Is the president looking more like a dictator after six months in the White House?
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, I wrote a column listing possible “warning signs” of democratic breakdown under his leadership. A few other people did, too. I wasn’t predicting Trump would become a dictator — although some of his statements and actions during the campaign were worrisome; the column was simply a checklist of warning signs that would tell us how well U.S. political institutions were holding up in unusual circumstances (and with a most unusual president).
We’re now a bit more than six months into Trump’s presidency, and it is high time to review the list and see how America is doing. Has Trump undermined America’s constitutional order? Is he consolidating executive power the way democratically elected leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have? Or are U.S. institutions holding up reasonably well, either because they have proved to be surprisingly resilient or because Trump has been less adept at politics than he claimed to be?
The record is mixed. Although some of the warning signs are flashing red, others are glowing yellow (at worst), and one or two don’t seem that worrisome at all. My worst fears of further democratic breakdown have not been confirmed — thus far — though in some cases it is not for want of trying.
Grab your No. 2 pencil and go down my original list. Feel free to keep score at home.
- Systematic efforts to intimidate the media: Check
There’s little doubt that Trump and his associates have repeatedly tried to intimidate mainstream media organizations, whether through tweets deriding the supposedly “failing” New York Times, the repeated references to the “Amazon Washington Post,” or White House chief strategist and former Breitbart head Stephen Bannon’s referring to media organizations as “the opposition party.” Trump and Fox News also falsely accused the Times of thwarting efforts to kill or capture top Islamic State leaders, and the White House has arbitrarily excluded reporters of some organizations from press pools, press conferences, and other events. The obvious message: Play ball with us a bit more or expect to be marginalized. And that’s just a small sample of Trump’s war on the press.
But, on the other hand, these efforts don’t seem to be working very well. A few media organizations have made ritual acts of appeasement (e.g., CNN keeps hiring Trump apologists as on-air talent), but Trump’s presidency has given most media organizations a renewed sense of purpose and a growing audience. And the administration’s continued shenanigans, conflicts of interest, ever-changing rationalizations, and sheer buffoonery have created a target-rich environment: The same outrageous behavior that helped boost Trump’s 2016 campaign has given the media a mother lode of material to mine and an eager audience for everything they can dig up. So the good news is that while Trump clearly likes to browbeat media outlets that aren’t reliably in his corner and would undoubtedly like to discredit them, his efforts to date have mostly failed.
- Building an official pro-Trump media network: Partial check.
Back in November, I speculated that Trump might “use the presidency to bolster media that offer him consistent support” or even try to create a government-funded media agency to disseminate pro-Trump propaganda. There’s little doubt Trump has tried to favor outlets that embrace him, which is why the White House gave press credentials to the right-wing blog Gateway Pundit and has given the reliably wacky and pro-Trump Breitbart privileged access. And as one might expect, the Trump administration has backed the expansion plans of the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group. Apart from the White House press office itself (which has been a train wreck from Day One), there’s no sign that the president intends to build a publicly funded pro-Trump media organization. But with Fox News and Sinclair and the various alt-right websites in his corner, he may not need one.
- Politicizing the civil service, military, National Guard, or the domestic security agencies: Partial check.
An obvious counterweight to executive overreach are career civil servants who remain sensitive to precedents, have lots of expertise, and tend to follow the rule of law. And as Samuel Huntington pointed out many years ago, an important barrier to excessive militarization is having a professional military whose direct political role is limited. My concern in 2016 was the possibility that Trump would try to politicize the civil service in various ways or turn the military and the intelligence and domestic security agencies into tools of the White House instead of independent defenders of the Constitution.
Once again, I’d score this one as mixed. Trump has tried to put his stamp on key government agencies by demanding that senior officials resign or by firing people who declined to do his bidding, such as (now former) Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and FBI Director James Comey. He has declined to make top appointments in a number of agencies, at one point telling Fox News, “A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary.” And if Comey and others are to be believed (and, on this issue, I think they are), Trump seems to think civil servants and his own appointees should be more loyal to him than to the Constitution, even though it is the latter they swore an oath to defend. Trump has also questioned the integrity of the nonpartisan and highly respected Congressional Budget Office, and he crossed another line last weekend by telling uniformed military personnel to call Congress and lobby for his defense spending and health care proposals.
