What Makes Trump an Autocrat?

The most dangerous thing about Trump is that he doesn’t see his power as belonging to the Office of the Presidency. It belongs to Donald J. Trump.


When used sloppily, the word autocrat is little more than an insult. An “autocrat” may simply be an executive who makes decisions you don’t like, one who acts on his own judgment rather than factoring in your point of view. The baseball GM who trades your team’s best pitcher is an autocrat. The boss who rejects all your suggestions is an autocrat.

But the sloppiness isn’t in the word itself; autocrat and autocracy really do have meanings that can be applied precisely. Calling a government an autocracy distinguishes it from a republic under the rule of law. Under the rule of law, powers belong to offices rather than individuals. The people who occupy those offices hold those powers in trust for the republic, and are constrained to use them to fulfill the missions the law assigns.

But in an autocracy, the distinction between person and office vanishes. The powers of an office belong to the person holding it, to use as that individual sees fit, including for financial or political benefit. Lower officials may or may not be disciplined by higher officials, but the law itself does not constrain them, and the highest official is accountable to no one.

Applying that word to the current administration has seemed like a stretch for most of the last 3 1/2 years. Sure, Trump has been cutting corners, subverting democratic norms, and fairly often even breaking laws, but life in the US just hasn’t felt like North Korea or Russia or Saudi Arabia. For the most part, it still doesn’t.

However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the non-autocratic feel of the United States has been due to Trump not getting everything he wants. He is, at heart, an autocrat. Those are the leaders he admires and the club he wants to join.

I am the State. In his heart, Trump has been an autocrat from the beginning. He has never understood or recognized the difference between his office and his person. That has been clear, for example, in the way he speaks and tweets. To him, speaking as President is no different than speaking as Donald Trump. His monologues flow easily from announcements of policy to expressions of petty resentments to grade-school insults against those who challenge him. While often hidden in the beginning, this attitude also has shown up in his behavior: Recently the public discovered that early in 2018, he tasked the Ambassador to the United Kingdom with bringing the British Open to the Trump Turnberry golf course. After all, why shouldn’t his ambassador drum up business for his golf course? He often has used his power as president to draw business to his hotels or his resorts.

His rhetoric equates threats to his personal future in politics with threats to the United States, in an I-am-the-State fashion. He has often described the Russia investigation — the attempt to discover just how involved the Trump campaign was in Russia’s effort to get him elected — as “treason” or a “coup“. His well-deserved impeachment, which flawlessly followed a process laid out in the Constitution, was likewise “treason” and a “coup“. The whistleblower who made Congress aware of his illegal attempt to extort political favors from Ukraine is “a spy”, and Trump strongly implied that he should be executed: “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.” Removing Trump from office, no matter how lawfully or justifiably, is equivalent to overthrowing the government of the United States.

In his book, James Comey tells the story of President Obama inviting him to have a conversation before nominating him to be FBI director. After the nomination, Obama tells him, they won’t be able to do this any more, because the President and the FBI director conversing outside of official channels would be improper. But Trump recognizes no such propriety. He regularly tweets out instructions for the Justice Department to investigate or lay off of people he either likes or doesn’t like. He has opinions as an individual, so why shouldn’t he express them as President?

The presidential power to pardon, more than any other power of the presidency, has been treated as a personal power to be used according to Trump’s whims and interests. All other recent administrations have made the pardoning power into a process centered on the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, usually with a few additional special cases (some of which were regrettable). But Trump has abandoned that process entirely; his pardons and commutations are pure expressions of personal favor granted to political allies, co-conspirators who might otherwise rat him out, criminals popular with his base, former contestants on his TV show, and friends of celebrities he wants to impress.

The original purpose of the pardoning power in a lawful republic, according to Alexander Hamilton, was to temper the justice system with mercy, so that it would not “wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel”. (Obama used his power this way, for example, when he commuted the excessively harsh sentences in hundreds of nonviolent drug cases.) But under Trump, the pardon has reverted to its royal roots: It is an expression of the sovereign’s personal beneficence, and puts the recipient in his debt, as Dinesh D’Souza clearly understands, as does Rod Blogojevich.

