Why Donald Trump is failing at making his dictator dreams a reality

Trump’s autocratic designs are disturbingly forthright and blatant. We're lucky he's not better at building power

By Sophia A. McClennen
December 13, 2020 5:00PM (UTC)
main article image
U.S. President Donald Trump pauses during a news conference at the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House February 29, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Well before Donald Trump won the 2016 election, there were worries that his autocratic tendencies would threaten the future of our democracy. His lack of respect for democratic institutions, his predisposition to put self-interest over civic duty and his narcissistic disavowal of any rule of law all combined to suggest that, if elected, he would desire dictatorial powers.

Law professor Eric Posner, writing in Quartz back in March of 2016, wondered if Trump would be America's first dictator. Even Michael Moore weighed in and suggested that if Trump beat Hillary Clinton he could be the last elected president of the United States.

Advertisement:

It makes sense to worry. From the onset of his political career Trump displayed all the trappings of a would-be autocrat. It wasn't just his disturbingly fascist style of populism, it was also his attacks on the media, strongman swagger, blatant cronyism and fondness for tyrants.

Then once he was elected, things got worse. There was the mounting evidence that Trump simply couldn't function as the president of a democracy and that he consistently gravitated towards the behavior of a despot. "Trump's behavior in the White House offered clear evidence that he places his self-interest above that of the American people," stated Douglas H. Wise, former Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, "whether admiring the Russian government, denying it attacked our political processes, or lavishing effusive praise on President Vladimir Putin, while directing harsh criticism toward the U.S. Intelligence Community and the FBI."

The list of despot-like moves Trump has made is frankly too long to recount. From installing family members in high-ranking positions, to gutting federal agencies, to treating anyone who questions him as an enemy, keeping track of Trump's slide into fascism has been exhausting.

Advertisement:

To make matters worse, Trump's dictatorial designs were disturbingly forthright and blatant. He kept publicly repeating that he wasn't a fan of term limits and he openly admired world leaders who had subverted checks on their time in office like Chinese President Xi Jinping. He even ordered a military parade, dubbed a "Salute to America," which ended up simply being a salute to himself.

So, it comes as no surprise that as Trump has refused to concede the 2020 election and has stoked rumors of election fraud, that we have seen a new wave of articles anxious over Trump's increasingly obvious dictatorial aspirations.

The sheer fact that Trump won't concede puts him in the company of tyrants. As The New York Times put it shortly after the race was called, Trump's post-election tactics suggested the antics of a dictator, not a president of a democracy: "denying defeat, claiming fraud and using government machinery to reverse election results are the time-honored tools of dictators."

Advertisement:

But here's the thing: Just because Trump wants to be a dictator, doesn't mean he can be one. Waving his arms around, shooting off incendiary tweets, and launching lawsuits with no merit isn't enough to keep him in power.

We often focus on the bluster and bullying of despots, but they don't rise to power through sheer invective. They have to build their power and keep it. And that's why Trump has little chance of actually becoming the autocrat everyone is worrying over. The only thing Trump knows how to build is his overinflated ego.

Advertisement:

This is not to say that Trump isn't dictator-like. It would take more space than I have here to list all of Trump's autocratic affinities. He might admire Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. He might have engaged in some very troubling behavior that was openly fascist and unapologetically authoritarian. But a true power grab requires more than rhetoric and a culture of chaos; it requires the development of the pillars of support critical for anyone trying to seize and hold on to power. And, quite frankly, Trump sucks at building the sort of significant support required of a dictator.

Think of it this way: If Trump couldn't even build a wall, can he build a repressive regime?

He's terrible at building the sorts of alliances that are required to take over a government. This point was made clear by the revolving door of White House advisors and cabinet members that plagued his presidency. The Brookings Institute reports that turnover for "A Team" members of Trump's administration was 91 percent as of December 4, 2020, with 39 percent of those positions undergoing serial turnover. Trump further had 11 turnovers in his cabinet. For comparison, Barack Obama had only three in his eight years in office and Ronald Reagan had six.

Advertisement:

It wasn't just that Trump summarily fired anyone who displeased him in any way; it was that he did it in the most humiliating way possible. Think of all of the times he Twitter-fired members of his administration. These sorts of antics might have made for good TV, but they don't work in leadership, even when that leadership is tyrannical.

Research on how dictators rise and keep power is vast, but most experts agree that autocrats can't hold power if they don't control pillars of support. And, in case it wasn't already obvious, Trump is too self-centered and delusional to actually develop the needed pillars of support.

We might broadly define the core arenas where an autocrat needs to exercise power as military, media, money and masses. Without at least some of these arenas of support a dictator will fail. Sure, autocrats like Putin go on firing sprees, but they know that they can only go so far if they want to stay in power. Strong leaders need strong pillars backing them.

Advertisement:

So, just to allay your fears about Trump's skills in mounting a successful coup, let's briefly run down how badly Trump has been so far at grabbing power.

