Authoritarianism and Trump

In his CSSH review essay, “On Authoritarianism,” Michael Meng investigates the history of authoritarianism and provides a comparative study of authoritarian regimes. In his reflections below, he turns his attention to the nature of current presidential politics in the United States.

A number of historians have attempted to place Donald Trump’s presidency in historical perspective. Most prominently, Christopher R. Browning and Timothy Snyder have drawn comparisons between Trump and Hitler. If I agree with the basic thrust of their comparison, I nevertheless think it leads to unnecessary confusion since one must have a clear understanding of Nazism to make sense of the comparison. Nazism represents a particular form of authoritarianism. In my view, a more precise approach can be offered by focusing on the relationship between Trump and authoritarianism.

What is authoritarianism? Authoritarianism describes a hierarchical relationship in which one person commands obedience from another without reservation so as to advance one’s own desires. The one who commands has authority over the person who recognizes and obeys his or her authority; hence, authoritarianism always involves domination, albeit of a specific kind. Authoritarians do not dominate through coercion and force as tyrants do but rather through the capacity to compel obedience without having to do anything other than issue a command. What allows authoritarians to compel obedience without recourse to force? Whence comes the authority of any given leader? It comes from the people who recognize and obey the leader’s authority: someone can be said to possess authority when he or she has successfully persuaded others to recognize his or her authority. To win recognition from others through persuasion, one must deploy various speech strategies, the most important of which is the telling of stories.

The fact that authoritarians must persuade others to recognize their authority inevitably makes their grip on power perilous, since their authority erodes once the stories they have proffered no longer compel belief. When this happens––and it always does at some point––authoritarians rarely cede power without a fight. Now weakened and angry, they attack anyone who challenges their authority.

Viewed from this perspective, it seems evident to me that President Trump has authoritarian inclinations. Let me support this claim by turning to two moments from his first year in office. The first moment is his inaugural address, the second is his press conference after Charlottesville.

Trump’s inaugural address tells two simple stories. The first is of national decline and rebirth, while the second is of giving power back to the “American people.” The first story promises to make “America great again” by making “America first;” the second promises to empower the “people” who have been “forgotten.” Since both narratives appeal to resentment and anger among a specific segment of the American population, some commentators have been tempted to characterize them as expressions of “populism.” To think of Trump as a populist unwittingly confuses matters by implying that he actually cares about the interests of the people whom he claims to represent.

He does not. To be sure, Trump justifies his right to govern by depicting himself as a champion of the “common people” whose voices have been ignored by the country’s elites but in fact that self-portrayal turns out to be a story he peddles to advance his desire to be exalted and celebrated as a great “leader” towering above everyone else including those who view him as their savior. Making America great means making Trump great. Trump is pure self-promotion. Like so many other authoritarians before him, he cares solely about himself, despite his claims to the contrary. “I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down.”

Trump does fight –– he fights for himself as he has shown on a number of occasions but most clearly on August 15, 2017 during his combative press conference held at Trump tower three days after Charlottesville. Unleashed from his teleprompter of the day before, Trump delighted in attacking the reporters gathered in front of him whose reaction to his initial response to Charlottesville prompted some of his advisors to persuade him to make the more “presidential” statement of the previous day. A day later, Trump reverted to his pugnacious self in what might be interpreted simply as a crass appeal to his base, which seems to appreciate watching him batter the press. No doubt Trump was performing for his supporters but he was also doing something else: he was attacking the authority of the press as an institution of integrity and fairness. Trump attacked the press by asserting that it propagates “fake” news. “Wait a minute, I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news.”

Authoritarians have no patience for people who question their authority. Predictably, then, Trump attacked the press following several days of news stories that questioned his response to Charlottesville. As a major source of resistance to his authority, Trump undermined the press then and continues to do so today as he fights to ensure the survival of his presidency. There is no other option than going on the attack for someone like him who views the world from the Schmittian perspective of friends and enemies. One is either with or against Trump, and those who fall into the latter category are either fired or challenged by him.

If this interpretation of Trump is compelling, then the future of his presidency will likely involve much of what has already transpired during his first year in office. Trump will continue to claim that he speaks for those who have been forgotten and most of them will continue to support him largely because they bought his story in 2016 and will now find it difficult to admit that he sold them snake oil. Americans who question and oppose Trump will continue to receive the brunt of his crude tongue. Trump will persist in attacking his enemies because at this point survival seems to be his primary aim.

Further into the future we will eventually have a new president. Yet, my sense is that we will not overcome Trumpism until we address the central issue at stake in his rise to power: the victory of a neo-liberal notion of freedom centered on the pursuit of one’s own interests at the cost of all others. The deeper problem of Trump’s ascendancy is the victory of selfishness amid the steady erosion of an egalitarian commitment to community and solidarity since the 1980s. A product of that decade, Trump epitomizes the virile individualism of self-enrichment that has become pervasive in the United States to such an extent that merely needing assistance from others now brands one a failure.