We have about 100 days to go until the election, and, if you believe the polls, Donald Trump is poised to lose bigly. If that happens, some Americans will crave retribution or revenge, while others will just want to move on already.
What we (and by we, I actually mean all of us) should really want, though, is to make sure this never happens again.
That’s because had Donald Trump been competent and motivated, he probably could have become an autocrat. We seem to be about to dodge this bullet, but we need to take some steps to dodge the next one.
Think about it: Trump possessed almost all the skills a would-be Mussolini might need. He had the demagogic appeal to a cult-like following, the strongman tendencies (see his personal affinity for dictators), the attacks on democratic norms (his refusal to clearly state that he will respect the election outcome), an unhealthy disregard for the Constitution (“Article II allows me to do whatever I want”), and a visceral ability to undermine institutions that exist to hold him accountable (“fake news,” “enemies of the people,” etc.).
However, a few key ingredients were missing.
This is not an altogether new observation. As conservative Jonah Goldberg is fond of saying, “Hitler could have repealed Obamacare.” And center-right reporter Jamie Kirchick observed, “Donald Trump is not a fascist, he’s a golfer (albeit one who cheats at it).”
But those comments were made before 2020. The real opportunity for Trump came in the form of crisis, where a confluence of events (COVID-19 and the concomitant economic downturn, as well as George Floyd’s death and the concomitant civil unrest) overshadowed his re-election year. Trump’s inadequate response likely doomed his re-election chances, when he might have, instead, seized the day—and maybe more than that.
Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, marveled that Trump didn’t use COVID-19 to accumulate more power and suggested that he was too incompetent to be a good authoritarian. He emphasized that Trump simply isn’t interested enough to become a dictator, anyway. “Great men and bad men alike seek attention as a means of getting power, but our president is interested in power only as a means of getting attention,” Douthat wrote.
Yes, Trump has started flexing his authoritarian muscles as a means of handling the civil unrest still plaguing parts of America. But his decision to “surge” law enforcement in Chicago and to send federal agents to the Pacific Northwest can best be seen through the lens of his wanting to win re-election by pandering to his voters’ authoritarian tendencies.
The Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum calls this "performative authoritarianism,” which while bad is different from out-and-out authoritarianism. “This is a way of messaging—that 'we're in charge, we're doing something, we're restraining these forces of violence.' And that's designed to appeal to a certain kind of voter who wants to see this control put onto contemporary events,” she explained on CNN’s Reliable Sources.
The point is that Trump is baneful, but his ineptness and preference for short-term attention over long-term power have prevented him from fully exploiting his potential. As such, his presidency should serve as a sort of stress test for those of us who want to preserve liberal democracy for our children and grandchildren.
So, what can we do now to deprive any future Trump of the opportunity to become more than a performative authoritarian? After Watergate, several reforms were instituted to prevent a re-occurrence of what happened with Nixon. We should take our post-Trump opportunity even more seriously.
Various organizations and individuals have created roadmaps and blueprints regarding how to Trump-proof the presidency, and all of their ideas should be seriously considered. Some ideas are simple, if not easy. A few of my personal favorites include: Parties should consider ranked-choice voting for primaries to prevent fringe candidates with a plurality of support from taking over a party. We should change the law so that presidential candidates have to release their taxes. We should pass a constitutional amendment doing away with a president’s unilateral power to grant pardons (especially his power to pardon family, friends, and… himself). Pass a law stating explicitly that a sitting president can be prosecuted for certain crimes committed while seeking the presidency or serving as president.
The danger is that we’re always fighting the last war. These reforms would potentially have hampered the current Trump, so the assumption is that they would temper an even more dangerous future Trump.
Ultimately, though, reforms can only do so much. And they only work if “adults” enforce them and the American public agrees. During the Trump era, it became clear that much of what checked the president’s power was concern about public opinion (and how that might register at the ballot box if a president violated norms). But when the public approves of authoritarian behavior, it also pressures other elected leaders to look the other way.
Ultimately, the American people get what they want, and if they want a strongman, that’s what they will eventually have. That’s why the real goal—a nearly impossible feat—is to educate the public about the importance of civics—to reinforce the importance of maintaining a free society, and to educate them on how fragile the American experiment is.
The energy to undertake this task begins with our acceptance of how dangerously close we came to disaster.
Instead of seeing the last four years as a bad dream from which we thankfully awoke (er... we hope), this experience should be likened to a brush with death—of having dodged a dangerous bullet that might someday ricochet.
The danger doesn’t end if and when Trump leaves the White House. At best, we have bought ourselves some time.