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The Trump Paradox

Summary:
For all of the irresponsible and reprehensible things outgoing US President Donald Trump said while in office, he could not have posed as great a threat to liberal democracy as many of his critics have supposed. Trump's entire political project has rested on a fundamental paradox that real authoritarian leaders know to avoid. CHICAGO – As US President Donald Trump’s single term limps to an end, we should revisit a question that has dominated mainstream punditry for the past four years: Was America on the brink of an authoritarian takeover? Never before have so many commentators – including knowledgeable academics, seen-it-all-before political operatives, cynical journalists, and former government officials – argued as seriously

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For all of the irresponsible and reprehensible things outgoing US President Donald Trump said while in office, he could not have posed as great a threat to liberal democracy as many of his critics have supposed. Trump's entire political project has rested on a fundamental paradox that real authoritarian leaders know to avoid.

CHICAGO – As US President Donald Trump’s single term limps to an end, we should revisit a question that has dominated mainstream punditry for the past four years: Was America on the brink of an authoritarian takeover? Never before have so many commentators – including knowledgeable academics, seen-it-all-before political operatives, cynical journalists, and former government officials – argued as seriously that the United States was on the verge of a Weimar-style constitutional collapse. And yet, if Trump was an autocrat, he was a singularly ineffective one. When he wasn’t raging at the moon, he advanced his policies – most of them standard Republican fare – through constitutionally approved procedures.

Trump certainly provided ample material for books with titles like The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, Surviving Autocracy, and Trumpocalypse. From the start, he has lied relentlessly, expressed admiration for dictators, denigrated and threatened to jail his political opponents, disparaged judges and other public officials, vilified Muslims and foreigners, demonized journalists, and inflamed racial divisions. Even if some of his rhetoric was tongue-in-cheek or garbled, that hardly excuses him.

Trump also mixed his financial interests with government business, placed his children and son-in-law in positions of power, and frequently talked as if the government were his personal fiefdom. His presidency finally collapsed after his baseless claims of electoral fraud and spurious litigation efforts failed to gain traction.

The doomsayers will insist that the events of the past month and a half easily could have swung in Trump’s favor. But, constitutionally speaking, Trump has always been more bark than bite. His main accomplishments – a tax cut and the appointment of conservative federal judges – involved Congress, as the Constitution requires. Similarly, his efforts to reduce the flow of illegal immigration drew on...

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