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Do Republicans want authoritarianism or do they just want Trump?

Supporters of former President Donald Trump wear his campaign hats while he gives remarks at the South Texas International airport on November 19, 2023 in Edinburg, Texas. (Photo by Michael Gonzalez/Getty Images)

Could President Ron DeSantis persuade grassroots Republicans to support overturning an election that he lost?

Lay aside whether he’d be willing to stoop to such a thing. Imagine that he, not Donald Trump, had lost the 2020 race to Joe Biden and tried running the same “Stop the Steal” playbook. Do we think that episode would have ended the same way, with moon-eyed goons punching cops outside the Capitol on January 6 in hopes of breaking in and halting the count?

I do not.

Let’s try another hypothetical. Trump wins reelection next fall and returns to the White House triumphant in 2025. But instead of taking “retribution” on his enemies, he surprises everyone by governing more or less like a Paul Ryan Republican. Not entirely—there’ll be a crackdown on the border in any Trump 2.0 scenario, however fanciful—but all of the nonsense about defeating the “deep state” and rooting out “vermin” goes out the window, possibly due to sheer laziness. Would most Republican voters consider a second term like that to be a grave disappointment relative to what Trump had promised them as a candidate?

I doubt it.

As regular readers of this newsletter know, I typically take it as a given that the Republican Party has become an authoritarian movement. If that’s so, how can it be that the party’s voters would be satisfied with a non-authoritarian Trump and lukewarm toward an aggressively authoritarian DeSantis? Am I wrong about how right-wingers would react in the hypotheticals I’ve sketched—or are they less dogmatically authoritarian than we (well, I) tend to assume?

Forget the hypotheticals. Consider two real-world examples.

At Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, we were treated to the spectacle of Ron DeSantis, of all people, complaining about leaders abusing state power to discourage dissent.

Six weeks before that, Vivek Ramaswamy took DeSantis to task publicly for, er, abusing state power to discourage dissent.

DeSantis and Ramaswamy are the closest thing in the race to post-liberal ideologues. (Trump is many things but an ideologue he is not.) If anyone could be expected to defend policies designed to silence malefactors, it’s them. Yet here they each were doing the opposite, doubtless expecting to be rewarded for it by the Republican voters they’re wooing. Why would they do that if those voters are as post-liberal in principle as I often suggest?

Is the American right truly becoming more authoritarian or is it just enthralled by Trump?

The answer, of course, is yes.

The Republican base has a qualitatively different relationship with Trump than with what we might call “lesser authoritarians,” insofar as he has permission from them to be both more and less illiberal in his policies than anyone else does.

Trump can threaten his political enemies with government retaliation, speculate about suspending the Constitution, chatter about using the Insurrection Act in his second term, and get indicted for upward of 100 felonies, all with impunity in polling. And with impunity among his opponents too: The indignation evinced by DeSantis and Ramaswamy in the clips above reliably deserts them whenever Trump floats an idea that’s plainly nuttier and more draconian than forcing online commenters to post under their real names. They’re free to scold each other for being illiberal, but not him.

On the other hand, Trump is also the guy who signed a Romney-esque tax cut into law in his first term, provided arms to Ukraine to fend off Russia in the Donbas, bombed Syria to punish Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons, and has taken to dismissing Florida’s six-week abortion ban as a “terrible mistake.” Lately, he happily accepted the endorsement of a member of Black Lives Matter. Any other Republican with a track record like that would be annihilated onstage by DeSantis and Ramaswamy as a traitor to populism. Instead, Trump leads nationally by almost 50 points. That shouldn’t be possible in a party that’s serious about authoritarianism. 

A party that’s serious about authoritarianism would also be better at actually electing authoritarians, one would think.

Kari Lake lost last year in Arizona. So did Blake Masters. Doug Mastriano got crushed in Pennsylvania. The closest thing the post-liberal right had to a success story in the midterm was J.D. Vance, who settled for a 7-point victory in the same state that propelled establishment Republican Mike DeWine to a 25-point landslide. It’s a truism at this point that Republican enthusiasm wanes whenever Trump himself isn’t on the ballot; why should that be the case if it’s ideology, not his persona, that primarily motivates the right?

