Donald Trump’s presidency has been every bit as amateurish and chaotic and ridiculous as his campaign was. As time has elapsed many of those who were terrified at first have come to view the president as a clown who is in way over his head. Utter uncertainty prevailed during the months between Trump’s election in November and his January inauguration, and many were genuinely concerned that Trump would quickly become a tyrant once in office, using the power of the presidency to go after his enemies and silence his critics.
It has now been nearly five months since Trump became president, and the full-blown panic that was in the air earlier this year has waned. Trump has yet to impose martial law, imprison his critics or crack down on the free press. In fact, the Trump administration has been positively incompetent. The White House has been plagued by major policy setbacks and political scandals, and the president’s most notable executive orders have been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Trump and his team seem to have entered Washington without a clue as to how things work, and the dealmaker-in-chief has made no deals whatsoever on Capitol Hill. President Trump has also made some embarrassing and costly blunders himself — usually in the form of tweeting late at night while his babysitters are in bed. (Case in point: The president’s recent tweets on the travel ban will likely damage his efforts to restore it.)
It is understandable, then, that many have come to view Trump and his presidency as more of an embarrassing joke than an existential threat to our democracy. The president seems too great a fool to pose a real threat to the republic.
This notion was recently addressed by Russian journalist Masha Gessen in a column for the New York Times, in which she argues that “Trump’s Incompetence Won’t Save Our Democracy,” and looks back at some of history’s most successful tyrants to make her point:
A careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.
Gessen also notes that Vladimir Putin, whom she has interviewed and written extensively about — and who is perceived by many as a cunning political genius — is “a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world.” (This seems to be a perfectly apt description of Trump as well — even if the American president’s ignorance of the world seems to be in a class of its own.) Gessen concludes that it is Trump’s “insistence on simplicity that makes him want to rule like an autocrat,” and that “militant incompetence and autocracy are not in opposition: They are two sides of a coin.”
This is an important point that should dissuade people from underestimating Trump after his rocky start. After all, most people underestimated the billionaire throughout his campaign for many of the same reasons, and he had the last laugh. Though the Trump administration’s incompetence has been something to behold, this shouldn’t detract from the very real authoritarian leanings that the president has displayed.
Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey because of his investigation into Russia’s interference in the election was the clearest sign yet that the president has no respect for the rule of law or the separation of powers. But the president’s authoritarian tendencies have been apparent from day one — whether it be in labeling the press the “enemy of the people,” attacking federal judges who rule against his policies, or describing the constitutional system of checks and balances is “archaic” and “a bad thing for the country.”
Of course, there has also been a great deal of unhelpful hysteria coming from certain liberals. A paranoid style of politics has taken hold of many Democrats, and Trump critics have become increasingly ready to believe conspiracy theories and “fake news” — particularly when it comes to Russia — or to embrace far-fetched theories about how the Trump administration’s failures are really part of a master plan.
In an article for the Guardian last month, leftist author Corey Robin criticized liberals for this hysteria and credulity, and pointed out that Trump hasn’t even attempted to fill the vast majority of positions in the executive branch since becoming president. “It’s a strange kind of authoritarian who fails, as the first order of business, to seize control of the state apparatus,” observes Robin, who goes on to blast liberals for taking the president’s words (or, in many cases, tweets) far too seriously. “Trump has always thought his words were more real than reality. He’s always believed his own bullshit. It’s time his liberal critics stopped believing it too,” he writes.
Robin makes a valid point, and it is certainly time for liberals to brush up on their critical thinking skills. That doesn’t mean we should stop taking Trump’s authoritarian threats seriously. And just because the Trump administration has been an incompetent mess until now doesn’t mean that the danger isn’t real. Trump has yet to imprison his political opponents or crack down on the media or impose martial law in Chicago, but he has threatened to do such things, which is dangerous in and of itself.
Trump is no mastermind, and he has little understanding of how the government works. In the long run, the big donors who have come to dominate American politics over the past 40 years probably pose a greater hazard to democracy than Donald Trump. But any leader who breaks as many democratic norms as our president has over the past few months must be regarded as a legitimate threat to democracy, no matter how ludicrous he appears while doing it.