charged) language against opponents; and his refusal to abide by traditional practices about disclosing his own potential conflicts of interest and those of his family. Add to this the authoritarian’s habit of institutionalizing lying as a routine aspect of governing....
The purges at the Justice Department are certainly autocratic -- though a true autocrat would have long since ended the Russia probe, and Trump hasn't. Trump's White House counsel seems to be cooperating with the probe, as is the lawyer who was Trump's fixer for years. Trump cooperated with the probe early on, even though advisers told him not to.

Trump has stripped one critic of a security clearance and is said to have plans to do the same to others, but in that he's courting the Streisand effect -- he's raising the profile of Brennan (and possibly others), thus helping them get their message across.

Much of what Dionne describes is demagoguery, not autocracy. Trump is poisoning minds through speech, but he's misusing a power all presidents have. He fights his enemies, and he doesn't fight by the rules, but it's clear that he'd rather have the enemies as foils than crush them. (Last week, Politico reported that Trump and his inner circle actually believe losing the House to Democrats would be beneficial to Trump, because he could then rally his base against the party that set out to impeach him, assuming Democrats do that. What kind of autocrat lets the opposition party win elections?)

I don't like Dionne's "autocracy" framing because much of what he (rightly) laments is the work not of a lone autocrat but of his party, and for the benefit of the party primarily:
... long before Trump ran for office, Republicans were eager to change the rules of the game when doing so served their purposes.... Consider just their aggressive voter-suppression efforts and their willingness to block even a hearing for Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia.
Call it "autocracy" and readers will think we've solved the problem whenever Trump leaves office. What we really have is a mix of problems: Trump is autocratic when he wants to save his own ass; Trump and his see-no-evil party are doing serious damage to institutions and norms even though they're not destroying them; and, possibly most important, the GOP is attempting to institute permanent one-party rule through anti-Democratic means, an effort that began long before Trump decided to run for president. That's bad, especially all at once, but it's not pure autocracy.

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