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President Donald J. Trump conducts a live talk back with service members in Afghanistan at the Salute to Our Armed Services Ball at the National Building Museum, Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2017. Photo credit: US Army

The Politics of Authoritarianism in the Trump Era

Understanding the Distinction Between Politics, Authoritarianism and Incompetence


We need to understand the authoritarian impulse, but we also need to put it in the context of modern democratic politics.

While we all seem to be rushing out to buy copies of 1984, It Can’t Happen Here and Hannah Arendt’s classic Origins of Totalitarianism, we should bear in mind that what we have to fear today is very different from what was going on during the interwar period that gave rise to Nazisim. The situation today is not analogous to that period, according to political scientist Jeffrey Isaac in this week’s WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Isaac tells Jeff Schechtman that while our constitutional system may help protect us, we have to fight back through traditional political institutions, and through resistance and civil disobedience, of which the country has a long history.

What’s different this time, he argues, is the post 9/11 surveillance state which is being exploited and extended by Trump and which could tip the scales. As for the political battles ahead, he feels strongly that while the Republican Party may not be a partner in Trump’s authoritarian agenda, they are his greatest enablers.

Jeffrey Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, and Editor-in-Chief of Perspectives on Politics.

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(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

It seems we’re all rushing out to buy copies of 1984, It Can’t Happen Here, and Hannah Arendt’s classic Origins of Totalitarianism.  Last week in fact 1984 topped the sales charts on Amazon. But did these classic mid-century works really give us insight and context into what’s happening in Washington? Are we facing a true existential totalitarian threat or just the blustering incompetence of a would-be tyrant? Perhaps to the extent we truly understand the history and nexus of fascism, populism, and real totalitarian dictatorships, we might have an answer to some of these key questions. To help us in that effort I’m joined by our guest Jeffrey Isaac. Jeffrey Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and the editor-in-chief of Perspectives on Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association. Jeffrey Isaac, welcome to the program.

Jeffrey Isaac: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Schechtman: It’s great to have you here. Does it matter the degree to which the threat we’re facing is a true totalitarian threat, or whether it is kind of the blustering incompetence of a would-be totalitarian dictator? Does it matter in terms of the danger and how we respond?

Isaac: Well, everything matters. Everything matters in terms of the danger and how we respond. Getting it right is important. So you distinguished between a true totalitarian threat and a kind of blustering, maybe inept would-be totalitarian dictator. I would say that there are some other possibilities and it’s that spectrum of  possibilities that really is worth talking about. First of all, there’s the possibility of forms of authoritarianism that don’t represent what we might call true totalitarianism, and I think in fact the situation that we confront is not a situation analogous to the inter-war period that gave rise to the idea of totalitarianism and to the totalitarian regimes, in particular Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. But there are still authoritarian dangers. On the other side, I’m not sure that Trump himself or other leaders of the right-wing populist leaders in Europe, who are similar to Trump, that they aspire to be totalitarian dictators, but they certainly do aspire to institute policies that are frightening and dangerous to constitutional democracy. One other thing, just by way of kind of prefatory clarification, and that is among the things that is very frightening about Donald Trump is not only his unique combination of authoritarianism and ineptitude, and I do think there’s a combination. But the fact that he has as among his chief advisors in Steve Bannon, someone who literally takes his bearings from some of the most far right extremist fascist writers of the 1930s and 20s, and the closeness with which this government is linked to so-called alt-right publications that are also very closely linked to much more conventional white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. So the danger in Trump is the danger of what I would describe as authoritarianism that is accentuated by his closeness to people who actually are very close ideologically to fascists of the 1930s.

Schechtman: The fact that we have that blueprint with respect to fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, to what extent can that be helpful in the way we respond, in the way we anticipate what’s next?

Isaac: You know I do think it’s always important to be mindful of, you know, specificities of the moment, and it’s not the 1920s and 30s. You know, we’re not between two World Wars. There are genuine crises in the world. They don’t rise to the level, the crises of that time. At the same time there are certain features of that historical moment that are worth paying attention to now, and one of them clearly is the effort of certain kinds of leaders to mobilize political power on the basis of resentment and a fear of the other. This idea, particularly with Trump, of making America great again goes directly back to the America First movement of the 1930s, which was a neofascist movement. And understanding how it is that nationalism can be deployed in this way, I think is very important. Being able to understand, I think, the sources of appeal, being able to counter them. We are watching certain things unfold that are not completely unlike things that unfolded in the world in the 30s and 40s. That’s a fact. People who are talking about reading Orwell or reading Arendt are also talking about reading Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik. They’re also talking about, well, my colleague and student, Rafael Khachaturian and I published a piece in Dissent magazine, I think this week, on the writer Gene Sharp, who is a very important theorist of civil resistance and nonviolent resistance to authoritarianism. So there are a wide range of kind of historical examples and examples of forms of resistance that aren’t limited to the 30s and 40s. But I do think that what they share in common is an attentiveness to the danger of authoritarianism, the possible rise of dictatorial leaders, and the way that these leaders mobilize masses behind them.

