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On the Dangers of Performative Authoritarianism

We should be alarmed by Trump's claim to have "total authority."
April 14, 2020
On the Dangers of Performative Authoritarianism
(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“Its direct consequences are, comparatively speaking, but a small evil; and much of its danger consists, in the proneness of our minds, to regard its direct, as its only consequences.”

—Abraham Lincoln, address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, January 27, 1838

On Monday night Donald Trump said the authoritarian part out loud: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total.”

This claim by our president has been widely derided as incorrect, ignorant, and basically risible. As it is. It’s not just that the Constitution and various institutions of government and society stand in the way of Trump’s exercise of total authority. It’s also that Trump has in fact been a weak leader in the face of the pandemic, and has (so far) lacked both the patience and the competence to even attempt to seize total authority.

We know the history of fascism. America isn’t Italy. And Donald Trump is no Benito Mussolini.

But I am alarmed. Now, perhaps I’m too alarmed. Let’s grant that. But one thing that alarms me is how chic it is to be conspicuously not alarmed. If you want to be viewed as a sophisticated Trump critic—not one of those vulgar Never Trumpers—you’re allowed to be somewhat dismissive of, regretful about, or even at times contemptuous of Trump. But not alarmed. Alarmism is de trop.

I mean, after all: Why are your heads exploding just because the commander-in-chief—a man who seems not to understand anything about American government, or the Constitution, or the law—is claiming to have total authority at a moment when 23,000 Americans have died in the course of seven weeks from a pandemic this man did almost nothing to prepare for?

Such little children, with your exploding heads.

But what if alarmism–even a little head-exploding–is warranted? What if the quick dismissal of Trump’s silly invocations of authoritarianism is too easy? What if loose authoritarian talk today is a harbinger or serious authoritarian deeds tomorrow? Can’t performative authoritarian gestures lay the groundwork for more thoroughgoing authoritarian actions? Can’t relatively small acts of corruption now beget a more fundamental long-term corruption of the constitutional order? Can’t the chaos produced by random gestures of authoritarianism prefigure a far more purposeful project of authoritarian rule?

Not to be executed, perhaps, by Donald Trump. But the dangers of Trumpism will extend beyond the figure of Donald Trump. That much is now clear.

Of course it’s not as if Trump’s childish, con-man version of authoritarianism hasn’t already done real damage to the rule of law, to the norms of democratic and constitutional governance, and to basic expectations of responsible and ethical behavior by public officials.

We are, most definitely, already paying a price for Trumpism.

And we surely haven’t paid the whole price.

After all, it’s not as if we have a wonderfully healthy body politic that can easily shake off four years of Trumpist corruption with no effects.

So the feckless authoritarianism of Trumpism is bad. And we ought to say as much.

But in order to prevent Trumpism from being a harbinger of something worse we need to call out the gestures toward authoritarianism now. We need to be alarmed.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.