Once the fire burns out and the fury subsides, what will chroniclers of our era make of this frenetic first year of America Under Trump?
Michael Wolff’s news-breaking and news-stretching bestseller has become the political book of the moment, depicting a White House torn by infighting and bereft of ideas. But it is at best a snapshot, already blurred and dated. Accounts such as “Let Trump Be Trump” by former campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie deliver insider details in a haze of 2016 MAGA nostalgia. Fortunately, other authors and analysts are looking past the news alerts and war stories to examine President Trump’s longer-term impact on the nation’s norms and governance — on American democracy itself.
One year ago, as Trump took the oath of office, dystopias scaled bestseller lists and fears of fascism and autocracy ran rampant. Such worst-case scenarios have not materialized, yet something is different. The principles, practices and guardrails of the U.S. system are being tested, manipulated, sometimes eroded.
In “It’s Even Worse Than You Think,” journalist David Cay Johnston diagnoses the Trump administration as a “kakistocracy,” or government by the least qualified and most venal among us. In “How Democracies Die,” political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warn that Trump follows the playbook of authoritarian leaders who “maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.” In “Trump’s First Year,” scholar Michael Nelson suggests that the president’s inexperience will render Trump painfully ineffective. And former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum sees a presidency bent not on the ideological deconstruction of the state but on its wreckage and exploitation — a system he calls “Trumpocracy.”
It is fitting that this president would get his own brand-name regime type, like another hotel.
Together, these books portray a leader whose norm-busting impulses are leavened only by incompetence and distraction. The risk of lasting damage to democratic traditions, the authors argue, is heightened by a complicit Republican Party. “Gullibly or cynically, resentfully or opportunistically, for lack of better information or for lack of a better alternative, a great party has slowly united to elevate one man into a position of almost absolute power over itself,” Frum writes.
The relentless pessimism running through these works is barely eased by the authors’ hope that Trump may prove so abhorrent that he propels America’s citizenry toward a more civic-minded future. It’s a comforting thought — if only they really seemed to believe it.
A recurring Year One debate among Trump watchers is whether there is a method behind the mayhem — the “hunt for Trump’s logic,” as Frum describes it. Surely this daybreak tweetstorm is a masterful distraction from the Russia investigation? The latest foul or racist language from the Oval Office a deft tactic to energize the base? That new attacks on the free press an insidious attempt to make us question everything?
Nelson, a senior fellow with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, is more inclined to see how Trump gets in his own way. Presidents usually experience declining influence (as the honeymoon ends) and improved effectiveness (as they learn the job), he explains. But Trump’s lack of preparation, his “brutalistic campaign,” his petty tweeting and his inability to attract top talent all make him an exception. There was no honeymoon and precious little on-the-job training for a president who does not care to learn what he does not know. Even Trump’s supposed dealmaking was unsuited to his new gig. The presidency “is not an entry-level government job,” Nelson writes, with a taste for understatement. “The challenges of administrative management are different in government than in the business world, especially the sort of personal operation that Trump was able to micromanage with a handful of family members and loyal retainers.”
Johnston, whose book dwells on the president’s appointments, budget proposals and bureaucratic maneuvers, sees patterns amid the chaos. The candidate promised so much — to bring back jobs, renew the nation’s infrastructure, negotiate better deals — yet the president, Johnston writes, has delivered mainly for himself. He highlights the symbolism of Trump stopping the inaugural motorcade to stroll in front of the new Trump International Hotel, “an official sign that no boundaries would be drawn between presidential duties and personal profits.” A longtime Trump critic who last year revealed portions of the president’s 2005 tax return, Johnston also blasts Trump’s proposed corporate tax cuts (the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act had not yet passed when the book was completed) and highlights efforts to eviscerate the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and other supposed redoubts of the “deep state.” “Trump is among the beneficiaries of modern America’s silent plutocratic system of redistribution upward,” Johnston concludes, and he is governing accordingly. The president’s unwillingness to disclose his tax information and his indifference to conflict-of-interest and nepotism standards lend credence to this interpretation.
But determining whether Trump follows a plan or just his own worst instincts may be secondary to understanding what this mix yields. Levitsky and Ziblatt, government professors at Harvard University, have studied democratic breakdowns from Venezuela to Turkey, and they point to four signs that elected leaders are veering toward authoritarianism: when they reject the democratic rules of the game, deny the legitimacy of their opponents, tolerate or encourage political violence, or indicate willingness to undermine their rivals’ civil liberties.
Even before his inauguration, Trump went four for four. He questioned the electoral process and threatened to disregard the results. He falsely contended that President Barack Obama was not a natural-born U.S. citizen. He encouraged his supporters to rough up protesters. He promised to strengthen libel laws and jail his Democratic opponent. And during his first year as president, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, “Trump exhibited clear authoritarian instincts” as he tried to ensure the loyalty of those investigating him, scaled up his rhetoric against the news media and sought to tilt the playing field with an advisory commission on electoral integrity.
On many fronts, Trump failed. The Russia investigation goes on. Journalists continue to hold his administration accountable, even if Congress does not. The electoral integrity commission — focused on nonexistent voter fraud — was disbanded. “The president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write. “Trump repeatedly scraped up against the guardrails, like a reckless driver, but he did not break through them. . . . We did not cross the line into authoritarianism.”
