What Now of the Authoritarian Threat?

Laura Field is a scholar in residence at American University, Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center, and a regular contributor with The Constitutionalist. Read more about Field on our regular contributors page.

Just prior to the election I wrote about the “Is Trump a fascist?” question for The Bulwark. I do not have an especially strong stance on this issue because I am not an expert on fascism, totalitarianism, or authoritarianism. But I was frustrated by all the confident claims that Trump never posed a serious fascist threat. It’s not clear to me that Trumpism is not fascistic, and it seems very clear that, no matter what we call it, Trumpism has been dangerous for some of the very same reasons that fascism is. Plus, as others have observed, real fascists seem to recognize Trump as one of their own. 

People in the “it’s not real fascism” camp also seemed to be the ones who were most confident that “there would be no Trump coup.” Now that we are on the other side of the election, and more or less on the other side of a clear attempt to steal the election, it seems worth revisiting the question of what kind of threat Trumpism posed and poses to the constitutional order. What is the meaning of Trump’s not-quite-a-coup? What does it portend for the future of the GOP, and of illiberalism?

The Aftermath

It’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge the excellent news: Biden won a clear victory in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Donald Trump refused–and still refuses–to concede the election and made every conceivable effort to show that the election was fraudulent and that he had clearly won. He tried to follow something like the bizarro playbook penned by the editors at the Claremont Institute’s American Mind, but he failed at every step—even Bill Barr has now refused the election fraud narrative—and there is now little doubt that Trump will leave the White House on January 20, 2021, having been legitimately defeated. It is still possible that Trump’s most fervent supporters will become violent if he continues to deny Biden’s legitimacy. But given how smoothly the election went, and how little unrest we have seen since, those scenarios seem increasingly unlikely.  

Americans did what needed doing, under very difficult circumstances. I would have been much more satisfied with even bigger margins for Biden and a Democratic Senate, which would have meant not just a repudiation of Trump, but also of the Trumpified GOP (as well as a more obvious path towards actual governance). We didn’t get that, and the battle in Georgia will be difficult, but the electoral system was tested and vindicated within the parameters of this particular contest. That is something to celebrate. Furthermore, there are worse things than partial victories, especially in polarized times: if no one is fully satisfied, perhaps that leaves open paths to healing that may have remained closed with a more decisive Democratic win. There is plenty here for which to be glad.

Even so, just because we dodged a bullet doesn’t mean the gun was never loaded or that now it has been cast aside. The behavior of Trump and GOP leadership over the last few weeks, not to mention the last four years, leaves me with very little faith in Republicans’ commitment to the fundamentals of our constitutional order. On the contrary, Trump’s post-election antics offered a very vivid, full-color display of how an anti-democratic illiberal order could take hold in this country. Today it is easier than ever to imagine how, under varying conditions and given closer margins, things could have played out differently.

It is easy, for example, to imagine a world in which Trump managed the Coronavirus with even just a modicum of proficiency, or a world in which Trump’s policies had been just slightly less alienating and inhumane. Either would have likely brought a much tighter race.  

It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the outcome came to hinge on just one state, like Michigan, Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania. It’s easy to imagine how those state-level outcomes might have hinged on rules being rewritten in a single state house, mail-in ballots being tossed-out, or results being otherwise challenged in state and federal courts. We now know all about the arguments that would have been made, and the incredible pressure that would have been placed on officials to succumb to what we now know with confidence were bad-faith, spurious claims (in the counterfactual, we wouldn’t have known). 

It’s easy to imagine a race in which Fox News did not call Arizona for Biden on November 3, allowing Trump to declare victory and seize momentum prematurely.

It is easy to imagine a world in which there was no clear winner for weeks, so cable news didn’t report one, and where Trump tweeted incessantly about his BIG WIN. It’s easy now to imagine Biden delivering the same deflated evening speech, night after night–a world where instead of the humiliating scene at Four Seasons Total Landscape, we saw a confident Giuliani speaking at the Four Seasons Philadelphia, where instead of those heady, spontaneous celebrations of Trump’s defeat, we endured weeks of constitutional uncertainty and escalating protests and riots. 

We know about the rallies that would have been held and how they would have been reported on the right (here’s Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Christopher Flannery on the Million MAGA March in DC: “On the bus heading home, viewers watched over livestream on cell phones as BLM-Antifa evil took over Washington, D.C., preying on, among others, kids, families, the disabled, and the elderly.”)

It’s easy to imagine Trump calling in military support in the face of growing unrest. 

In other words, it’s easy now to imagine how, if results had unjustly gone Trump’s way, it could have become an actual coup. 

And sadly, after four years of Republican surrender to Trump’s norm-busting, it’s actually difficult to imagine prominent GOP leaders going against the grain to defend the system’s integrity. It’s true that Republican officials across the country stood fast in this election against Trump’s assaults on the system, and that some are becoming increasingly frustrated with GOP leaders’ dangerous lies today, but Biden had a decisive win. The question is whether the same thing would have happened had the winds been blowing the other way. If the last few years have shown us anything, it’s that one upstanding official here or whistleblower there is hardly enough to prevent the collapse of norms and breaches in the law. 

