The Danger of President Trump Isn't Dictatorship
by Megan McArdle
Let’s say Donald Trump manages to romp his way to the White House in November. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik paints a dire picture of what will follow: “If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump.”
Gopnik goes on to assure us that “Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right -- not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal.”
I don’t think I can be accused of being a Trump apologist; I’ve written a lot of words about the man, few of them kind. Nonetheless, I find Gopnik’s essay to be, well, a bit hyperbolic.
Take the notion that countries don’t recover from unstable authoritarian nationalists. It sounds true, because it seems as if it ought to be. But Gopnik fails to marshal much evidence.
The countries he names had big institutional problems before the dictators arrived and big problems afterward, so it’s hard to say that the one caused the other. History -- even of large, prosperous nations -- is littered with unstable authoritarian nationalists, or their smaller-scale equivalent. Precious few are the countries that have not, at one time or other, been ruled by fiercely tribal autocrats with weak administrative skills and size-12 egos jammed uncomfortably into size-4 souls. If your country ever had a monarchy, you can look down the list of kings and pick out your own candidates.
Maybe Gopnik only refers to modern countries? Or perhaps he means that countries require some sort of hard reset after a dictatorship, or that the wounds take a long time to heal? But some countries seem to have transitioned to democracy all right without a “hard reset,” and saying “these things take time to recover from” weakens Gopnik’s statement to the trivial argument that history has consequences.
Moreover, the “modern times” restriction makes it hard to generalize, simply because there just aren’t that many modern democracies around, or enough years of history to study from them. Even then, it seems like a stretch to say that a place like Chile has “never recovered” from a loathsome dictatorship. Chile had a largely peaceful transition back to democracy in the late 1980s, as did South Korea around the same time. I’m sure that psychic scars linger, but are they really worse than, say, the psychic scars of our own Civil War which involved, let us not forget, a certain amount of liberty-taking with constitutional rights?
And that assumes that Trump, having taken power, would turn into a Peron or a Lenin, and not, say, just a bad president. Leave aside for now the argument over whether he has genuinely scary-dictator instincts (I see worrying signs that he does, but this is unprovable until he tries to do scary-dictator things rather than just bray about them).
There are two stages to becoming a scary autocrat. First, you have to get into a position to seize power. The most traditional routes are the military (a task for which Donald Trump’s bone spurs left him tragically disqualified), or winning elected office to abolish or corrupt the electoral process. The former route has its risks, but once you’ve safely arrived in the presidential palace, it’s pretty easy to dispense with democracy, since you have all the guns. The latter route means you need the rest of government, including all the folks with guns, to go along with you.
This certainly does happen, even in countries that have been practicing democracies for a while. But it’s by no means a given.
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