This article is part of a weeklong series looking back at the first year of Donald Trump's presidency.
Americans have worried about a tyrant taking over their country since before it even existed. Some of the framers of the Constitution imagined that a strong executive branch would be too close to monarchy, and debates over whether the president had too much power stretched into the 19th century and continue to this day. Republicans accused Barack Obama of acting like a "king" for issuing an executive order on immigration; progressives charged George W. Bush with moving the US toward fascism. But no one has made people afraid of autocracy quite like Donald Trump.
To understand those fears, you have to go back to the campaign, when the real estate scion was running for the Republican nomination on a platform that had more than a tinge of authoritarianism. “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” he told Yahoo News in November 2015. A few months later, he promised to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” at a Republican debate. He kept talking about establishing a database of Muslims and banning Muslims from coming to the US. His racist rhetoric attracted the supported of outright white supremacists, whom he has pointedly declined to single out for condemnation, even when they were implicated in murder. At one campaign rally, he mused that maybe a black protester removed from the premises should have been "roughed up”; at other events, protests led to arrests and even brawls. In a debate against Hillary Clinton, Trump went so far as to vow to sic the Justice Department on her if he won the election.
Newsweek was asking if he was a fascist as early as July 2015, and deciding exactly how much of his movement was grounded in actual authoritarianism was a parlor game right up until the night he won the presidency, when it suddenly seemed like a lot more than a game.
Shocked at Trump's upset victory, serious people from across the political spectrum began to wonder what his administration might do to the country. The question wasn't whether he'd be a good president—few mainstream commenters thought he'd be anything short of a disaster. The question was whether he'd destroy the country he was elected to lead. But if worst-case scenarios about the fall of the republic seem overhyped, the damage Trump is doing is real, and it's terrifying.
In the Washington Post the day after the election, Ruth Marcus expressed the "hope that our other leaders, in Congress and the courts, will be strong enough to safeguard our ideals and free institutions during the potentially perilous course of the Trump presidency." David Remnick of the New Yorker wrote that "the most hopeful way to look at this grievous event—and it’s a stretch—is that this election and the years to follow will be a test of the strength, or the fragility, of American institutions." Trump's win, the New York Times editorial board intoned, "has now placed the United States on a precipice."
How exactly Trump would transform the country was difficult to imagine. David Frum—a neocon who was part of the George W. Bush administration but is now one of Trump's most prominent establishment critics—took a stab in a long Atlantic cover story in March 2017. He envisioned a world where economic growth had made the public uninterested in Trump's refusal to release his tax returns, divest himself in any way from his business, or allow the investigations into his campaign's connections with Russia to continue. It's a future where civil liberties aren't being snuffed out, but instead are wasting away.
"If people retreat into private life, if critics grow quieter, if cynicism becomes endemic, the corruption will slowly become more brazen, the intimidation of opponents stronger," Frum wrote. "If citizens learn that success in business or in public service depends on the favor of the president and his ruling clique, then it’s not only American politics that will change. The economy will be corrupted too, and with it the larger culture. A culture that has accepted that graft is the norm, that rules don’t matter as much as relationships with those in power, and that people can be punished for speech and acts that remain theoretically legal—such a culture is not easily reoriented back to constitutionalism, freedom, and public integrity."
Just how much Trump is eroding the norms of American political culture is a question being asked by political scientists, journalists, and the peanut gallery on Twitter. Alarmists have seen plenty of headlines that feed their alarm: Trump has padded his administration with family members, scores of lobbyists, and obviously unqualified loyalists who seem to be using the machinery of government to enrich themselves. Last spring, the family of White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was seen in Beijing pitching an investment in Kushner properties as a way of getting a US visa. In July, Walter Shaub resigned from his post as the Office of Government Ethics director, telling NPR, "The current situation has made it clear that the ethics program needs to be stronger than it is." The president pardoned Joe Arpaio after the Trump-supporting former Arizona sheriff was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to stop racially profiling. The Department of Justice reportedly started looking into Clinton's emails again after Trump publicly demanded a renewed investigation. And of course, Trump fired FBI director James Comey, and then went on TV and told NBC's Lester Holt that he had "this Russia thing" on his mind when he did it.
But Trump's malevolence has been tempered by incompetence, to quote Lawfare's Benjamin Wittes. Though Republicans have worked to deflect and derail congressional investigations into Russian hacking in the 2016 election, special counsel Robert Mueller's parallel investigation has already indicted several of Trump's former aides, including disgraced and now-convicted national security adviser Mike Flynn. Many of Trump's most controversial moves, like his ban on trans people serving in the military or his "travel ban" targeting Muslim-majority countries, have been delayed or blocked by courts. And under Trump, Republicans have suffered a series of defeats in state and local elections across the country.
Trump might want to be an autocrat, and can certainly talk like one—he's reportedly upset that his Justice Department won't protect him like he thinks they should. But he's not popular or effective enough to actually bend the country to his will.
"Trump’s political weakness, his lack of popularity, and his sheer incompetence have obviously benefited democracy," Steven Levitsky, a political scientist who co-wrote a book on the decline of democracy, recently told Slate's Isaac Chotiner. Vox's Ezra Klein had the same take back in November, writing that Trump "lacks the focus, the persistence, the strategic sense, to become the strongman he dreams of being."
Meanwhile, election watchers are looking at the prospect of a "blue wave" that would deliver the House, if not the Senate, back to Democrats in the midterms, giving the opposition party a better chance to check Trump and make him even less effective.
So there is a Panglossian end in sight: Trump's norm-busting ways drag the Republican Party down electorally and end with him defeated in 2020 by a reenergized Democratic coalition. After being tested, the institutions that make up civil society are stronger for it—the conservative movement resolves not to elevate toxic figures like Trump, the media agrees to spend less time chasing shiny objects during campaign season, and the elites in DC become more attuned to the widespread anger that helped put Trump in office. Or maybe Trump gets impeached and the whole affair ushers in an era of good-government reform, just as happened in the years after Watergate.
But it's hard to imagine such a rosy scenario actually playing out. Even if the wonks are right that Trump won't usher in autocracy and that the Democrats will seize enough power to block his worst impulses, he's exposed horrific flaws in the US system. The executive branch has grown in power so much that the president is only really limited by the courts, with Congress often relegated to a bystander role. Party loyalty is more important to most politicians than any principle. Often, what prevents the president from being corrupt is not laws but norms—and maybe voters don't really care about norms.
Most of all though, what Trump reveals is that contemporary America is incredibly vulnerable to demagoguery. Trump did not hide his racist or authoritarian impulses—he campaigned on them, and a lot of Americans (if not the majority) embraced him. Someone else could ride those same currents to the White House. The next president could hide their tax returns, or only grant interviews to sycophantic media outlets, or spread disinformation, or work to financially reward their friends. Why not, if Trump has proven that the consequences of those actions are easily avoidable? Maybe the next president would be savvier, better able to bend Congress to their will, or they could go even farther and ignore a court order. Maybe someone would stop them. Maybe not. Trump is not the thing that comes through the door to break America. But maybe he's the guy who cracks the door open.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.