Since outrage over President Trump never takes a day off, the nation awoke from its post–Super Bowl stupor still trying to digest the two latest outrageous things he said over the weekend. Trump’s astonishing justification for his sympathy for Vladimir Putin — in which he appeared to be saying that the U.S. was morally equivalent to a tyrannical and murderous Russian autocrat — shocked Republicans as well as Democrats. But Trump’s criticisms of a federal district-court judge in Seattle who issued a nationwide order halting implementation of the president’s executive orders on immigration and refugees have gotten as much play, if not more, because they seem to reinforce the notion that Trump is a would-be authoritarian like his friend in Moscow.
The abuse of Judge James Robart was typically Trumpian rhetoric that demonstrated again that judicial robes are no barrier to venting his spleen at anyone who criticizes him or frustrates his designs. Such language ill becomes any president of the United States, but those treating this incident as if it were the first time in history the executive branch ever blasted the judiciary are being disingenuous.
Presidential impatience with the courts has been around since the early years of the republic. But you don’t have go back to Thomas Jefferson’s attack on Chief Justice John Marshall, or even delve into Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court, in order to cite a precedent. We need only think back seven years, to the 2010 State of the Union address, when President Obama directly attacked the court in the presence of its members for its Citizens United decision defending First Amendment rights of political speech. At the time, mainstream-media reaction seemed to focus more on Justice Samuel Alito’s shaking his head and mouthing the words “not true” when he heard the president’s misleading summary of the case than on the question of whether it was appropriate for a president to denounce the judiciary in this manner.
So whatever one may think of Trump’s orders — which were sloppily drawn and clumsily implemented but arguably well within the scope of presidential powers as authorized by relevant legislation — the claims that Trump’s intemperate language about a judge is an unprecedented step down the slippery slope to dictatorship don’t stand up to scrutiny.
More troubling was Trump’s willingness to defend Putin and claim that the U.S. has no right to be judgmental about his despotic regime. Conservatives who blasted Obama for what they felt was his propensity to apologize for the United States rather than defend American exceptionalism can’t excuse Trump’s comments. Trump’s pro-Putin stand is rooted in a dubious belief that Russia will help the U.S. against ISIS and results from his unquenchable desire to troll the media and even mainstream conservatives.
Nevertheless, as a policy it is rife with contradictions that cannot be sustained. Ultimately Trump will discover, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley already seem to understand, that Putin’s foreign-policy goals are about reassembling the old Soviet empire and undermining U.S. influence, not defeating ISIS. The president will also have to choose between allying himself with Putin and adopting a tougher stance against Russia’s Iranian partner in the conflict in Syria. Moreover, if Putin treats presidential flattery as a green light for more aggression against Ukraine or an assault on the Baltic republics, then, like George W. Bush and Barack Obama before him, Trump may realize that another attempt at a Russia reset was a costly disaster.
But the daily wave of outrage is still helping Trump rather than hurting him politically. That may seem counterintuitive, since the impression one gets from watching CNN or reading the New York Times every day is that each new instance of unpresidential behavior is undermining his ability to govern. But the more Democrats — both on the far left and more mainstream liberals — buy into the notion that Trump really does wish to emulate Putin and become a dictator, the more they are falling into his trap.
The daily wave of outrage is still helping Trump rather than hurting him politically.
The liberal problem is that the argument for Trump as a proto-authoritarian rests on their inability to separate his personality and style from his policies. The government Trump has put together is, like the GOP-controlled Congress, composed of small-government conservatives, not members of a cult of personality or fascists. Judge Neil Gorsuch, his choice for the Supreme Court — and, as such, the most lasting of his actions — is precisely the sort of conservative judge who is predisposed to curtail government power rather than to allow an imperial presidency to rule without legal fetters. For all their anger about Trump’s executive orders, it was only a year ago that the same Democrats were defending Obama’s belief that he had the right to unilaterally decide immigration policy rather than deferring to existing law and the will of Congress. The case for Trump as a threat to democracy — as opposed to a Republican whose policies outrage liberals while also being a constant source of irritation and offense to our sensibilities — is untenable.
But when even relative moderates within the Democratic Senate caucus, such as Dianne Feinstein, refer to Trump as a “dictator,” it’s time to recognize that the rage of the grassroots of her party may now be the only thing that matters. If even sensible Democrats can’t avoid being sucked into the “resistance” rabbit hole that is dragging them farther to the left, then Trump is going to be the net winner of these controversies.
What liberals are missing as they gin up the outrage machine every day is that Trump’s policies — even the immigration orders — are not a prelude to Weimar Germany in 1933 but generally popular and defensible measures, which puts them in a position of opposing even reasonable restrictions on unfettered access to the country. To note this is not to gainsay the possibility that Trump’s thin skin, fact-averse speaking style, and incoherent foreign-policy attitudes can lead to disaster. But so long as Democrats are increasingly locked into a position in which their only mode of discourse is to demonize Trump and stake their future on false accusations of dictatorship, his prospects are far brighter than his opponents think.