Far from proving that liberal hysteria about Trump’s illiberalism has been overblown, the 2020 election showed us exactly how an (even worse) illiberal turn could happen here. 

What’s Next for the GOP? 

That doesn’t mean an illiberal turn is inevitable. I believe the threat posed by Trump was very real, but it has been diffused considerably. What, then, is the future of Trump and Trumpism? 

It is difficult to know, but as concerns Trump, two basic scenarios seem possible to me. 

In the first scenario, Trump becomes, for the foreseeable future, something like the GOP’s Kingmaker-Albatross (Jonathan V. Last argues for the necessity of such an outcome in this scathing article for The New Republic). In this scenario, Trump refuses to distance himself from politics and works to wield influence and power via Twitter, MAGA rallies, and perhaps some new media program. He keeps a close watch on activities in the House and Senate, continues to attack Democrats relentlessly, and humiliates anyone who dares to cooperate with the new administration. Anyone seeking re-election will continue to cower in the face of the Trumpified base. No one will get through a primary process without Trump’s full support. Race-baiting, misogyny, conspiracism, and sycophancy will continue to be par for the course among Republicans. Perhaps Trump will run again himself in 2024. Perhaps Josh Hawley, Don Jr., or Tucker Carlson, will try to step up. They will need to grovel before Trump along the way. 

In the second scenario—a better outcome by far, but also, I fear, unlikely—Trump instead becomes a lesser albatross for the GOP. This is the scenario in which, in the coming months, the daggers come out, and Trump is made to feel the loss of authority he has earned. He has already suffered an embarrassing loss, and it will be very unpleasant for him to leave the White House. It’s possible that the stench of defeat will be strong, especially for someone like him, and that this will lead to others’ distancing themselves from him far more vocally than they have to date. I hope that they seize upon that chance. In such a scenario, my guess is that Trump shrinks back a little from political life, rather than doubling-down and risking further humiliation. He still Tweets and tries to exert authority of some kind, but his heart isn’t in it, the base proves surprisingly fickle, and the star begins to fade. 

Neither of these scenarios precludes an authoritarian refresh in 2024, but the threat will be far greater in the event of scenario one, where the demagogic heart of Trumpism is still beating loud and strong. In scenario two, any wannabe autocrat would have to be more stealthy. 

Either way, it seems to me that any serious illiberal effort is likely to strive for a new fusion of populist economics with social conservatism. This somewhat mythical path forward seems to be especially popular among conservative intellectuals like Patrick Deneen who have risen to prominence in the Trump era. Deneen speaks hopefully about the possibility of a new kind of conservatism that works above all to protect and support the (mostly white?) working-class. He and others have called it  “Aristopopulism,” and Deneen anticipates that the movement will involve the use of Machiavellian means put in the service of Aristotelian ends: “an aggressive confrontational, punitive, trust-busting political strategy aimed at taming the elites, that in turn will result in a tutoring of the elites towards a concern for the common good.” While some of the proposals Deneen lays out for a more “mixed” regime are interesting and appealing, the overall parameters of his post-liberal future remain awfully vague. Overall, his vision for America aligns with the socially conservative illiberal democracy of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. 

In my view, the most serious obstacle to the new fusionism is the fact that a genuinely populist economic program is in stark tension with the plutocratic elements of the GOP—elements that have hardly evaporated under Trump. It may be politically useful for Josh Hawley to talk a bit of anti-elite, working-class talk, but the Koch donor class still balks at anything that smacks of actual populism. Without Trumpism, it’s hard to see how conservatives can bust through these tensions, even just on the rhetorical plane. Under Trump it’s not clear that the realignment can become disciplined enough to win again. 

In short, it seems to me that, with Trump’s loss of the presidency, the path to American authoritarianism has become quite steep. 

For now, the more immediate threat to America is obstructionism on the part of Mitch McConnell, which will lead to the ongoing inability of the federal government to govern—and which, of course, will end up further destabilizing our already fragmented country—or to the excessive use of executive power on the part of President Biden. 

In my own dream fantasy, I dare to hope not only that Republicans cut bait with Trump but also that a noble few will dare to govern with the Biden administration. Those who do so could even claim the honor of being the first Aristopopulists: noble elites working on behalf of the common good. Biden, after all, is a moderate, Aristotelian sort—steady, elderly, Catholic, with a moving personal story, and from a white working-class background to boot. And several of the new fusionist aims (dignity for the working-class, holding corporations accountable, localism over globalism) coincide with many Democrats’ values. Shouldn’t all that count for something with today’s GOP? 

It will be awfully revealing if it does not. 

12 thoughts on “What Now of the Authoritarian Threat?

  1. My comment from Facebook.

    A terrific essay, as usual, from Laura, and her first for The Constitutionalist. She revisits the question of how to describe Trump’s anti-constitutional behavior and its potential consequences for the future.

    She paints a sobering picture — one that may be even more fraught than she imagines. In her telling the Biden win was decisive. It was. More than 8 million votes nationally and a solid Electoral College lead.

    But it also was closer than his win over Clinton in 2016. Very close. With just a shift of less than 30 thousand votes in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin, Trump would have been reelected.

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