But there’s a silver lining here, too: You can’t run the federal government without lots of help, and most people don’t like being dissed and intimidated by a group of wealthy insiders who clearly view them with contempt and seem to regard the country as their personal plaything. Combine that with Trump’s world-class ability to sow divisions within his own team, and you have a recipe for the veritable Niagara of leaks that have made life easier for journalists and kept the White House scrambling from scandal to scandal. (Of course, the White House could have avoided all this by telling the truth from the start and by learning how to fill out security clearance forms properly the first time.) As with his effort to intimidate the media, in short, thus far Trump’s desire to get the government bureaucracy to dance to his tune hasn’t gone so well.
- Using government surveillance against domestic political opponents: Nothing yet.
As Richard Nixon taught us, some presidents have been all too willing to use the CIA or FBI to go after their political opponents. There’s no reason to think such actions would lie outside Trump’s ethical framework, but, as far as we know, he has not been using the National Security Agency, CIA, FBI, or other security agencies to gather dirt on his opponents. His legal team is reportedly trying to find ways to impugn the reputation of special counsel Robert Mueller and his staff (good luck with that!), but that’s not the same as asking the CIA to dig up dirt on Democrats or anti-Trump protestors.
Of course, there’s an obvious reason why Trump hasn’t gone that route: His relations with these agencies are already deeply troubled, and it’s unlikely that they would do his bidding if he asked. Trump has insulted the CIA and NSA on numerous occasions, and his decision to fire Comey (who was popular within the agency) has put him at odds with the FBI, too. So this warning sign is still green, at least for now.
- Using state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents: Worrisome, but not a big problem so far.
All presidents accommodate powerful interest groups that backed them, and Trump is no exception. It might not be good for the country to have such a business-heavy group of cabinet officials, or for Trump to have appointed so many secretaries who oppose the mission of the agencies they are now leading, but by itself that is not a threat to America’s system of government.
As noted above, it is more worrisome to watch Trump favor corporate media interests that support him, and no doubt proposals for tax reform will be heavily skewed toward the 1 percent and provide little relief for middle-class voters who (mistakenly) put their trust in him. But here again, that’s just bad public policy, not a threat to the Constitution. But Trump’s recent tweets attacking the “Amazon Washington Post” and suggesting Congress go after Amazon’s tax status have the clear whiff of the authoritarian intimidation that autocrats like Turkey’s Erdogan have practiced.
More importantly, the growing sense that Trump lacks the skill to deliver on his promises is going to erode his clout in the corporate world as well. He got some early wins from companies that thought he might shake things up in positive ways, and they were willing to let him take undeserved credit for “saving” jobs while they sought to stay on his good side. But now that he has failed on health care, has done squat on infrastructure, is behind schedule on tax reform, and has low approval ratings at home and abroad, corporate America isn’t going to be as eager to curry favor with him. The bottom line: We are still a long while from Russian- or Turkish-level intimidation of business interests, which is a good thing.
- Stacking the Supreme Court: Partial check.
As I warned six months ago, Trump has already had one chance to fill a Supreme Court seat and he could easily have several more. We don’t yet know what sort of justice Neil Gorsuch will turn out to be or whom Trump might appoint down the road, but it’s a safe bet they won’t be progressives. But the real issue is how Gorsuch or any other appointees would vote on key constitutional questions involving the power of the executive branch. I’m not terribly concerned at the moment, but turning the judiciary into a tame tool is right out of the aspiring autocrats’ playbook, and the issue bears watching as relevant cases begin to work their way through the courts.
- Enforcing the law for only one side: Blinking red.
When Trump was elected, I was worried he might direct law enforcement officials to crack down on protests and other activities by his opponents but turn a blind eye toward illegal activities by potential supporters. A systematic crackdown on left-wing opposition has not occurred, but Trump & Co. do not seem at all concerned by the growing level of right-wing extremism in the country and utterly indifferent to such tendencies abroad. Trump has been quick to condemn terrorist attacks by Muslims and the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) in June but said nothing after a disturbed right-wing sympathizer murdered an innocent black American and a Israeli-American teenager issued a series of bizarre threats against Jewish synagogues and community centers. Even more disturbingly, it took the golfer-in-chief more than two full days to respond to the brutal knife attack by a white supremacist that killed two people in Portland, an act he described laconically as “unacceptable.”
Trump’s disregard for the rule of law is pretty well-established by now, and he has made it clear that he doesn’t think he, his family, or his closest aides should be subject to much legal scrutiny. Yet Trump also likes to portray himself as a “law and order” guy and has backed “beleaguered” Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s controversial campaign to reimpose draconic prison sentences. It is hard to escape the impression that Trump thinks the law is something that applies to other people — and mostly to those who probably didn’t vote for him.
