Is Trump’s election a step on the road to authoritarianism, or is he an anomaly? That depends on us.
This essay is adapted from the first Tony Judt Memorial Lecture, delivered at New York University in February 2018, and first appeared in The Nation.
Are we on the road to authoritarianism? Donald Trump’s first year in office has prompted many observers to draw analogies to autocrats who have risen to power elsewhere, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Commentators across the spectrum have raised the alarm, including David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush; the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen; and Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of “How Democracies Die.”
Trump certainly talks like an authoritarian and walks like an authoritarian. But at least thus far, he has not been able to rule like an authoritarian. That’s because his initiatives have met with resistance from the people, the states, and the courts — though, conspicuously, not from the Republican Party. Despite enjoying single-party control of both houses of Congress, Trump has succeeded in passing only one major piece of legislation, his tax reform bill, following multiple failures to repeal Obamacare. His administration is most often consumed by its own infighting and scandals. Much of what he has implemented has been via unilateral executive action, and can be reversed if and when a new president takes office. All in all, he has been a most incompetent authoritarian.
Still, as we enter the second year of the Trump administration and look toward the midterms in November, a critical question remains: Is Donald Trump’s election a step on the road to authoritarianism, or is he an anomaly, likely to be remembered as a failed leader who unwittingly catalyzed a new progressive majority? Which narrative is the right one will ultimately be determined as much by us as by Trump himself.
The significance of Trump’s election should not be lightly discounted, as it reflects an emerging and troubling trend in democracies across the world. Populism — defined by Princeton professor of politics Jan-Werner Müller in “What Is Populism?” as anti-elitist, anti-pluralist, and asserting an exclusive claim to speak for “the people” while dismissing as enemies those who disagree — is on the rise. In the United States and Europe alike, we have seen increasing support for a politics that defines itself by what it is against: elites, racial minorities, immigrants, and, often, government itself. Trump’s populist authoritarian tendencies share disturbing parallels with those of Orbán in Hungary, the Alternative for Germany party, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, and the Five Star Movement in Italy, which gained a troubling one-third of the votes cast in the March 4 elections.
Like his European counterparts, Trump treats his base as the “real people” and dismisses people who disagree as enemies or traitors. He rails against checks and balances, including the courts and the press. He foments scapegoating, xenophobia, and racial and religious hatred—from the Muslim ban to his reluctance to condemn white supremacists. He evinces reckless disregard for truth; The Washington Post has counted more than 2,000 false statements in just his first year in office. And Trump has shown antipathy toward the rule of law — interfering with an ongoing criminal investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the presidential election.
These are actions we associate with despots, not democrats. If unchecked, such attitudes pose an existential threat to democracy. The fact that similar trajectories are evident in any number of European nations means that Trump cannot be dismissed as an outlier.
But there is a second, and perhaps equally plausible, account of Trump’s rise. Trump’s victory was extraordinarily unlikely. All the pollsters predicted Hillary Clinton would win. She actually did win the popular count, by nearly 3 million votes. Trump prevailed only because of the perverse Electoral College system, which gives disproportionate weight to the less populous states and to rural areas. Trump was not the recipient of a vast new wave of conservative votes. He received a smaller proportion of the popular vote than Mitt Romney four years earlier, and only 0.4 percent more than John McCain received in 2008. But Hillary Clinton received only 48.2 percent of the popular vote, compared to Obama’s 52.9 percent in 2008 and 51.1 percent in 2012.
The Republicans did not so much win the election as the Democrats, by not turning out, lost it — at least in part because, believing that Clinton would win, too many of them did not vote. Moreover, it’s possible that had FBI director James Comey not publicly reopened the criminal investigation of Clinton’s e-mail server days before the election, just when the Access Hollywood tape seemed to have killed Trump’s campaign, Trump would have lost. Trump quite likely could not have won before the e-mail investigation was reopened, and almost certainly would have lost any day after November 8, as those who stayed home out of confidence that Clinton would win without their votes would have shown up if they knew it might make a difference—as so many have shown up at countless protests ever since. In retrospect, there appears to have been about one week in 2016 when Trump could have won. Unluckily for us, we held the election that week. But his victory is more windfall than mandate.
