Is Donald Trump an authoritarian? Experts examine telltale signs

Tom McCarthy in New York
Donald Trump arrives at Beale air force base in California on Saturday. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

With disorienting speed over the past two weeks, the US has spun from facing a fake migrant invasion, to a blue-wave election, to an attack on that election by the president. Then it was on to the appointment of a lackey attorney general, a fiasco at a first world war memorial event in Paris, and the White House disseminating a doctored video to justify silencing a CNN reporter.

In one sense, it does not matter what political ideology Donald Trump partakes in – which label is applied to it, what historians later might call it. To summarize the views of philosophers, historians and analysts: the currents of history are flowing, and all of America is paddling; we can debate what all that was about when, and if, we make shore.

But there remains a desire to know which direction to steer, and in recent conversations, those philosophers, historians and analysts did not hesitate to resort to the most freighted words in our political vocabulary – words like fascism and authoritarianism – if not always to label Trump, then in an effort to place him in context.

The natural question many observers of the Trump era have asked is whether the latest transgressions by the president – for example suggesting a “Call for a new Election?” after an otherwise perfectly normal vote – might represent an identifiable step across a clear threshold on the path toward authoritarianism, and the ruination of American democracy.

The answer that emerges through conversations with experts in the history of fascism is that rhetoric is indeed powerful, particularly from the president, and must not be ignored; but since the authoritarian style of leadership relies on intimidation and fear, there is a danger of overreaction.

Trump’s recent attempts to undermine the election results in Arizona and Florida served two purposes, said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University specializing in fascism. The president was testing his ability to corrupt the results of the election, she said, but also pursuing “an authoritarian attempt to make our reality uncertain”.

“The authoritarian wants us to lose our faith in our ears and our eyes, what we read and what we observe, so that we can be more dependent on him,” Ben-Ghiat said. “‘Reality is what I say it is.

“So it’s very, very dangerous that he is doing this with regard to the biggest index of democracy, which is free and fair elections.”

In his book How Fascism Works: the Politics of Us and Them, Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University, describes how fascist movements typically rely on a myth of rural purity in contrast with urban depravity – a divide that appears to be deepening in Trump’s America, as richly demonstrated by the midterms, Stanley pointed out.

“The president is tripling down on a very frightening politics that creates a rural-urban split, that takes honest voters in rural areas and gives them a kind of panic and fear over nonexistent threats,” Stanley said, noting that Trump largely stopped talking about the “invasion” of the migrant “caravan” as soon as the election was over.

“That’s scary because it’s hard to roll back. What’s he’s doing is he’s creating ever-more-dedicated supporters. And he’s giving them a kind of existential dread of otherness.”

David Neiwert, a correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center whose most recent book is about the “rise of the radical right in the age of Trump”, said Trump’s authoritarian impulses were on full display in the post-election news conference at which CNN reporter Jim Acosta confronted the president only to have his press credentials revoked.

“A trademark of his tenure,” Neiwert tweeted, has been for Trump “to assert that his version of reality is the only legitimate one, and that all others are ‘fake’… He uses the gap as a wedge to drive his followers closer.”

In a point that has been forcefully made by the Lawfare editor-in-chief, Benjamin Wittes, and others, Neiwert pointed out that Trump cultivates “chaos by design … following the pattern set by authoritarians throughout history – using the turmoil to create so much uncertainty that his rigid positions eventually come to define the general consensus.”

The list of Trump’s recent perceived infractions against the wellbeing of liberal democracy in the United States is long. Before the midterm elections he held a series of snarling rallies in which he sought to villainize and dehumanize the political opposition with lines like “radical Democrats want to plunge our country into a nightmare of gridlock, poverty and chaos, you know that. They want to impose socialism on our country, turn us into another Venezuela, throw your borders wide open to deadly drugs and ruthless gangs.”

When those Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives, Trump warned of a “warlike posture” if he was investigated, then replaced the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, with the former US attorney Matt Whitaker, who had advertised his partisan devotion to Trump and Trumpism on cable television in hopes of landing an administration job.

Challenged by the press on the move, Trump attacked, telling CNN’s Abby Phillip it was a “stupid question” and turning on her personally: “you ask a lot of stupid questions”. That was a day after he sneeringly accused a second African American reporter of asking “a racist question” at a news conference, in which he made a show of berating reporter after reporter.

“Authoritarian-minded rulers want us to feel that their power is unstoppable – that they are unbreachable, they are strong – they are intimidating, they want us to be intimidated,” said Ben-Ghiat. “And they also want us to feel that their triumph is irreversible.”

But Ben-Ghiat said that stress fractures were visible in Trump’s public persona, especially following the midterms.

“What happens is that they crack under pressure, because these quote ‘strongmen’ are actually very weak and brittle people,” she said.

“For example, he’s been threatening the press forever, he’s been threatening to take their access away, but he actually did it, and he did it to the reporter who’s been the chief person who stood up to him the most.

“The fact that he went one step further right now tells you about his psyche.”

Stanley, whose parents both arrived in the US as refugees, his mother from eastern Poland and his father from Berlin, pointed out that Trump’s “core personal ideology” fits the fascist template. “Fascism is based around loyalty – loyalty to nation, loyalty to your friends,” Stanley said. “On power, as opposed to truth.”

The rejections of Trump in the midterm elections, Ben-Ghiat said, amounted to the strongest kind of counterargument to Trump’s assertion of incontestable power.

“We have to look carefully at these indexes of authoritarianism that are more and more in our face, but we also cannot give up the fact, the belief, that our actions matter,” Ben-Ghiat said.

“Because when we believe that it’s not worth voting, which is what Trump is trying to subtly or not-so-subtly have us believe, then we give up. And authoritarians want us to be hopeless, to be depoliticized and to feel it’s not worth our while to even try.”