In his first week in office, Donald Trump has begun to inflict immense damage across a wide range of policy areas. He is starting to build the wall, ban refugees, and bar Muslim immigrants. He has cut billions of dollars in funding from U.N. agencies and green-lighted the Keystone XL pipeline. He has placed a freeze on government hiring and prohibited international NGOs that receive U.S. funding from doing so much as uttering the word abortion.
More damage is in the works. With encouragement from the White House, Congress is already preparing to gut Obamacare and slash taxes on the rich. Judges in Texas are hearing a challenge to marriage equality and governors from Missouri to New Hampshire may soon ratchet up restrictions on labor unions.
Trump has not yet ignored a court ruling or fired critical bureaucrats. He has not shuttered a newspaper or locked up a political opponent. Absurd as it may sound, I am grateful for that: There aren’t a lot of political blessings to go around these days, and we may as well count the ones we’ve got.
But even populists who ultimately grew into dictators—like Vladimir Putin in Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey—kept up democratic appearances during their first years in office. And while Trump hasn’t yet broken the law, he has continued to display disdain for basic democratic norms. There are real reasons to worry about whether we’ll get a fair chance to vote him out of office in 2020. Three of these strike me as especially concerning:
1. Lies, lies, and … alternative facts
It only took a few days to make clear just how committed the administration is to creating an alternative reality. All politicians try to make things appear a little more favorable to them than they really are. Many fudge or exaggerate or downplay facts to achieve this effect. But in the United States, there has traditionally been a strong political norm against blatant lying. Presidents have rarely told outright falsehoods or repeated them over and over even after they’ve been debunked.
The lies told by Donald Trump, Sean Spicer, and Kellyanne Conway mark the end of that tradition. Though he has never proffered evidence for the massive “VOTER FRAUD” he alleges, Trump is already promising to “strengthen up voting procedures” (itself a very worrying sign of things to come). Sean Spicer has already sacrificed his credibility by running interference for his boss’ boasts and falsehoods, waging an embarrassing war of words about how many people turned up for the inauguration. And in the process of defending all these shenanigans, Kellyanne Conway has coined a strikingly apt term for the administration’s efforts: It was, she said, merely providing “alternative facts.”
It’s worrying enough that Trump, Spicer, and Conway are conspiring to put those alternative facts at the center of American life for the next four years. What I find even more worrying is that they have also begun to make it difficult for the press to establish real ones. Since taking office, the administration has deleted important climate-related data from government servers; forbidden government agencies from speaking to reporters; refused to call on representatives of critical media organizations at press conferences; introduced a “Skype-seat” scheme that will make it easier for Trump to call exclusively on media outlets that are favorable to him; promised to cut funding for PBS; and had the president’s hired hype-men cheer for him during a speech at the CIA.
All in all, it is clear that the attempt to spread propaganda from the White House is already in full swing.
2. It’s jail time
One of my biggest worries about Trump’s presidency has always been that he might repurpose existing laws to stifle dissent. The most obvious area in which he has the power to do that is criminal justice: Existing laws allow the state to jail Americans for long prison terms based on minor infractions. Using that power selectively could prove a very dangerous tool in the hands of a would-be authoritarian.
The state did not take long to start experimenting with that power. Some of the protests against the inauguration turned violent, in part because they were infiltrated by anarchists using black bloc tactics. It’s perfectly appropriate that people who committed violent acts should be punished. But it is concerning that prosecutors have taken the highly unusual step of charging them with “felony rioting,” which could land them in prison for 10 years. It is even more concerning that most of the 230 people who were arrested were targeted not on the basis of their actions but merely on the basis of their presence at a protest that turned violent. Most concerning of all, at least six journalists covering the protests are facing the same disproportionate charges for the same flimsy reasons—something that is likely to “send a chilling message to journalists covering future protests.”
It is all the more striking that these charges were filed not by the federal government but rather by local authorities. I remain hopeful that some effective challenges to Trump’s agenda will come from courts, city halls, and governors’ mansions. But it now seems to me that, like the prosecutors in D.C. who are doing the administration’s bidding, just as many of them will engage in what Germans call vorauseilender Gehorsam, or anticipatory obedience.
3. We, Trump’s people
It’s been a long week. But the thing that still worries me the most happened right at the beginning as Donald Trump addressed the nation as president for the very first time: In his inaugural address, he subtly staked out an exclusionary conception of the American people—and then claimed an exclusive claim to speak on its behalf.
In the first minutes of his speech, Trump said that this victory “belongs to you.” At first blush, this sounds conciliatory. Exhortations of the people, and their right to rule, are a staple of American presidential rhetoric. But the sentiment wasn’t as generous as it first seemed. A big part of the speech was devoted to the people Trump does not consider a true part of the people. He remained vague about just who they are, speaking nebulously about “politicians,” “the establishment,” and a “small group in our nation’s capital.” But the anger against them was nonetheless the leitmotif of his speech: “Their victories,” he said, his voice rising, “have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs.”
It is in this context that the much-noted talk of “American carnage” takes on a truly sinister ring. Like all populist leaders, Trump claims that the only reason for the country’s problems is an inept or self-serving elite in cahoots with ethnic or religious minorities. Like all populist leaders, he believes that the solution to these problems would be very easy if only he could carry out the people’s will without being constrained by rival power centers. And like all populist leaders, this tempts him to encroach on their authority whenever possible.
So what, according to that logic, is the only solution to the carnage he sees all around him? Putting more power in the hands of Donald Trump, of course. And so it hardly comes as a surprise that, by Day 5 of his presidency, he was already threatening to send “the Feds” to cities whose mayors just so happen to be long-standing enemies of his.
If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible "carnage" going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 25, 2017
* * *
It’s too early to tell just how dangerous Trump’s presidency will prove to the American republic. It has always been clear that Trump has authoritarian instincts; over the last week, any remaining hope that the highest office in the land might check those instincts has been dashed. The potential for un-American carnage is great.
But unlike the most effective populists, such as Victor Orban in Hungary or Lech Kaczinsky in Poland, Trump is no ideologue. It’s not just that we outside observers can’t tell where he will ultimately take the country: My suspicion is that he himself does not yet have a clear vision of his destination either.
A lot thus depends on happenstance. Will the GOP continue to act as Trump’s enabler? Might a major crisis allow Trump to indulge in his most authoritarian instincts?
The difficulty of predicting what is about to happen is deeply disorienting, and I have felt adrift for most of the past week: calm and resolute at one moment, terrified the next. But that same uncertainty also means that the outcome is still up to us. The Constitution cannot defend itself. But—for now, at least—it still grants us all the power we need to come to its defense.