Trump's virtual tyranny
It's clearer than ever that the president of the United States is at heart an authoritarian.
We've known for a long time that he admires tyrants. (See his flattering comments, displaying a generosity and sympathy he rarely bestows on anyone else, about Russia's Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and The Philippines' Rodrigo Roa Duterte.) He excuses their despotic behavior, even when it includes murder. He clearly prefers their company to that of democratically elected heads of state. (Compare the petulant insults that followed last weekend's G-7 meeting in Quebec with the giddy enthusiasm the president displayed before, during, and after his one-on-one meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Un.) And then there are his unrelenting, venomous attacks on the domestic news media ("Our Country's biggest enemy"), which sound exactly like what one would expect a dictator to say.
Yet the fact remains that Trump isn't a tyrant, no matter how much he sounds (and tweets) like one, and no matter how much brutality his administration's immigration policies inflict.
Has the Trump administration defied even a single court order? Have its norm violations risen to the level of explicit lawbreaking? That has yet to be established. Congress hasn't done much to challenge the president, but it could. And then there's the vote. The indisputable facts are that Trump was (barely) elected, his party faces an electoral reckoning in November, and Trump himself (and, once again, the GOP) will face the same two years after that. He can be stopped, and in the normal, democratic way.
Which means the president is not the tyrant he sometimes appears — and in some ill-informed, inchoate way may aspire — to be.
Could a Russian Robert De Niro have gotten away with proclaiming "F-ck Putin! It's no longer down with Putin, it's f-ck Putin," let alone received a standing ovation with the faces of smiling, applauding audience members captured on camera, in a national television broadcast? The answer is obvious, and clarifying about "where we are as a nation," as some Trump critics like to intone in their ominous tweets about the degradation of American democracy.
Where we are is this: Trump is a virtual tyrant. He plays one on Twitter and in his statements to the media. The more those who disapprove of his presidency treat this virtual tyranny like a real one, playacting an anti-fascist "resistance" when good old-fashioned organizing, campaigning, and voting would do just fine, the more they risk contributing to the deterioration of American civic life — feeding the frenzied, polarized animus in which a would-be authoritarian like Trump will thrive and potentially increase his power.
I'm hardly the first to make such an argument about the risks of "resistance." Every time someone does, it is met by acidic ridicule. "Trump's attorney general is ripping babies out of the arms of their mothers while they breastfeed and threatening to lock up migrants in prison camps, and you say that we're the problem?"
To which the proper response is: No, you're not the problem, but you're not helping to solve it either, and your self-righteous temper-tantrums, however cathartic, just might be making it worse.
The most proximal danger of Trump's virtual American tyranny is its effect on public opinion. Because democracies do sometimes devolve into dictatorships at the ballot box. All it takes is for a plurality (whether a literal one or one constructed artificially by counter-majoritarian institutions) to back a candidate after he has acted to grab and consolidate power.
Since Trump announced his presidential candidacy three years ago, his ability to tap into and amplify the (until then) unrepresented resentments of a large faction of the Republican electorate has endeared him to tens of millions, who have shown, and continue to show, an astonishing willingness to follow his lead on a range of policies. At 87 percent, Trump's "own party" approval rating is the second highest ever recorded at the 500-day mark of a presidency, coming in behind only George W. Bush, who was at that time basking in stratospheric post-9/11 support.
Many if not most of these Trump supporters are probably unreachable by Democrats. But some of them are probably open to listening to a good-faith pitch from a liberal. After all, as many as 13 percent of Trump voters had cast ballots for Barack Obama just four years earlier. Couldn't some of them be persuaded to step back over the Democratic line for the right kind of candidate?
No political strategist worth his salt would throw those votes away, treating them as lost for good. But that's precisely what progressives end up threatening to do when they cheer on the puerile antics of a Robert De Niro or Samantha Bee and thereby convince 87 percent of Republicans that they are right to want nothing to do with Democrats — and the remaining 13 percent to give our embattled and disrespected president another look, and even another chance.
There's nothing the Democrats can do about a member of the "resistance" who takes criticism of the president too far. Entertainers are people with independent opinions and an enormous audience. What they can do is respond to such outbursts like grownups instead of gleeful 12-year-olds at a pep rally, pumping their fists in the air.
Some Democrats have done the right thing. But not nearly enough. And for those who care about ensuring that Trump's tyranny remains a virtual one, this is really the least they can do.