Uneasy Lies the Head

Trump, Authoritarian? Not Really—He’s a Monarchist

He governs by decree. He surrounds himself with courtiers. He rules by whim, and his moods can turn on a dime. Recognize any of those traits?

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Critics have accused the President of being authoritarian, but this is unfair. An authoritarian requires an understanding of the democracy he is usurping. Donald Trump shows no such appreciation. His cause is himself. His style is his substance. At heart, he is a monarchist—naturally, instinctively, unreflectively.

It may be his only sincere belief. And who better than he to wield the scepter?

From Trump’s point of view, this may not be a bad thing. A king does not necessarily have to be a dictator. There are, after all, constitutional monarchs who reign over democracies, including those of some of our closest former allies. A king can unify the country and provide a stabilizing influence in troubled times. Most importantly, he can be a symbol of national purpose providing security at home and projecting strength abroad.

While this may seem to contravene the principles of a republic, keep in mind that one doesn’t have to be a real monarch to act like one. And Trump has assumed the posture of a king without the title. He governs by decree. Within a fortnight of his reign, rather than making policy proposals, he issues fiats: on refugees (barred), politics in church (blessed), federal regulations (bumped), without hardly a by-your-leave to Congress, despite the fact that he commands a majority there. When he deigns to offer advice to the Senate it is in the form of a pronouncement: “Go nuclear!”

Trump’s inauguration and the ceremonies to follow had the trappings of a coronation and surely would have done more so if he’d had his druthers. Though presidents traditionally announce a photo session at the signing of a major piece of legislation, Trump has created a series of photo-ops almost daily that show him signing new edicts with a stroke of the pen. Government by gesture. More pomp than circumstance. One half expects to hear him declaim in the first-person plural. In a parody of Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days, he gives the appearance of action and decisiveness. It may turn out that these flourishes are ill-considered or premature but no matter. It is the projection of forcefulness, of getting things done, that is important. It is a rule of misrule: Ostensibly despotic, essentially chaotic.

Trump’s cabinet is more like a privy council where he has assembled a cabal of like-minded courtiers. None of this matters since effective power is in the hands of himself and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, together with close-knit members of the regal family. Bannon, the court favorite, has the royal ear, while other members of the National Security Council, such as the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, have been relegated to serve only at the king’s pleasure. Creatures like Trump and Bannon are the political equivalent of Gatsby’s Buchanans: “careless people” who smashed up things “and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

To be sure, Trump is not an absolute monarch and Bannon is no Mazarin, the eminence gris to Louis XIV. He is more of a Bismarck, guiding the hand of a prickly Kaiser under a unified Germany, content to let the liberals hold forth in the Reichstag as long as he controls the levers of power. The difference is that the Kaiser had the good sense to let Bismarck, a career diplomat, manage affairs of state. Trump, on the other hand, conducts his own foreign policy, heaping anathema on perceived enemies and threatening vassal states with punishment unless they pay sufficient tribute.

When so disposed, Trump can certainly display aspects of an absolute monarch. He rules by whim and his moods can turn on a dime, bringing to mind the cautionary adage in “Hamlet” about “madness in great ones.” He can rage like Lear or dissemble like Richard III, albeit lacking the latter’s guile. His revolving-door selection of cabinet members brings to mind a throng of petitioners attending a royal court. Trump treats Paul Ryan, the pliant House Speaker, as if he were a king’s minister who can be summoned or dismissed at royal will.

And since Trump is still beloved by his loyal subjects for whom he can do no wrong, the Republicans acquiesce to him even in his more arbitrary dictates. In effect, they have become a rubber-stamp Parliament, since the Democrats in opposition have no power and the Republicans, afraid of being unseated in the primaries, are supine in bowing to Trumpian fiat. One can only imagine Trump’s first State of the Union address as a ceremony akin to the King’s visit to the House of Commons on the opening day of Parliament.

Posturing can go only so far, and Trump’s royal pretentions, in fact, evoke a bleak mirror-image of Camelot, with a pugnacious Donald supplanting the charming Jack, the parvenu Ivanka taking the place of the elegant Jackie, and the Kushners as the dopplegangers of the Kennedys, all the way down to the bellicose press secretary Sean Spicer substituting for the genial Pierre Salinger. A year ago, voters who desired change objected to a race between candidates named Bush and Clinton, fearing the makings of a dynasty. They now may have gotten more than they wished for.

Jack Schwartz is a former book editor of Newsday. He is the author of The Fine Print: My Life as a Deskman.