It was 1855, and Abraham Lincoln was in a mood.
“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid,” he wrote to his friend Joshua Speed, describing the rise of the bigoted, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party. “As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
As he characterized an American republic convulsed with heated debates about race, immigration, and political representation, Lincoln delivered an oddly prescient diagnosis of America in 2017, as we witness another series of bigoted, know-nothing assaults on our national unity. How did it happen, pundits wonder, that a 240-year-old democracy has descended into the sort of authoritarian ethno-nationalist rancor normally associated with antidemocratic states like contemporary Uzbekistan or infamous totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany? How did a “nation built on immigration” come to propose a ban on Muslims and mass deportation of Mexicans? Why are White House cabinet posts now filled with executives seemingly selected to destroy the agencies they lead? Why are our legislative and judiciary branches on the verge of caving in to a power-hungry executive branch that resembles, as Daniel Webster wrote, in an 1832 warning of his own, “nothing else but pure despotism”? And, um, who is really running that executive branch anyway?
As I write this, Donald Trump has been president for seventeen days, and on the surface, our country seems to have taken a radical departure. We now have rogue national parks services, regular nationwide protests, and a series of impending humanitarian disasters that include the loss of health care for millions, the opening of new legal avenues into unfettered corporate corruption, unhinged aggression against both foreign adversaries and allies, together with assaults on freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and other core constitutional rights. There’s also an ongoing inquiry into whether our election was and president is corrupted by Russia. “Make America Great Again,” the dear leader bleats and tweets, as millions wish for America to simply resemble America again.
We have always vacillated between lofty precepts on paper and the refusal of white men to apply them in practice.
But as Lincoln’s letter reminds us, this has always been America. We have always vacillated between lofty precepts on paper and the refusal of white men to apply them in practice. This refusal has resulted in slavery of African Americans, genocide against Native Americans, internment camps for ethnic minorities. It has also systematically denied most of the population the right to vote over most of our history, rationalized discrimination against and banning of immigrants on racial and ethnic lines, and shored up segregation and Jim Crow. Today, this same white male authoritarian outlook fuels a prison and police system that disproportionately targets non-white citizens.
These are American authoritarian policies, hypocritically upheld until contentiously overruled, and documented best by those whom they target: “But opportunity is real, and life is free/ Equality is in the air we breathe// (There’s never been equality for me/ Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’),” Langston Hughes wrote in 1935. The specter of American authoritarianism has been waved away in polite circles of opinion with the mantra “It can’t happen here”—to name-check Sinclair Lewis’s political satire of the same year showing that indeed it can. And more to the point, it has happened here—just never so fast and so flagrantly. Americans are used to their leaders cloaking their anti-democratic and inhumane policies under the pretense of patriotism, instead of, like Trump, openly denigrating the country, its citizens, and its laws.
Since Trump’s insurgent presidential run started gaining serious traction last year, scholars have searched for parallels between Trump and foreign leaders, and have found them in dictators and demagogues abroad—Hitler, Milošević, Putin, Niyazov—and in predecessors at home, racist paranoiacs like George Wallace and Joseph McCarthy. But the search for just the right forerunner to explain the Trump phenomenon has ironically blinded us to just how familiar a figure Trump really is. For starters, he rose as all authoritarian demagogues do by exploiting the weak points in beleaguered democracies: exacerbating racial tension, manipulating the media, making exorbitant economic promises, and proffering himself as an exemplar of a nation whose best days are in the past.
That was Trump the candidate, whose nativist populism transformed, over the year, to a platform of open white supremacy, backed by neo-Nazis and the KKK. His campaign strategy was always to pull the fringes to the center, to make the extreme mainstream. As president, he shuns both the desperate pleas of citizens and of the law itself; he is taxation without representation, applied to our collective moral aspirations.
But for all that, he’s nothing all that new on the American scene. Trump exemplifies the economic white privilege that viciously preyed on American civil liberties throughout our history. This pathologically destructive outlook is now turbocharged by a lack of shame, which feeds on the fierce, unapologetic resentment of anything deemed “politically correct.”
Trump and his inner circle of trusted advisers will do what they like, regardless of what the law decrees—unless they are stopped by it.
