Still thinking about Charles C.W. Cooke’s piece in NRO, You Don’t Have to Think Trump is an Authoritarian to Worry about His Presidency. In it he argues (I think) both that we shouldn’t take Liberty for granted and that we shouldn’t over-react. “American history is littered with presidents who trampled on the Constitution. None of them were Mussolini-style tyrants.”
I knew some of that presidential history from but not all.
My opposition to Trump was never predicated upon the fear that he was likely to become an “authoritarian” who might preside over the end of the republic, nor was that prognostication necessary for me to consider myself “anti-Trump.” Rather, I was concerned that Trump lacks character and knowledge; that he is a habitual liar; that he has an embarrassing tendency to lash out verbally at anyone he dislikes; and that, on balance, he might end up ruining the party he was conscripted to lead. In describing him, I used the word “authoritarian” on more than one occasion, but my intent in so doing was to warn against Trump’s approach, not to hype the likelihood of his rendering America a tyranny. I was, and remain, infinitely more worried about ignorance than about autocracy; about incompetence than about five-year-plans; and about corruption than about the midnight knock on the door. I fear, that is, that Trump is Roderick Spode, rather than any of the dictators Spode was drawn up to lampoon. As I have argued since I arrived in this country, the American system is ingeniously designed and remarkably robust, and the culture is strong enough to withstand a bad man. In parchment, Madison lives.
Last’s claim that “since the Civil War, the chances of authoritarianism manifesting in America has been roughly 0.0000 percent” is, frankly, an astonishing one. Let us leave aside for now that, in Jim Crow, America did indeed host a monstrous tyranny within its borders for nearly a century after the Civil War, and focus instead on the role that presidents have played in guiding the U.S. toward authoritarianism. Can it be said with a straight face that the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt presented a “roughly 0.0000 percent” chance “of authoritarianism manifesting in America”? Throughout his life, Wilson was openly hostile to the Constitution, had nothing but loathing for the separation of powers, described as “nonsense” the “inalienable rights of the individual,” and submitted that the United States should move “beyond the Declaration of Independence.” Predictably, these instincts followed him to Washington. As president, he championed the Espionage and Sedition Acts (under which it was a crime to criticize America’s efforts in World War I, to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” against the federal government, and to mail opinions critical of the state through the U.S. Postal Service); had tens of thousands of Americans arrested and prosecuted — including after the war (see: Palmer Raids); and, in 1915, uttered these incredible words during his State of the Union address:
I am sorry to say that the gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue. Their number is not great as compared with the whole number of those sturdy hosts by which our nation has been enriched in recent generations out of virile foreign stock; but it is great enough to have brought deep disgrace upon us and to have made it necessary that we should promptly make use of processes of law by which we may be purged of their corrupt distempers.
Wilson also took it upon himself to re-segregate Washington, D.C., thereby reversing one of the few civil-rights victories of the post-bellum world.
Franklin Roosevelt was no stranger to authority, either. On speech, he was better than Wilson, but elsewhere he exhibited many of the same instincts as the 20th-president, among them a chronic disregard for institutional norms; a dangerous hostility toward the courts; a reflexive disdain for Congress; a willingness to use the government to go after his enemies; and, worst of all, an admiration for foreign despots. That much of what Roosevelt did was popular is neither here nor there; properly understood, authoritarianism is structural, not substantive. Indeed, as David Frum warns in the essay Last cites, “many of the worst and most subversive things Trump will do will be highly popular.”
I do not bring this up to score points against the past, nor because I have any great desire to defend Trump preemptively. Rather, I mention it because I believe strongly that we cannot understand where we are if we do not know where we’ve been, and because I don’t think that Last’s model gives us “anti-Trumpers” a solid grasp of where we’ve been. Writing in response to Frum, The Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch conceded the following:
For this article, I set out to develop a list of telltales that the president is endangering the Constitution and threatening democracy. I failed. In fact, I concluded that there can be no such list, because many of the worrisome things that an antidemocratic president might do look just like things that other presidents have done. Use presidential power to bully corporations? Truman and Kennedy did that. Distort or exaggerate facts to initiate or escalate a war? Johnson and George W. Bush did that. Lie point-blank to the public? Eisenhower did that. Defy orders from the Supreme Court? Lincoln did that. Suspend habeas corpus? Lincoln did that, too. Spy on American activists? Kennedy and Johnson did that. Start wars at will, without congressional approval? Truman did that. Censor “disloyal” speech and fire “disloyal” civil servants? Wilson did that. Incarcerate U.S. citizens of foreign extraction? Franklin D. Roosevelt did that. Use shady schemes to circumvent congressional strictures? Reagan did that. Preempt Justice Department prosecutors? Obama did that. Assert sweeping powers to lock people up without trial or judicial review? George W. Bush did that. Declare an open-ended national emergency? Bush did that, and Obama continued it. Use regulatory authority aggressively and, according to the courts, sometimes illegally? Obama did that. Kill a U.S. citizen abroad? Obama did that, too. Grant favors to political friends, and make mischief for political enemies? All presidents do that.
Depending on our politics, we will weight these transgressions differently.