Four years after Donald Trump emerged as the most nakedly authoritarian candidate in American history, it’s tempting to view the threat he once seemed to pose as overblown. Upon his election, some panicked that he would be a proto-dictator, trampling every democratic institution in the fascist manner imported from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. Others saw merely a malign, illiberal incompetent who would probably amount to nothing too threatening—or believed that America’s democratic institutions and strong Constitution would surely survive Trump’s strongman posturing, however menacing it appeared in the abstract. Many contended that his manifest criminality meant he would be dispatched in short order, with impeachment simply a matter of time.
It was all, unavoidably, unknown and unknowable—and so we cast around for historical analogies to guide us. Was this the 1930s, along the lines of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here? Or the 19th century in Latin America, with Trump an old-school caudillo? Was he another demagogue like George Wallace or Huey Long—but in the White House?
Well, we now have a solid record of what Trump has said and done. And it fits few modern templates exactly. He is no Pinochet nor Hitler, no Nixon nor Clinton. His emergence as a cultish strongman in a constitutional democracy who believes he has Article 2 sanction to do “whatever I want”—as he