Trump entered office with the lowest approval rating in history. And his approval rating has fallen since. Far larger crowds came out for the Women’s March, to protest his election, than showed up for his inauguration. Trump has shown little aptitude for the job, spending much of his time golfing, tweeting, and watching cable news shows, while the White House, embroiled in scandal, has had the highest staff turnover ratio in recorded memory. He and his campaign remain the subjects of a major criminal investigation that, despite his protestations that it’s a witch hunt, has already led to indictments and convictions of high-level campaign officials and aides.
So, should we be deathly afraid that our president shows troubling parallels to Viktor Orbán or Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, or should we be confident that this, too, shall pass? The proper response is neither panic nor denial. We are witnessing a significant and disturbing phenomenon, across the United States and Europe — but at the same time, Trump’s governance is chaotic, and his hold on authority is tenuous. Most important, we have the resources to resist, and if we choose to deploy them, we can succeed not just in forestalling the forces of populist authoritarianism but in reinforcing constitutional democracy and building a progressive majority.
Framing an appropriate response requires first that we understand not only the mechanisms by which populist authoritarians wrest and maintain control, but also the sources of their appeal. Although he died in 2010, before the full force of today’s populism had emerged, Tony Judt, the eminent public intellectual and historian of Europe, offers valuable guidance on both questions. In one of his last books, “Ill Fares the Land,” he gave as good a summary of the causes of the current politics as I have found anywhere:
We have entered an age of fear. Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Insecurity born of terrorism, of course; but also, and more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of our daily life.
Globalization, automation, rapid technological advances, climate change, the prevalence and easy availability of increasingly powerful weapons, the surveillance state — all of these forces can seem beyond our control and deeply unsettling. But of all these causes of insecurity, the resentment born of widening class inequality is perhaps the most corrosive. The United States and Britain, two of the Western democracies where populist causes have actually won elections, also happen to be the two democracies with the largest gaps between the rich and poor. Deregulation and tax “reform” in both countries have led to wealth gaps unseen since the late 19th-century’s Gilded Age. In 1982, the average member of the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans had a net worth of $230 million. In 2016, the average member was worth $6 billion, over 10 times the 1982 average after adjusting for inflation. Today, the 20 richest Americans have more wealth between them than the bottom half of the national population — some 152 million people.
According to Judt, with this degree of inequality come multiple pathologies. He argued that infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, incarceration rates, mental illness, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teen pregnancy, illegal drug use, personal indebtedness, and anxiety are “more marked” in Britain and the United States than in continental Europe. The biggest cost is in trust, an essential component of a healthy body politic. If people don’t trust their fellow citizens, it will be extraordinarily difficult to convince them to support the public good over private self-interest.
The wealth gap lends fuel to other divides: between black and white, rural and urban, citizen and immigrant, educated and uneducated, Democrat and Republican. In 1960, 4 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans said they would be displeased if their child married someone from the other party. In 2010, 33 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans felt that way. The media often make it worse. According to former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, “If you stray the slightest from the far right, you get hit by the conservative media.” And as Richard Hofstadter argued in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, when citizens grow anxious about their social status, identity, and sense of belonging, it leads to “overheated, over-suspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic” political styles. Which pretty much describes Donald Trump.
Yet we are also increasingly interconnected, and the problems we face, probably more than ever before, demand collective solutions. What is needed, as Judt recognized in 2010, is an ethics and politics that rejects untrammeled private interest and affirms the critical importance of concern for one another. Judt argued that social democracy — the notion that the state bears an obligation to protect its citizens from hunger, homelessness, and poverty — was the necessary corrective to a world otherwise devoted to free markets. But social democracy is not sufficient. A commitment to human rights is also essential, as these, too, are tools by which authoritarianism can be resisted. Both of these ideals, one born of the progressive response to the industrial era and the other rising from the ashes of World War II, identify basic commitments owed to all human beings by virtue of their being human. As such, they are the antithesis of populism’s division of society into “real people” and “enemies” — and the antidote to authoritarian abuse.
If social democracy is the ideal we must uphold, and human rights the legal and moral obligation we must fulfill, bipartisanship and multilateralism are the methods we must pursue. We need bridges, not walls; constructive engagement, not Brexit; global dialogue, not isolationism; efforts to unite, not divide. Europe and the United States both learned this lesson in the wake of World War II. In an essay Judt wrote near the end of his life, he quoted Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a former French diplomat and UN official, who wrote, “Having lost the comfort of our geographical boundaries, we must in effect rediscover what creates the bond between humans that constitute[s] a community.” Judt argued that European nations had begun to do just that. He conceded that “they don’t always do it very well.… But something is better than nothing; and nothing is just what we shall be left with if the fragile international accords, treaties, agencies, laws, and institutions that we have erected since 1945 are allowed to rot and decline.”
