n “Trump and the Conservative Cause,” Charles Kesler assures us that Donald Trump is “not a Caesar figure” because he lacks the “lust for mastery or domination.” Kesler later told the Weekly Standard that he doesn’t even see Trump as having an “authoritarian streak.”
Really? How else can we account for Trump criticizing Mikhail Gorbachev for not running the Soviet Union with a “firm enough hand,” and then praising the strength shown by Communist China in the Tiananmen Square massacre? More recently, he has made clear his admiration for Vladimir Putin, but equivocated about whether it would be immoral to assassinate journalists who criticize him. Instead, he cites Putin’s approval ratings—in a country that jails and murders dissidents—as evidence that he is a good leader. “Authoritarian” seems like a fair description of a candidate who disdains constitutional restraint, contemplates the forced registration of Americans based on religion, and plans a new federal “Deportation Force” to round up 11 million people from neighborhoods across the nation.
More evidence argues that Trump is less Cincinnatus than Caesar: his pointed refusal to denounce death threats on his behalf; naked hostility to the free press; gleeful incitement of political violence; and baleful warning of riots if his supporters didn’t get their way at the Republican convention. Just as alarming is Trump’s repeatedly-stated intent to order the killing of innocent civilians who are family members of terrorists. When challenged that the U.S. military is trained to refuse unlawful orders, such as this war crime, Trump replied: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. … When I say they’ll do as I tell them, they’ll do as I tell them.”
This openly declared desire to suborn the military into committing unlawful acts does not mean that Trump will launch a coup and declare himself dictator. Those instincts would, however, do irreparable harm to the republic’s political and moral order. With the vast power of the imperial presidency at his command, would Trump suddenly abandon his lifelong compulsion to intimidate, delegitimize, and ruin anyone who speaks out against him?
Another attribute of authoritarianism is contempt for an independent judiciary. Donald Trump is presently being investigated for running a fraudulent “university” that bilked ordinary Americans out of millions of dollars for real-estate seminars, which were sold on the basis of claims whose utter falsity he has already admitted. Trump has moved to get two resulting class-action lawsuits against him thrown out of court. When the judge denied the motions and allowed the cases to proceed, Trump attempted to disqualify him in the court of public opinion explicitly on grounds of race. Although this judge is an American citizen born in Indiana, Trump openly argued that his Mexican ancestry renders him too biased to fairly hear the cases. Can we expect that President Trump would dutifully submit to a court’s judgment that his actions were illegal or unconstitutional? Or is his conduct more consistent with that of a man who would manufacture some excuse to ignore any judge he disagrees with?
Some of Trump’s defenders insist that he’s just a showman saying provocative things to rile up his chanting crowds. Surely, they say, he doesn’t really mean a word of it. Kesler, for example, told the Weekly Standard that Trump merely expresses “a certain kind of bluster which is amateurish.” Yet explicit threats of authoritarian action are not just bluster. By nature, threats function regardless of one’s intent to carry them out. Society abhors them because they are a form of violence in their own right.
The Trump campaign has threatened future abuses of power, designed to intimidate the press into covering him more favorably. By publicly floating IRS and Justice Department retaliation against the Washington Post, he sent a message to journalists everywhere: don’t cross me, or I will take revenge when I’m in office. Even if Trump’s odds of success are low, the media must now take that outrageous threat into account when making its decisions about how to report on him.
Similarly, targeting numerous individual journalists has a chilling effect on critical reportage. Highlights of this shameful list include: slandering and then mocking the disability of Serge Kovaleski, who debunked Trump’s lies that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks; waging a malicious campaign of character assassination against Michelle Fields after she was manhandled by his campaign manager in a scrum; and refusing to condemn anti-Semitic death threats against Julia Ioffe after she wrote an unflattering profile of his wife Melania. Indeed, Melania excused the extremist Trump supporters who told Ioffe that she belonged in an oven or flayed into a lampshade: Ioffe had “provoked them.” It is now well understood among journalists that a critical article about Donald Trump will result in a storm of backlash from his followers—White Nationalist insults on Twitter, publicizing personal information, and phoned death threats. In some cases, this prompts people to avoid covering Trump altogether. This is unprecedented in modern American politics.
Knowing all this, we would be foolish to ignore Trump when he promises to “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists who write “purposely negative” articles. We would be foolish to ignore Trump consigliere Roger Stone’s suggestion that President Trump should strip CNN of its FCC license for unfavorable coverage. And we would be foolish to ignore Trump’s loud desire to prosecute and jail Hillary Clinton. Whatever the facts of Hillary’s email scandal, for her general election opponent to be publicly fantasizing about her imprisonment reeks of a banana republic caudillo or post-Soviet strongman.
Had this litany of threats and declarations come from Barack Obama, not Donald Trump, would we even hesitate to declare him an authoritarian? Clearly not. But if Kesler still earnestly sees all this as falling short of an authoritarian streak, he ought to tell us what line Trump must cross to earn that distinction. Professor Kesler: where is your Rubicon?