President Trump wants a military parade in the nation’s capital. He says that his political adversaries are “un-American” and “guilty of treason” for failing to lustily applaud his State of the Union address. He thinks the FBI, too, is guilty of “treason” for investigating his campaign ties to Russia. He calls for his political opponent, a former secretary of state and first lady, to be prosecuted. He labels the news media the “enemy of the American people.” He describes the judiciary as a “joke” and a “laughingstock.” He believes the “Deep State” is conspiring against him. He demands personal loyalty from senior law-enforcement officials and forced out two FBI officials — director James B. Comey and deputy director Andrew McCabe — who refused to grant it. His lawyers suggest he is above the law and need not answer questions from prosecutors. He refuses to disclose his finances and continues to benefit from his family company. He denigrates minority groups, demeans women, demonizes immigrants, insults an entire continent and champions symbols of racism.
Little wonder, then, that Trump admires dictators such as Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He even praised Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, a cartoonish thug who won “reelection” with 97.7 percent of the vote, for having “done a great, great job.” By contrast, Trump drips disdain for democratically elected allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May; he just picked another fight with May over the National Health Service. The reason Trump likes the dictators, I suspect, is that he wants to be just like them. He, too, wishes that he could “win” 97.7 percent of the vote. When he doesn’t, he lies about his margin of victory and the size of his inauguration crowds.
If there is such a thing as an “authoritarian personality,” Trump is it. The controversial concept comes from sociologist Theodor W. Adorno and other researchers who in 1950 published a book of that name that included a list of authoritarian traits — what they called the F (for fascist) scale. It is shocking and yet unsurprising how many of those traits apply to the president. “Respect for submission to acknowledged authority”? Check. “Belief in aggression toward those who do not subscribe to conventional thinking, or who are different”? Check. “A negative view of people in general — i.e. the belief that people would all lie, cheat or steal if given the opportunity”? Check. “A need for strong leadership which displays uncompromising power”? “A tendency to project one’s own feelings of inadequacy, rage and fear onto a scapegoated group”? “A preoccupation with violence and sex”? Check, check and check.
Trump is no Adolf Hitler, and it does a disservice to the victims of Nazism to suggest a comparison. He is more of a budding Benito Mussolini, Juan Perón or Hugo Chávez: a garden-variety strongman, not uniquely evil. And if Trump ruled in Italy in the 1920s, Argentina in the 1950s or Venezuela in the 2000s, he would undoubtedly be a dictator by now. But he doesn’t. Trump is the president of one of the oldest and most stable constitutional republics on the planet.
We have checks and balances, and they are mostly working. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the FBI are investigating Trump’s connections to Russia. The civil service is trying to maintain continuity with long-standing policies in areas from environmental protection to foreign policy. The press is doing yeoman labor to expose Trump’s lies and coverups. The judiciary is invalidating some of his proposed regulations. Even the Republican-controlled Congress, while shamefully refusing to resist his assault on the rule of law, has crammed down Trump’s throat a tough Russia sanctions bill that he hated to sign.
So far our democracy, for the most part, has resisted the Trumpian onslaught. But don’t get cocky. Trump has been in office only a year, and already Freedom House has downgraded the United States in its Freedom in the World Survey “due to growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, and a reduction in government transparency.” How much worse might the damage become if Trump stays in power for another three or even, heaven help us, seven years?
That is why it is so disgraceful that so many Republicans are actively abetting Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice by undermining the credibility of the FBI and the Justice Department. In the republic’s hour of peril, most Republicans are either cheering the assault on democratic norms or pretending it doesn’t exist. I was a lifelong Republican until the day after Trump’s election, but I now agree with the centrist writers Benjamin Wittes and Jonathan Rauch when they call for voters to support Democrats “mindlessly and mechanically,” because “the Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy.”