More than six months into his presidency, Donald Trump continues to function as a Rorschach test, even to his most vociferous critics. Is he a bumbling fool who doesn’t know what he’s doing? Or is he a dangerous authoritarian who might do grievous damage to American democracy?
The correct answer to both questions, the past weeks have made clear, is yes.
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Trump is an authoritarian—but by instinct rather than by ideology. It is blindingly obvious that he is an amateurish hack of a president, who doesn’t have anything close to a strategic plan to concentrate power in his own hands. But it is also blindingly obvious that he is unwilling to tolerate any rightful limits on his authority, and seeks to weaken or abolish independent institutions whenever they frustrate his ambitions.
Trump did not come into office as a sworn enemy of the FBI, or the filibuster, or even the judiciary. But since all of these institutions have hampered his ability to rule by fiat, or stand above the rule of law, each of them has quickly come to bear the brunt of his anger.
When the director of the FBI refused to pledge his personal loyalty to the president, or to shut down the bureau’s investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russia, Trump fired him. When the Senate failed to take health care away from millions of Americans, Trump called for the abolition of the filibuster. And when judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals repeatedly ruled against the administration, Trump threatened to dissolve it.
So far, a lot of this authoritarian behavior has remained in the realm of rhetoric. This is not to say that it’s harmless: When the president exhorts cops to rough up suspects, for example, this is likely to lead to some all-too-real violations of basic rights. Even so, the key question now is whether Trump’s authoritarian instincts will eventually push him one crucial step further—pitting his administration against other branches of government in deed as well as in word.
Recent developments suggest that the day when Trump starts to overstep the bounds of his legitimate authority, and deliberately undermines the power of other branches of government, may now be nigh. About a week ago, media outlets began to report that he had decided to build a “war Cabinet.” Trump hired Anthony Scaramucci as director of communications, prompting Sean Spicer to resign as press secretary. A week later, Trump fired Reince Priebus as chief of staff, replacing him with John Kelly, a four-star Marine general. All the while, Trump has kept up unprecedented Twitter broadsides against Attorney General Jeff Sessions and special counsel Robert Mueller.
It is all too clear which enemy Trump wants his war Cabinet to defeat: not ISIS, the Taliban, North Korea, or Iran, but the “haters” who have so far hampered his power. And since Trump has selected his core team for its unwavering loyalty rather than its political acumen, it is also clear that the new men in the White House will be willing to take some pretty extreme steps to please their master. Having sworn fealty to their chief, and being used to command as CEOs or as generals, they—like the president himself—have little respect for the conventional limits on executive power.
When I first argued that Trump was an authoritarian by instinct rather than by ideology, I thought that this description pointed to a hope as well as a danger: Ideological authoritarians like Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have a much better sense of their ultimate destination and can therefore pursue the destruction of independent institutions in a much more consistent manner. Instinctive authoritarians like Trump, by contrast, might take a while to stumble in that same direction, making big blunders and squandering key opportunities along the way.
In many ways, this has proved to be true. If Trump were more competent and more disciplined—pursuing his goals in a more consistent manner and abstaining from needless fights—he could have marshalled far greater public and congressional support for his agenda. And if he were more farsighted, he could have made far more effective use of past opportunities to expand his power. (Although Neil Gorsuch is turning out to be an extremely conservative jurist, for example, there is no real indication that he would rubber-stamp a Trumpian power grab.)
And yet, it is also clear that, six months into his presidency, Trump is already morphing into the authoritarian he was destined to become. Frustrated with the barriers put in his way by independent institutions, he now considers himself at war with them. Though he remains a lot less ideological than Orban or Erdogan, his authoritarian instincts are pushing him toward the same destination. There is little reason to think that he is less of a danger to democracy than they have proved to be.