French railway crossings bear warning signs that writers of books about Donald Trump should heed. “One Train Can Hide Another” their neat enamel plaques declare. The risks of Trump-distraction are great, because the 45th president is such a spectacle—a tooting, puffing, brass-and-steam-whistle commotion liable to draw all gazes, all the time. But a narrow focus on the man risks a potentially grave mistake: paying too little attention to large, slow-rolling yet remorseless political forces that were in motion long before Mr Trump chugged into view.
Two new books about the president flirt with just such an accident. For they share the same distracting aim: to prove that Mr Trump has already shown himself to be a proto-despot.
The first, “Trumpocracy” by David Frum, devotes long pages to cataloguing alarming, deceitful and plain unseemly acts and statements by Mr Trump, his cronies and enablers. Mr Frum, a centrist conservative who worked as a White House speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has a crisp way with words. “A rule-of-law state can withstand a certain amount of official corruption. What it cannot withstand is a culture of impunity,” he observes at one point, as he reminds readers that Mr Trump is the first president since Gerald Ford not to release his tax returns in full, and the first ever to merge political and business interests so unblushingly. The clear prose style is just as well, for “Trumpocracy”, which draws heavily on quotes from published news reports, can resemble a first draft of articles of impeachment.
Grander, more didactic ambitions underpin a second book, “How Democracies Die”, by two Harvard professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The pair are experts on populism, demagoguery and autocracy, notably in Europe and Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their aim is to warn Americans, in particular, that their republic—for all its vaunted checks and balances—is not immune to the pathologies which, over the years, have infected and diseased other democracies.
Like Mr Frum, the professors correctly stress the importance of unwritten norms that buttress the formal protections that are set out in America’s constitution and legal codes. Independent courts and agencies like the FBI have done much to defend the rule of law, they note. But a surprisingly thin “tissue of convention”, according to Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, two constitutional scholars Mr Frum quotes, together with the courage of political leaders and members of Congress, are all that stand in the way of a bad president who is determined to pack courts with loyal judges, or to appoint crooks to run nominally independent agencies.
Mr Levitsky and Mr Ziblatt go beyond anxious scanning for danger. They declare that, on the evidence, Mr Trump has probably crossed the line from rough-around-the-edges populist to would-be strongman. Mr Frum considers what is already known about Russian meddling in the election of 2016, and bluntly concludes: “A president beholden to Russia had been installed in the Oval Office.”
The professors take a more scholarly approach. They offer a neat table, setting out “Four Key Indicators of Authoritarian Behaviour” to help readers decide whether Mr Trump is an autocrat. The table is enough to make Trump-sceptics leap from their armchairs in happy vindication. Under the first heading, “Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game”, readers find not just blatant dictator-conduct (backing military coups, cancelling elections) but a more subtle last test, “Do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example, by refusing to accept credible electoral results?” Mr Trump has repeatedly and falsely suggested that he would have beaten Hillary Clinton in a landslide, had millions not illegally voted. Then there are Mr Trump’s attacks on the press, and his snarling promises to tighten libel laws against what he calls “fake news”. Such statements trigger the professors’ fourth indicator: “Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media”.
Alas, these catalogues and checklists are more emotionally satisfying for Trump opponents (see, he is a tyrant, they can exclaim) than genuinely illuminating. Mr Trump says horrible, shameful things all too frequently. But he has not actually locked up opponents or sent thugs to smash printing presses. That makes for a puzzle. Is the president an autocrat, or does he just play one on TV? The puzzle is not solved by crafting pseudoscientific tests for autocracy that give equal weight to harsh words and malign acts.
Both books are at their strongest when examining how Mr Trump flouts norms with impunity. Both ascribe the president’s success to the similar insight that modern politics resembles a form of tribal warfare. What a leader does matters less than whom he is for, and above all, whom he is against.
For much of the 20th century, the professors write, politics worked because most practitioners subscribed to two vital norms. First, mutual tolerance, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate. Second, forbearance, or the idea that election-winners exercise some restraint when wielding power, rather than treating politics like war.
Not Mr Trump. Mr Frum describes the president in near-animal terms, as sniffing out his opponents’ weaknesses—“low energy”, “little”, “crooked”—in the same way that he instinctively sensed the weak point in modern politics: “that Americans resent each other’s differences more than they cherish their shared democracy”.
Neither book flinches from tracing the role that race, class, education and culture play in what are ostensibly political arguments. Mr Levitsky and Mr Ziblatt offer the troubling thought that the norms of civility and compromise seen in Washington between the end of Reconstruction and the 1980s rested, uncomfortably, on racial exclusion. Southern whites did such an effective job of disenfranchising freed slaves soon after the civil war that black turnout in South Carolina plunged from 96% in 1876 to 11% in 1898, as voting curbs bit. As a result, many southern states endured what amounted to decades of authoritarian single-party rule. As the professors bluntly put it: “It was only after 1965 that the United States fully democratised.” The parties have been sorting themselves along racial and class lines ever since.
Neither book blames all American ills on racism—they are more nuanced than that. But the authors of both do argue, in effect, that America has never tried to maintain democratic norms in a demos as diverse as today’s. Unless that can be fixed, it is a grave threat to the republic. Keep it in sight, even as the Trump Express flashes dangerously past.