Granted, the fact that Lake, Masters, Mastriano, and Vance each won their primaries is circumstantial evidence that Republican voters do have an appetite for authoritarianism on the merits. But Lake, Masters, Mastriano, and Vance were also endorsed by Trump, which only brings us back to the question I posed above. Are Republicans voting for post-liberalism or are they just voting for whatever their leader wants?

How do we explain the fact that celebrity RINO Mehmet Oz, another candidate endorsed by Trump, prevailed in Pennsylvania’s Senate primary over both Dave McCormick and populist firebreather Kathy Barnette? In a party that was truly authoritarian, Barnette should have had an easy time of it. Instead Trump got his way, as usual.

The ultimate proof that authoritarianism without Trump doesn’t appeal much to Republican voters is the fate of Ron DeSantis 2024. DeSantis’ presidential bid was practically a laboratory experiment in what would happen if a candidate dialed Trump’s charisma waaaay down and dialed his post-liberalism waaaay up. Could a much younger, much smarter rival usurp the king by pushing the populist envelope in ways Trump himself didn’t do while president, building out an entire policy agenda around that strategy?

You know the answer. You’ve seen the polls. The experiment is over. Insofar as Vivek Ramaswamy 2024 was an experiment in the same vein, except with the crazy dial turned waaaay up, that experiment has also been over for a while.

And really, those results aren’t very surprising.

Most people aren’t ideological, after all. They may have strong preferences about discrete issues, like securing the border, but to many voters the philosophical conflicts between classical liberalism and post-liberalism must be as gassy as asking how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Modern Republicans in particular have been conditioned for years by right-wing infotainment to prize pugnacity and personality in their heroes over ideological purity or serious governing chops, giving a talented performer like Trump with all the right enemies an insuperable advantage.

By and large, I suspect, right-wingers want a leader who’ll stand fast behind his agenda despite leftist resistance, who’ll expose the flaws in leftism aggressively and unapologetically from his pulpit, and who’ll keep them entertained in the process. They don’t demand gulags. They’re not capital-A Authoritarians.

But they are, it seems to me, increasingly lowercase-A authoritarians. They don’t demand gulags—but if a leader whom they’ve grown to idolize volunteered to build some, only a fool would expect them to put up much of a fuss about it.

Lowercase-A authoritarians are dangerous.

It’s the lowercase-A authoritarians who separate successful authoritarian movements from less successful ones. Every such movement has a charismatic strongman at its center surrounded by a phalanx of fanatic capital-A Authoritarian apparatchiks, but it can’t break big until that nucleus has convinced some critical mass of the population that its program is the least bad option available.

The more desperate a nation’s outlook becomes, the more plausible it is that that critical mass of lowercase-A authoritarians who are willing to entertain dramatic change will materialize. They’re not ideologues—again, most people aren’t—but they’ve reached a point of such exasperation that they’ll give ideologues a try. Many, either not knowing or caring much about civics, might not even perceive a meaningful difference between the ideologues and the regime that preceded them.

They’re not pro-gulag. They’re “Whatever works. Just fix it.”

In 2023, we have the strongman. We have the phalanx of fanatic apparatchiks. And we have a right-wing media industry devoted on the one hand to catastrophizing America’s problems relentlessly, in order to create the requisite sense of national crisis among its audience, and on the other to dismissing complaints about populist misconduct on “whataboutist” grounds, the better to weaken the audience’s sense of what’s truly politically “normal.”

It bears repeating: The capital-A Authoritarians may be pro-gulag, but the lowercase-A authoritarians are not. The latter group remains sufficiently non-ideological, in fact, that pushing too hard too soon on radical schemes would risk spooking them about what they’re being asked to empower. No wonder that figures on Fox News have repeatedly sought to reassure viewers lately that fears of autocracy in Trump’s second term are overblown, never mind the obvious evidence that they aren’t.

Tell Republican voters that Team Trump wants to start throwing reporters in jail and some—emphasis: some, not all or even most—will squirm. They might not vote for a program like that; having spent most of their lives developing a healthy contempt for autocracy abroad, they might even feel embarrassed by it. Assure them that everything will be fine before the big vote, though, and then start throwing journalists in jail afterward …

… and they’re likely to shrug and rationalize it. They committed to a program of trying “whatever works,” didn’t they? Maybe intimidating the media will work. When, not if, Trump defies a court ruling in a second term, maybe that’ll work. When he declares that it’ll be too dangerous for America if he were to leave office on schedule in January 2029, that too might work.

