Opinion

Donald Trump's upside-down authoritarianism

Here's the real reason Trump sort of endorsed Stacey Abrams 

Donald Trump is at it again — saying and doing things that seem to make no political sense.

The latest example took place at a rally in Georgia last weekend, where the former president appeared to endorse Democrat Stacey Abrams for governor of the state over the sitting Republican governor Brian Kemp. "Having her, I think, might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know what I think," Trump said. "Stacey, would you like to take his place? It's okay with me."

A former Republican president, one who appears eager to run again in 2024, attempting to torpedo a Republican and endorsing a progressive Democrat in his place? That Abrams is best known for combatting the very forms of voter suppression that Trump's constantly champions only makes the gesture more absurd — a form of political madness bred by spite and stupidity.

But that's not all it is. Trump's political impulses are often petty and ill-informed, but they also have a knack of pointing toward deeper, baser political truths that he ends up exploiting for political gain. His half-serious endorsement of Abrams against Kemp is just the latest example. 

The behavior only appears nonsensical when viewed in the light of the ordinary rules of small-d democratic politics. If we suspend the assumption that those rules need to govern our politics and instead analyze Trump's actions in the upside-down terms of authoritarian political gamesmanship, his actions make perfect, diabolical sense. 

In ordinary democratic politics, the goal is win elections — either through the majority of votes in a two-person race or a plurality in a multiperson race. To accomplish this, candidates compete to appeal to as many voters as possible, which in effect means appealing to what each candidate thinks is the median voter. This need not mean tailoring the candidate's message to the ideological center. That will only be true where most voters are ideologically moderate. (In the Jim Crow South, for example, winning an election required appealing to the median white voter, who was an ardent supporter of racial segregation.) Appealing to the median voter implies only that candidates are competing to make themselves the most popular person in the field.

This drive for popularity is a constraint. Candidates can try to devise distinctive messages. They can attempt to appeal to voter preferences in novel ways. They can work to nudge voters on policy a little bit this way or that. But in the end, there are limits to what candidates can say or do if they want to win. A Democrat can't hope to prevail by proposing to defund and dissolve the welfare state, just as a Republican can't hope to win by favoring open borders and middle-class tax hikes. The median voter in each party is found elsewhere. Push too far beyond where most voters stand, appeal to those on the fringes of public opinion at the expense of those clustered around more conventional positions, and the candidate will lose.

It appears, at first sight, that this is exactly what Trump is at risk of doing with his comments in Georgia. A Republican who endorses a progressive Democrat over another Republican would seem to be setting himself up for political suicide.

But only if his aim is to win the most votes.

What if instead of trying to win the most votes, Trump's goal is to remake the GOP into a party that doesn't particularly care about being declared the official winner because those who oversee the official count are untrustworthy, and because a Republican, by definition, can never legitimately lose?

In that case, Brian Kemp and others in the Republican Party who follow the democratic rules even when they deliver a loss — like, for instance, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, and the other members of the House and Senate who voted to impeach and convict Trump after the insurrection of Jan. 6 — are a two-fold problem. They are a problem, first, because they stand in the way of delivering the party's inevitable victory in particular cases; and second, because, in displaying such recalcitrance, they deny the definitional principle that losing is impossible for a Republican.

That's why Kemp and everyone else who stood in the way of Trump's strenuous effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election must be defeated and eliminated, even if it is accomplished in some cases by endorsing Democrats. Because that's the path to inevitable victory: the creation of a party that, from top to bottom, believes it is always and everywhere destined to win power and that the denial of this principle in all cases is irrefutable evidence of cheating, fraud, and illegitimacy.

Think of it as a more radical, epistemological restatement of the by-now commonplace observation that Trump is trying to take over the GOP, remake it in his image, turn it into The Trump Party. Only now, in the aftermath of Jan. 6, has it finally become clear what this really means. It doesn't just mean deferring to Trump on policy, or supporting Trump in political contests, or even demonstrating public fealty to Trump in the form of humiliating expressions of obsequiousness. In his role as Trump's vice president, Mike Pence already proved himself highly adept at all of these. Yet it wasn't enough.

What is? The kind of full-bore surrender to Trump's fantasy of invincibility displayed by his post-election lawyers and advisers Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, and John Eastman. Trump will settle for nothing short of a Republican Party that looks, sounds, talks, and thinks like these all-or-nothing Trump defenders.

But wouldn't a GOP so thoroughly Trumpified, appealing to people quite far from the median American voter, be far smaller and therefore weaker than it is today? Only when judged by the standards of democratic politics, according to which casting and accurately counting ballots is what matters. Trump now practices and seeks to inculcate something different — an authoritarian politics surreally situated beyond objectivity and common standards, beyond public trust and neutral rules, beyond ideals of fair play and the peaceful transition of power.  

What would such a politics look like in concrete terms? Trump lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden by seven million votes, 4.4 percentage points, and the electoral votes of at least three states — and yet he insists that he won, and two thirds of Republicans believe him. Will this change if in 2024 he loses by 10 million votes, 6 percentage points, and five states? I don't see why it would. On the contrary, it's far more likely that a Trump defeated for the second time would go even further in his rhetoric, asserting that the system is more thoroughly rigged against him and his voters than it was the last time, and pointing toward the need for every elected Republican at every level of government and every patriotic American to do everything in their power to prevent the inauguration of Biden for a second term.

Would such an authoritarian powerplay succeed? Or merely spark institutional chaos and civil unrest on a scale that makes Jan. 6, 2021, look like a peaceful outing at the Capitol? At this point, we have no way of knowing. But what is clear is that this is the kind of uncompromising authoritarian politics Trump now practices — in Georgia and beyond.

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