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Trump’s Authoritarian Impulse

We’ve had a painful, vivid reminder of the danger of giving power to someone with Trump's pathologies. There's only one remaining check on this president—us.
June 5, 2020
Trump’s Authoritarian Impulse
US President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 2, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Last Monday, Donald Trump treated America to a fascist tableau.

A mix of federal and local law enforcement officers, including Secret Service and National Guard personnel, used tear gas, rubber pellets, and smoke grenades to clear peaceful protesters from the area just north of Lafayette Square—so that Trump could pose in front of a fire-damaged church holding a Bible aloft, a blasphemous fusion of religiosity and untrammeled power in which the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff served as human props. Autocracy became theater.

Trump’s naked abuse of the military shocked retired Marine general and former secretary of defense James Mattis into anguished protest:

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo-op for the elected commander-in-chief with military leadership standing alongside.

Believe it.

From the beginning, Donald Trump told us who he is: an aspiring autocrat who, if he could, would squelch any constraints on his authority. That’s why he so volubly admires foreign leaders who oppress and murder their own people—Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, the Chinese autocrats who showed “the power of strength” by their brutality in Tiananmen Square. Beyond peradventure, their unbridled dominance speaks to his innermost cravings.

Like so many of history’s gargoyles, Trump personifies narcissistic personality disorder as described by the Mayo Clinic: “A mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.”

The symptoms define Donald Trump. An exaggerated sense of self-importance. An unwarranted belief in his own superiority. A preoccupation with fantasies of his own success, power, and brilliance. A consuming sense of entitlement.

A refusal to acknowledge error. An inability to tolerate criticism or critics. A belief that he is above the rules. And, above all, the need to trample anything that might expose him as weak and inadequate.

Such a person must, out of iron necessity, force the external world to conform to his inner imperatives. For Trump, autocracy is not a preference, but a passion. All who thwart him must be banished.

Not only is Trump incapable of changing who he is—he needs to show us. “I alone can fix it,” he proclaimed in accepting the GOP nomination, and proceeded to fantasize about putting down disorder: “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon—I mean very soon—come to an end.”

The 2016 campaign marked a malign melding of Trump’s pathologies with those of his party. Trump ran not by seeking consensus, but by exploiting a growing strain of authoritarianism among the Republican electorate, wherein his megalomaniacal prescriptions fused with their cravings for stern and simple answers.

Prior to Trump’s election, a study by Matthew MacWilliams found that authoritarian leanings among voters correlated with support for Trump. Amanda Taub described this phenomenon in early 2016:

Trump’s specific policies aren’t the thing that most sets him apart. . . . Rather, it’s his rhetoric and style. The way he reduces everything to black-and-white extremes of strong versus weak, greatest versus worst. His simple, direct promises that he can solve problems that other politicians are too weak to manage. And, perhaps most importantly, his willingness to flout all the conventions of civilized discourse when it comes to the minority groups that authoritarians find so threatening.

After decades of cultivating a resentment of government while placing it at the disposal of wealthy donors, the GOP was ripe for takeover by a pseudo-populist demagogue who scorns constitutional constraints. In Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen writes, “No powerful political actor had set out to destroy the American political system itself—until, that is, Trump won the Republican nomination. He was probably the first major party nominee who ran not for president but for autocrat.”

Once in office, Trump acted out his psychic script by relentlessly hacking at the sinews of constitutional democracy. He turned the Justice Department from into a weapon against those who explored his suspect ties to Russia—and an ally to his felonious friends. He fired inspectors general charged with overseeing his and his underlings’ discharge of office. He has ceaselessly attacked journalists, and suborned the independence of the military. He is trying to rig the 2020 election by opposing voting by mail. He has accelerated his party’s politicization of the federal judiciary. He has purged his government and his party to eliminate all who do not serve his voracious cult of personality.

It is no surprise, therefore, that he turned protests emanating from the tragic murder of George Floyd into fresh pretexts for authoritarianism, both rhetorical and real.

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he threatened. Protesters outside the White House, he crowed, would be greeted with “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.” He mocked governors for being weak in the face of disorder, and threatened to dispatch American soldiers to their states: “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Whether or not he does that, Trump is seeking reelection as an American caudillo willing to bust through the guardrails of democracy. By doing so, he normalizes contempt for democracy itself. Ezra Klein puts it well:

What makes Trump successful is what makes him dangerous: He knows only the one thing, and knows it too well. All he can see is division; all he knows is discord; all he can do is escalate. He is the King Midas of strife, turning the country he leads into the thing he believes we are, the thing he himself is.

Worse, he can count on the support of his party: the cowardly and cynical officeholders bent only on survival; a base aroused by cravings for order; the self-serving plutocrats who care only that he protects their interests. This is how democracies wither.

Whom can we depend on? Not the courts; nor a Congress where one chamber, the Senate, cravenly serves Trump’s whims; nor the Constitution which, however ingenious, is not self-executing.

We have only ourselves, and the deadline is five months away. As James Mattis said in concluding his lament: “We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”

Would that we do, before America’s moment passes.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.