'I Alone'

Trump's Dangerous Authoritarianism

For more than a year now, half the country and most of the media have responded to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign with a mixture of amusement, disgust, and morbid fascination. Obvious lies and juvenile insults that would have sunk any other candidate only seemed to help Trump. He mocked a disabled journalist and faulted a U.S. senator for having been a prisoner of war (“I like people who weren’t captured”). He called other candidates short or ugly and bragged about the size of his penis. He was, if anything, rather less statesmanlike than the version of himself he had played on his reality-TV show, The Apprentice. But the worse his behavior, the better he did in the polls. It was all quite a spectacle.

Now that he is the official nominee of the Republican Party and has pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in some polls, the fun is over. The most important fact about Donald Trump now is not that he is ridiculous or contemptible, but that he is dangerous. His character, inexperience, and complacent ignorance all disqualify him for the office he seeks. If elected, he would pose a threat to the country’s constitutional norms, as well as to its security.

The day before he accepted his party’s nomination in Cleveland, Trump gave an interview to the New York Times that alarmed leading members of his own party and American allies across the world. He told the Times that, as commander in chief, he might decline to honor Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires member countries to come to the aid of any other member under attack. Trump said he was prepared to tell countries that failed to reimburse the Unites States “reasonably” for the cost of protection, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.” Asked how this change of policy might affect national and international security, he answered, “How has [the current policy] helped us? We have massive trade deficits. I could see that, if instead of having a trade deficit worldwide of $800 billion, we had a trade positive of $100 billion, $200 billion, $800 billion. So how has it helped us?” This response should worry anyone who reads it. Trump appears to believe that the purpose of our defense commitments is to achieve trade benefits rather than to provide security. For him, everything is transactional, including war and peace, and an ally is nothing more than a client to be shaken down for cash.

A few days before this interview, members of Trump’s campaign succeeded in replacing a promise in the Republican platform to provide “lethal defensive weapons” to the Ukrainian military in its struggle against Russian-backed rebels with a vague commitment to offer “appropriate assistance.” This has been interpreted by foreign-policy analysts as one of several signs that Trump is unwilling to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has promised to “get along very well.” There is more to the Trump-Putin connection than the admiration of a would-be strongman for an actual strongman. Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign’s chairman and chief strategist, worked for years as a close adviser to the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who steered his country back into Moscow’s orbit before mass protests forced him from office. And Manafort isn’t alone: as Franklin Foer has reported in Slate, Trump’s campaign is “rife with financial ties to the Kremlin.” As Trump would say, something is going on here.

After watching Trump’s convention speech, Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess legend and political activist, remarked on Twitter, “I’ve heard this sort of speech a lot in the last fifteen years and trust me, it doesn’t sound any better in Russian.”

Indeed, the resemblance between Trump’s rhetoric and Putin’s is unnerving. There is the same naked appeal to fear and resentment, the same scapegoating of foreigners, the same preoccupation with national supremacy, and the same cult of personality. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” Trump told the crowd of adoring delegates, “which is why I alone can fix it.”

I alone. That is how Trump promises to govern: as an authoritarian who trusts his instincts and refuses to be bothered by Washington’s outdated constraints, otherwise known as checks and balances. And that is exactly what too many of his supporters seem to want. During Trump’s speech at the convention, as he shouted his way from one grandiose promise or ominous threat to another, the assembled delegates—whipped up into a braying mob—could be heard chanting “YES YOU CAN!” This is not what democracy looks like.

Published in the August 12, 2016 issue: 
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