- Really rigging the system: Blinking red.
Trump lost the popular vote by a considerable margin — really! — but he became president due to the peculiarities of the Electoral College. But make no mistake: Given the rules of the system, he was duly elected. As I noted in my original column, the demographics of the U.S. electorate give him (and the Republican Party) a big incentive to try to stack the deck in his favor, and that incentive only increases the lower his approval ratings go. How else can one explain the transparently bogus “voter fraud commission,” headed by die-hard voter suppression advocate Kris Kobach, which held its first meetings this month? No serious scholar of U.S. voting behavior believes that electoral fraud is widespread or politically consequential, but Trump, Kobach, and others would like to make it as hard as possible for people they deem unlikely to vote their way to actually go to the polls. The effort may go nowhere in the end (in part because local officials from both parties are declining to provide data to the commission), but that’s no reason not to be concerned about it.
- Fearmongering: Check.
As he did during the campaign, Trump has continued to issue dark warnings about various dangers from which he supposedly needs to protect us. His inaugural address conjured up a weird, Gothamesque description of “American carnage,” and a recent speech in Poland openly asked whether “the West” still had the will to defend itself. He has continued to rail against Muslims (except for the rich ones in Saudi Arabia whom he seems to like) and to inflate threats from North Korea and Iran.
But, to be fair, here Trump is not that different from most of his predecessors. All modern presidents have inflated threats on occasion, and some of them, like George W. “Axis of Evil” Bush, were serious practitioners of this timeless art. Even St. Barack Obama did it on occasion, telling his Nobel lecture audience, “Make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world,” and justifying the “surge” in Afghanistan with overstated worries about terrorist “safe havens.” So Trump’s tendency to inflate threats is part of a well-established tradition. The good news is that Trump hasn’t been given an opportunity — like a big terrorist attack — to exploit for political purposes. One can only hope that such a pretext never arises … for all the obvious reasons.
- Demonizing the opposition: Check (but he’s not alone).
No American president has been as prone to treat his opponents with contempt, disregard, and blatant hostility. Trump spent the campaign belittling his Republican opponents and vowing to “lock up” Hillary Clinton. He has continued to blame America’s problems on everyone but himself, accuse anyone who opposes him of betraying the country, and offer self-pitying tweetstorms about the vast opposition he faces from his supposed enemies (some of whom used to be allies).
Unfortunately, some of Trump’s opponents are now imitating his polarizing disinterest in compromise or in genuine give-and-take. The United States was deeply divided before the election, but it’s even worse now. The country’s two political parties are not equally responsible for this development — just consider that Obamacare included nearly 190 GOP amendments while the Republicans have refused to let Democrats play any role in their efforts to replace it — but Trump’s opponents are sometimes guilty of demonizing or dissing their fellow citizens who happen to support him. Needless to say, this is not a healthy condition for any republic.
Where does this leave us? By my score card, there are worrisome developments on nearly all of the 10 indicators, but some of them are only “blinking red,” and in many cases Trump’s efforts to expand his power have not made much progress.
I draw three conclusions from the record thus far.
First, President Trump does not have much respect for the existing constitutional order, especially when it impinges on his personal power or threatens his own position. He has been enabled (thus far) by a mostly supine Congress, but many of his efforts to extend his power have backfired or been thwarted. The vitality of some of America’s democratic institutions is therefore reassuring, but I wouldn’t take success for granted just yet.
Second, the situation would be far more dangerous if Trump were a smarter, more disciplined, and more effective politician. The crude irreverence that made him an appealing alternative to Clinton (and the mostly colorless GOP field) has been a major handicap to his presidency. Were Trump a better manager or more skilled at concealing his worst tendencies, the threat he poses to the existing political order would be much larger. Trump’s incompetence isn’t good for America’s position in the world, but it may help the American order survive his presidency.
Third, Trump still has at least three-plus years in office, and every day he spends there redefines the expectations for how presidents can or should behave. The real danger may not be the rapid slide into authoritarianism, but rather the possibility that a new generation of Americans — such as those unfortunate Boy Scouts — grows up thinking that it’s perfectly OK for presidents to lie, to use the White House as a vehicle to advance their business interests while in office, to see the presidency as the employer of first resort for their unqualified relatives, and to believe that public servants are to be loyal not to the public interest or the Constitution but to whoever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office. That is the way American democracy is most likely to end: not with a bang, but a whimper.
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