Sunday, October 11, 2020


In his column today, Ross Douthat acknowledges that President Trump has some authoritarian tendencies.
Across the last four years, the Trump administration has indeed displayed hallmarks of authoritarianism. It features egregious internal sycophancy and hacks in high positions, abusive presidential rhetoric and mendacity on an unusual scale. The president’s attempts to delegitimize the 2020 vote aren’t novel; they’re an extension of the way he’s talked since his birther days, paranoid and demagogic.

These are all very bad things, and good reasons to favor his defeat.
Yet Douthat thinks liberals are wrong to worry about Trump clinging to power after the election through illegitimate means.
But it’s also important to recognize all the elements of authoritarianism he lacks.
Such as?
He lacks popularity and political skill, unlike most of the global strongmen who are supposed to be his peers.
In 2018, Viktor Orban's party won a two-thirds majority Hungary's legislature despite winning just 49% of the vote; in the previous election, in 2014, the party won two-thirds of the seats with just 45% of the vote. Popularity isn't a prerequisite for authoritarianism.
He is plainly despised by his own military leadership
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said that the military "will not play a role in November's election and won't help settle any disputes if the results are contested," CNN reported in August.
He lacks power over the media: Outside of Fox’s prime time, he faces an unremittingly hostile press whose major outlets have thrived throughout his presidency.... notwithstanding his courtship of Mark Zuckerberg, Silicon Valley is more likely to censor him than to support him in a constitutional crisis.
But if Fox prime-time hosts, talk radio, Breitbart, and dozens of right-wing websites (The Federalist, Gateway Pundit, Townhall, RedState, PJ Media, and so on) insist that Trump is the winner after he inevitably takes the lead in same-day voting on Election Night, and if hundreds of private Facebook groups tell their followers that any claim of a Biden win is election fraud, it might not matter what the mainstream media says.
... there is no mass movement behind him: The threat of far-right violence is certainly real, but America’s streets belong to the anti-Trump left.
This summer, a few streets, of a few cities, briefly belonged to the American left, or, rather, to callow knuckleheads who like to smash windows out of a claimed fealty to left-wing ideas, while those cities were otherwise unscathed.

And this argument just seems absurd:
Yes, he has successfully violated post-Watergate norms in the service of self-protection and his pocketbook. But ... in terms of seizing power over policy he has been less imperial than either George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

There is still no Trumpian equivalent of Bush’s antiterror and enhanced-interrogation innovations or Obama’s immigration gambit and unconstitutional Libyan war. Trump’s worst human-rights violation, the separation of migrants from their children, was withdrawn under public outcry. His biggest defiance of Congress involved some money for a still-unfinished border wall. And when the coronavirus handed him a once-in-a-century excuse to seize new powers, he retreated to a cranky libertarianism instead.
But we're not worried about Trump seizing power because he wants to implement policies -- it's all about his ego. Douthat should step outside his wonk bubble and realize that self-aggrandizement is an equally plausible reason why a highly motivated man with no morals whatsoever might illegitimately refuse to cede power.

And meanwhile, congressional Republicans, GOP state legislators and governors, and even the Supreme Court actually have ideological reasons to hope that Trump can rally large numbers of his followers around his ego trip. If Democratic ballots are thrown out, GOP Senate candidates in states such as Michigan and North Carolina might be declared victors despite losing; Republicans might hold houses of state legislatures that they would otherwise lose -- in Texas, for instance.

I'm not saying this will happen. It's possible that an overwhelming majority of the country, including some Trump voters, will watch the Biden votes pile up and accept reality. It's possible that the rest of the GOP will concede the outcome once it's clear. I can imagine Trump and his acolytes insisting he won and the rest of America just treating it as ridiculous, unpleasant noise.

But we don't know that that will happen, and we need to be on guard. Douthat's reasons for saying everything will be fine aren't persuasive.

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