Schechtman: To what extent does our particular constitutional system protect us in some ways from some of these dangers?

Isaac: Obviously there are features of a constitutional system that I would say are sources of protection. There are interesting debates going on even now about how protective these things are. It’s very clear that the courts, and the legal system more generally, can be accessed and can play a role in obstructing some of the efforts for example with Trump’s executive order. That’s very clear. The legal mobilization, very important. The fact that it involved state governments as parties to lawsuits is also important. So federalism is a constitutional means of resistance. Ben Barber has written a number of things about the way in which city governments which actually tend to be more liberal for variety of reasons, can be means of resistance. It’s possible… we don’t live yet in an authoritarian dictatorship and these constitutional features of the American system are means of defending liberal democracy. At the same time they don’t guarantee a successful defense, and there has to be constant citizen pressure, and they have to be used, and the rights that we possess we must exercise. And there’s no guarantee that we’ll win. It’s also true that there are other aspects of the political system that I think either were not envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, or that certainly represent what we might call perversions of constitutional democracy. The whole system of surveillance. In fact, it is true that after 9/11 a great many measures were put into effect to fight “terrorism,” to prosecute the war on terror, and in many ways it’s true that Trump is drawing upon some of these very measures and extending them. But in many ways the system enables someone like Trump. Those emergency measures, we might say, the way in which the mass media has developed. There are things about the system that make it a) alienate many people and breed kind of resentment that someone, that authoritarian leaders, whether Trump, or Le Pen in France, or Orban in Hungary, that they can tap into. And also there are things about the system that really, let’s say, weaken ordinary sources of political participation that people can draw upon. This system affords opportunities, it also presents obstacles.

Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the contemporary aspect of the pressure that comes from the citizen pressure that comes from the other side, as you say, those large numbers of people that feel resentful, that feel dispossessed, and disenfranchised, and disconnected from the social institutions.

Isaac: Very, very important. So in fact the first thing I was going to say when you pointed out that people are turning to Orwell and Arendt, is that it’s true that a lot of people are turning to Orwell and Arendt. It’s also true that the 60+ million people that voted for Donald Trump are not. They’re not because a) they’re not troubled by this, what’s happening, and b) because they’re not necessarily inclined to read, to read, certainly to read the history of political thought. It’s fairly well-established, my friend and colleague [Sandy Schrim?] published some stuff on this, that kind of low information voters played a very important role in Trump support. And there is a deep, deep reservoir of support. It was never a majority of the voters. I don’t think in electoral terms it ever represented the kind of mandate that Trump has claimed. But there’s no question that there’s huge support and that those of us who oppose Trump, and who are very troubled by the dangers that he poses, and his agenda poses to liberal democracy, we need to reckon with the fact that Trump is the president, that there’s a lot of support for him, and some of the issues that underlie that support must be addressed by opponents of Trump. I think a series of voices within the Democratic Party acknowledge this. They acknowledge that, well, it’s not just a question of economic grievance. I think economic grievance is very important. The Sanders campaign clearly tapped into that. That’s clearly going to be an important dimension of the revitalization of the Democratic Party if it will revitalize to address economic grievance and economic inequality in a more serious way. But it’s not just that. There’s a whole set of other issues related to political alienation and also related to concerns about security that need to be addressed. At the same time, speaking as someone who is a writer, a college professor, and editor, I think it’s important to speak out on behalf of the moral issues of our time with a mindfulness that sometimes we’re swimming against the tide or that the tide clearly doesn’t go in our favor, but we need to do it anyway – whether it’s LGBT rights. Look, the huge women’s march in Washington was such an important event. It was not just for or by women, but it was centered on the theme of women’s empowerment, appropriately so. Many of the speeches that I think took place there, and many of the sentiments that animated that, are precisely the kind of sentiments that people like Trump play on, they call it PC. And whether or not people in the heartland of Indiana, you know, are going to join me in celebrating Planned Parenthood, it’s important to celebrate Planned Parenthood, it’s important to celebrate the rights of those groups that played such an important role in that march. That march was a hugely important symbolic statement. At the same time, in states like Indiana, it’s going to be important to win over some of those voters who don’t like Planned Parenthood, who weren’t enthused about that march necessarily, who don’t see themselves represented in the discourse of that march. So I say two things. I say first of all I completely, unreservedly, enthusiastically support efforts like that when they  represent the concerns of majorities, but even when they don’t. At the same time it’s important to have a kind of long game approach to building a new majority.

Schechtman: Historically what do we understand about those supporters of authoritarianism, those disenfranchised that we talked about before, that consistently make decisions that are against their own economic self-interest?

