7 min read

Dictator Trump Only Happens If We Let It Happen

Dictator Trump Only Happens If We Let It Happen

As a political professional, it's extremely frustrating to read alarmist, catastrophizing essays about Donald Trump becoming a dictator if he wins a second term. This is a general point because we're going to see more posts like this over the next 11 months, but I'm going to focus on Robert Kagan's Washington Post essay because it got a lot of traction this week.

Kagan's argument is that a Trump dictatorship is "increasingly inevitable." His essay is broadly dismissive of efforts to combat right wing authoritarianism, dispensing with them through a series of rhetorical questions, none of which Kagan attempts to answer directly.

These essays are a missed opportunity. Instead of another speculative, research-free opinion column, I'd like to see some reported essays that coherently interrogate how movements and Democratic officials can successfully counter-mobilize. That includes when it comes to winning in 2024, securing a victory through a vote count and election certification, and in the event of a loss, preventing the worst excesses of a second Trump administration.

Catastrophizing coverage alone doesn't actually inspire people to action. If mainstream media essayists really think Dictator Trump is a possibility, they owe it to their readers to give them some pathways for stopping that from happening instead of just dropkicking an alarm bell.

Some throat-clearing — Trump bad

Rejecting alarmist media coverage doesn't mean I don't take the threat of a second Trump term seriously. It just means I remember how a broad coalition from the left to center right prevented Trump from doing a lot of bad stuff and then beat his ass "like a drum" in 2020 even after he tried inciting an insurrection.

So to be 100% clear: I think Trump and Republicans are very bad and I don't want them to win elections. In addition to casting my own super non-decisive presidential ballot here in Joe Biden's home state of Delaware, I'll be working to help defeat Trump and other Republicans as well as supporting advocacy groups, unions and other people and organizations I've worked with for years.

So nothing I'm saying here is meant to downplay or diminish the serious negative consequences of a second Trump term. I'm just asking media outlets to point people in more useful directions after raising the alarm.

Counter-mobilization was often successful

Dictator Trump didn't happen from 2017 to 2021 for a variety of reasons. Courts weakened or struck down extreme measures. Regulated industries pushed back against right wing burn-it-to-the-ground proposals. Military leaders refused to carry out illegal orders. Democrats at the state and federal level routinely checked Republicans. Republicans themselves could barely assemble a governing coalition for anything besides tax breaks and stealing a Supreme Court seat. Unions threatened massive strikes to help end a government shutdown. Millions of Americans demonstrated and mobilized. Democrats won back the House and the presidency. Smart activists moved seamlessly from get-out-the-vote efforts to election protection outside vote counting facilities. When Trump supporters descended on DC in the weeks after the election, local and national activists closely monitored their activities, making a key decision to stand down on January 6th, which forced Trump insurrectionists to square off against federal police, local police and the National Guard.

The first Trump administration sucked. I washed tear gas from my neighbor's eyes in Lafayette Square during the racial justice uprisings. Park Police shot us with stinging pellets. I attended to demonstrators who were trampled outside St. John's Church as federal and local police illegally cleared the area for a Trump photo op with a Bible. But I was back the next day. And we were joined by even more people, including a lot of "normie" Democrats in Biden swag as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose presence made us all less likely to face police violence that day. In millions of ways, big and small, people fought back. There were some big losses — chief among them Roe and preventable deaths from COVID-19 — but it wasn't Dictator Trump. Democracy prevailed.

The long war and one-move thinking

Dictator Trump failed. I wish he'd failed harder — that major corporations had stopped giving money to pro-insurrection politicians, that Republicans hadn't stolen a Supreme Court seat, that we hadn't reverted back to another 50 / 50 coin flip national election.

The long war deserves more focus. How are Democrats investing in media infrastructure to counter Fox News et al. and the atrophy of independent media? Are they adopting modern campaign and communication tactics? Are they giving supporters meaningful ways to build power during and between elections? And similarly, how are progressive organizations and unions building power outside electoral and legislative politics?

These are serious questions worthy of debate, accountability coverage for political leaders and funders, and interrogation among operatives, grassroots supporters and really anyone who cares about living in a democracy.

But Kagan's essay doesn't engage with these points. Instead, it asserts some horrible thing Trump will try to do then follows up with a rhetorical question about counter-moves from Democrats and advocates that leave the reader hanging. A good editor might ask a writer to maybe try answering those questions instead. Here are just a few examples:

Americans might take to the streets. In fact, it is likely that many people will engage in protests against the new regime, perhaps even before it has had a chance to prove itself deserving of them. But then what? 

