Donald Trump and tyranny
A recent review of Michael Wolff’s book Landslide in the London Review of Books underplayed any lasting impact of the Trump presidency. David Runciman takes a rather supercilious view suggesting, that within the Trump presidency there was a ‘vacuum of seriousness’ where any relationship between means and ends was absent. Yet, if you are women living in Texas who wishes to access an abortion, one might have a very different view of whether the Trump presidency achieved its ends. Trump appointees on the US Supreme Court were instrumental in allowing Senate Bill 8 to continue while its constitutionality is tested before the courts. If you were an African American voter in Georgia, you may similarly consider that the Election Integrity Act shows the Trump White House achieving its ends. The Afghan women, girls and members of the LGBTQ+ community will feel the consequences of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan for years to come. While families separated at the US–Mexican border, many of whom remain apart, would also disagree with the assessment of means and end. If re-elected in 2024, Trump’s vacuum of seriousness will have achieved more than many ‘serious’ attempts at governance.
As my article ‘No tyranny for failing Donald Trump – sad!: Law, constitutionalism and tyranny in the twenty-first century’ argues, the Trump presidency demonstrates a huge amount about the state of modern liberal constitutionalism. This includes its inability to respond to leverages of power outside of its understanding of ‘reasonableness’. Constitutional designs are partially forms of bulwarks against tyranny. Though the United States (US), alongside other states, has an intertwined record, particularly the US’s historical relationship with slavery and more recent external interference in other states, Trump did not invent a new form – nor did his fellow travellers – rather he and others concentrated the tyrannical possibilities, lent them legitimacy, including legal legitimacy, and used latent forms of hatred, fear, misogyny and nostalgia for a better past to build their following. Small legal changes, including the insertion of individuals whose views align with the tyrant, into legal offices and roles, is a long-term, durable stratagem of tyrants.
Whether Trump created (or will create) a tyranny is not the correct question. Rather, what is at hand is how to hold back tyranny in its modern form, including how to identify its manifestations. Its use of misogynistic and silencing tendencies, its use of largesse and fear alongside more familiar forms of constitutional illegitimacy, must all be considered when examining tyranny.
The Trump presidency’s use of misogyny, its racism, its attitudes to the COVID pandemic and its creation of an independent Trumpian truth shows the relative ease in setting in train tyranny’s emergence. That Trump (currently) failed does not prove resilience but rather that Trump ran out of time. Temporal bulwarks, like term-limits, succeeded. Although his attempts to derail the election – and the insistence that the election was stolen by many still in positions of power and the numbers who believe in that Trumpian truth – must be regarded as a serious harm. Outside the US, it is now a useful trope of some to claim an election they may lose will be stolen long before it is held. Trump’s attempt via the courts to prevent the release of documents that implicate him with efforts to ‘steal’ the election on 6 January 2021 and the support he receives from the Republican party in preventing investigations demonstrates his ongoing ‘serious’ power and the limits of legal procedures.
‘Making America Great Again’ is a callback to a time that was more racist, homophobic and misogynist, when US hegemony was less contested as a better time. The ‘when’ of Making America Great was unspecified, but this was unnecessary, as the temporal leap was to a period imagined by each voter, perhaps even before they were born, when the system meant they lived superior lives. This is not to blame the individuals who voted for Trump, but to suggest that the constitutional narrative in the US, buttressed by Trump’s 1776 Commission, is one of an ideal past moment. No matter that this past legal ideal was far from idyllic for most of the population.
Tyrants use illegitimacy, silence, rule by law, fear, gendered and bureaucratic governance which may be beneficent, but the ultimate benefits always come to the tyrant and their cadre as their tools. The view pronounced in the London Review piece appeared to believe that the absence of an ideology meant that Trumpism is not a concern. However, an ideology – beyond the aggrandisement of the tyrant – is far from definitional of tyranny. In the twentieth century, there were often overlaps, but that is a historically specific moment rather than a requirement of serious ideological transformation as indispensable for a tyranny. What is perhaps a more important lesson from the twentieth century is that ‘fake’ constitutionalism is more likely to be a tool of both ideology and tyranny rather than a bulwark. What is also required is deep societal wide contestation of political policy, which is why a fundamental approach of the Trump presidency was to undermine contestation. This was achieved via Trumpian ‘truth’ or alternative facts, via fear through threats on social media or far-right marches in Charlottesville or the deliberate undermining of members of the judiciary whose decisions were not to Trump’s liking.
When looking at his presidency, it is important to consider the before and after and, in that context, whether Trump and his fellow travellers succeeded. Not just the, yes, ridiculousness of Trump himself – but rather the impact on the legal and political culture. Critical also is to see what was there before Trump that enabled him and his administration to succeed where they did and to value and admire the contestation that remained resilient and defiant of attempts to silence them. Law featured heavily in the Trump administration – including Trumpian legal facts – but it was not law that prevented him from fulfilling his purpose but rather consistent contestation. Looking at Trump through a tyrannical lens enables a view that see the trends and possibilities to prevent its emergence. Dismissing the events of the administration as a vacuum of seriousness is to minimise the very real harm caused.