The Road to Autocracy

Autocracy is the most natural form of government, and historically the most dominant form of political organization.  There are more democracies in the world today than ever before, but most are autocracies or so-called hybrid governments that cannot objectively be called democratic.

Perhaps the most obvious way that America is exceptional is that there is no real autocratic domestic antecedent to our republican form of government.  The American Revolution took place mostly because the British king had not exerted his authority on the colonies, and we revolted when he did.  America has never truly been under the thumb of an autocratic regime, except for the brief period between the end of the Seven Years War (1763) and the Revolution (1776).

The risk for most democracies is a backward slide into atavistic autocracy.  For the United States, the risk has been a gradual and organic process that has progressively shed the ideals of the founding fathers as the country has moved toward the international and historical autocratic mean.  The presidency of Barack Obama and the rise of Donald Trump represent more disturbing evidence that this movement is continuing at an ever greater and more dangerous pace.

Donald Trump's remarkable political success has been attributed mostly to the anger of his supporters over their marginalization, the leftist agenda of the Obama administration, a biased media, and the misfeasance and malfeasance of the governing classes in of both parties.  That is no doubt true, but a Trump supporter needs to be more than angry.  He or she also must be accepting (if not outright supportive) of Trump's undeniable autocratic outlook.  To the extent that Trump has any clear political philosophy at all, it is that of the strongman, and he sees himself as the paradigm.   

Trump is not the cause of this political shift; he is evidence of it.  Trump is not such a gifted politician or strategist that he is pulling the electorate along.  Rather, he is a skilled and clever opportunist who sensed that the time was right for him and seized the chance.  Trump would have been laughed out of the Republican nominating race 20 years ago.  Today, he is poised to claim that nomination. 

The opportunity arose for Trump not only due to the alienation of a large segment of the American electorate, but because America has been moving toward autocracy for over 200 years, arguably since the Constitution supplanted the Articles of Confederation and centralized the national government.  Since then, with some stops and starts, the country has moved toward centralization of power in the federal government, and especially in the chief executive.  What is uniquely American about this process is that it is not at all about revisiting a despotic past, but a new experience with each step.  There is no collective memory of a reviled autocrat, no historic fear of a massive unlawful usurpation of power. 

Since the Civil War, the move toward autocracy has gained steam.  Occasionally there is a pushback, like the 22nd Amendment after the second Roosevelt administration.  Some presidents have been less intent on consolidating power – e.g., Reagan – and some much more.  With Obama we have a president clearly unmoved by Constitutional limitations, intent on obviating them in any way possible, and not ashamed to say so.  Obama's autocratic tendencies were apparent before he was elected (remember the god-like Greek temple), made plain during his first term ("elections have consequences") and after his re-election ("I have a pen and a phone.") 

Obama's election and re-election demonstrated that an overwhelming number of Democrats and a significant number of independents are entirely comfortable with autocratic rule, and this is not just a manifestation of having their man in office.  Either you buy into the constitutional principles of limited government and checks and balances or you do not.  It is pretty clear that Democrats as a group do not, and their consistent defense of big government and declarations that we need more prove this clearly enough.  This doesn't mean that Democrats won't pretend to constitutional piety while they can manipulate the machinery of government to frustrate opponents.  The Democrats' current embrace of two candidates of whom one is manifestly corrupt and advanced mostly on the basis of nepotism, and the other an avowed socialist, shows that Obama's autocratic tendencies are not anomalies to endure in an otherwise desirable (to them) leader, but exactly what they want.

It was probably inevitable that eventually many Republicans and conservative-leaning independents would adopt this outlook as well.  For all the seeming schisms bedeviling the country between left and right, Democrat and Republican, white and black, we still live in a mostly common culture, are exposed to much the same mass media, and have experienced big government and increasing autocracy from leaders on both sides of the aisle.  And while it is not impossible to fight an antagonistic autocrat with republican principles, it is easier to do so championing a rival not bound by those principles. 

We don't know that Trump would be more of an autocrat than Clinton, but he is certainly more overt in his public pronouncements about his admiration of current and past autocrats, as well as openly espousing tyrannical ideas that Clinton likely keeps to herself – like expanding libel laws.  The mere fact that Trump is so open about these things, and that his supporters actually like him for it, demonstrates more than that Trump is charismatic.  His supporters are already conditioned and ready for another autocrat – this one presumably more to their taste than Obama, though how that would be with Trump is hard to precisely discern on many issues. 

Because we have no collective memory of autocratic rule, no chapters in history books of American tyrants (though some ante- and post-bellum Southerners might have disagreed), Trump doesn't strike fear into his supporters.  Instead, they are happy to see that his bluster unnerves those he defines as enemies – and whom presumably his supporters also see as adversarial to their interests.  What a Trump supporter does not see as against his or her interest, as with Democrats, is autocracy.  And that is why, win or lose, Trump's so far successful candidacy bodes ill for American democracy.

If you experience technical problems, please write to