The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In praise of iron fists: Trump leans into his authoritarian instincts

Former president Donald Trump walks onstage at a rally Sept. 3 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
5 min

It seems safe to assume that Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl’s conference-call rally with Donald Trump did not go precisely as Diehl might have hoped.

The former Massachusetts state representative is on the ballot Tuesday seeking his party’s nomination and landed his party’s most coveted primary endorsement: that of the former president. But Trump is Trump, and when the conversation got underway, Trump offered a rather questionable reason for Republicans to give Diehl their votes.

As governor, Trump said, Diehl would “rule your state with an iron fist, and he’ll do what has to be done.”

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In the abstract, this is not really what Americans tend to seek from their chief executives — particularly Republicans, who generally articulate a politics centered on freedom from any governmental heavy hand. But this particular approving invocation of an “iron fist” came only a day or two after Trump had offered similar praise for another politician at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

“He rules with an iron fist, 1.5 billion people,” Trump said of Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Yeah, I’d say he’s smart. Wouldn’t you say he’s smart?” This came as Trump contrasted President Biden with Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both of whom, Trump said, were “fierce” and “smart.”

This sentiment isn’t new coming from Trump. Since the earliest days of his presidency, Trump demonstrated an affinity for autocratic leaders like Xi, Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Hungary’s Viktor Orban — whom Trump gleefully endorsed for reelection earlier this year. He found it obviously frustrating to have to navigate the intricacies of working with skeptical or demanding allies, greatly preferring the ostentation and stroking he received from nondemocratic leaders. And, of course, such leaders and their supporters often made clear their affinity for him.

What’s different now is that the barriers between Trump and this instinct have eroded.

There are a few contributing factors. One is that Trump feels newly embattled, with the Justice Department investigation of his handling of classified documents that he removed from the White House leading to new disparagements of federal law enforcement.

“The FBI and the Justice Department have become vicious monsters,” Trump said in that same rally, “controlled by radical-left scoundrels, lawyers and the media, who tell them what to do — you people, right there” — he pointed at media in the room — “and when to do it. They’re trying to silence me and, more importantly, they are trying to silence you,” he told the cheering audience.

Not that Trump didn’t seek to deploy his own “vicious monsters.”

As a candidate in 2016 and as president, Trump advocated a Justice Department that was explicitly political. He called for probes of his opponents, something that gained at least a little traction. And when protests erupted in the summer of 2020, Trump advocated for the military to be deployed in response — a push that was blocked in part by opposition from within his administration. Because, of course, American presidents don’t have an iron fist to deploy unilaterally.

The most important shift, though, was that Trump’s last-ditch effort to seize power has met with no significant repercussions.

The most immediate legal threat Trump faces centers on violations of statutes dealing with document retention and not on his attempt to subvert Biden’s 2020 election. The House impeached Trump, something it had done before — and then Senate Republicans made sure he paid no cost. His endorsement is still his party’s most important political currency, as Diehl understands.

Hundreds of those who rioted on his behalf at the U.S. Capitol have been criminally charged or convicted, but Trump — who called those rioters to Washington, misled them about the election results and called on them to fight — has faced no punishment, either literal or figurative. His tentative suggestion that the rioters might be pardoned has blossomed into a campaign pledge.

This, too, we’ve seen before, this pattern of Trump testing turbulent waters into which he dives once he realizes it’s safe. His initial rhetoric on immigration after his campaign launch in 2015 became a central part of his political identity when he realized that the complaints of business partners only increased the applause from Republican voters. His claims that polls were underestimating his support were bolstered by the 2016 results. His insistence that election fraud was rampant both that year and in 2020 never spurred any pushback from those he cared about: his base or conservative media. And the complaints of mainstream media were hardly a roadblock, since Trump has long been able to leverage those to his advantage.

Put simply, Trump has built a media and political ecosystem in which there will be no friction from his allies, no matter what he does. That allows him to embrace his instincts without fear of blowback — even when his instincts are to elevate and advocate authoritarian models of political power.

Most presidents come to the job with decades of experience in running for office (and often losing). They arrive understanding expectations about how power is shared and having experienced the ways in which politicians demonstrate fealty to our system.

But Trump arrived as an outsider, as he was quick to remind everyone. He came to the presidency not with decades of experience working within the system and understanding its checks on power. He came, instead, after decades spent as the CEO of a private company, an almost purely authoritarian exercise of power. Donald Trump’s expectations for what leaders should do was informed not by scholarly analysis of what past elected presidents had done but by the experience of being president of a business.

Donald Trump never held an election to confirm his leadership at the Trump Organization, and that worked out fine. Why shouldn’t he think Americans would want a leader with a similar iron fist as governor of Massachusetts? Or, beginning in January 2025, in the White House?