For as long as Donald Trump has been president, and even before, a subset of elite conservatives and professional contrarians has sought to downplay the risks he poses to democracy by fixating on his incompetence and narcissism as impediments to to the autocracy he wishes to create.
This tendency hasn’t flagged much in the face of daily outrages, many of which cut against the idea that Trump is a failed authoritarian. Yesterday it was the firing of yet another inspector general investigating corruption in his administration. Today it’s the attempted extortion of states, amid pandemic conditions, to rig the election in his favor. But many of these outrages invite convenient rejoinders: though he attempts, he rarely succeeds; his abuses of power and sundering of norms serve only his personal interests, and thus don’t amount to the subversion of democracy.
“Great men and bad men alike seek attention as a means of getting power,” argues New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “but our president is interested in power only as a means of getting attention.” His claim reads like a categorical and easily falsified one, but it actually just invites recategorizing a wide range of lawless conduct as either legitimate invocation of presidential authority or harmless attention-seeking.
For instance: Trump loyalists are happy to acknowledge that the FBI’s insider-trading investigation of Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) is Burr’s comeuppance for crossing Trump, and, by implication, that other Senate Republicans who engaged in insider trading are likely to skate because they were sufficiently obeisant. But those who promote the incompetence dodge must overlook this whole episode because acknowledging that Trump engages in selective prosecution would undermine the theory that he doesn’t seek unaccountable authority. And since Burr really did do something bad, who cares if he alone goes down for it. Likewise, when Trump publicly shakes down Democratic governors, Trump fans and critics alike see it for what it is. But under the incompetence dodge, it is recast as just yet-more self-aggrandizing bluster.
The incompetence dodge is a viable response to many of Trump’s individual sins. But it can’t account for the synthesis between those sins and the political party that enables them (and will still be there after he loses or is term-limited out of power) because the authoritarian system they have constructed in tandem is impossible to brush aside as a fleeting Trump vanity project.
Start near the end: Trump and his loyalist attorney general enlisted a U.S. attorney to find a crime—any crime, no matter how nonpressing—all so they could time charges to bolster a larger propaganda campaign designed to smear Trump’s opposition and help him win re-election.
Senate Republicans will run that larger propaganda campaign on Trump’s behalf out of the Judiciary Committee, using subpoena power to enable selective leaks and compel testimony from senior officials of the former administration, not to inform the public about any kind of conspiratorial wrongdoing—there was no such wrongdoing—but to leave as much of the public as possible with the impression that Something Bad Happened. Real people may face prosecution, and commentators like Douthat will aver that all is well because they weren’t framed or accused of fabricated crimes. But the crimes will be low level ones at best, and pursued for the sole purpose of papering over much larger ones. Our legal and intelligence institutions will have been mobilized to mete out unequal justice purely for the political advancement of one man.
Republicans will participate in this charade gladly, for no reason other than that Trump asked them to. “I just think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the second highest ranking Republican in the Senate. “One thing we have to do is to make sure that we are united on our agenda and make sure that there’s not separation between the White House and Republicans in Congress.” If it’s in Trump’s political interest it’s worth doing, because his success is their success. The edifice would collapse in an instant if Trump nominated a single liberal jurist to an appellate court. And that is the synthesis.
Abuse of government power to wage propaganda war against the opposition—which was, let’s not forget, the nature of the Ukraine scheme as well—might yield few long-term dividends for Trump himself if it fails to secure him re-election. He, personally, may have to content himself with a four-year run of Peronist self-glorification and a pardon from Lame Duck President Mike Pence. But the party that abetted it all will continue to benefit.
Trump instructed Senate Republicans to subpoena indiscriminately, to create a miasma of scandal around his enemies, just days after his administration argued to the Supreme Court that congressional subpoenas are invalid if they don’t serve true legislative purposes. This is the case he made to the Court’s five conservatives to quash House subpoenas to third parties for his financial records: that the legislative purpose the subpoenas supposedly serve is pretextual, that House Democrats really only care to rifle through his past, and so they have no force of law.
The Roberts Five may or may not ultimately embrace this argument. But they are pretending to take it seriously, even as it’s self-evident none of the people making it believe it sincerely—not unless “Trump wanted the Senate to issue these other subpoenas to help him in the election” is somehow a “legislative purpose.”
Here you see the outlines of the bourgeoning authoritarian regime Trump and Republicans have built together: where for loyalists, anything goes, but for everyone else nothing does. Competence is mostly beside the point. Indeed, authoritarians are clownish and incompetent and corrupt in general. They have captured coercive state institutions, they and their allies are free from accountability, and so Caligula-like appetites and lassitude develop naturally. Trump is only anomalous in that he reached the halls of power in this late-stage form ready-made.
He is in fact incompetent, but he looks much more hapless than he might because our system of government required him to stack the courts and fill the bureaucracy with cronies before he could get away with more than just theft and executive overreach. And he is nearly there.
That Trump’s main interest isn’t Republican policy, but in creating a mafia state for as long as he holds office, doesn’t make him any less of an authoritarian, or an agent for imposing a right-wing agenda on an unconsenting public, even if most of the decrees will spill forth after he’s left elected office. We can stipulate that Trump would have made more progress, faster, toward a more ideologically rooted set of goals were he a more ordered, less venal autocrat. A true movement conservative who happened not to be a genuine criminal in possession of an opaque network of family businesses might have imposed his will on the public in a way that would be less awkward for Republican elites. But they took what they could get, and laid the building blocks of autocracy together.
Trump has in three short years neutralized nearly all institutional checks on his corruption—inspectors general, congressional oversight, the advice and consent process, and judicial review. The leaders of these institutions have all assented to his lawlessness, chosen to ignore it, or been purged from government. This is not just the “petty corruption” of an incompetent grifter. Absent a concerted effort by a unified Democratic majority to dilute the power of Trumpists on the courts and cast them out of the executive branch, they will continue to exert illegitimate, partisan power within the political system indefinitely. It will just be the purposeful kind of power that those who invoke the incompetence dodge are pleased to see—right-wing judicial activism, a robust system of checks and balances, but only when Democrats win. Democratic laws and regulations will summarily fall. Republicans will routinely defy congressional subpoenas, with protection from the courts, while subpoenas Republicans issue to Democrats will somehow always be found to have merit. Disputes over elections will increasingly be resolved in the favor of one party over another. And these creeping inequities will irreversibly explode if Trump is re-elected. The topsy turvy world where by-the-book Barack Obama was “Caesar,” but Donald Trump’s claims to absolute authority are never worth worrying about, will be codified.