Adults in the room. The primary reason America hasn’t felt like an autocracy these last few years is that Trump’s efforts have not gone unopposed. The fundamental drama of the last 3 1/2 years has been the battle between Trump’s autocratic impulses and the republican values embedded in the United States government. (From the point of view of his supporters, who are rooting for the autocrat, this has been cast as a struggle against the “Deep State”.) Trump’s initial set of appointees had reputations and careers before they entered his administration, and many of them imagined that they were taking positions in a merely eccentric version of a typical Republican government. As a result, they frequently frustrated their boss’s desires.

  • Jeff Sessions may have been a racist and a xenophobe, but he also believed he was Attorney General of the United States. Power over the Justice Department belonged to Sessions’ office, not to him personally. And although the President had appointed him, his power did not derive from the person of Donald Trump. Sessions infuriated Trump by following Justice Department rules and recusing himself from the Russia investigation. He also ignored Trump’s repeated demands to launch investigations into “the other side”, i.e, Trump’s political opponents.
  • John Kelly and his deputy (and eventual replacement) Kirstjen Nielsen were anti-immigrant and went along with the cruel policy of family separations, but both saw the Department of Homeland Security as being defined by law. Nielsen was forced out after she refused to do “things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum”.
  • Rex Tillerson shared Trump’s pro-Russia views, had a basic hostility to the institutional culture of the State Department, and signed off on the second and third Muslim bans. But he believed he represented the United States rather than Trump, whom he regarded as a “moron“. Trump, Tillerson said later, hated to be reminded that his foreign policy was bound by laws and treaties. He “grew tired of me being the guy every day that told him, ‘You can’t do that, and let’s talk about what we can do’.”
  • Jim Mattis and H. R. McMaster enjoyed the large budgets Trump gave the Pentagon, but held traditional conservative views about America’s special role in global security. Their primary loyalty was to the longstanding mission of the Defense Department, not to Donald Trump. Consequently, they supported NATO and resisted abandoning allies like the Kurds.
  • Don McGahn was the primary lawyer for Trump’s 2016 campaign. But as White House Counsel, he repeatedly ignored Trump’s orders to obstruct justice.
  • Dan Coats was an early opponent of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and shared a number of Trump’s other views. But as Director of National Intelligence he believed in the mission of the intelligence services: to figure out what is going on in the world and report it as accurately as possible. After Trump sided with Putin against the intelligence services in Helsinki, Coats was not cowed: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”

I’m not sure who started using this phrase, but early on these people (plus a few others) came to be known (behind Trump’s back) as “the adults in the room“. Any kind of crazy idea might pass through Trump’s head, but the “adults” would keep him from doing too much harm. Republican Senator Bob Corker even tweeted about it: “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

It’s not my intention to idealize the “adults”, because (as I indicated above) a lot of nasty stuff happened on their watch. I also don’t want to paper over the widespread corruption in the early Trump years. In addition to the “adults”, Trump’s Class of 2017 included Scott Pruitt, Michael Flynn, Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, and many others who left in well-deserved disgrace. Wilbur Ross belongs in that group as well, but is somehow still running the Commerce Department.

In spite of their flaws, though, each “adult” in his or her own way believed in the United States as a republic under the rule of law. They believed that there were things Trump could not do, and could not order them to do.

They’re all gone now. Jeff Sessions was replaced by Bill Barr, who has no trouble using the Justice Department to protect Trump’s friends and attack his enemies. The roles Kelly and Nielsen had at DHS are now filled (illegally, it seems) by Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli, who created and managed the masked federal police who invaded Portland against the will of all local officials. Dan Coats’ job is now held by Trump loyalist John Ratcliffe, who has shown little interest in telling Trump anything he doesn’t want to hear, or keeping the public informed about Russia’s continuing efforts to aid Trump’s re-election. In place of Jim Mattis, we have Mark Esper, who was slow to oppose Trump’s impulse to use active-duty troops to put down peaceful protesters, but still not docile enough to make his job secure. McGahn’s replacement Pat Cipollone was in the room when Trump discussed pressuring Ukraine for dirt on Democrats, and said nothing.