Military

Any serious effort to overturn a democracy and institute a dictatorship typically requires the support of the military. Sure, there was early cause for concern that Trump would court military backing when he packed his cabinet with generals. But the military generals that once surrounded Trump are long gone.

The generals didn't just defect, so too did those in service. Prior to Election Day reports were coming in that Trump had lost significant backing among the active duty military, with Joe Biden leading over him in polls. And that was before The Atlantic's reports that Trump called military dead in a cemetery in Europe "suckers and losers."

Advertisement:

So, a core pillar a dictator usually needs — the armed forces — Trump doesn't have, and has no chance of getting. When you fire revered generals and constantly insult the military, they end up opposing you. And without them, no despot can make it for long.

Media

If the military is the front-facing source of power, information is the soft power all regimes require. Dictators depend on controlling the flow of information about their government. They rely on an artful combination of propaganda, censorship and repression of free speech.

Operating in a nation with a free press and strong First Amendment protections put Trump at a massive disadvantage when it came to controlling information. But let's face it, Trump made an even bigger mess of his media coverage. Sure, he threatened to change libel laws, he attacked journalists, he spewed an endless stream of constant lies and created a chilling environment for the news. But most of it was bluster.

Advertisement:

That bluster was covered in the mainstream media more often than not as the raving tantrums of a lunatic, a characterization that doesn't help a despot-in-training hold the needed respect of the public. A study released in August 2020 showed that coverage of Trump on major broadcast networks was 95 percent negative.  

But Trump's power over the media was even weaker because he couldn't even hold onto the support of the right wing purportedly on his side. His repeated clashes with Fox News and his estrangement from right-wing spin master Steve Bannon left him on weak footing with mass media most likely to support him. Trump-friendly Newsmax and One America News are niche outlets that lack a major network's reach.

When the outlet that is supposed to have your back (Fox News) projects that your opponent won a state (Arizona) first, you know you have lost the support of the media.  

Masses

Advertisement:

It goes without saying that all tyrants need the masses behind them. And you do have to give Trump credit for getting more than 74 million votes in his race against Joe Biden.

There is no question that these numbers are troubling. That Trump's openly xenophobic, racist and divisive rhetoric pulled that much support is a big wake up call.

But before we jump to conclusions that all 74 million voters would also support Trump as a potential dictator, consider the possibility that those who voted for Trump had lots of reasons why they did, not all of which translate into adoration for him. Sure, Trump tapped into mounting public distrust in government. He also did a good job freaking people out over Biden's supposed socialist tendencies.

All true, but not the whole truth.

Many voters were fed up with the Democratic Party and they found Joe Biden to be a less-than-inspiring choice. Matt Taibbi described the choices in this year's election as a "vomit milkshake" and refers to Biden as "democratic in name only." As Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi writes, "The corruption, incompetence and downright reactionary disposition of the Democratic Party cannot be ignored when trying to make sense of these catastrophic numbers."  

It makes more sense to consider that of the 74 million votes cast for Trump, among them are likely many votes against Biden and the Democratic party overall. And there are likely other reasons in there as well accounting for why Trump's percentage of the popular vote ended up being higher than his approval rating would suggest.

Trump's approval ratings overall are astonishingly low in comparison with his other democratically elected peers. One data set shows that Trump's approval rating 1,240 days into his tenure was the lowest of the last 14 presidents.

Approval ratings that low don't tend to translate into overwhelming enthusiasm or even acceptance of a budding dictatorship, especially when our would-be despot lacks other pillars of support.

Money

Dictators don't just need resources to support their regimes, they need to please those who have it, and Trump hasn't pulled this off either. Trump may like to brag about what he achieved for the economy and how successful he is financially, but on this point he has been a massive failure as well.

To be blunt, no one in the United States is seizing power or overturning democracy without the backing of Wall Street. Trump has lost this pillar for two key reasons: First, we have to recognize that the economic policies of a Biden presidency won't measurably differ for Wall Street from those of a Trump one. That sad fact has underpinned the corporate Democratic policies that have been in place since Bill Clinton was in office.

The second point, though, may further surprise. Influential, elite business leaders don't want Trump to pull this off. In a recent meeting of the Business Roundtable, an exclusive membership of CEOs from major corporations, executives discussed the measures they would take if Trump wouldn't leave the White House if the election was found to be legally sound. The Associated Press reports they stated they'd act "to make sure that the Republican elected officials do their jobs." And according to a report by a Forbes contributor, the CEOs discussed that there may "come a time when they would be forced to use their power and influence [to] take appropriate steps to quell any potential violent disruptions."

As creepy as that should sound to you, it still supports my point that Trump doesn't have the right kind of power shored up to stay in the White House after his term ends. 

We may have much to worry over in the coming days, but Trump successfully staging a coup to erase Joe Biden's electoral victory isn't one of them. This means that, even though Trump has "turned destructive and vindictive like all dictators," as Brandy X. Lee puts it, he still isn't one exactly, and he has no chance of becoming one. The best shot he has is playing one on TV.


Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

MORE FROM Sophia A. McClennen


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Coup Donald Trump Fascism