Donald Trump is a would-be autocrat. During his campaign and since his election, he and his associates have been working on the three tasks that prepare the way for him to exercise sole authorized power over the American people.
Using finely honed skills of media manipulation and building on campaigns, mounted over at least the last century, by a number of right wing groups and some groups on the left, against the legitimacy of those institutions, such as the press, the three branches of government (the courts, the legislature, and executive), the scientific academy, and the vote, that are necessary for a democracy to function and to protect human and constitutional rights, Trump has:
- Become the primary narrator of the American imagination. Through his continual creation of spectacles in which he promulgates news, false news, and delusions, he repeatedly constructs, destroys, and reconstructs the national emotional mood. In the public imagination, he is the primary initiator of events to which the nation reacts.
- Made himself the primary source of truth for a significant percentage of the population. Through endless promulgations of others’ and his own lies, conspiracy theories, and denials of facts, he destroys others’ credibility as truth tellers. For many of his followers, what he says is true is, in fact, true, even if it contracts what he said yesterday.
- Become, for these followers, what he declares himself to be, the solitary leader who knows what the true threats to the nation are, how to defend the nation against these threats, and how to restore the nation’s greatness, which internal and external enemies have injured. In the service of defending the nation against these enemies, he has convinced these followers that the use of extreme violence that violates human and constitutional rights is necessary and good.
Trump is not yet an autocrat. Democratic institutions still limit his power. However, if, in response to an act or a number of acts of violence—for instance, a massive attack, like 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing, by external or internal terrorists, violent conflicts between his followers and opponents, or a threat of an attack, or an actual attack, by another nation—President Trump declares a national emergency and martial law and mobilizes supporters in the military, federal, state, and local law enforcement bodies, intelligence services, and private militias, he could become one. He could effectively destroy the democratic institutions that decades of attacks have already weakened and that limit his exercise of power.
Ignoring or denying intelligence he does not like, demonizing Muslims and thus confirming ISIS’s and Al Qaeda’s portrayal of the West as engaged in a war against Islam, and dog whistling to white nationalists and anti-immigrant nativists increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack. Portrayals of any who criticize or oppose him as enemies of the nation and implicit and explicit incitements of his supporters to violence against these enemies increase the likelihood of violent confrontations between protestors and counter-protestors. Confrontational and contradictory statements and actions against foreign powers increase the likelihood of one or more of them threatening to or actually attacking America or Americans.
Trump’s becoming an autocrat and the destruction of American democracy are very real possibilities. Stopping him from becoming an autocrat is necessary to save American democracy. A number of individuals and groups have promulgated very good plans for countering his lies and the most destructive of his and his supporters’ policies.
However, stopping Trump’s ascent to autocracy will only be successful to the extent that opponents can displace him as the primary narrator, truth-teller, and savior of America. The opposition needs to unify around a movement with a leader or group of leaders who can capture Americans’ imagination and trust and can inspire their democratic spirit. The opposition must be skilled at using media to keep people’s attention focused on this movement and these leaders. We must do this work now so that, if, as is likely, a national emergency occurs, people will turn to this movement and follow these leaders, rather than Mr. Trump.