Speaking about Donald Trump’s America in a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper, singer Taylor Swift said: “We’re a democracy – at least, we’re supposed to be – where you’re allowed to disagree, dissent, debate. I really think that he thinks this is an autocracy.”
Well, yes and no. I have little doubt that Trump would like the powers of an autocrat, but experience has probably informed him that the power structure in the US is designed to make an autocrat’s life difficult. It’s likely that his apparent fondness for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is based in no small part on his envy for the younger man’s unassailable status (barring a coup, I guess) at the head of his country’s governing structure.
Kim, unlike Trump, is a true autocrat, sitting at the head of an autocratic power structure. In North Korea, government by a single ruler with supreme authority and total political and legal power, is the way things are meant to be. It was designed that way – by none other than Kim’s grandfather. It must be galling to Trump, that his grandfathers were operating brothels during the Klondike gold rush (Friedrich Trump) and catching fish off the coast of Scotland (Malcolm MacLeod), instead of becoming communists and establishing autocratic family dynasties.
Whatever ambitions Trump may have to wield autocratic power, he is hemmed in by the US Constitution and a power structure that endows the legislative and judicial branches of government with significant leverage over the authority of the presidency. He may not be the brainiest pupil in the class, but he has been tripped up enough times by Congress and the courts for him to understand that the US – with its current structure – is not fertile ground for a budding autocrat.
So Trump may very well want to be an autocrat and is probably irked by the fact that he can’t be one, but I doubt that he thinks he is running an autocracy, as per Taylor Swift.
That said, neither is he running a true democracy, despite the bedrock of “We the people” and the constitutional separation of powers. One oddity of the Constitution is that it does not contain the word “democracy” – not even once. Nor, for that matter, is democracy mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. The reason, apparently, is that the founding fathers were fearful of the tyranny of the majority.
Rather than establish democracy as the basic principle of American government, the framers of the constitution aimed to safeguard the trinity of life, liberty and property, as John Locke put it. The moment the idea spreads that “property is not as sacred as the laws of God,” John Adams wrote, “anarchy and tyranny commence.” With that in mind, the founding fathers created a system that safeguarded – indeed, enshrined – economic liberty, not democracy. As history has shown, economic liberty favors those with means. America lacks the safeguards (such as health and welfare) for those without means that are essential to democracy in Europe.
Democracy, therefore, is not the default state of American governance; it is a modern interpretation, dating back to the idealistic days of Woodrow Wilson. Today, America likes to regard itself as a democracy – one with the self-imposed duty of bringing democracy to the rest of the world, no less – but it lacks the empathy that is the true bedrock of modern democracy. American democracy has a hole where its heart should be.
Today, for the second time in its history (the first was the so-called Gilded Age, between the 1880s and the early twentieth century) American democracy has been perverted by the symbiosis of power and money to such a degree that it qualifies as an oligarchy – a state in which power is concentrated in the hands of a corporate and political elite, which maintains and increases that power (and wealth) by enacting laws that work in its own interests.
Americans enjoy all the trappings of democracy – frequent elections, freedom of speech etc. – but policy-making is dominated by the elite and the powerful organizations and companies that support it. The American in the street has no say whatsoever. Even the president is not elected by direct vote – as Hilary Clinton’s plurality in 2016 made clear. The average American has unknowingly swapped democratic leverage for unbridled consumerism, leading to a vast concentration of wealth, wide inequality, corruption and, increasingly, poverty.
With Trump in power, the country’s built-in oligarchic tendencies have the wind at their backs. The controls and regulations imposed by previous presidents (notably the two Roosevelts) to rein in monopolies, break up trusts and impose equitably progressive taxes are all under attack by the Trump administration and its poodles in the Senate. The rich are paying less tax, Wall Street is back in business and regulations across a wide front are being rolled-back.
So, Taylor, you’re on the right track, but the terminology is a little different. Trump doesn’t think he’s in an autocracy; he knows he’s running an oligarchy – and he loves it.
The final question, then, is how much damage can he do if he’s elected to another term? There seems to be little doubt that American oligarchism will go from strength to strength, but will he be satisfied with that?
I, for one, don’t buy the explanation that his claim last week to be “the Chosen One” was a joke. I suspect that among all the bizarre impulses that spark through the manic chaos that passes for the Trump brain are long strings of messianism and even monarchism. He wants to be the best, the most, the only – and it wouldn’t really matter if that were as Jesus Christ, King Donald or Stalin. As long as he stands alone, high above everyone else.
It’s worth remembering that Germany was a democracy with a parliament (the Reichstag) and a president when Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933, but by September it was already a dictatorship. And it happened without Hitler having to resort to a military coup (which wouldn’t have worked anyway because he didn’t have the army’s support at that early stage.) All it took was determination, utter disregard for the law and the willingness to use as much violence as necessary – as well, I guess, as a certain madness. Could the American system, designed to prevent the rise of a tyrant, survive an all-out assault by Trump?
I wouldn’t bet on it.