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Let’s Not Be Blasé About Trump’s Dictatorial Flirtations
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Let’s Not Be Blasé About Trump’s Dictatorial Flirtations

Even if Trump is too oafish to pull it off, there’s no denying he would be an autocrat if he could.

Former President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a campaign rally at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center on December 17, 2023, in Reno, Nevada. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Hey,

So, the “Will Trump Be a Dictator?” conversation is not going away any time soon.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious is that Trump cannot stop giving people fresh reasons to keep talking about it. Spewing garbage about immigrants poisoning America’s blood, calling violent convicted felons “hostages,” praising Putin, Xi, and Kim Jong Un, and of course promising to, in fact, be a “dictator” is bound to elicit some chatter. 

The second most obvious reason is that such chatter invites more chatter. The Biden camp is openly calling Trump a Hitler manqué, which invites his defenders—including various flavors of anti-anti-Trump types—to either defend him or denounce people who take Trump’s bait. Then Trump, seeing that people are talking about him and telling him what he shouldn’t say, responds by doubling down on his “poisoned blood” schtick and tosses in some comments on Mein Kampf

It’s great for cable news programming, but I’m not really into it.  

But there’s a third reason serious people are dealing with the “would he be a dictator?” question that’s kind of important: It’s an important question. Most of my friends at National Review, Commentary, and elsewhere have gotten sucked into the argument in no small part because they have an obligation to take the question seriously. After all, if your primary ideological mission is to defend the constitutional order and the American experiment, you can’t really ignore a debate like this. So I’m going to work through some of these issues—again—without calling out anyone by name. Suffice it to say, I’m responding to arguments or claims made entirely by people I respect and agree with in some ways but not others. 

First, as I keep saying, this doesn’t need to be a binary argument. If there’s a 10 percent chance Trump would be a dictator, that’s bad enough. Or, if there’s close to a 100 percent chance that he will move, or try to move, in a dictatorial direction without fully becoming an autocrat—a very, very plausible scenario—that can’t be ignored either. I mean, Congress is moving to protect the country from such maneuvers. That’s why it overhauled the Electoral Count Act and why it passed legislation to prevent a president from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO.  Serious conservatives are doing something similar by thinking through these arguments. Simply using this moment as an opportunity to shout “I know you are but what are we?” at Democrats doesn’t cut it (as this really weak Wall Street Journal op-ed did). 

While I agree with most of the analysis from my friends on this stuff, I’m not entirely on the same page. It’s fine to argue that the military and the civil service can be counted on to resist unconstitutional schemes and autocratic, unlawful orders. I think they’re generally right as a matter of analysis. But it’s appalling that this amounts to something like a quasi-defense of Donald Trump. It may be true that Trump is too lazy and oafish to pull off being a dictator, but this is a huge distraction from the underlying concession that if Trump had the skills to be a dictator, he would be one. As a philosophical matter, this is like saying, “Sure, so-and-so would be a serial killer if he had the skills, but he doesn’t—so don’t worry about hiring him to run the local grade school.” 

It also gives short shrift to the rogue’s gallery of switched-on zealots who very much would like to be the disciplined enablers or promoters of some kind of “Red Caesarism.” Some are already saying plainly that “America needs a dictator.” Trump is surrounding himself with sycophants who “know what time it is.” This isn’t given nearly the weight it deserves. Think of it this way. Virtually all of the serious conservatives who freely acknowledge Trump’s unfitness for office routinely concede that Trump’s best accomplishments were achieved thanks to the work of serious conservatives who constrained and channeled Trump’s instincts in productive ways. The tax cuts, the judicial appointments, the successful military and diplomatic efforts: All of these were realized with the active efforts of Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, John Kelly, William Barr, Pat Cipollone, John Bolton, Mike Pence, Mark Milley, et al. 

Well, guess what? Trump and his minions hate all of those people now. Not only do they want to keep all of these types out of a second Trump administration, they want them purged from the GOP and, in some cases, put on trial for treason. If you think Trump could be effective with the aid of these constitutional conservatives, you should at least take seriously that he could be effective with anti-constitutional right-wingers. This is just one of the many reasons why “he wasn’t a dictator in his first term, so there’s no need to worry about his second term” is such a weak argument. 

Heck, on Monday night, Trump called for Chip Roy to be primaried because he’s a “RINO.” Trump hates Roy because Roy has endorsed Ron DeSantis. That’s it. In other words, RINO now has nothing to do with any substantive issue. It’s now simply a label for disloyalty to Trump. This is a condo salesman version of the Führerprinzip. And given how many Republicans went along with Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 election and who make preposterous apologies for the January 6 mob, saying “relax, the party would never go along with dictatorial abuses of power in his second term” strikes me as dangerously blasé. 

