Trump’s first 20 days reveal troubling patterns, according to experts on authoritarianism

Checks and balances are still holding up, but they’re under attack.

President Donald Trump looks at a figurine given to him by a group of county sheriffs, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump looks at a figurine given to him by a group of county sheriffs, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Twenty event-ridden days into Donald Trump’s presidency, experts and scholars on authoritarianism are less shocked, though still deeply concerned, about the new administration’s disregard for democratic norms.

These experts previously told ThinkProgress that the first few days of Trump’s rule were concerning — and that their concerns only grew after the first week. Now, almost three weeks in, they know a pattern of behavior when they see one.

Trump’s criticism of a federal “so-called judge” shows that Trump refuses to adapt to the presidency.

Sheri Berman, a political scientist at Barnard College: “This is basically a doubling down. Rather than retreating on conflicts with different institutional forces in American democracy that are set up to limit the executive branch’s powers, he’s on attack mode. This is consistent with what we saw in his campaign. It’s surprising that when they got in office they continued in campaign mode and did not adapt to the office.”

Tom Pepinsky, Associate Professor in Government Studies at Cornell University, “It’s one of those interesting things where, in a hard authoritarian country [criticizing the judiciary] doesn’t happen at all. In authoritarian countries, judges don’t rule against the authoritarian. The distinction is between describing what he does versus the system he lives in. I certainly think it’s menacing and certainly what an authoritarian would do when challenged.”

Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia: “Slowly but steadily a pattern is starting to appear. Trump the President is essentially the same as Trump the Candidate. First, he still doesn’t inform himself on issues, gets his information from right-wing TV channels and far right websites, and responds emotionally and instantly based on that information — rather than, first, asking for a briefing from a relevant government agency, and then responding in an informed and rational way. Tellingly, he still tweets primarily through his personal account (@realdonaldtrump) and not his professional account (@POTUS).

“Second,he continues to display a strong authoritarian style, in which he considers any dissent as illegitimate, including that of courts, and threatens directly with state actions, including repression, again often without knowing the facts, just the right-wing spin. And, third, he is still a part-time politician, barely paying attention to details (not even with executive orders), stopping work at 6 to watch TV, and taking the weekend off to promote his business.”

Appointing Steve Bannon to the National Security Council Principal’s Committee (allegedly unknowingly) shows who is really running the show.

Berman: “It’s either amateur hour-ish or they are ignoring norms and how institutions are supposed to function.”

Pepinsky: “I think the naming of Bannon to the NSC Principal’s Committee, if it’s true Trump didn’t know he was doing that, shows the complete and utter disorganization of the Trump White House. When you have a weak or incompetent executive, subordinates rule the executive. From the very beginning, Trump’s mendacity or narcissism [was apparent] in his indifference to detail.”

Mudde: “This all means that other people wield considerable influence, as they have much more information than the president, know he is not interested in details, and [that he] only works 12 hours per day. It is clear that there are major internal struggles going on, but also that Steve Bannon is currently more powerful than [Trump’s Chief of Staff] Reince Priebus.”

The ideology of certain White House advisers is deeply troubling.

Berman: “This is of immense concern. Authoritarian intellectuals who are pretty openly racist and [who hold] semi, pro-fascist views — that’s not really very common, so it is definitely a cause for concern, there’s no doubt about that.

“Will Bannon’s influence continue to grow going forward? Thus far there has not been a huge amount of pushback from Republicans, and they have to be the first line of defense. We’ve seen an explosion of what people call the “alt-right” propaganda come out from the woodwork and the dark corners of the internet. So there’s no doubt it is incredibly worrying, and not something we’ve seen in American politics since the 1930s, maybe since McCarthyism. Certainly, racist view points were much more openly expressed before the civil rights era, but in recent memory these people were not politically prominent in a Presidential administration.”

Pepinsky: “I’m uninterested in litigating the question of if [Bannon] is a Nazi or ‘alt-right.’ I don’t care if he means it or not, I just don’t want him to say it. I think people who say those things should not be in the White House. Without trying to discern if Trump or [Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared] Kushner are in their personal lives, I have plenty of reasons to oppose them anyway.”

The GOP has largely failed to moderate Trump’s more extreme nominees and proposals.

Berman: “Since the GOP is the majority in the Senate and House, they are the first potential block or moderating force for Trump’s behavior. And thus far they’ve really not acted that way at all. There’s not been a lot of push back on anything he’s done.

“I’m slightly surprised and a more than a little disappointed. What’s happening is they are willing to give him a huge amount of leeway because he’s throwing them a lot of what they want: a Supreme Court nominee and the dismantling of Obama era regulations. They’re clearly willing to make sure that those things go through and give him lots of stuff [in return]. A lot of the [cabinet] nominees are controversial… [but the GOP is] eager to get as many through as possible before pushback from constituents, organizations, or Democratic opposition kicks in.”

Pepinsky: “As to whether or not what the GOP is doing [by circumventing Democrats to secure nominations for Trump’s nominees is] unprecedented, it doesn’t strike me as authoritarian to do the things the GOP’s done; though it’s awfully unlikely to lessen the extreme partisanship that American politics see today. You can become authoritarian without trying. If you corrode systems of parliamentary order to get things done you might undermine institutions that sustain them.

“I struggle to give the label of authoritarianism. I think it’s in line with 20 years of GOP strategy of winner-take-all, and an understanding of politics where the failure of the Obama administration was by definition the success of the GOP, rather than considering if these policies are good for Americans.”

Mudde: “The GOP is not doing anything to oppose him or his nominees, and is not just pushing through its own agenda but is also increasingly accommodating his agenda, as can be seen in the anti-immigration bill of Sens. [Tom Cotton (R-AK)] and [David Perdue (R-GA)]. Hence, despite all media attention for the few voices of dissidence over [Education Secretary nominee] Betsy DeVos and U.S. policy toward Russia, the Trump administration and GOP Congress work increasingly in tandem, bending rules (e.g. Sessions hearing), limiting space for opposition (censoring Senator [Elizabeth Warren (R-MA)]), and discrediting critical voice in courts, media and politics.”

Trump’s threat to withdraw funding from U.C. Berkeley shows how little facts matter to him and display the fragility of his ego.

Berman: “Berkeley was a perfect example of Trump’s tendency [to disregard facts]. It’s pretty clear from the facts, [the anti-Milo Yiannopoulos protesters] were not Berkeley students, and the university itself allowed [the protested event] to go forward, so attacking [the university] is convenient. Threatening the funding is consistent with his opposition to any sort of outlet or institution that is critical of him. There is a larger pattern of attacking the media, judges, the courts, and any kind of institution that has anything to say about him.”

It’s not as bad as it could be. But it’s still not great.

Pepinsky: “I think we are going in the wrong direction right now. Attacks on the judiciary and media are dangerous and we are already there. I think I would be more worried — a scarier thing — would be an effort to remove a judge from office, an effort to sue a media organization for insults or irregularities, or a refusal to obey a judicial order. These are things that have been, for large parts of American history, off the table. We see for example when the judge in Seattle ruled against Trump’s executive order [the Muslim ban], the administration’s bureaucracy complied with it instantaneously, which is really good news.

“It’s striking to me the Trump administration is litigating the case for the executive order in the media. That’s where it should happen. It’s the democratic way of doing things. My fear would be that there will be some stage where the executive order, assuming it goes through the normal channels and is found unlawful, would result in either an attempt to rewrite the regulation in a legally permissible way or a way that discredits the institutions’ rule against that.”