No Denying It

Our Slide Toward Soft Despotism Has Begun

We once thought we could count on the adults. But the man-child in charge turns everyone around him into a child.


Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Many had hoped that the “adults” in the White House would check the influence of Donald Trump’s “yes men” and steady a chaotic president. Instead of them making Trump better, he’s actually making them worse.

In the past week or so, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Vice President Mike Pence, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have all publicly backed up some Trump claim, only to have him later cut their legs out from under them.

The most unfortunate example may be McMaster, who, on Tuesday night, went in front of cameras and insisted that the premise of a story in The Washington Post alleging Trump gave classified information to Russia was false. The next morning, Trump seemed to contradict that statement on Twitter. We can quibble over details and semantics, but the bottom line was that it didn’t look good.

During a Tuesday press conference, McMaster did little to quell concern, ending the presser by telling us: “The president wasn’t even aware of where this [classified] information came from.”

McMaster has a sterling reputation, and one hopes that this won’t besmirch that or negate the many good things he has done.

Unfortunately, one byproduct of Trump’s candidacy and presidency has been his ability to compromise people who once seemed incorruptible. This destruction of heroes only reinforces the erosion of public trust that already plagues America.

Another example: On Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley averred that Trump “can fire anyone he wants,” because he’s the “CEO of the country.” At first, I was going to cut her some slack on the CEO comment, but she reiterated her point several times.

This statement is both untrue and telling. Yes, the American president has substantial power, but he’s not the CEO, and a country is not a company.

The president and his aides are not the only ones enabling Trump’s behavior—or perpetuating the erroneous assumption that he is our “boss.” We the people bear much of that responsibility. We usually get what we want—or, at the very least, what we deserve.

According to a recent poll, nearly half of Americans surveyed “say things have gotten so far off track that we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that is what it takes to set things right, while 50 percent disagree.” This trend is consistent with other polls we have seen. A shocking survey done last year showed that younger Americans are increasingly OK with authoritarianism.

Not everyone who wants a strongman who is willing to bend the rules supports Donald Trump (although, according to the survey, working-class whites are more attracted to authoritarianism than are college graduates). Some people probably want a strongman of their own—to take on Trump. To fight fire with fire. The ends may justify the means, but we all have different means. Wherever you stand ideologically, you’re probably more willing to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

That’s doesn’t let Donald Trump off the hook. Trump sees himself as a special snowflake. In his mind, the rules don’t apply to him. But what complicates matters is that his team seems to be reinforcing his worst instincts—whether that is bolstering his authoritarian tendencies, tempting him with fake news, or sacrificing their own credibility to defend the indefensible.

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To be sure, some of the rules literally do not apply to him. The famous line from the David Frost interviews with Richard Nixon is, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” That line has haunted me lately. First, when we were reminded that firing an FBI director, regardless of the circumstances, is perfectly permissible. A few days later, we were reminded that the president could give classified information away to the Russians, because, after all, he can simply declassify it. The saying is that this was “lawful, but awful.”

So where does that leave us? I don’t want to sound hysterical; I think there has been too much handwringing over this in the media. But at some point, this becomes untenable. The truth is that it’s unrealistic to expect Trump’s supporters to turn on a dime, and since the notion that Trump is going to mature or “pivot” now seems absurdly quixotic, our last line of defense is the so-called adults who hold positions of power both in—and out—of his administration. Because they are failing to speak truth to power, we risk sliding into soft despotism.