After more than 100 days into his presidency, it seems fair to ask: What is Donald Trump’s governing philosophy? He isn’t really a Republican (he didn’t join the GOP until 2012). He’s hardly a free-market conservative (he’s eager to block trade and immigration). No one would mistake him for a libertarian (he’s okay with preventing abortions and gay marriage).
So what is he?
Political scientists use this term to describe a way of governing that values order and control over personal freedom, and seeks to concentrate power in the hands of a single “strongman.” Viewed through the lens of authoritarianism, Trump’s approach to governing is logical and coherent.
For example, an authoritarian wouldn’t follow the normal process in a constitutional democracy for disputing a judicial decision he dislikes – which is to appeal it to a higher court.
An authoritarian would instead assail judges who rule against him, as Trump has done repeatedly. He’d also threaten to hobble the offending courts, as Trump did last week in urging that the 9th Circuit (where many of these decisions have originated) be broken up.
Likewise, an authoritarian has no patience for normal legislative rules – designed, as they are in a democracy, to create opportunities for deliberation.
Which is why Trump told Mitch McConnell to use the “nuclear option” against the time-honored Senate filibuster, in order to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Last week, Trump called House and Senate rules “archaic,” and urged they be abandoned. “We don’t have a lot of closers in politics, and I understand why: It’s a very rough system. It’s an archaic system,” he said.
An authoritarian also seeks to intimidate the press, in order to avoid criticism and consolidate his power. Trump still doesn’t miss an opportunity to assail the media for publishing “fake news.” His chief of staff has revived Trump’s campaign proposal to widen libel laws so that he can sue the press for stories he doesn’t like.
Authoritarians do not tolerate other levels of government with their own powers and responsibilities. Which is why Trump wants to force states and cities to report on unauthorized immigrants, even though this violates the principle of federalism enshrined in the 10th Amendment.
Finally, authoritarians promote other authoritarians, in an effort to normalize authoritarian rule.
Last Saturday, Trump invited President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to visit the White House. Duterte, you should know, is an authoritarian leader accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of thousands of people suspected of using or selling narcotics as well as others who may have had no involvement with drugs. He has referred to former President Barack Obama as a “son of a whore.” And he has declared open season on suspected terrorists, saying that if he were presented with a suspected terrorist, “give me salt and vinegar and I’ll eat his liver.”
Two weeks ago, Trump phoned to congratulate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for his victory in a referendum filled with voting irregularities that expanded Erdogan’s powers and has put Turkey on the road to dictatorship.
Trump also opined that the recent terrorist attack in Paris will help the right-wing extremist Marine Le Pen.
Trump has praised President Xi Jinping of China, the most authoritarian leader China has had since Mao Zedong.
Trump also hosted at the White House Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who had not been granted an invitation to the White House since seizing power in a military coup almost four years ago.
And don’t forget Trump’s vow during the presidential campaign to pursue a warmer relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. (The effort has faltered in light of possible links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.)
Donald Trump’s authoritarianism is a consistent and coherent philosophy of governing. But it’s not America’s.
In fact, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution created separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism precisely to avoid concentrated power. Their goal was to stop authoritarians like Donald Trump.
Not long ago Trump adviser Stephen Miller declared “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton would have been appalled.