Trump is not a despot
It hasn’t been easy recently to make an attack against President Donald Trump that is over-the-top enough to stand out from the run-of-the-mill hysteria, but outgoing Republican Sen. Jeff Flake managed it.
In a Senate speech hitting Trump for his broadsides against the press, Flake excoriated the president for using the phrase “enemy of the people.” Per the Arizona senator: “It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin.”
The association of Trump, whose offense is being crude and thoughtless while occupying an office he won in a raucously free election, with one of the greatest monsters of the 20th century is so wildly irresponsible, it is its own corruption of our discourse.
Trump is not a despot.
Far from being an autocrat, he is a weak president susceptible to the views of the last person he’s talked to, and is so deferential to Congress that he spent last year pining for a signing ceremony for literally anything lawmakers could send him on health care or taxes.
At its worst, the Trump White House isn’t sinister; it’s farcical.
It’s not Recep Tayyip Erdogan carefully creating a one-party state; it’s Trump getting miscued by a TV show into a tweet undermining his administration’s own position on the reauthorization of a surveillance program.
The Trump alarmists thought that a brittle democratic culture and set of institutions were about to encounter a man representing a dire, determined threat to their integrity; instead, a robust democratic culture and set of institutions encountered the guy sitting down at the end of the bar yelling at the TV.
David Frum of The Atlantic warned at the beginning of the year of an autocratic Trump cowing the press into submission. Instead, the president faces the most hostile press at least since Richard Nixon. So comprehensively do Trump outrages dominate the news that it’s difficult for a sex scandal involving a porn star to break through.
Rather than stretching his powers, Trump has reined in the executive overreach of the Barack Obama years, which was brazen and unconstitutional, although undertaken with much greater politeness.
There is no doubt Trump violates norms that we should want to preserve. The president shouldn’t slam reporters and news organizations by name, call for people in the private sector to be fired, criticize companies or urge his adversaries to be jailed, among other routine provocations.
Trump does not, to say the least, have a deep understanding of our constitutional system, and if he had his druthers, his Justice Department probably would be loyal to him personally.
But is he serious enough about this impulse to execute a plan to carry it out and bear the political consequences, even from Republicans?
Of course not.
So, he stews about his Department of Justice, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions remains in place, and special counsel Robert Mueller continues his work.
If Trump’s eruptions don’t speak well of him, they shouldn’t be confused with unconstitutional acts. The first time Trump said he wanted to tighten up libel laws, it was alarming; by about the fifth time he said it — with obviously no intention to follow through — it was clearly an irritable mental tic.
Some of the alarm about Trump is over fairly normal expressions of democratic politics.
It is a natural dynamic that special prosecutor investigations become partisan war zones. Anyone appalled by the attacks of Trump allies on Mueller should acquaint themselves with what Clinton allies said about Kenneth Starr.
The irony is that those who believe that Trump is a budding despot are themselves violating important norms.
The anti-Trumpists fantasize about ending his presidency, via impeachment or the 25th Amendment, before the voters get a chance to render their verdict again in 2020.
Josef Stalin wouldn’t tolerate any of this agitation. Donald Trump rages against it, stirs it and enjoys it, one robustly free news cycle at a time.