Skeptics might ask whether it is possible to revive a commitment to such public-regarding virtues in a world in which anxiety, division, and hate seem to be ascendant. Doesn’t Trump’s election illustrate that these values lack currency in today’s political arena?
The fate of Europe in the wake of World War II, a subject about which Judt wrote in his magisterial history, Postwar, offers at least some reason for hope. In the first half of the 20th century, some 60 million Europeans were killed in war or at the hands of states. Yet in the second half of the century, Europe developed a common market, a political union, a rough consensus in support of social democracy, and a supranational court of human rights. And most of Eastern Europe eventually saw a peaceful transition to democracy. There has been backsliding in the 21st century, to be sure, but the larger point is that the politics of division and hate can themselves spark a reaction that underscores the need for unity and the pursuit of common ends.
Disasters, in short, sometimes bring people together. And as disastrous as Trump’s election was, it has also prompted citizens to stand together in defense of the very public-regarding values to which Trump is so blind. The Women’s Marches, the town-hall meetings to defend Obamacare, the countless protests on behalf of Dreamers, the #MeToo movement, and the high-school students demanding gun control after the Parkland shooting all reflect renewed civic engagement — driven by concern for the rights and welfare of others. They show that we can do better.
The response to Trump’s Muslim ban is illustrative. In targeting Muslim foreign nationals in the name of our security, Trump followed a tried and true path. Inroads on foreigners’ rights don’t generally provoke widespread protest from citizens, as shown by the limited public opposition when George W. Bush rounded up thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But this time was different: Americans responded to Trump’s ban by streaming to airports across the country to demonstrate—not in defense of their own rights, but to advance the rights of others. Lawyers filed suit in courts across the country on behalf of people held at the border. University presidents, the leading science organizations, the most successful corporations in Silicon Valley, and a legion of former national-security officials all signed petitions, letters, and amicus briefs opposing the ban. Among the ban’s critics were former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, former vice president Dick Cheney, and former torture lawyer John Yoo. By targeting Muslim foreigners, Trump had succeeded in uniting America — against himself.
The courts thus far have invalidated all three versions of the ban that Trump has issued. The third version, struck down by two federal appellate courts, will be heard by the Supreme Court in April, with a decision expected by June. Whether or not the latest iteration is ultimately struck down, Americans showed the president that they would stand up to his unconstitutional actions.
In “Ill Fares the Land,” Judt singled out the naked pursuit of self-interest as the root of what ails us. If Donald Trump stands for anything, it is that. But Trump’s election has provoked a response that rejects that ethic for a commitment to the common good, akin to what Judt saw in the best of Europe’s postwar developments. Like Europeans responding to World War II, many Americans reacting to Trump have placed unity over division and the public good over pure private interest. If political candidates can tap into that spirit, we can emerge from this period a stronger nation.
Judt identified the United States with the pursuit of private interest, Europe with an effort to serve the public good. He opened a 2005 essay with a discussion of coffee on the two continents:
Consider a mug of American coffee. It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheap—and refills are free. Being largely without flavor, it can be diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact.
In this account, the United States is about efficiency, consumption, and profitable mass production—the market rules. Aesthetic and other qualities not subject to quantification or franchising agreements are discounted or ignored. Europe, by contrast, is focused on human interaction, the aesthetic, the good, perhaps even to the point of ignoring basic economics. What Judt celebrated in the Italian tradition was coffee as an everyday ritual that brings people together, that emphasizes their common interest, not just a drug imbibed in large quantities by individuals pushing ever onward to advance their private interests.
But note that in this description Italian coffee is not a drink but an “artifact.” An artifact, of course, is an item of historical interest. If we are to extricate ourselves from the populist moment, we need to ensure that human rights, social democracy, and cooperation — three key features of postwar Europe—do not become artifacts, of merely historical interest, but remain living, collective ends.
As Starbucks Grande Macchiato has infiltrated the world, so, too, the American pursuit of private markets and self-interest has also spread. If Judt is right, it may be just the American glorification of the market, and the growing wealth gap it has spawned, that has sown the virulent populism so prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic today. But at the same time, millions of Americans have chosen to act in defense of liberty and equality. If we continue to stand together for justice, we may well look back upon Trump himself as an artifact, a historical object lesson in how not to govern.