The Potential Trump Restoration

The Potential Trump Restoration

Restorations are unpredictable. Sometimes they happen as expected, but then don’t last (e.g., the Bourbon Restoration in France in 1814 that lasted only until 1830). But then sometimes they do (e.g., the Bourbon Restoration in Spain in 1974 that so far, at least, has lasted). Sometimes they are expected but don’t happen (e.g., the widely expected Bourbon Restoration that almost happened in France in the 1870s). 

By analogy, a Trump Restoration remains unpredictable. Fervently expected by many, it may yet not happen. Fervently feared by about as many, it may well yet happen. But one thing one can say at this point in time is that it appears increasingly likely, all large and small « D/d » (Democratic and democratic) magical thinking to the contrary notwithstanding.

Robert Kagan, a neoconservative critic of U.S. foreign policy, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a Washington Post Opinions Contributing Editor, who has been warning against Trump at least since 2016 (when he endorsed Hilary Clinton), has written a widely read (and commented on) indictment of all such magical thinking, in « A Trump Dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending, » The Washington Post (November 30, 2023).

« There is a clear path to dictatorship in the United States, and it is getting shorter every day, » Kagan bluntly begins. « Like people on a riverboat, we have long known there is a waterfall ahead but assume we will somehow find our way to shore before we go over the edge. » 

Admittedly, some Republicans and conservatives have indulged in anti-Trump sentiments and hopes. « The hour of casting about for alternatives is closing, » however. « The next phase is about people falling into line. » The inevitable stampede toward party unity will be, Kagan believes, largely inevitable. « There will be no more infighting, only outfighting. »

His nomination secured, Trump will once again command all attention. « Even today, the. news media can scarcely resist following Trump’s every word and action. » Kagan notes how the media are allying with Trump’s lawyers to have his trial televised. « Trump intends to use the trial to boost his candidacy and discredit the American system as corrupt – and the media outlets, serving their own interests, will help him do it. »

Meanwhile, President Biden’s position is comparably weaker, with defections from Black and younger voters and third-party and independent challenges from the Left, while Trump simultaneously enjoys the advantages of both incumbency and non-incumbency. Comparing Trump’s term to Biden’s, it will be « hard to make the case for Trump’s unfitness to anyone who does not already believe it. » And he benefits from widespread « disgust with the political system in general. » As Kagan calculates, « Trump is running against the system. Biden is the living embodiment of the system. Advantage: Trump.

True, Trump is in some legal jeopardy. But, Kagan reminds us, « Trump’s power comes from his following, not from the institutions of American government, and his devoted voters love him precisely because he crosses lines and ignores the old boundaries. They feel empowered by it, and that in turn empowers him. … The likeliest outcome of the trials will be to demonstrate our judicial system’s inability to contain someone like Trump and, incidentally, to reveal its impotence as a check should he become president. … Like Caesar, Trump wields a clout that transcends the laws and institutions of government, based on the unswerving personal loyalty of his army of followers. »

Having established that Trump can clearly get elected, Kagan moves on to consider the kind of President Trump would be. « Not only will he wield the awesome powers of the American executive – powers that, as conservatives used to complain, have grown over the decades – but he will do so with the fewest constraints of an president, fewer even than in his own first term. » Neither the courts, nor the Congress, nor the bureaucracy, Kagan contends, would be able to check his power.

Most presidents are constrained by a desire for reelection. « Trump might not want or need a third term, but were he to decide he wanted one, as he has sometimes indicated, would the 22nd amendment block him any more effectively from being president for life than the Supreme Court, if he refused to be blocked? » And, as for the customary presidential preoccupation with legacy, « Trump’s ambitions, though he speaks of making American great again, clearly begin and end with himself. »

Hence, what Kagan considers « the most urgent question: Will his presidency turn into a dictatorship? The odds are, again, pretty good. » What kind of dictatorship? How will it actually affect ordinary people? « In conservative, anti-liberal tyrannies, ordinary people face all kinds of limitations on their freedoms, but it is a problem only to the degree that they value those freedoms, and many people do not. »

That, I think, is a particularly powerful point. So much depends on how much people care or are concerned and whether or not they are willing to do anything.

Kagan, of course, believes that there will be opposition, obviously among Democrats. « In evolving dictatorships, the opposition is always weak and divided. That’s what makes dictatorships possible in the first place. Opposition movements rarely get stronger  and more unified under the pressures of persecution. »

At every stage in the Trump saga, « stopping Trump would have required extraordinary action by certain people, whether politicians or voters or donors, actions that did not align with their immediate interests or even merely their preferences. … In each instance, people believed they could go on pursuing  their personal interests and ambitions as usual in the confidence that somewhere downtime line, someone or something else, or simply fate, would stop him.

All along, the cost of opposing Trump has risen radically – from not becoming president to risking one’s entire political career, to threats to one’s physical safety and that of one’s family.

Meanwhile, Kagan concludes, « we continue to drift toward dictatorship, still hoping for some intervention that will allow us to escape the consequences of our collective cowardice, our complacent, willful ignorance and, above all, our lack of any deep commitment to liberal democracy.

Kagan is convincingly apocalyptic.

That said, personally I prefer the term « constitutional democracy » to Kagan’s « liberal democracy. » Liberalism is an ambiguously problematic ideology which emerged in the wake of Europe’s religious wars, to enable people to live together and get along despite differences about more important matters. But for different people and at different times and places liberalism has taken (and continues to take) many forms – from economic libertarianism on the right to sexual libertarianism on the left, from free ride and free movement to social democracy and the welfare state. Wherever we find ourselves on those issues, what I prefer to call « constitutional democracy »  seems the only viable alternative in a a world in which we cannot agree about those and other really important things. Constitutionalism modifies democracy by taking certain contentious things off the table (e.g., freedom of religion, freedom of speech, due process, etc.) exempting them from the democratic principle of majority rule. 
In any case, the present crisis is primarily about the noun rather than the adjective – the fundamental principle that, whatever our disagreements about more important matters, we agree to be governed by more or less democratic elections and to accept the results of elections, a fundamental principle which Trump (and increasingly much of his political party) seem to be opposed to. Without that, there can be no social peace and no freedom to focus on the more important things in life.
Obviously, I believe in political participation as part of a morally fulfilling life, and I have all sorts of specific outcomes I would like to see political participation produce. But in our contemporary world of toxic polarization about those more important matters, it is the fundamentals of constitutional democracy that it is necessary to focus on as our only viable path to social peace.
Hence, Kagan seems more than quite convincingly apocalyptic.