Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Strongman Cometh

A play in three acts.
September 23, 2020
The Strongman Cometh

People seem confused and confounded and disappointed by President Donald Trump tonight. You know how he is. He tweets. He talks. It’s so unhelpful. So irresponsible.

Allow me to present a play, in three acts.

Act I: Gorbachev, China, and Strength, March 1990

Donald Trump sits for an interview with Playboy in which he hints at his future political ambitions. He is asked about both the Soviet Union—which is in the process of reform and making the first tentative steps toward liberalism—and the Tiananmen Square massacre—in which the Chinese military in 1989 attacked peaceful protesters attempting to convince the Communist regime to hold elections and transfer power.

Here is the exchange:

Playboy: What were your other impressions of the Soviet Union?

Trump: I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.

Playboy: You mean firm hand as in China?

Trump: When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. . . .

Playboy: Why is Gorbachev not firm enough?

Trump: I predict he will be overthrown, because he has shown extraordinary weakness. Suddenly, for the first time ever, there are coal-miner strikes and brush fires everywhere—which will all ultimately lead to a violent revolution. Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader—and we should continue giving him credit, because he’s destroying the Soviet Union. But his giving an inch is going to end up costing him and all his friends what they most cherish—their jobs.

Act II: Kim Jong-Un and the Korean People, June 2018

Donald Trump becomes the first American president to meet with North Korea’s dictator, who is the most brutal authoritarian on the planet.

Afterward, Trump discusses how much Kim loves the North Korean people, and vice versa. And he explains that he wishes Americans would treat him the same way North Koreans treat Kim.

Here is Trump on June 12, 2018:

Van Susteren: What surprised you about Kim Jong Un?

Trump: Really, he’s got a great personality. He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator. He loves his people, not that I’m surprised by that, but he loves his people. . . .

Van Susteren: What do you think he thought of you after he left?

Trump: I think he liked me and I like him. And I understand the past and, you know, nobody has to tell me, he’s a rough guy. He has to be a rough guy or he has been a rough person. But we got along very well. He’s smart, loves his people, he loves his country. He wants a lot of good things and that’s why he’s doing this. . . .

Van Susteren: Because this is Voice of America it will be heard in North Korea by the citizens of DPRK of North Korea. What do you want to say directly to the citizens of North Korea?

Trump: Well, I think you have somebody that has a great feeling for them. He wants to do right by them and we got along really well.

And here is Trump speaking about Kim three days later, on June 15, 2018:

He’s the head of a country, and I mean, he’s the strong head, don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.

Act III: Donald Trump, September 23, 2020

The Atlantic publishes a piece quoting a legal adviser to the Trump campaign explaining how the president plans to contest the results of the election:

The Trump-campaign legal adviser I spoke with told me the push to appoint electors would be framed in terms of protecting the people’s will. Once committed to the position that the overtime count has been rigged, the adviser said, state lawmakers will want to judge for themselves what the voters intended.

“The state legislatures will say, ‘All right, we’ve been given this constitutional power. We don’t think the results of our own state are accurate, so here’s our slate of electors that we think properly reflect the results of our state,’ ” the adviser said.

Later in the day, President Trump holds a press conference and is asked about the peaceful transfer of power.

Question: Will you commit to making sure that there is a peaceful transferral of power after the election?

Trump: Well we’re going to have to see what happens.

You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster—

Question: I understand that, but people are rioting. Do you commit to making sure that there’s a peaceful transferral of power?

Trump: We want to have—get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.

Exeunt all.

These comments are not unhelpful. They are not worrisome. They are not irresponsible.

They are the expression of a coherent worldview.

  • Power exists to be used.
  • Leaders who do not use strength to deal with challenges to their power will lose what they most cherish.
  • The firm hand of power is an expression of a leader’s love for his people.
  • The people reward the strong leader with requited love.
  • Any expression of dissent is an inauthentic view of a disgruntled minority seeking to thwart the true will of the people.

The internet runneth over with people who see this and are desperate to discount it. And so this is what you hear:

  • He’s a master troll.
  • He can’t mean it.
  • He probably doesn’t mean it.
  • Even if he means it, some deus ex machina will prevent him from doing it.
  • And even if there’s a chance—a 20 percent chance, a 2 percent chance—that Trump does mean it and that the guardrails might not hold . . .
  • Well, what if Joe Biden is a cyborg being controlled by Communist space-lizards?
  • What if the Democrats got power and raised the capital gains tax rate?
  • What if some future Supreme Court, in some future decade, renders a bad decision on a case that does not yet exist?

And so these people avert their eyes and hide behind euphemisms and hope to avoid the precipice without having to sacrifice their positioning.

But the precipice is here. Donald Trump just told you.

In fact, he’s been telling anyone who would listen for 30 years.

Maybe he won’t be able to pull it off. Maybe Roberts and Gorsuch will stand in the breach. Maybe he’ll wimp out in the end because he’s more of a man-baby than a strongman.

But just how much are you willing to bet on that?

Because if the answer isn’t “everything,” then it’s time to take this man at his word.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.