In style and substance, Trump leans on authoritarian tactics

As important as it is to appreciate Trump's authoritarian style, the substance of his authoritarian tactics is more terrifying.
President Donald J. Trump
President Donald J. Trump walks to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn at the White House on Feb 7, 2020.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Imagesfile

After Donald Trump's recent hospitalization, the president and his team took a variety of steps to produce images of a "performative show of strength," as CNN's Brian Stelter put it. Referring to North Korea's political model, Stelter added, "This is the kind of thing you see from strongmen who want to appear to be leading -- it's a 'Dear Leader' sort of approach."

A Washington Post report went on to note over the weekend, "[A]nalysts who study authoritarian regimes said critics are right to posit that Trump has borrowed from the playbooks of strongman leaders in his messaging. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University, said Trump shares the authoritarian urge for "constant public adoration," and she emphasized that he is 'very savvy about how the authoritarian leader-follower relationship works.'"

But as important as it is to appreciate the degree to which the Republican incumbent emulates an authoritarian style, the substance of Trump's authoritarian tactics is more terrifying. The New York Times reported over the weekend on last week's extraordinary developments.

Mr. Trump has long demanded -- quite publicly, often on Twitter -- that his most senior cabinet members use the power of their office to pursue political enemies. But his appeals this week, as he trailed badly in the polls and was desperate to turn the national conversation away from the coronavirus, were so blatant that one had to look to authoritarian nations to make comparisons. He took a step even Richard M. Nixon avoided in his most desperate days: openly ordering direct, immediate government action against specific opponents, timed to serve his re-election campaign.

Because of the public nature of Trump's antics, and because so much of the citizenry has grown inured to the president routinely corrupting the levers of governmental power, last week's developments probably didn't shock much of the nation. That's a shame because they were some of the most scandalous steps the Republican has taken since taking office.

At roughly the same time, the sitting American president demanded that the Justice Department prosecute his political opponents -- including his 2020 rival -- before the election, for made-up reasons. He then added that he expected the State Department to uncover damaging information on his 2016 rival -- also before the election -- as part of a personal desire to see her face criminal charges.

The Times' report noted that this takes Trump's presidency "into new territory -- until now, occupied by leaders with names like Putin, Xi and Erdogan." Indeed, I made the case last week that if this were happening in another country, the world would look to the United States to condemn the authoritarian antics.

Except, in 2020, the authoritarian antics, unlike anything in the American tradition, are coming from our own White House.

Jack Goldsmith, who led the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush/Cheney era and who is now a professor at Harvard Law School, added, "It is crazy and it is unprecedented, but it's no different from what he has been saying since the beginning of his presidency. The only thing new is that he has moved from talking about it to seeming to order it."

I think that's true, though it's worth emphasizing that Trump isn't just ordering it: those who follow the president's directives are taking those orders seriously. For example, the day after Trump complained publicly about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his failure to produce information damaging to Hillary Clinton, the nation's chief diplomat assured Fox News that he and his team intend to produce anti-Clinton materials "before the election."

The Durham probe into the Russia investigation apparently won't meet the White House's electoral needs, but the fact that the efforts exist reflects the Justice Department's willingness to pursue the president's political goals.

The Times' report added, "Presidential historians say there is no case in modern times where the president has so plainly used his powers to take political opponents off the field -- or has been so eager to replicate the behavior of strongmen."

When listing Trump's most scandalous abuses of power, leave some space for this at the top.