Isaac: I would say two things. I’m not so sure these constitute a direct answer to your question. The first is that it is never the case, all politics is identity politics, and it is never the case that economic identity or class identity is the only identity, or even the identity that trumps others. So one of the things we know, we know this from so many things about recent history or 20th-century history, is that people are often mobilized on the basis of other identities, whether it be ethnic or national, or racial, or gender. And these identities played an absolutely crucial role in the rise of Trump, and these identities also played a crucial role in the rise of white right-wing populism throughout Europe for example. So non-economic issues are very important and sometimes much more important than some of us might wish they were. The other thing is that to the extent that there are genuine economic grievances that also play an important role, it can only be said that people are voting against their economic interests when there is an alternative, a clearly articulated alternative that expresses their economic interest.

Schechtman: In reaction to Trump, and you talked a little bit about the work of Gene Sharp and others, the fact that there is this long history of civil disobedience in America, to what extent is that historical framework helpful in what we might see over the next several years?

Isaac: I think it’s extraordinarily helpful but… what may well transpire in the coming weeks with regard to the Dakota Access Pipeline or what is likely to transpire if the Trump administration moves forward in any way with some of its anti-immigration aspirations with regard to sanctuary movement, sanctuary cities, sanctuary universities, there are going to be groups that legitimately practice civil disobedience and resist the enforcement of certain laws or rules that they consider to be unjust. I think it’s very, very important that these groups exist. Civil disobedience is an important strategy in the repertoire of democratic citizenship. On the other hand, practices of disobedience and even practices of, let’s say public protest more generally, will not be sufficient, I think, well certainly they won’t be sufficient to have control over the government. Those activities are part of a broader set of strategies and tactics that also include electoral politics and the building of social movements that can actually contest for political power. So I don’t think there’s any alternative to that, although obviously different people disagree. You know, if you’re a Native American activist at Standing Rock, it may well be that your primary preoccupation is resisting that pipeline and you know listening to people like me, or the Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol or whoever talk about the ways we need to rebuild the Democratic Party, well, that might not appeal to you if you’re a Native American activist. Or if you’re someone in the Southwest involved in, you know, sanctuary efforts to resist the deportation, a very concrete, you know, people in your community. At the same time I think those kinds of activities over the long-term are going to need the support of political power and hopefully one of the goals of even political resistance is to build the basis for a more just society. Certainly there needs to be a political party in a two-party system that is strong enough to counter.

Schechtman: Authoritarian regimes, particularly this one, are the product of coalitions. To what extent should the effort be made to pry apart those coalitions?

Isaac: Well, look, first of all, you know, people like me can hold forth. Even like real political leaders who have political supporters or organizations behind them can hold forth about the strategies that they think make most sense. That doesn’t mean that lots of people are going to listen to them. So I mean, I’ll offer you my sense of a proper answer to that question. In my view, it is important to take advantage of splits within the Republican Party when possible. It’s important to keep open lines of communication with certain Republicans, on certain issues particularly with regard to the more disturbing and authoritarian dimensions of where Trump seems to be headed. It would be important when there are splits within the Republican Party to be mindful of them. At the same time I think it’s also important to pursue a longer-term agenda that is consistent with your values. So yeah, exploiting the divisions, I would even say in a less instrumental sense, keeping open lines of communication. But keeping open lines of communications does not mean like laying down to those guys.

Schechtman: Do we have to make a distinction, giving the nature of this battle, given the nature of the authoritarian danger? Do we have to make a distinction between policy and Trump himself? And do we have to look at it as opposition to the danger of authoritarianism from Trump, versus worrying about policy with regard to Republicans? Is that a distinction with a real difference?

Isaac: It is in the sense that we would be having a different conversation. In fact I wouldn’t be on the air talking about the topic of this conversation if most of the others, if Jeb Bush were president. I would still oppose Jeb Bush. We could be talking about lots of things that were bad about, that I thought were bad about a Bush administration, but we would not be having this conversation about Hitler and Mussolini, and why people are reading George Orwell, okay. So there’s a distinctive danger to the Trump administration that is kind of over and above whatever policy differences exist between, let’s say, Democrats, or liberal Democrats and Republicans. That’s true. At the same time I would make two clarifying points. One is that the danger of Trump’s authoritarianism is not just Trump, it’s the Trump administration. It’s the people he has around him, and he has a group around him, and it’s some of those constituencies, the people that he listens too, who he’s reading, okay. And so in the first instance, the danger of authoritarianism under Trump is not just about Trump as an individual, but about an entire administration. The administration as a whole is pretty far to the right, so that’s one point, it’s not just Trump. But the second point is the administration was elected in a context and has been enabled by a broader Republican Party. The Republican Party people like, let’s say, Paul Ryan, I wouldn’t describe them as neofascist, let’s say, in the same way that I would describe Trump that way, or Bannon that way. But the fact is, conservatives are often the enablers of right-wing extremists when they’re not themselves right-wing extremists, or fascists. So yes there’s a policy difference between the Republican Party as a whole, and the authoritarian danger of Trump-ism, but they’re closely, closely linked. It’s hard to separate them out from each other, yet Trump is not simply an extension of the Republican Party, but the Republican Party is not in any sense a counter to him. It’s an enabler of him.

Schechtman: Jeffrey Isaac, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Isaac: Oh, thank you, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Donald Trump (US Army).

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