How bad would President Trump be?
So this is how it feels for your country to be facing a genuine political crisis.
Not the manufactured crises hyped by the media every other month, or even the financial crisis of 2008. I mean a political crisis without precedent in modern American history.
One of the country's two major political parties is on the verge of nominating a man unfit to be president — and the lack of fitness is thoroughly comprehensive.
Donald Trump knows next to nothing about public policy. He is a serial, perhaps a certifiably pathological, liar. And an unapologetic misogynist. He actively encourages racial and ethnic animus, and conspiracy theories, and delights in egging on political violence, and in mocking the disabled. He regularly demonstrates contempt for established institutions of liberal democratic governance both domestically and globally. He has threatened to order the armed forces to engage in actions that would amount to war crimes. And advocated policies that would require government actions on the scale of a police state (the rounding up and deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants) and others that are almost certainly unconstitutional (a blanket ban on the entry of Muslims into the United States).
The conventional wisdom has already decided that Trump will lose the general election against the Democratic standard-bearer. I agree that this is the most likely outcome, but it's far from certain. Yes, Trump receives extraordinarily high unfavorable ratings, but so does the likely Democratic nominee (Hillary Clinton). Trump also scrambles established ideological categories and has inspired a dramatic uptick in turnout among Republicans during the primaries. (With 10 states remaining on the primary calendar, Trump has already surpassed Mitt Romney's vote totals from the entire 2012 primary season by roughly 700,000 votes.) This could render predictions based on past voting behavior highly unreliable. And of course there's always the possibility of a major event this fall (like a significant terrorist attack on American soil) that completely overturns expectations — always a good reason to keep unqualified people from ending up at the head of a major-party ticket in the first place.
All of this means that it's time to start thinking deeply about just how much danger the country now faces.
The best place to start that hard, unpleasant task is with Andrew Sullivan's major (and perfectly timed) essay in this week's New York magazine. In several thousand words, beautifully written and philosophically deep, Sullivan makes a cogent case for considering Trump a potential tyrant whose election could constitute an "extinction-level event" for the American republic. Though Sullivan never comes out and explicitly compares the real estate mogul to Hitler, he does treat Trump as a potential fascist dictator.
Fascism had, in some measure, an ideology and occasional coherence that Trump utterly lacks. But his movement is clearly fascistic in its demonization of foreigners, its hyping of a threat by a domestic minority (Muslims and Mexicans are the new Jews), its focus on a single supreme leader of what can only be called a cult, and its deep belief in violence and coercion in a democracy that has heretofore relied on debate and persuasion. This is the Weimar aspect of our current moment. Just as the English Civil War ended with a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the French Revolution gave us Napoleon Bonaparte, and the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi's coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump. [New York]
Is it true? Is this America's Weimar moment — a time when a struggling, polarized, decadent liberal democracy faces the choice of whether to empower a dictatorial leader who would extinguish the very freedoms that elevated him to power?
Though I'm grateful that Sullivan has made the extreme case, there are other, less catastrophic (though still quite bad) possibilities that are far more probable. Though our moral imaginations have been decisively molded (some might say warped) by the nightmarish totalitarian dictatorships of the mid-20th century, an America led by President Trump would likely look quite a bit different than that.
The most benign possibility is that a Trump presidency would resemble an American version of Italy under the rule of Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire tycoon who served as prime minister for a total of nine years in four governments between 1994 and 2011.
Like Trump, Berlusconi was a businessman — a media mogul, making him more of a Rupert Murdoch-type figure — before turning to politics. In his campaigns and years in office, he was the constant focus of tabloid gossip, proving himself a vulgarian prone to making outrageous statements about public figures at home and abroad. When it came to governance, Berlusconi repeatedly formed coalitions with the Northern League (a right-wing anti-immigrant and populist party) and the National Alliance (a post-fascist party) while deploying tactics ripped from the playbook of American conservatives (he floated an Italian version of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America) and pursuing policies that combined pro-business tax reform and anti-crime initiatives with increases in public pension rates and funding for public works programs.
Berlusconi was a radical centrist and a glitzy populist with xenophobic-nationalist overtones. Just like Trump.
He was also brought down by corruption — always a fixture of Italian political culture but even more blatant than usual while the flamboyant Berlusconi was on the scene. Accused at various times of abuse of office, bribery, and defamation, he was eventually convicted of tax evasion and found guilty of soliciting an underage prostitute.
If that's all that's all we got from a President Trump — an ideologically incoherent mishmash of sloppily executed policies overshadowed by media-driven scandals and rampant corruption — that would make the Trump administration a failure and signal a sharp drop-off in the effectiveness of America's political institutions. But it certainly wouldn't mark the advent of tyranny in the United States or prove to be an extinction-level event for the republic.
On the other hand, the parallels between Berlusconi and Trump aren't perfect. (Such analogies never are.) For one thing, Berlusconi never ran on a platform of rounding up and deporting millions of people from Italian soil. Neither did he propose to summarily ban the members of an entire world religion from entering the country.
Then there are institutional differences. Berlusconi was a prime minister dependent upon fragile governing coalitions in the Italian legislature. Like all American presidents, Trump would stand at the head of the executive branch of the federal government, entirely independent of the legislative branch, with a fixed term of office and his own base of electoral support. He would also serve as the commander in chief of the most powerful military in the history of the world, including by far the largest and most formidable nuclear arsenal on the planet, and control a massive surveillance and intelligence-gathering operation spread across numerous agencies and departments.
The moment he took the oath of office, Donald Trump would become exponentially more powerful, at home and abroad, than Silvio Berlusconi (with his significantly less illiberal agenda) ever was or could have dreamed of being.
That leaves us looking for another parallel.
One option is Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India and leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (a Hindu nationalist party). Modi has a disturbing record, both before and after rising to national office. Yet like Berlusconi, Modi is limited in his powers by India's parliamentary system of governance — although this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the BJP currently holds an outright majority of seats in the parliament's lower house — and by India's status as a rising regional (but not yet a global) economic and military power.
That's why the "worst-case" parallel that is most apt is one that's been noted over and over again throughout Trump's campaign for the Republican nomination: Vladimir Putin.
Putin is an authoritarian populist who cultivates an image of a macho toughness while openly flirting with fascistic nationalism and militarism. He has manipulated the Russian political system and constitution to permit himself to stay in power, as either president or prime minister, for 16 years and counting. Political rivals and journalists who dare to criticize him have a way of ending up dead.
In what may be the most ominous fact of all about Trump, the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for president has made no secret of his admiration for Putin's thuggish style of leadership, despite his annexation of Crimea, military meddling in Eastern Ukraine, open defiance of NATO, and mischief-making in Syria over the past two years.
Would Trump dare to make similar moves as president of the United States?
We have no way to know. But the mere possibility should send chills down the spine of every American who cherishes liberal democratic norms and institutions.
No, Trump isn't Hitler or Mussolini. But he could easily be as bad as Berlusconi — and quite possibly push beyond him, to make an outright play for Putinism.
That might not bring American democracy to the verge of extinction. But it would leave it battered and bloody, and ripe for something even worse.