A lowercase-A authoritarian who trusts that he has the country’s best interests at heart and that his enemies don’t will feel obliged to support Trump. Especially if they’re one of the many, many, many Americans who haven’t given things like “enumerated powers” or “judicial review” a second thought since eighth grade.

I know otherwise decent people whom I’m reasonably sure would side with Trump on persecuting “traitorous” journalists, not because those people are committed to it as a tactic but because they just won’t be roused to defend their political enemies for the sake of a principle. All a lowercase-A authoritarian really needs to do to support the team is to shrug as required, and Republicans have had lots of practice at that since 2016.

Various polls reflect the sense of crisis that Trump and his propagandists in right-wing media have cultivated to justify authoritarianism. One survey published earlier this year found 48 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement, “Because things have gotten so far off-track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.” Only 29 percent of Democrats agreed by comparison. Another poll taken last year found that a strong majority of Republicans still don’t believe Joe Biden’s 2020 victory was legitimate. And every day of primary polling for the past seven months has confirmed and reconfirmed that Republican voters don’t regard an honest-to-god coup attempt and subsequent impeachment as disqualifying in a presidential nominee. To the contrary.

No wonder, then, that the clips I posted earlier of DeSantis and Ramaswamy appearing to criticize their opponents for behaving illiberally are more properly understood as illiberal critiques themselves.

DeSantis’ objection to banning anonymous posts online has nothing to do with free speech, of which he’s no great fan, and everything to do with pandering as usual to populists. Alt-righters, anti-vaxxers, and post-liberals various and sundry are the groups most likely to face reprisals professionally if forced to put their names on their message-board musings. By scolding Nikki Haley with sonorous references to The Federalist Papers, DeSantis is merely trying to show those groups that he’s on their side. As usual.

Ramaswamy’s defense of pro-Palestinian groups on campus is in the same vein. He routinely insists that he supports Israel, but he and Tucker Carlson got together not long ago to worry about the IDF’s incursion in Gaza touching off World War III. During an address to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Vivek warned that “‘Destroy Hamas’ is not on its own a viable or coherent strategy.” There’s a small but influential cohort of America-First-ers in right-wing media who have been testing how much criticism of Israel their audiences will tolerate; at least one very prominent member of that cohort has coincidentally also objected to conservative criticism of pro-Palestinian protesters.

It’s unlikely in the extreme that a demagogue as obnoxious as Ramaswamy cares sincerely about the state hassling student groups on campus. What he cares about is convincing the post-liberal vanguard of the New Right that he’s their champion in the race, so much so that he’s willing to take an anti-anti-Palestinian position that’s destined to offend the establishment pro-Israel consensus.

If the two post-liberal candidates in the race are resorting to classically liberal arguments only when it serves post-liberal priorities to do so, that’s a pretty strong clue that authoritarianism has gained a meaningful foothold on the right separate and apart from the cult of Trump.

Can an authoritarian movement last once it’s deprived of its strongman? That’s the important question in all this.

Eventually, the GOP will lose Trump. If Republican voters have learned to love authoritarianism on the merits, not just because that’s their leader’s preferred mode politically, we should expect the post-Trump future to be authoritarian as well.

But without Trump’s messianic magic to hold lowercase-A authoritarians in his thrall, without him insisting hour by hour that America is doomed unless he returns to power, it’s not clear that the right’s sense of existential crisis and deliverance can persist. If it fades, and if their vicarious sense of martyrdom through him fades along with it, does their appetite for authoritarianism fade too?

There are many millions of true conservatives disgracefully still participating in this rotten party because they believe that even the worst Republican is preferable to any Democrat. That logic has primed them to become lowercase-A authoritarians as Trump’s political needs require. But if populists struggle to rally behind a new champion once he’s gone, and if some charismatic new conservative emerges to lead the old guard, it’s conceivable that those conservative voters will revert to form.

All they need to do is somehow discard the belief, carefully nurtured every day by Republican leaders and their media, that traditional civic norms are more of an impediment to making America great again than an instrument of doing so. Get comfortable: It won’t happen soon.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.