Not too long ago, Donald Trump supporters were routinely jeered for wanting to hand the Republican nomination to a candidate who was certain to suffer a blowout loss in November. Now, such taunts have been quieted, with polls showing Trump and presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton running neck-to-neck and Republican leaders and fundraisers falling in line behind Trump. Suddenly, a Trump presidency is not a punchline but a serious subject of discussion.
It is also, for many commentators — conservative and liberal — a terrifying prospect. Andrew Sullivan has written recently in New York magazine that a Trump election victory would be “an extinction-level event” for American democracy. Sullivan has been prone to melodramatic rhetoric, but in this instance a number of usually sober pundits are joining in the panic. In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes, “If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over.” Gopnik believes his pessimistic prediction is realistic, based on an observation of historical patterns of what happens when countries get taken over by leaders who are “unstable authoritarian nationalists.”
In many ways, this assessment of Trump is correct. Hackneyed Hitler metaphors aside, he is certainly a man with authoritarian instincts and an anti-democratic temperament. But the panic also seems exaggerated. Gopnik’s other examples of authoritarian leaders who did irreparable damage — Argentina’s Juan Perón, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Russia’s Vladimir Lenin and Vladimir Putin, Spain’s Francisco Franco — are very different men who came to power under extremely different circumstances.
Castro and Lenin led violent revolutions; Franco was a military man whose rule came out of a bloody civil war. (Trump, on the other hand, is a Twitter warrior.) Putin’s pre-politics career was in the KGB, not real estate and reality TV. Most of the men on Gopnik’s list were true believers; Trump routinely contradicts himself and hedges his promises. While he has a following of white supremacists whom he seems unwilling to repudiate, he also courts Jewish Republican donors such as Sheldon Adelson.
The dictators Gopnik mentions also rose in countries without a strong democratic tradition and without a 200-year-old constitution designed to contain the power of the federal government. It is not immediately obvious why Congress and the judiciary would bend to Trump’s authoritarian will. Trump himself seems well aware of the need to negotiate and compromise to get his way.
Yet the concerns are also understandable because the restraints on federal power have weakened in recent decades. Writing in the Canadian magazine, The Week, conservative commentator Michael Dougherty notes that “both major parties under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have worked to remove the restraints on the presidency and drastically exaggerate its authority” — perhaps paving the road for true tyranny.
Dougherty’s alarmism, too, may be excessive. In some of the instances he cites, such as Bush’s authorization of indefinite detention for terror suspects, presidential power has been curbed by courts. Nonetheless, the “imperial presidency” — a phrase that long predates Trump’s presidential run — is real. We have also seen an erosion of the civil society that has long been a backbone of American freedom. Society today is fragmented into political and cultural factions that are prone to demonizing each other.
Predictions of a Trump apocalypse may also underestimate the trials America has faced in the past. The Republic has survived a civil war, the Red Scare, Vietnam and Watergate. Whoever wins the 2016 election, Trump’s candidacy will clearly be a major shock to the system.
Whether it will be a fatal crisis or a much-needed wake-up call is in our hands.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.