I don't know, man, maybe talk to someone who organizes protests! Or look to the protests that actually happened!

And who will stop him? His own handpicked military advisers? That seems unlikely

I can't get military experts to answer my speculative phone calls about this topic, but I bet a writer for the Washington Post could!

In theory, the midterm elections in 2026 might hold hope for a Democratic comeback, but won’t Trump use his considerable powers, both legal and illegal, to prevent that? 

Hmmm...pretty sure there are Democratic members of Congress who are going to keep running for re-election. Wonder if they have any thoughts! Or maybe the millions of people who helped fight attempts at voter suppression in 2020? Or maybe the dozens of civil rights groups that employ a small army of lawyers who focus on this every damn day!

Are we going to do anything about it? To shift metaphors, if we thought there was a 50 percent chance of an asteroid crashing into North America a year from now, would we be content to hope that it wouldn’t? Or would we be taking every conceivable measure to try to stop it, including many things that might not work but that, given the magnitude of the crisis, must be tried anyway?

Who is "we"? Random people reading your column? You? What measures! Talk to people doing this work! Quote them! Link to their organizations!

Vibes-based discourse and the most serious boy in the room

In the absence of trying to answer these questions, a lot of alarmist coverage, including Kagan's essay tends to concern itself with horse-race style punditry: how probable is the bad outcome and how seriously should one take it?

Regarding probability, there's rarely a serious attempt to quantify how likely something is. Expert surveys or even posing a question to a few political actors might be interesting, but it's a bit of a silly exercise if it's not tied to what people are actually doing about very bad low- or medium-probability events. Instead, it serves as a form of horse race punditry, with an essayist taking a neutral, research-free position attempting to prognosticate about how likely or unlikely something is to happen. And they can position themselves as the wise-probability-knower while gently accusing other discourse participants of over- or under-estimating probabilities. (Don't take this mindset to a poker table.)

The discourse around seriousness is even worse. Again, taking something seriously implies that some actions are being taken at the planning or implementation stage. But that discussion is absent from this essay. Instead, we get vibes-based, unquantifiable discourse that devolves into a undefined binary around taking something Seriously Enough or Not Seriously Enough.

It's similar to the vibes-based discourse about the so-called lab leak theory of COVID-19 origins. Absent any original reporting or new facts, pundits can crank out endless Substack posts about how seriously various media outlets and political actors could have taken the speculative, evidence-free theory at some point. They never define what "good" coverage or the "right" level of topic-seriousness-taking looks like. Instead, this is another pundit move where the very smart, super intelligent, hyper objective writer has the right level of seriousness in their mind castle, while other political commentators are Too Credulous or Too Dismissive.

A Final Gripe About Who Speaks for Politics

A lot of opinion coverage about politics is from people who have studiously avoided working in politics precisely because doing so would undermine their neutrality and objectivity. In Kagan's case, he actually has some political experience as a think tank scholar and neoconservative foreign policy advisor, but doesn't draw on it for this essay. Instead, he takes a shallowly objective position that doesn't engage at all with people and organizations that counter-mobilize against right wingers. (This is a similar mistake the academic Transition Integrity Project made, which wrongly assumed Trump chuds and antifa super soldiers would be engaged in street battles because they didn't involve any real life activists in their simulation exercises.)

While Kagan's approach may be the norm for a lot of five-alarm opinion writing that goes viral, there a ton of writers who do faithfully engage with the political actors they're writing about, including Michelle Goldberg, Ezra Klein, Perry Bacon Jr. and Chris Hayes. Political work is an industry and a community of practice and people who write seriously about politics engage with it. It's appreciated!

So if you see alarmist coverage, do your best to ignore it. And if you're writing alarmist coverage, please reach out to literally anyone who is actually working to prevent bad stuff from happening and tell your audience about them.

Addendum: Kagan followed up with a "solutions" essay. About 90% of it focuses on Nikki Haley and other Republicans. The last paragraph encourages people to become activists, but Kagan doesn't actually talk to, link to, or engage with any advocacy organizations. Then he leaves reader with some more dismissive bummer rhetorical questions.

Another ship is passing that can still save us. Will we swim toward it this time, or will we let it pass, as we have all the others? I am deeply pessimistic, but I could not more fervently wish to be proved wrong.

This is not a serious attempt at engaging with solutions and Kagan's editors should nudge him to talk to some actual activists if he wants to keep writing about this topic.

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