Like any strange and quarrelsome sect, the church of anti-Trump conservatism has divided and subdivided since Donald Trump’s election. Some members have apostatized and joined the ranks of Trumpists; others have marched leftward, with anti-Trumpism as a gateway drug to wokeness. There is a faction that is notionally skeptical of Trump but functionally anti-anti-Trump, a faction that insists it’s just calling “balls and strikes” and a faction screaming that the president rigged the game and needs to be thrown out.
But amid all these disputations the central question facing anti-Trump conservatives – and not only us – can be simplified to this: Is what we’re watching a tragedy or a farce?
The case for tragedy is made this month by David Frum in his book “Trumpocracy,” which builds on his year-old Atlantic essay, “How to Build An Autocracy” and amplifies its central theme: that our president is a corrupt authoritarian, that his party has prostituted itself to wield unfettered power, and that this is an hour of great peril for the American republic, which teeters on the lip of the precipice that Erdogan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia have toppled over.
I agree with much of what Frum writes – his diagnosis of how the Republican Party succumbed to Trump, his judgment of Trump’s enablers and toadies, his critique of Trump’s disgraceful behavior and its coarsening effect.
But I am not convinced by his overarching theme of looming crisis, his hour-is-late tone and the frequent implication (however hedged and qualified) that Trump might be on his way to establishing a regime to rival the populist authoritarianisms of other unhappy countries.
So as a counterpoint to Frum’s argument for tragedy, let me make the case for farce. Start with the central issue that disturbs many patriotic critics of our president: that Trump was elected with covert assistance from Vladimir Putin’s government, that he or his allies may have cooperated with Putin’s attempted sabotage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and that some combination of sympathy for Putinism, a debt to Russian hackers, and even some sort of kompromat make him effectively a Manchurian president.
Frum, like others, has a moral certainty about the depth of Trumpian collusion that I don’t see vindicated in the publicly available facts. But it is certainly imaginable that Robert Mueller’s investigation will reveal something truly damning and impeachable.
But whatever the offenses may be, the real-world policy effects that Trump’s critics have feared from l'Affaire Russe – an alliance of strongmen, the subordination of U.S. interests to Moscow, the unraveling of NATO – haven’t materialized at all. Trump may desire a détente, but instead we are escalating our proxy war with Russia in Ukraine even as sanctions remain in force and our troops train in Eastern Europe and the Pentagon’s National Security Strategy treats Moscow as a major threat. If Trump is supposed to be advancing Kremlin interests from Washington, the bargain isn’t working, and the Russians might as well just release the pee tape and have done with it.
And what’s true with Russia is true on other fronts. A vast gulf between the things Trump says he wants – which are, indeed, often authoritarian – and the things that actually happen is the essential characteristic of his presidency’s first year.
He promised to bring back waterboarding and worse; he was easily talked out of it. He promised a Muslim ban; a much more modest travel ban is now tied up in the courts. He launched a voter fraud commission, which his critics regarded as a step toward massive vote suppression; it was ineffective and broke up. He keeps threatening to change the libel laws; they aren’t changing, and the anti-Trump press is thriving. NATO and NAFTA are both still there; the trade war with China has been postponed; we are not at war with Iran or (yes, I know, yet) with North Korea; the scope of the Russia investigation has only widened since Trump’s hamfisted intervention.
Before Trump took office, it was reasonable to worry that he would fill high offices with cronies, but the real cranks have rarely lasted and many appointments have been reasonable and conventional and even boring. The president is filling the courts with Federalist Society conservatives, not his sister or Ivanka or Newt Gingrich, and his Cabinet looks a lot like a generic Republican administration, whose efforts liberals understandably oppose and sometimes deplore, but which are not remotely like the workings of a fascist cabal circa 1935.
And then legislatively, the story of the Trump era so far is failure on every front save tax cuts, an outsourcing of policymaking to Hill Republicans, and a general incompetence that is bringing us yet another government shutdown. The recurrence of these shutdowns is, certainly, a symptom of the republic’s sclerosis – but it is not a Trump-specific problem, and he seems to have made it neither better nor much worse.
Now it might be argued that all of this – the balking of Trump’s authoritarian impulses, the normalcy of his appointments, his massive unpopularity and legislative failures – is due to the intense vigilance of the Resistance, the widespread determination to treat this president as an existential threat.
But I don’t think that’s right. Senate Republicans succeeded in normalizing Trump’s Cabinet and judicial appointments by behaving, well, normally: Working behind the scenes to veto bad choices and elevate more conventional picks. Congressional Democrats have stalled Trump’s agenda by campaigning against its substance, as they would with any other Republican president, and they are threatening to take the House and Senate by running no-fuss-and-drama candidates. The Deep State of bureaucrats and generals has prevented sudden breaks with U.S. policy not with high-profile resignations or massive acts of sabotage, but by repeatedly, patiently talking the president out of his most disruptive or dangerous ideas.
And where an abnormal response to Trump has kept things on an even keel, it hasn’t been furious protests; rather, it’s been a collective decision by many different actors, from his own appointees to his congressional opponents to foreign leaders the world over, to simply behave as if he isn’t actually the president, as if the system around him is what matters, and his expressed desires are just a reality TV performance.
This is not how a truly dangerous authoritarianism works. It’s not how the imperial presidencies of the past worked, either: For all his braggart’s talk, Trump has done nothing that compares with the power grabs and norm violations of Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, George W. Bush or even Barack Obama … and because he lacks the popularity or media adulation that all of those presidents enjoyed at one point, it’s very hard to see how he would go about imitating them.
This doesn’t mean that his presidency is succeeding, or that NeverTrumpers were wrong to oppose him; it doesn’t mean that his manifest incapacity won’t lead to some disaster; it doesn’t mean that conservatives or anyone else should be happy to have porn stars and race-baiting in the headlines; it doesn’t mean that the Trump chapter in our history won’t be remembered for hastening decline.
But if this chapter is a prelude to an authoritarian future, that future has clearly not yet arrived. Trump is a dictator on Twitter, a Dear Leader in his own mind, but in the real world there is no Trumpocracy because Trump cannot even rule himself. And while real tragedy may arrive eventually, in this historical cycle a dismal sort of farce is what comes first.