Analysis: The fear of a looming Trump dictatorship
Former congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming is the poster child of a Republican establishment abandoned by the party's far-right base. Now, she's billboarding what may come next: In an interview with CBS aired Sunday, Cheney lamented the extent to which the Republican Party had been "co-opted" by Trumpism and said she feared the potential of a vengeful Trump presidency in 2025.
"One of the things that we see happening today is a sort of a sleepwalking into dictatorship in the United States," Cheney said.
Cheney's refusal to accept former president Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election had been stolen from him - and her decision to publicly rebuke Trump for his role in stoking the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot - got her ostracized from the GOP and cost her the House seat. She has spent the months since campaigning against his potential reelection, to little avail. Trump is the heavy favorite to emerge as the Republican presidential nominee, no matter the slew of legal cases against him and even the prospect of imprisonment.
In her CBS interview, Cheney said a Trump victory could mark the end of the American republic. "He's told us what he will do," she said. "It's very easy to see the steps that he will take."
This isn't mere hyperbole. As my colleagues have reported over the past year, Trump has made clear his stark, authoritarian vision for a potential second term. He would embark on a wholesale purge of the federal bureaucracy, weaponize the Justice Department to explicitly go after his political opponents (something he claims is being done to him), stack government agencies across the board with political appointees prescreened as ideological Trump loyalists, and dole out pardons to myriad officials and apparatchiks as incentives to do his bidding or stay loyal.
In election rallies, Trump has vowed punitive action on all perceived enemies. "I am your retribution," he told supporters at one event. In another, he promised to "root out the Communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, that lie and steal and cheat on elections."
Scholars of 20th-century fascism are less than impressed. "Trump is also using projection: note that he mentions all kinds of authoritarians - communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left - to set himself up as the deliverer of freedom," Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University, told The Washington Post last month. "Mussolini promised freedom to his people too and then declared dictatorship."
Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University, underscored the point over the weekend after Trump cast President Biden at an Iowa rally as "the destroyer of American democracy." "Trump's Iowa speech continues his use of fascist rhetoric: it's us versus them, he tells his supporters, and 'they' are enemies who cheat," Mercieca told my colleagues. "Authoritarians have a lot of rhetorical tricks for explaining away anti-democratic actions as actually 'democratic.'"
Some commentators are looking squarely at Trump and Trumpism as a direct existential threat to the future of U.S. democracy. In a widely circulated opinion essay for The Post, Robert Kagan charted how, "in just a few years, we have gone from being relatively secure in our democracy to being a few short steps, and a matter of months, away from the possibility of dictatorship."
Kagan sees a scenario where Trump's mounting legal challenges galvanize his push for power, rather than check his rise. "Indicting Trump for trying to overthrow the government will prove akin to indicting Caesar for crossing the Rubicon, and just as effective," he wrote. "Like Caesar, Trump wields a clout that transcends the laws and institutions of government, based on the unswerving personal loyalty of his army of followers."
Not for nothing have a bevy of Trump-inclined, right-wing intellectuals floated the idea of "Caesarism" - an embrace of a strongman to flush out the perceived weaknesses and failures of the republic - as a necessary political solution for the moment. In Kagan's view, the institutional checks and balances of the United States are failing to arrest this authoritarian drift.
In the event of a return to the White House, Trump and his allies have already said they would marshal more executive power than his predecessors. A Trump election victory could also boost Republican congressional control, and many members of the GOP seem content to march in lockstep with Trump. Then there are the courts, which the former president stacked with a huge number of loyalists.
"A conservative litigant can guarantee a sympathetic judge by filing their lawsuit in a federal court in Texas, where a handful of hard-right judges have exclusive control over the docket," noted the New Republic's Matt Ford. "From there they go on to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where conservatives have a clear majority - Trump alone appointed almost half of its members. And then the last stop is the Supreme Court, where half of the conservative supermajority are also Trump appointees."
Among traditional allies of the United States, there's no shortage of trepidation over what might be around the corner. "Whoever comes to the White House, one case would be a catastrophe, the other case would be much better," German defense minister Boris Pistorius told reporters last week.
But while European policymakers are fretting about Trumpist disturbances to transatlantic ties, the future of the NATO alliance and U.S. support for the war in Ukraine, they are more circumspect about the threat to American democracy itself. Far-right movements are in the ascendant in many countries in Europe, including Germany, but the continent's parliamentary structures may restrain them more effectively than an anachronistic U.S. system that seems primed to usher in minority rule.
"The Trump dictatorship will not be a communist tyranny, where almost everyone feels the oppression and has their lives shaped by it," wrote Kagan. "In conservative, anti-liberal tyrannies, ordinary people face all kinds of limitations on their freedoms, but it is a problem for them only to the degree that they value those freedoms, and many people do not."
Indeed, as my colleague Philip Bump observed last month, recent polling shows considerable numbers of Americans, and a plurality among right-wingers, endorse the idea that the country needs a strong leader who may bend the rules. "For many Americans, a turn toward authoritarianism isn't seen as a negative," Bump wrote. "Many Americans support that idea."
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