But to surmise, as the Wall Street Journal editorial page did this month, that the absence of a “fascist coup” in Washington means that concerns about democracy are overblown is facile. Would-be autocrats often exploit armed conflicts or terrorist actions to lash out against opponents and restrict domestic freedoms, and Levitsky and Ziblatt view that possibility under Trump as “the greatest danger facing American democracy today.” This scenario is particularly fraught under a president who has preemptively blamed judges for future terrorist attacks and a White House that has demanded deference to the retired military officers in top positions.
Levitsky and Ziblatt also warn that the president’s indifference to truth threatens the foundations of American democracy — “without credible information about what our elected leaders do, we cannot effectively exercise our right to vote,” they assert — and point to Trump’s constant undermining of two tacit norms supporting the U.S. constitutional system: mutual toleration and forbearance. The former requires rival political parties to accept one another as legitimate opponents rather than sworn enemies; the latter means politicians should stop short of always exercising their full powers and prerogatives. Such unwritten rules have been challenged before (recall Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme and the excesses of Watergate), but Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t assume that the system will always hold. “Even if Donald Trump does not break the hard guardrails of our constitutional democracy,” they write, “he has increased the likelihood that a future president will.”
Especially so when one of the two major political parties abdicates its role as a gatekeeper of democracy.
These initial assessments of the Trump presidency focus not just on the man in the White House but on his enablers within the GOP. “Once in office, it was not his own cunning that enabled him to defy long-established standards of decent behavior,” Frum writes. “It was the complicity of his allies among the conservative and Republican political, media, and financial elite.” Future historians of the Republican Party will ask one question: Why?
Some of the faithful convinced themselves that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be so catastrophic that Trump was worth the risk. (This is the “Flight 93 Election” argument.) Levitsky and Ziblatt offer a more mundane rationale: Republican leaders thought they could control Trump once he was in office, and they saw enough overlap in their agendas — what sociologist Ivan Ermakoff calls “ideological collusion” — that supporting Trump became desirable.
Historically, political parties have filtered out fringe figures from reaching high office. But long before Trump announced his presidential bid, right-wing media and outside interest groups hollowed out the GOP establishment, leaving it more susceptible to a Trump-like candidate — one who understood that conservative verities no longer swayed a voting base thirsty for transgression. The president, Frum writes, “left a moral void where American conservatism used to be.”
The Republican Party needs to be reformed, perhaps even refounded, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, but they are not optimistic. “Under President Trump, America has been defining political deviancy down,” they contend. “Unwilling to pay the political price of breaking with their own president, Republicans find themselves with little alternative but to constantly redefine what is and isn’t tolerable.”
Part of that redefinition has been Republican denialism about Russian interference in the 2016 race. Trump can declare “no collusion” with every breath, but these authors are hardly convinced. Johnston warns that Trump’s potential use of presidential pardons could hamper the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, while Frum smells the “odor of treason” hanging about the presidency — but not exclusively so. “A president beholden to Russia had been installed in the Oval Office: the most successful foreign espionage attempt against the United States in the nation’s history,” Frum writes. “And from beginning to end, the president’s political party rallied to protect him — and itself — from investigation, exposure, and consequences.”
Mueller’s investigation of the Kremlin’s role in the U.S. presidential race represents another potential trigger for the president’s anti-democratic impulses. As for the long-running political collusion between Trump and the Republican Party, the evidence is easier to find.
It may seem early to draw long-term conclusions about this presidency, and new books and investigations will inevitably deliver further revelations. (I’m counting on the May memoir by former FBI director James B. Comey to make “Fire and Fury” seem like a bedtime story.) Yet there is a case for these initial appraisals. “If it’s potentially embarrassing to speak too soon, it can also be dangerous to wait too long,” Frum, one of the conservative movement’s original Never Trumpers, argues in his introduction. And holding out longer may not improve matters. Levitsky and Ziblatt note that democratic backsliding often occurs in the latter years of a duly elected presidency. “People do not immediately realize what is happening,” they explain. “Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.”
So what are we living under? Trump’s rhetoric is populist and nativist, his urges autocratic, his policies plutocratic, his mandate democratic. He contains multitudes. “Trumpocracy” fits.
These books may prove gloomiest when they try to offer good cheer. Nelson takes heart in a resistance movement that seeks to counter a “directionless and unrestrained” president. Johnston, briefly attempting to sympathize with Trump supporters, writes that “denial is a powerful human emotion and this mass reaction is understandable among those beaten down by nearly four decades of government policies that stealthily take from the many to enrich the few.” Levitsky and Ziblatt assure that a future of white nationalism isn’t likely — “but it also isn’t inconceivable.” Frum suggests that Trump may renew Americans’ appreciation for truth and recalls President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to bind together a divided people. “Perhaps the very darkness of the Trump experience can summon the nation to its senses and jolt Americans to a new politics of commonality,” he writes.
Yes, it may be that Trumpocracy overreaches so far that it snaps back on itself, that someday this all will be a bizarre interlude in our history books. But the authors are more persuasive when arguing that Trumpocracy’s legacy will far outlast its namesake. Before America can find those better angels, it must fully reckon with its demons. These works offer only a start.