He turbocharged the worst elements of the party, bringing them from the fringes to the center of power. It was Trump who turned the GOP — once led by defenders of democracy such as Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and John McCain — into the party of American authoritarianism. That process is now continuing with the purge of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the House Republican leadership for criticizing Trump’s refusal to accept the election outcome.
The response from some on the left is, essentially, ho-hum, so what’s new here? The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, one of the most acute analysts of Republican racism, argues that “the logic of the War on Terror” is also “the logic of the party of Trump”: “The Enemy has no rights, and anyone who imagines otherwise, let alone seeks to uphold them, is also The Enemy.” He cites the Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman, who has a new book coming out arguing that the post-9/11 policies “created a foundation for American authoritarianism.” Other pundits have made similar arguments.
As an ex-Republican who is no fan of Trump, I must respectfully disagree. President George W. Bush got a lot of things wrong — particularly his invasion of Iraq (which I backed along with then-Sen. Joe Biden and most of the American public). He also did things — such as authorizing “enhanced interrogation techniques,” i.e., torture, and holding detainees indefinitely without charges at Guantánamo Bay — that are now rightly seen as violations of civil liberties and that I also regret supporting at the time.
But rolling back civil liberties in wartime is, sadly, nothing new in U.S. history and doesn’t portend the end of democracy. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Woodrow Wilson locked up Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs and other opponents of U.S. involvement in World War I. Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Japanese Americans to internment camps. Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon spied on civil rights and antiwar activists.
Bush’s actions, even when wrong, were not as egregious as those of many of his predecessors in both parties. They certainly were not laying the foundations of American authoritarianism. A champion of democracy abroad, Bush was no foe of freedom at home. There’s a good reason Trump was impeached twice and Bush not even once even though Democrats controlled both houses of Congress during his final two years in office.
Trump’s misconduct was of an entirely different order of magnitude. Far from responding to an attack on the United States, he facilitated one by welcoming Russian interference in the 2016 election. (“Russia, if you’re listening.”) He fired FBI Director James B. Comey for not pledging personal loyalty and Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not squelching an investigation of Trump campaign ties with Russia. He took numerous other actions that could have been charged as obstruction of justice if special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had been free to indict a sitting president.
Trump declared war on his own government, maligning honorable civil servants as agents of a nonexistent “deep state.” He demonized political opponents as “treasonous” and called the press “the enemy of the people,” borrowing a phrase from Joseph Stalin. He lied at a record-setting pace (The Post Fact-Checker recorded 30,573 false or misleading statements over four years). He tried to use military aid to blackmail Ukraine into helping him politically — and fired a U.S. ambassador to that country who was seen as an obstacle to his nefarious designs.
Finally, and worst of all, Trump refused to accept the 2020 election and instigated a violent insurrection to stop Congress from certifying his opponent as the winner.
In the long history of presidential misdeeds can be found a few precedents for some of Trump’s actions. (Nixon knew a thing or two about obstruction of justice.) But no previous president has shattered so many democratic norms in a time of relative peace. In particular, no previous president has ever refused to recognize an election outcome or incited an insurrection — much less turned a willingness to reject the election results into a litmus test of belonging to his political party.
Suggesting that Trump is not all that different from past Republicans is not only wrong, it also serves to normalize his unacceptable and unprecedented misconduct. We can recognize the roots of Trumpism in the GOP without diminishing the extent to which Trump has transformed a party that championed democracy in the Civil War and the Cold War into a party that poses an existential threat to our democracy.