Whether Donald Trump runs again in 2024 or fades from politics, his enigmatic hold on tens of millions of Americans will be a lesson to the next demagogue. Much will be learned from Trump’s successes in manipulating huge swaths of the public, and also from his failures to translate his autocratic desires into practical power.
Just the fact that 72 percent of Republicans tell pollsters that they believe Trump’s discredited claim that he won the 2020 election is a mark of his perverse success in selling the Big Lie. His outsized personality, his ridiculous assertions, his coarse and insulting talent for channeling resentments felt by masses of alienated citizens placed him so far above reproach in so many minds that his obvious corruption and damage to the country’s reputation and national security made no impact on the committed. After four years of falsehoods, incompetence, and immorality, he won eleven million more votes than in 2016 (up from 63 to 74 million).
He has deftly played the dual role of tough guy and victim, of swaggering bully and persecuted prey. This is a skillful embodiment of the wishes and fears of the millions, mostly white working class, who feel marginalized and dishonored while yearning for the wealth and strength that Trump appears to possess. He has given them the dignity that many feel they have been denied by the liberal, urban, multiethnic society that their country is becoming.
Despite his serial fabrications, his lack of moral boundaries made him seem authentic and unscripted. He was a paradox: an outsider but a pampered part of the corporate elite, a non-politician whose every move was politically calculated for his own benefit, a drainer of the “swamp” who wallowed in corrupt self-dealing. He was right when he said that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters.
But because Trump did not understand government and antagonized authoritative agencies, he was often stymied as he tried to rule dictatorially, above the law. He crudely attacked the intelligence agencies, the military, the FBI, and other power centers, precisely those that an autocrat would need to muster under his control. His impatience and incompetence stymied many of his efforts to shortcut the due process built into the regulatory system.
He managed to execute conservatives’ goals of dismantling many protections of workers’ rights and safety, consumers’ health against harmful chemicals and pollution, and natural environmental assets. And the hostile atmosphere he and his minions created drove many skilled experts out of scientific, legal, and diplomatic posts. But courts blocked his attempts to impose or reverse regulations by rolling over the legal requirements for waiting periods, public comment, and impact assessments. And his ineptitude at massaging Congress into significant legislative change meant that the landscape of the law was not extensively revised in the short run—although long-term effects will be felt through his numerous appointments of conservative federal judges.
Seeing this record, a sophisticated would-be autocrat could adjust accordingly. Large sections of the American public have proved remarkably gullible, as if batteries in their Nonsense Alarms have died. They are ready to believe the most absurd conspiracy, fall for the most transparent con artist, and sign on to the unhealthiest cult of personality. A Gallup poll just recorded Trump as 2020’s most admired man. This, amid a pandemic soaring largely because of Trump’s bungled responses.
A grim question arises from the fact that the adulation of Trump persisted after Russia created false identities online to inflame America’s divisive politics: How much collaboration would an invading enemy enjoy? It seems a crazy thought, but some European countries learned hard lessons in World War II. An aspiring American autocrat might be smart enough to take notice.
A next Trump, a successful Trump, is likely to be a slick purveyor of empty dreams and encrypted hatreds. He or she would be a suave authoritarian populist who whipped up fear about internal enemies. Rough, Trump-like edges would be smoothed. The platitudes would flow like honey off the tongue. The outright misogyny that repelled many female voters would be veiled, and thinly encoded racism would mask explicit bigotry and invite quiet applause.
To gain autocratic power, this future Trump would not display every whim of outrage online but would conceal malevolence behind a screen of propriety. Much can be accomplished in secret, as American history has shown. So our hypothetical president would have to be an even better actor and entertainer than Trump, surreptitious while conveying a deceptive impression of candor to followers who value iconoclastic rulers.
Furthermore—and this is perhaps most important—he or she would be clever enough to coopt, not alienate, the centers of governmental power. Trump attacked and derided them. The would-be dictator would cultivate them, harnessing the intelligence and undercover operations of the CIA and the FBI, the formidable surveillance tools of the National Security Agency, the investigative apparatus of the IRS, the prosecutorial clout of the Justice Department, and perhaps the ultimate threat of the military.
Impossible, you say? We need look no farther back than the 1970s, when decades of domestic spying, harassment, and political prosecutions against dissenting citizens came to an end after being investigated and exposed by the committee chaired by Senator Frank Church. It is worth reading the report.
Beginning in the Cold War and stretching through the Vietnam War, agencies targeted such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr., labor unions, antiwar activists, and others who challenged the status quo. Against constitutionally protected free-speech the government mounted surveillance, disinformation, dirty tricks, and politically-motivated prosecutions. One effort is depicted in the new film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” on protest leaders arrested unjustly in 1968.
The FBI routinely requested tax files on activists, the IRS audited citizens and groups “of predominantly dissident or extremist nature,” an internal memo declared, including the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NSA intercepted millions of private telegrams, and the CIA secretly opened and photographed nearly 250,000 first-class letters. Phones were wiretapped without warrants, homes were broken into clandestinely, and the FBI even sent anonymous letters to wives of Black Panthers alleging infidelity, which destroyed at least one marriage. The FBI compiled a list of some 26,000 “suspicious” Americans who were to be rounded up in case of a “national emergency.”
After the investigation, Congress passed laws to impede such abuses, but some restrictions were evaded or diluted after the 9/11 attacks. Given what the United States has learned about itself in the last four years, some form of recurrence seems possible one day, given the right circumstances: a “national emergency,” a compliant and fearful public, and a charismatic demagogue who ignores the rule of law just as President Trump but with a deft hand on the levers of power.
As former President Obama said to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “I’m not surprised that somebody like Trump could get traction in our political life. He’s a symptom as much as an accelerant. But if we were going to have a right-wing populist in this country, I would have expected somebody a little more appealing.”
The next Trump could be more appealing, and therefore more dangerous.