The Tyrannical Mr. Trump

If the U.S. president is impeached and removed from office, don’t expect him to accept the result.

U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 27, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 27, 2018. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

No use kidding ourselves any longer. Donald Trump’s response to the impeachment probe into his documented attempt to use U.S. foreign policy to advance his political fortunes reveals, more than anything else he’s done so far, that this president has little use for the Constitution or the traditions of American democracy. He sides with the autocrats of the world because he himself is one—or, at the very least, aspires to be.

And that extends to the constitutional provisions for his removal: Based on what he has said in recent days, even if Trump is impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, he may well reject such a verdict as illegitimate. Trump has already warned that a “civil war” might ensue. On Tuesday night he tweeted: “I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP.” 

The U.S. constitutional crisis is, in other words, only in its beginning stages.

In the weeks since the Ukraine revelations surfaced, Trump has insisted repeatedly that there was nothing wrong with his effort to strong-arm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Joe Biden, one of Trump’s leading Democratic challengers for 2020—even though Trump’s own former homeland security advisor, Tom Bossert, said he had previously informed the president that the allegations against Biden were baseless. Trump has said, again and again, that his conversation with Zelensky was “perfect.” The president has also sought to delegitimize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for launching an impeachment inquiry into his behavior—“As far as I’m concerned, she’s no longer the speaker of the House,” he told reporters last week. And he has suggested that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the Democrat in charge of the inquiry, should be arrested for treason. As is Trump’s wont, he can be expected to hew to, repeat, and tweet these clearly stated views endlessly in the months ahead, come what may.

As with so much of what Trump says and tweets, many of these statements are so absurd that they seem clownish. But let’s be frank: They are also the views of an aspiring authoritarian ruler. 

In the nearly three years since Trump took office, various pundits have suggested that he is autocratic in spirit and mindset, restrained only reluctantly by the thin veneer of constitutional checks and balances. But nothing Trump has done has exposed his true point of view as much as the current crisis over Ukraine.  

What were once only hints of anti-democratic tendencies have become clearer in recent weeks as news surfaced of Trump’s efforts to find dirt on Biden—allegedly holding Ukraine’s military aid hostage to this effort (and including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the call, as we’ve now learned). Trump appears to have ordered his administration—including, most recently, Pompeo—to defy congressional perquisites and subpoenas. He has insisted that he can do as he pleases and has abused any coherent interpretation of the Constitution, telling a crowd of young people in a July speech: “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” He has sought to “lock down” ordinary presidential interactions in a secure system intended for classified information, according to the whistleblower complaint. The president has also reportedly pressured Australia and other nations to help U.S. Attorney General William Barr investigate the legitimacy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference, in an effort to cast doubt over his campaign’s dealings with Moscow.

Trump has, moreover, repeatedly expressed his contempt for the democratic nations of the West and his consistent support of his fellow would-be autocrat, Russian President Vladimir Putin—whom he tried to bring back into the G-7. He has recently sought to forgive or at least minimize Putin’s military activity in eastern Ukraine, and he suggested that Ukraine, not Russia, was involved in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election, despite the firm conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community to the contrary. Trump has also lavished praise on Chinese leader Xi Jinping, congratulating him Tuesday upon the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule, even as police shot a teenage protester in Hong Kong.

“There are two common ways of talking about authoritarianism in politics,” said Jonathan Weiler of the University of North Carolina, a co-author of the 2009 book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. “One is as a regime type, a non-democratic system characterized by a concentration of power in largely unaccountable leaders. The second is as a personality type, characterized by a psychological need for order and a related tendency to want to exclude ‘outgroups’ from political power in order to preserve an often sentimentalized version of a halcyon past.”

Trump, Weiler said, is the latter sort—the personality type that rises up in troubled democratic polities and then, bit by bit, seeks to destroy those traditions, displacing them with a personal power grab. It has been the approach of the most successful authoritarian leaders of the past who have risen to power in nominally democratic systems. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini infamously kicked apart broken parliamentary systems to seize power. Mao Zedong dismantled the tenuous democracy of post-imperial China. Trump has brilliantly exploited the almost Weimar-like paralysis in Washington—a Congress all but unable to act on major issues for years now—to lay bare the fusty dysfunction that with a strong enough push, could possibly be swept away.

Given American democracy’s long-entrenched traditions, Trump will have a hard time destroying it, but that doesn’t mean he can’t. “Authoritarian leaders like Putin and Xi, whatever their personality traits, derive their power from the political system they’ve come to take the helm of,” Weiler said. They don’t have to work very hard to eliminate the meager yearnings for democracy that might exist in their nations—as Putin showed when he crushed the brief, weak, and corrupt post-Soviet democracy left behind by Boris Yeltsin. 

But Trump has been very effective at exploiting the emerging weaknesses in American democracy—including its chronic polarization and increasing reliance on internet-fed rumors for information—and intimidating anyone who tries to impose checks on his authority. 

“He’s single-minded, it would seem, in his desire to attack, demean and punish anyone who would try to challenge his power or hold him accountable. All of which makes for a volatile, unstable and dangerous situation,” Weiler said.

Trump has plainly tried to embrace the traditions of authoritarianism, though he has been, until now, far more constrained by American laws and traditions than his fellow would-be autocrats around the world. Like Xi and Putin, he has built a personality cult around himself with a political base that is itself dominated by so-called authoritarian personalities—people who are inspired by xenophobia, adoration of the leader, and contempt for democratic institutions. “Trump’s electoral strength—and his staying power—have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations,” the University of Massachusetts political scientist Matthew MacWilliams wrote before Trump’s election. And many supporters insist they will never desert Trump, who, like Xi and Putin, has suggested time and again that the interests of the nation are the same as his own personal interests, and that his hold on power is inextricably linked to the nation’s future. (Recall that in accepting the Republican nomination in 2016, Trump declared of the nation’s broken politics: “I alone can fix it.” )

According to another scholarly expert on authoritarian thinking, Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba, Trump even out-authoritarians some authoritarians: “It’s hard to think of an authoritarian leader who did not equate himself with the state, so yes, that appears to be a common behavior,” Altemeyer said. “They do not always develop personality cults.” But Trump, Altemeyer said, began developing one early in his career. 

Above all, autocrats succeed when democrats falter, squabble, and dither. There are no Bolsheviks without Mensheviks. There are no Hitlers without Paul von Hindenburgs and Franz von Papens. There can be no Trump without a lot of scared Republicans bullied into silence. After the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1974, when most of the Republican Party deserted Nixon in the face of evidence of obstruction of justice, his successor, Gerald Ford, said the process showed that the United States is “a government of laws and not men.” Today, almost no one in the Republican Party has given us confidence that this is still true. Trump instead has humiliated the party of Lincoln, making it his personal cheering section. In recent days, a mere handful of Republican lawmakers have allowed that his behavior toward Ukraine—an obvious abuse of presidential power—was bothersome at all. 

Sentiments could still change, of course. Polls show rising support for impeachment—and in the end, even Republicans will react to polls. But the question remains unanswered: If Trump is convicted in the end and refuses to leave office, who exactly will remove him?

Editor’s Note, Oct. 4, 2019: This story has been updated to correct that Weiler’s book was published in 2009, not 2018.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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