I’m a bit late to the party but Ross Douthat is really, truly, deeply brilliant on Trump. In a recent NYT column, he says almost everything I have felt, but have not quite found the words to express. The upshot:
…if this chapter [in our national history] is a prelude to an authoritarian future, that future has clearly not yet arrived. Trump is a dictator on Twitter, a Dear Leader in his own mind, but in the real world there is no Trumpocracy because Trump cannot even rule himself. And while real tragedy may arrive eventually, in this historical cycle a dismal sort of farce is what comes first.
It’s very clear why Trump is an international embarrassment and a national disgrace. His presidency is a daily exercise in civic humiliation from which the dignity and trust in our most sacred institutions may never recover. However, what it is not — at least unto itself — is an authoritarian threat to democratic rule. Indeed, it is not a threat precisely because it is a humiliation.
It’s tempting to believe that all bad things go together. That evil in in all its forms cut from a single cloth. Few things could be further from the truth. Evil in any meaningful sense is not anti-good. It is orthogonal to the good. Evil must, at least in some facet, seek a goal irrespective of its impact on the good. To take a brief, perhaps Petersonian detour, totalitarianism was evil not because it sought to kill a bunch of people and effectively enslave the rest.
No; totalitarians, by and large, sought to bring forth the utopia. It is that in their pursuit they were indifferent to the killing of millions that unleashed horrors upon the earth. The Nazis seem different, and in some respects, it’s important to our national psyche to believe that they really did seek out explicitly to commit horrors. Those whose curiosity has the better of their judgment, however, might find a deeper dive nourishing.
Trump, on the other hand, is hyper-sensitive to not only the public, but to elite approval. He has no particular aims beyond self-glorification. Authoritarianism should be made of sterner stuff. That is not to say Trump won’t wreak havoc in pursuit of his personal goals. Simply, that he is more likely to publicly trash and insult the honor the national police, rather than turn them into an arm of the oval office.
Trump is venal and corrupt. However, corruption is the enemy of authoritarian dreams. Indeed, this is why authoritarians worth their salt move to purge corruption. What they need are devotees and true-believers, not sycophants and opportunists. Trump has few of the former and the latter in spades.