But I want to deal with the objection I am most sympathetic to: the idea that Trump is too incompetent to be the kind of strongman he so clearly admires. 

For years, I subscribed to the view that while Trump clearly admired autocrats—an indisputable observation given his countless statements along these lines—he actually wanted to be mayor of America. All of his formative political experiences were in New York City, where ideological, legal, and constitutional questions were essentially issues of marketing. At the end of the day, you got what you wanted by greasing the right palms or fomenting popular outrage in the tabloids. But I think spending four years as president hobnobbing with potentates and despots has broadened his horizons. Plus, an additional three years of hanging out at Mar-a-Lago with sycophants, reading Truth Social and Twitter posts about how he’s a messianic figure, and watching critics forced to become supplicants or have their careers destroyed has moved his Overton window dramatically.

So while I don’t think it’s necessarily obvious that he wants to be a dictator, I certainly think it’s more likely than not. Does he want to be Hitler? Naw. Mussolini? Maybe. Some kind of Huey Long? Probably.  

So the question for me isn’t his motivation. Again, if you think there’s a reasonable argument that it’s even likely he wants to be a dictator, that’s serious enough. If I told you there was only a 20 percent chance a potential babysitter would abuse your kid, or that there was a 30 percent chance your accountant would steal all of your money, that would be a 100 percent good reason not to hire them.

The question is, could he pull it off? 

One of the most annoying tendencies of hyper-partisans is to zig-zag between two mutually contradictory criticisms of the president they hate: He’s both a genius super-villain and he’s a complete moron. 

I’m sure you’ve noticed this from time to time, and it long predates Trump. One minute a cable or radio host is insisting that President So-and-So is orchestrating a devious plan to siphon our bodily fluids, and the next minute the same president is supposed to be a dolt. For all I know this dichotomy started with FDR, who aroused charges of Bolshevism and boobism. Of course, Eisenhower, reviled by his critics as an out-of-touch befuddled oldster and—by the Birchers at least—a Communist Party agent, inspiring Russell Kirk to say, “Ike’s not a communist, he’s a golfer.” 

George W. Bush, according to his detractors, was both an idiot and the mastermind behind vast conspiracies at home and abroad. Ronald Reagan was an “amiable dunce” who’d blunder us into nuclear war. Or later, he was an addlepated oldster whose senility was going to dodder us into nuclear war. But many of the same people also claimed he was a brilliantly crazy zealot who was ingeniously maneuvering us into nuclear war. Barack Obama was a complicated case. The Dinesh D’Souza crowd was convinced he was a committed anti-colonial communist ideologue, but also that he was an intellectual dufus who didn’t know how to pronounce “corpsman” and bragged about campaigning in “57 states.” Don’t even get me started on Biden, who is often derided as a lifelong ignoramus, or a recently decompensated alter kocker, and the mandarin behind the “Biden Regime.”

Prior to Trump, my basic view was that it’s very difficult for either an ignoramus or an evil genius to become president of the United States. Politics is full of dolts and jerks, but a kind of political Peter Principle usually filters them out well before the presidency. This is partly because politics attracts certain personality types who are typically a mixture of various qualities—patriotism, dorkiness, earnestness, idealism, people pleasing, etc.—that don’t jibe well with real stupidity or super-villainy. Obviously, there are exceptions, but the exceptions display their idiocy and/or villainy before anyone serious says, “Let’s make this guy the leader of the free world.” That’s one of the beauties of our system. It offers lots of opportunities for people to reach their level of incompetence before they make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

My longstanding point about vanilla ice cream comes to mind. Very few people rank vanilla as their favorite flavor (11 percent  to be precise). And yet it’s the most popular flavor of ice cream in America. Why? Because it’s the least objectionable flavor to the most people. Our political system tends to push vanilla to the top because over time, the people who don’t like the other flavors form coalitions against the Mint Chocolate Chip monsters and Neapolitan deviants. Vivek Ramaswamy will never be president because he’s at best raspberry ice cream. One percent say raspberry is their favorite, 18 percent say they like it, and everyone else is like “get this sludge away from me.”

Anyway, for reasons very familiar to my readers, I think this system is breaking down (I’ll spare you all the “weak parties” and “politics as entertainment” mantras). Obama was early, partial, evidence of the change. The moment he was elected to the Senate, he started running for president. And while he had paid something like the traditional entrance fee for presidential politics—becoming a lawyer, getting elected to the Senate etc.— he really ran as a celebrity candidate. He was certainly treated like one by the press and Hollywood. 

