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Trump Failing at Governing But Winning at Authoritarianism

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Donald Trump has been battering away at American democracy for about four years now, first as a populist candidate warning of rigged elections and inciting his supporters to violence, and then as a president. Scholars who study democratic erosion — the process through which populist leaders hollow out previously healthy republics — have shown steady, if not increasing, concern.

Ross Douthat has been one of the most effective and articulate critics of those warnings. Douthat’s Trump is little more than a clown, who may dream of the jackboot but who has been reduced instead to ineffectually stamping his loafers. Douthat’s latest column, “Donald Trump Doesn’t Want Authority,” oversimplifies his thesis only slightly. While acknowledging that Trump’s misgoverning has had tragic effects, he reiterates his portrayal of a president too hapless to do any real damage to the democratic system.

Douthat has one point. Even a reasonably effective leader of Trump’s authoritarian bent could have exploited this crisis more effectively. The pandemic produced a worldwide upsurge in trust for leaders — in almost every state, governors have enjoyed soaring approval ratings, as have leaders across the globe, some of them inept. Only Trump’s ineptitude was so obvious, playing out in buffoonish daily briefings, that he was denied the upsurge that almost every other leader enjoyed. Even a barely competent version of Trump would now be sitting on a commanding lead.

But effective public management and effective attacks on democratic norms are different skills. Douthat undersells the very real success Trump has had in the latter area. Trump has not “suddenly discovered how to use his authority for dictatorial or democracy-defying purpose,” he asserts.

Well no, perhaps not “suddenly.” He has instead worked his way there through trial and error. But Trump’s progress after three years is undeniable.

Trump’s first success came immediately: He disabled the norms walling off presidents from private interests. Restraints that were once so strong that Jimmy Carter had to sell off his peanut farm lest any pro-peanut bias infect his decision-making have essentially disappeared altogether. The entire Republican congressional party, and much of its judicial wing, have lined up behind Trump’s claim that he doesn’t need to even disclose his financial interests, let alone........

© Daily Intelligencer