Politics / December 7, 2023

The Trump Dictatorship Goes on Autopilot

The MAGA world is making all the same fascist threats it did the last time around—and the media is still twiddling its thumbs.

Chris Lehmann
Former President Trump Attends Iowa Campaign Events

Former president Donald Trump speaks during a visit to a Team Trump Volunteer Leadership Training, at the Grimes Community Complex in Grimes, Iowa, on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

(Al Drago / Bloomberg)

The Trump campaign apparatus is spending so much time now saying the quiet part out loud that our establishment gatekeepers haven’t really taken much notice of the dramatic escalation in volume. In recent weeks, Trump has stepped up his vows to wreak retribution on a vast array of MAGA nation enemies, branding them “vermin” and marking them out for elimination. Plans to stock the federal workforce with fawning Trump loyalists are a centerpiece of plans for a Trump second term, while a new host of vicious border-internment proposals are also taking shape in MAGA land.

It was against this backdrop that Fox News grievance merchant Sean Hannity hosted a town hall interview with Trump in Iowa on Tuesday, just ahead of last night’s GOP presidential debate. (True to form for the GOP primary cycle, the “town hall” involved no participation from actual voters—just an exchange of outraged petulance from megamillionaires Hannity and Trump.) Hannity delivered a softball query about the Trump campaign’s multifront lurch into Mussolini mode, inviting the former president to genially smite down growing worries about his autocratic policies and rhetoric. But Trump, typically, didn’t oblige media expectations; instead, he told Hannity that he’d act as a dictator on his first day in office, to institute his pet border crackdowns and expand US oil drilling. (Both measures, by the way, would do nothing to address the actual conditions at the border or the already receding spike in energy prices; yet such policy details weren’t in play for MAGA cheerleader Hannity, who merely marveled, “That’s not retribution.”) “I love this guy,” Trump said in his reply to Hannity. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said, ‘No, no, no, not after day one. We’re closing the border and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.’”

Of course, the historical record doesn’t exactly abound with examples of leaders claiming dictatorial powers at the outset of their terms in office and then promptly forswearing them. And indeed, just as Trump was offering his pallid disclaimer to Hannity, two trusted Trump power-cronies were holding forth in full-fascist exhilaration over in another corner of the mediasphere. Kash Patel, a former Trump White House aide who served as a major “Stop the Steal” organizer after the 2020 presidential balloting, appeared on former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast to detail a classic fascist agenda item: jailing and harassing journalists who deviate from the approved party line. The two mendacious MAGA hacks pledged that Trump was in fact “dead serious” about fomenting retribution on his political enemies during a second term, telling members of the press “we’re coming for you.”

“I want the Morning Joe producers that watch us and all the producers that watch us—this is just not rhetoric. We’re absolutely dead serious,” Bannon announced. “You cannot have a constitutional republic and allow what these deep-staters have done to the country. The deep state—the administrative state, the fourth branch of government, never mentioned in the Constitution—is going to be taken apart, brick by brick, and the people that did these evil deeds will be held accountable and prosecuted, criminal prosecutions.”

Patel couldn’t second Bannon’s sentiments fast enough. “We will go out and find the conspirators—not just in government, but in the media,” Patel told Bannon. “Yes, we’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections. We’re going to come after you. Whether it’s criminally or civilly, we’ll figure that out. But yeah, we’re putting you all on notice, and Steve, this is why they hate us. This is why we’re tyrannical. This is why we’re dictators. Because we’re actually going to use the Constitution to prosecute them for crimes they said we have always been guilty of but never have.”

Patel clearly intended the reference to tyranny and dictatorship to land as irony for War Room listeners—but his own longing for state-enforced retribution instantly undercut that rhetorical feint, since precisely no part of the Constitution functions as a rolling rationale for punishing political enemies once you obtain maximum executive power. And all this is to say nothing, of course, about the enormous untruth fueling these brown-shirted reveries of vengeance—the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, which, despite being serially laughed out of court and serving as the foundation for multimillion-dollar defamation suits, now stands as a central litmus test of Republican Party orthodoxy.

With MAGA flirtations with fascism thus running the gamut from half-flagrant to fully flagrant, the urgent question remains unchanged from what it was at the outset of the Trump era: How can a bloated, complacent, and change-averse system of media-political consensus respond convincingly to the threat of an authoritarian putsch engineered by a major political party? Now, as then, the results are decidedly equivocal, and far from encouraging. There’s been a rash of recent elite commentary on what an autocratic second Trump term would look like, but, as my Nation colleague Joan Walsh notes, much of it has fast-forwarded into a prophecy that Trump’s reelection is all but certain, given the present state of polling, and downplays actual democratic countermeasures that would likely arrest the genuine threat of Trump’s autocratic seizure of power.

Some mainstream press outlets, meanwhile, have called out Trump’s embrace of fascist rhetoric for what it is—but the national political press still routinely fails to connect the dots in appraising the true scale of the Republican Party’s authoritarian rot. Initial reports on the rise of Mike Johnson, an extremist and election-denying Christian nationalist, to the house speakership, focused predictably on his nice-guy, irenic mien, without bothering to mention his ties to bigoted and dominionist religious figures. One goggle-eyed Washington Post dispatch from November marveled that congressional Democrats “quickly seek to make Speaker Johnson a boogeyman”—an initiative that “may face a challenge given his low profile and quiet tone.” Meanwhile, just yesterday, the house overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution that dangerously defined criticism of Zionism—a position flowing from an intelligible and principled set of political and religious beliefs—as antisemitism. That measure engages in classic authoritarian bigotry, by equating an ethno-religious identity with a belief system, but virtually no mainstream media organ has covered it in those terms.

Back when I was editing the left cultural criticism journal The Baffler, subscribers and critics chided us for using the descriptor “fascist” for the incoming Trump administration. The charge was hyperbolic and sure to backfire on the anti-Trump resistance, we were counseled, but the evidence of our senses told us otherwise, from the rapid adoption of the Muslim ban to the White House’s creation of bogus executive agencies to track the nonexistent threats of voter fraud and rampaging immigrant violent crime. Bannon and his alt-right fanboys were already branding the press “the enemy of the people” back then—a charge that reinforced Trump’s mantra deriding reporters as subversive, unpatriotic purveyors of “fake news.” Trump also fired a series of Justice Department officials charged with investigating his campaign’s alleged Russia ties and other shenanigans, foreshadowing the politicizing of federal law enforcement he’s planning to kickstart at the outset of a second term, together with a raft of evidence-challenged investigations of Joe Biden. It’s grimly ironic that many of the same sources of “go slow” counsel back then are now forecasting a total MAGA dictatorship as the likeliest outcome of Election 2024. One could have hoped that they might have entertained a degree of humility and self-awareness back in 2017, when all these authoritarian trendlines were locking into gear, and being diligently euphemized by the keepers of elite discourse. But preachments of authoritarian fatalism are infinitely more seductive than the painful exercise of learning from one’s mistakes.

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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