One thing everyone can agree upon: Trump is not vanilla, and not just because he often takes an orange sherbet hue. 

The question I wrestle with is, “How much am I underestimating him?” Trump’s superfans have always had an answer to this: a lot. And given that he became president and is the presumptive GOP nominee, they have a point. But why? I think I have to be honest: Part of the reason is that I have an intellectual bias for people who know what they’re talking about. I tend to assume, for instance, that politicians who know how the Constitution or the government works are more serious, even smarter, than those who don’t. This assumption has generally served me well, because under the old system it was usually true. But Trump brings an entirely different skillset to the game. 

For all of the obvious reasons I’ve spelled out for the better part of a decade, it’s very difficult for me to assume that Trump is a disciplined, long-term thinker. By his own account, he goes by his instincts in the moment. But what if that’s a serviceable substitute for intellectual discipline? History is full of characters who were neither brilliant nor extremely knowledgeable, who nonetheless had great timing and charisma (in the Weberian sense). They also had pre-rational instincts for manipulating people. It’s increasingly clear that Trump has elements of the first two, and a lot of the third. 

For instance, his statement that he’d be a dictator on his first day—just so he could build a wall and drill for oil—seemed very ill-advised going by the normal rules. But it was also kind of brilliant. How so? Because it serves to acclimatize his fans to be comfortable with the idea of him being a dictator. We’ve seen this kind of thing many times. He takes a radioactive term, redefines it for his purposes, and then waits for his apologists to make peace with the new definition. “America First” was once associated with the isolationists who wanted to keep us out of World War II. Through a mixture of ignorance and brazenness he turned it into a marketing slogan for whatever he wanted to do. “Fake news” started as a term to describe literally fake news outlets in places like Albania that monetized B.S. Trump turned it into a term to describe any news outlet that reported on him and his actions unfavorably. 

It’s not just word games, either. Virtually every Republican condemned the January 6 riot in the days that followed, including to a certain extent Trump. But he’s managed to convince people that the crowds chanting “Hang Mike Pence” had good reason to be angry enough at Mike Pence to want to, you know, hang him. Schtupping porn stars, mishandling classified information, calling for the termination of the Constitution: He’s has a remarkable record of changing how millions of people think about morality, national security, and the Constitution—specifically in the party once associated with a professed bedrock commitment to morality, national security, and the Constitution. 

Just look at this year’s GOP debates. Everyone on the stage argues about policy and principle. That’s because they all—with the exception of Ramawamy—fit the old archetypes of American conservative politicians. Trump has a free pass to change his positions, lie about the positions of others, and grab phrases and ideas he doesn’t hold or even understand and use them as weapons against his opponents. 

Intelligence and knowledge as I normally define them doesn’t have a lot of relevance in this context. Psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists, can come up with ornate and accurate descriptions of what Trump has done and is doing, and Trump and his fans would hear academic gibberish. He just doesn’t think in that language and neither do they. It’s like some horse whisperer type who doesn’t understand the first thing about equine biology, but has preternatural grasp of how to get horses to do what he wants. 

And this is the thing that I don’t think my friends—almost all of whom concede that Trump is unfit for office—want to really grapple with. Rank-and-file Republicans and self-described conservatives are a huge part of the problem. Anyone can be a dictator or move the country in an autocratic direction if enough Americans are fine with letting him. Woodrow Wilson and FDR, to a lesser degree, proved that. Heck, Biden and Obama demonstrated that to a limited extent, as so many of us have noted, with his lawless executive orders. 

A key difference with Trump is that he lacks the hypocrisy of progressives who talk in the language of democracy while working against it in practice. He is trying to take the word “dictator” and put a saddle on it. Again, it’s fine to point out the abuses of progressives who want to break the shackles of the constitutional system for “the greater good.” I do that a lot. But rhetoric matters. It is the art of framing how we think about our ideals. When Democrats do such things, the proper response from conservatives and liberals committed to the Constitution is to say “that’s dictatorial” or “unconstitutional,” and then work very hard to persuade people who don’t want to hear such things. Trump’s approach—with the aid of his praetorians—is to leverage his bizarre hold on his fans into convincing them that our ideals themselves are wrong. He’s gotten away with a lot since he came down that escalator. And I don’t think one should be blasé about the possibility he could keep doing it if put back in power.   

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.