Is a Dictatorship “Increasingly Inevitable”?

Is a Dictatorship “Increasingly Inevitable”? December 19, 2023

Neo-conservative historian Robert Kagan has written a 6,000 word opinion piece in the Washington Post [behind paywall] entitled  A Trump Dictatorship Is Increasingly Inevitable.

He is convinced that Trump, once elected, will dismantle democracy, center all power into himself, and persecute those who oppose him.  He will consider himself above the law and refuse to leave office, making himself President for Life.

The New York Times, The Atlantic, and former Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney are among those who have raised the specter of dictatorship in warning about Trump.

Trump did nothing to calm those fears when he told Sean Hannity that he would only be a dictator on his first day of office.  And that the Constitution should be suspended in order to correct what he considers to be the stolen election of 2020.  And his promise to bring retribution against the Department of Justice prosecutors who are trying him for alleged crimes, the news media, and “the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”

Stoking fears of a Trump dictatorship could itself create an anti-democratic climate.  If Trump is elected–and right now he leads Biden in the polls–those who oppose him might do so, in the words of a common progressive slogan, “by any means necessary,” refusing to accept the results of the election, engaging in civil unrest, and giving us a mirror-image repeat on an even bigger scale of the January 6 “insurrection.”

Trump supporter J. D. Vance (R-Ohio) has called for an investigation of Kagan, saying that that his claims are seditious, especially when he said that blue states might use “nullification” to refuse to accept Trump’s authority.  Such an investigation, of course, says Jack Shafer, would amount to using federal power to suppress the press, thus proving Kagan’s point that MAGA Republicans want to impose a dictatorship that suppresses civil liberties.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial writer Allysia Finley is a Trump critic, but she says that “the portrayal of Mr. Trump as a would-be dictator is a textbook case of psychological projection, the process by which people avoid confronting their own unwanted thoughts, feelings or behaviors by subconsciously ascribing them to others.”

She says that it’s Biden and the Democrats, far more than Trump and the Republicans, who have been showing authoritarian tendencies.  After detailing those–such as retaliating against political opponents–she sums up her point:   “Abuse executive power. Ignore the law. Run roughshod over individual liberties. Retaliate against political opponents. Mr. Biden and his allies have done exactly what they warn Mr. Trump will do if he returns to the White House.”

The best response, though, comes from  Martin Gurri, writing in Unherd, who tries to calm everyone down by drawing on his own experience in dealing with actual dictators as a former CIA analyst.

If you expect to become an authoritarian, you have to wield absolute control over a key institution of government such as the military (Franco, Peron, Pinochet) or a mass movement with a paramilitary wing (Lenin, Mussolini, Mao). Neither condition applies to Trump. Every federal institution is set ferociously against him. What would happen if Trump ordered the FBI or the 101st Airborne Division to start shooting Democrats? Homeric laughter would happen. And if Trump is training a militia somewhere off the 18th hole at Mar-a-Lago, not even the Times has heard about it. . . .

What kind of a person becomes an authoritarian? Well, it may look like fun, but authoritarianism is really hard work. You need to be in the prime of life, in your 30s or 40s (Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Mao, Castro). Very rarely, an exceptional person such Caesar is granted literal dictatorship (the Romans invented the whole idea) in his early 50s. In a clear case of ageism, however, no septuagenarian has ever been offered the job.

Gurri goes on in this vein, citing Trump’s seemingly short attention span, his inability to manage his own bureaucracy, and the limitations of his rhetoric as compared to actual dictators.  Gurri also points out that the January 6 riots were far from being an “insurrection,” observing, “There’s no such thing as an unarmed insurgency.”

Furthermore, Gurri says, Trump does have lots of supporters, but they do not constitute a base for authoritarianism.  “If you insist that Trump is an authoritarian, if you continue to maintain that he’s the greatest threat ever to our democracy, ” he writes, “then you’re portraying these voters as goose-stepping bigots — and you know full well that they’re not. They’re your family, friends, and neighbours.”

“So relax,” Gurri concludes. “Trump is too old, too isolated, and too ADD to have a shot at dictatorship — and if he tried, the result would be comedy rather than tyranny.”

So I agree that Trump is not a threat to be an actual dictator.  I’m not so worried about him or his followers.  I am worried, though, about the “illiberal” conservative intellectuals who would like him to be a dictator.  And there are “illiberal” liberals who don’t want Trump to be a dictator but would gladly have someone else.

If what is described as Trump’s authoritarian impulses are countered with Biden’s authoritarian impulses, that simply illustrates what I have been saying, that “illiberalism”–that is, the willingness to dispense with democracy, liberty, rights, and Constitutionalism–is coming from both the right and the left.

There is, in fact, a way that dictatorship can exist in a democracy.  I came across a striking example in a piece by Niall Ferguson on how the German universities in the early 20th century–at the time the best in the world–degenerated into racism and authoritarian politics.  (I’ll be blogging more about that article, which takes off from the anti-semitism of today’s university campuses.)  He quotes Max Weber–Max Weber!  The founder of modern sociology!–in a conversation with General Erich Ludendorff, Germany’s military mastermind:

Weber: Do you think that I regard the Schweinerei [“mess”] that we now have as democracy?

Ludendorff: What is your idea of a democracy, then?

Weber: In a democracy, the people choose a leader whom they trust. Then the chosen man says, “Now shut your mouths and obey me.” The people and the parties are no longer free to interfere in the leader’s business.

Ludendorff: I should like such a “democracy.”

Weber: Later, the people can sit in judgment. If the leader has made mistakes—to the gallows with him!

This could happen here.  Already, the legislative branch is in disrepute (mainly from conservatives) and the judicial branch is in disrepute (mainly from liberals), and the executive branch has gotten more and more powerful.  Illiberal conservatives are calling for a Caesar.  Illiberal liberals are calling for a Napoleon.

But Trump is no Caesar, and Biden is no Napoleon.  Fortunately, no such candidates present themselves.  Yet.


Photo:  Charlie Chaplin from the film The Great Dictator (1940) (with “double cross” emblem in background and on cap) via PICRYL, Public Domain.



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