There seems to be a paradox in American Anti-Trump rhetoric where on the one hand Trump is this power-hungry potential authoritarian who is going to target the rights of minorities and drag the country into a fascist-white supremacy dictatorship à la Hitler. One example of this argument is made by Jeffery Isaac who in his column makes the point that the warning signs that Hannah Arendt (a holocaust survivor) talks about for Nazi Germany are applicable to today’s political climate. On the other hand, from the same anti-Trump crowd, there is no shortage in critiques about his lack of intelligence, his ignorance and his fitness for office. It seems to me that you can’t have it both ways: Trump is either an evil genius or a helpless dunderhead. Someone who is so incapable cannot carry out the apocalyptic policy that we are supposed to fear so much. While it is true that in his rhetoric Trump is a threatening force for democratic backsliding, nonetheless the biggest safeguard we have against Trump’s supposedly impending authoritarianism is Trump’s own ineffectiveness, he has proved time and time again that while in theory he has authoritarian tendencies, none of them can come to fruition because politically he steps on his own feet too often out of incompetence or sheer laziness. In other words, however awful you might think Trump’s agenda is in leading to democratic backsliding, he is not capable enough to advance it.
A common sign of democratic backsliding is when we see a president use his executive powers at its full extent, and the decision to refrain from doing this has become a norm that has protected our democracy throughout American history. It is Levitsky and Ziblatt’s idea of Institutional Forbearance which is when a politician is given the opportunity to use whatever power at his disposal for political gain, he instead opts for restraint. What is interesting about the Trump administration is that even if he wanted to use the Executive Branch at its full extent of its power, he is going to have difficulty doing so due to his lacking performance in making Executive Branch appointments. An incoming president, whose intention is to turn authoritarian, would first fill the Executive Branch up with cronies who will do his bidding. Making Executive Branch appointments is the way a President “takes the reins” so to speak of the Executive Branch. While Trump contends that it is the Democrats fault who have been obstructing his nominations, their influence on this matter is limited given that they have a minority in both Chambers of Congress. The greater explanation is the lack of leadership on the part of the White House. Politifact reports, 200 key positions do not even have nominees. Democrats rightly contest they cannot stall nominations that haven’t been made. CNBC reports that the nomination process has lagged more than the last six administrations. An alternative explanation for this is that Trump is allocating resources to instead appoint judges which may be more valuable, and he has seen a great deal of success in doing so, but either way the fact remains that President Trump isn’t amassing power in all the realms that he could be when you include Executive Branch appointments which means breaking the norm of institutional forbearance does not apply. An authoritarian that meets Levitsky and Ziblatt’s criteria for breaking that specific norm would be much more meticulous with this process.
The lack of effectiveness in the Trump administration is very apparent not only in the trouble he is experiencing appointing qualified personnel but also in retaining said people. The Trump White House is riddled with high turnover rates and insubordination on levels never seen before. This cannot stand if his goal really is to create the next autocracy. A study by the Brookings Institute found that the turnover rate in the Trump administration was higher than the 5 most recent presidents. One of their explanations for this among many was Trump valued loyalty over qualifications, and this would be no surprise to anyone who follows his tweets (the way to Trump’s heart is to suck up to him). Nonetheless this is a faulty strategy because it causes situations such as the Omarosa scandal, in which Omarosa Managault, one of Trump’s White House appointees, had secretly been recording Donald Trump in the situation room. Time will tell if there are recordings out there that have Donald Trump using racial slurs, but the theme of insubordination has occurred on several occasions in the Trump White House. Along with the Omarosa scandal there was also the anonymous column in the New York Times that reveals that there are people working in the White House secretly thwarting Trump’s worst inclinations. My theory is that Trump isn’t an effective leader and he does not work well with others which is essential when it comes to progressing an agenda.
Uprooting democracy in a country that has maintained it even through a civil war is a task that requires a fair amount of diligence, and this is something that has been lacking on the part of President Trump. Along with being a bad leader Trump has garnered the reputation of not being a hard worker. Whether it is taking the day to play golf which he has done 155 times as of September 8th, or watching “voracious” amounts of cable news, what he is not doing during this time is governing. A real authoritarian dictator needs to be a little bit more committed to the cause.
What we can conclude is that while Trump may speak like an authoritarian, in reality he is all bark but no bite. He says a lot of stuff. He said he would lock Hillary Clinton up, he said he would build a wall, he said he would repeal Obamacare, he said he would widen the libel laws to sue journalists, and while some of these examples are used by Huq and Ginsberg to show democratic erosion, none of these things have been put into action. This is because Trump before anything else, is an incompetent president who cannot advance his goals.
Illustration by Jim Cooke https://splinternews.com/the-long-lucrative-right-wing-grift-is-blowing-up-in-t-1793944216