Autocratic achievement unlocked. At this point, Trump’s conquest of the executive branch of government is virtually complete. The Pentagon is still holding out, but most of the rest has become his personal instrument, to do with as he will. Two recent examples stand out: the abuse of the Justice Department to suppress Michael Cohen’s book, and the sabotage of the Postal Service to undermine voting by mail.

Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen is serving a prison sentence, part of which results from him following Trump’s instructions to break the law. Like many non-violent criminals (Paul Manafort was another), Cohen was furloughed from prison to reduce crowding during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the Justice Department tried to use that situation as leverage to eliminate a problem for Trump’s reelection campaign:

But to remain at home, he was asked to sign a document that would have barred him from publishing a book during the rest of his sentence. Mr. Cohen balked because he was, in fact, writing a book — a tell-all memoir about his former boss, the president. The officers sent him back to prison. On Thursday, a federal judge ruled that the decision to return Mr. Cohen to custody amounted to retaliation by the government and ordered him to be released again into home confinement.

In America as we have known it, no one connected with overseeing a federal convict should know or care how that person’s writings will affect the presidential race. But in Trump’s autocracy, things are different. If you work for the Justice Department, you work for Trump.

Trump’s continuing failure to mobilize the country against Covid-19, a failure unparalleled in any other first-world nation, has made the prospect of voting in person in November risky. (It is still unclear how many infections resulted in Wisconsin after the Republican legislature forced voters to wait in long lines to vote in the state’s primary.) Certainly the prospect of voting in person has become less attractive, particularly to citizens with prior conditions that make them especially vulnerable.

Voting by mail, which states like Washington have been doing for years anyway, is the obvious solution. But that’s only if you want people to vote and to have their votes counted. If you’re trailing badly in the polls, as Trump is, and might be looking for an excuse to influence or challenge or ignore the election results, raising uncertainty about voting by mail is one possible strategy. And the best way to cast doubt on the viability of voting by mail is to cast doubt on the Post Office’s ability to deliver ballots in a timely way, particularly if those ballots are mailed from zip codes known to include many Democrats.

“If carriers are being told that, at the end of your shift, you need to be back at the office even if you haven’t collected all the mail that day, there could be ballots in those mailboxes,” says Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund Voice and a former Obama appointee to the Commission on Election Administration, a panel created in 2013 to identify best practices in running elections. “If the truck drivers are being told, ‘You leave the post office to take that day’s mail to the processing plant at your scheduled time to leave, even if all the carriers aren’t back in yet with that day’s mail,’ that can have an impact.”

And so the Trump donor newly installed as Postmaster General is intentionally slowing down the mail: eliminating overtime, getting rid of sorting machines, and in general gumming up the works. Trump has been quite open about what he’s doing. Commenting on negotiations on a new Covid-response package, Trump told Fox News:

If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money [for the Post Office]. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting; they just can’t have it.

In any past election, it would be inconceivable that the President would be manipulating the Post Office in an effort to stay in power. But something has changed during the Trump administration: It’s not your Post Office any more, it’s his Post Office.

That’s how autocracy works.

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Comments

  • Janet Strong  On August 17, 2020 at 4:57 pm

    You’re welcome Loretta!

    >

  • Wade Scholine  On August 18, 2020 at 3:01 pm

    “Adults in the room” (more precisely, the lack thereof in Democratic circles) is a perennial rhetorical trope for Republicans. Once again, we see that for them, every accusation is a confession.

  • Kim Cooper  On August 23, 2020 at 3:44 am

    Good article. I do not want an autocrat in our government.

  • Rachana Dhaka  On October 22, 2020 at 5:37 am

    Good one

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