Those asking “Why?” as they seek to understand the motivation of the leader and his lackeys are better off asking “Why not?” There is little ideological coherency behind the Trump administration other than sadism, expressed most acutely through racism and xenophobia, and a kleptocratic desire to strip the country down and sell off its spare parts. Trump and his inner circle of trusted advisers will do what they like, regardless of what the law decrees—unless they are stopped by it.
To understand what the country is facing under Trump, one needs to look beyond him to the administration, whose varying motives highlight the manifold ways democracy can be destroyed. If “Trumpism” is an ideology, it is a malleable one, suitable for opportunists ranging from neo-Nazis to corporate raiders to authoritarian theocrats.
Born into considerable wealth and privilege, Trump spent his formative adult years befriending the worst Americans he could find. As he launched into the Manhattan real estate business, his dearest friend was Roy Cohn, the brutal, unprincipled legal aide to Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. Cohn taught a young Trump in how to bully, lie, and steal with impunity in the 1970s and 1980s. An anti-Semitic Jew, a homophobic closeted gay man, and a lawyer who abused the law, Cohn died bragging of tax evasion. When Trump found out Cohn had AIDS, he promptly abandoned him, prompting an anguished Cohn to declare that Trump “pisses ice water.”
In short, the student had become the master. Others have found Trump malleable as a provisional ally or business partner over the years: the mafia, the media, fellow corrupt millionaires and billionaires, politicians needing publicity, and oligarchs of the former Soviet Union, who frequently funded Trump’s flailing projects. But Trump typically emerges from these deals (artful or otherwise) as the self-promoting winner. This is largely why the most powerful man in the world is, by all accounts, a person without any close friends. It’s also, in all likelihood, why his presidency is already marked by the routine breaching of traditional constitutional norms, from the assaults on the authority of the courts to his refusal to disclose his tax returns, or seriously address any of the conflicts of interest they would likely document. For someone mentored into adult business life by the likes of Roy Cohn, all that matters is the basic drama of individual conquest, replayed over and over again, in any available setting. And now, alas, the theater of conquest opening up before the Great Leader Trump is the world at large.
All that matters is the basic drama of individual conquest, replayed over and over again, in any available setting.
Meanwhile, in another classic authoritarian maneuver, the outsized ego at the heart of the Trumpist seizure of power has surrounded himself with an obliging retinue of enablers and quisling yes-men. Trump likes to divide people between “haters and losers”—a cheap shot that is actually a fairly useful way to categorize his own team. Haters, or string-pullers, include people like Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and other Cohn associates, as well as Steve Bannon, who apparently promoted himself into a position on the National Security Council without Trump’s knowledge, and whose white supremacist, accelerationalist goals—he has bragged, repeatedly, of a desire to destroy the United States—remains a severe threat. Fellow bigots—racist Jeff Sessions, Islamophobic Michael Flynn—fit the “haters” mold: powerful players who disregard constitutional principles in order to force a narrow and cruel vision of America into practice.
The losers comprise the bulk of Trump’s cabinet appointees, who have each been assigned an institution about which they either know nothing, actively want to destroy, or both. Their inexperience is useful: one is less likely to fight against the violation of rights when one does not recognize them as under threat in the first place. The majority of the GOP, who bow to Trump even as he personally insults them, are behaving as lackeys in authoritarian states generally do, dutifully rubber-stamping policies and wondering when they will be let back in the loop.
At the center of all this executive-assured destruction, there is Trump, both a hater and a loser. Desperate for applause and enthusiastic about abusing executive power, he is driven by narcissism and need. His paranoia and megalomania is typical in foreign authoritarian leaders, yet Trump is a native archetype: he is the conman, the showman, the “Confidence Man” of Herman Melville, the President Stillson of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone.
Unlike his products, Trump is made in America, and we have dealt with his kind before. His bigotry, incompetence and intolerance were of the sort that better Americans, like the future president Lincoln, saw as a domestic threat. But never has such an execrable individual been given such power in our government, and never has a president been surrounded by so many who view America as little more than a playground for punishment and plunder. With this marauding manifestation of America’s deep-seated will-to-white-male power—steeped so deeply in the uglier American canons of self-assertion, exploitation, and plunder—our “progress in degeneracy,” centuries in the making, may have reached its peak.