Dictatorship – or at least the threat of it – has been a topic of much debate in American politics this week.
As Donald Trump continues his seemingly easy march toward the Republican presidential nomination, critics have intensified their attacks on him.
Neoconservative academic Robert Kagan wrote an essay in the Washington Post warning that “the chances of the United States falling into a dictatorship have increased dramatically.” And former Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney, another outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, told CBS that the United States was “sleepwalking toward dictatorship.”
The former president dismissed the warnings as further evidence of “Trump derangement syndrome.”
Then, at a public forum in Iowa on Tuesday evening, Trump — who has often praised strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un — threw gasoline on the fire and danced around the flames.
As some American news headlines say, Trump seems to confirm the worst fears of his detractors: that he will become a “dictator” if he is re-elected to the American presidency.
However, the exchange was a bit more complicated than that.
Fox News moderator Sean Hannity was trying to get the former president to reject the accusation that, if elected next year, he planned to abuse presidential power to punish his enemies, like Trump has sometimes implied this in past comments.
“You promise America tonight that you will never abuse this power in retaliation against anyone?” » asked Hannity.
And that’s when Trump, again venturing into that gray area between humor and seriousness, declared that he would not abuse his power… “except on the first day” of his next term.
He added that he would take unilateral action on border security and energy extraction (to “drill, drill, drill,” as Trump put it).
“After that, I am not a dictator,” he concluded.
Such half-assurances have done little to comfort Trump’s critics, across the political spectrum.
According to them, democracy would be put to the test during a second term because there would be fewer safeguards.
They claim the former president himself spoke of militarizing the Justice Department and replacing officials with loyalists. And they warn that this time he would not have known any figures in his cabinet willing to oppose more extreme proposals.
A Trump super PAC responded by asserting that the real authoritarian is now in the White House.
“Joe Biden abuses his power to target journalists, politicians, activists and concerned parents,” Make America Great Again Inc wrote in an email Wednesday.
One of Trump’s Republican presidential rivals, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, told the BBC’s Americast that while Trump may never fully embrace the term “dictator “, a second Trump term could be dangerously authoritarian.
“Anytime you’re dealing with an authoritarian president, who assumes more power and disregards Congress, disregards the courts and the judiciary and the decisions they make, this is a consolidation of power in one branch of government,” Hutchinson said. “This is not how our country was designed, and it is autocratic.”
It’s what Hutchinson said after that, however, that should be concerning to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. If, as is widely predicted, Trump and Biden are the two major party nominees in 2024, the former Arkansas governor would seek another option.
“’I’m not going to choose (Biden) over Trump,’” Hutchinson said. “I would look for alternatives to support if that were the scenario.”
In 2020, and again in the early months of his 2024 presidential campaign, Biden has tried to position himself as a choice for disaffected Republicans in addition to independents and members of his own party.
But despite concerns about a potentially autocratic candidate on the Republican line — one who plays fast and loose with the term dictator — Hutchinson would not consider supporting the Democratic incumbent.
Opinion polls taken a year after Election Day aren’t particularly reliable, but recent polls pitting Trump against Biden are enough to indicate the fight will be close. And if Hutchinson, an avowed anti-Trump, is looking for a presidential alternative, he’s probably not the only one.
As new political group No Labels plans to field a centrist candidate and others — like Liz Cheney — play with the idea of independent candidates, disgruntled voters may have other options on the ballot.
In an election where every vote will be precious, this is a dangerous place for Biden. And, according to Trump’s fiercest critics on the right, it’s a dangerous place for the country.
In his Washington Post essay, Kagan warns that Trump is closer to winning the presidency, thanks to Republican support and the national mood, than many think — and that his actions once elected would be more dangerous.
He claims that Trump and his allies will engage in a campaign of persecution, targeting perceived enemies, while many Americans will sit idly by.
Many Americans, including millions of Trump supporters, of course don’t see it that way. And come November, a plurality could return the former president to the White House, despite all the lofty warnings from scholars like Kagan.
It is becoming clear, however, that Biden and the Democrats will present this election as one where democracy is at stake. And, with dictator talk, whether jokingly or seriously, Trump appears to be urging them to do so.