Why Trump Can Never be an Autocrat

On October 30, 2017, conservative writer and intellectual Norman Ornstein spoke at Washington University in St. Louis to promote a book he co-wrote, One Nation After Trump. He argued that the Trump presidency is leading the way toward autocracy (government by one person), kleptocracy (government by thieves), and kakistocracy (government by the worst). In fact, an ideologically diverse range of political commentators, including Ornstein, Masha Gessen, David Frum, Jeffrey Goldberg, Megan McArdle, Ezra Klein, Sarah Kendzior, and Paul Krugman are all united in their belief that the Trump presidency has either inaugurated an age of autocracy or is constantly lurching toward autocracy. While it may be true that President Trump is aiding in the creation of a kakistocracy or of a kleptocracy, Ornstein and the others are wrong about the Trump administration forming an autocracy. Their claim of a nascent autocracy becomes much weaker when considering the necessary branches Trump would need control over in order to become an autocrat. For instance, the Republicans’ (and Trump’s) influence in the legislature pales in comparison to the two instances where the United States government came closest to a one-party state: the 18th Congress (1823-1825) and the 75th Congress (1937-1939).

The contention of a nascent autocracy becomes much weaker when compared to the two instances where the United States federal government came closest to a one-party state: the 18th Congress (1823-1825) and the 75th Congress (1937-1939).

The 18th Congress and the 75th Congress are unique among the 115 incarnations of the United States legislature in that they most resemble the legislative branch of a one-party state. The oppositions in both were completely marginal and as a result rarely made any impact. The 18th Congress began with a Senate of 42 Democratic-Republicans, 3 Federalists, and 3 vacant seats and a House of Representatives of 188 Democratic-Republicans, 24 Federalists, and one vacant seat. The 75th Congress had a similarly lopsided start: The Senate had 76 Democrats, 16 Republicans, and 4 senators of other parties, while the House of Representatives had 333 Democrats, 89 Republicans, and 13 representatives of other parties. Even the argument for state governors aiding Trump’s cause across the nation rings hollow compared to the party affiliation of state governors during the 18th and the 75th congresses. Currently, 34 states governors are Republicans, 15 are Democrats, and one is an independent. In 1823, 22 of the 24 state governors were Democratic-Republicans, one was a Federalist, and one was an independent. In 1937, 38 of 48 state governors were Democrats, 8 were Republicans, and two were associated with minor leftist parties of the period. Republicans can still only dream of such dominance as the Democratic-Republicans and Democrats held in the aforementioned cases.

The 18th Congress and the 75th Congress are unique among 115 incarnations of the United States legislature in that they most resemble the legislative branch of a one-party state.

While the 18th Congress may be far too antiquated to compare with current Congress because the executive branch under James Monroe was quite weak, the 75th Congress has much to say about the weakness of Trump’s position and political clout. Compared to the 76 Democrats in the 75th Congress, the Republicans hold a mere 52 seats in the Senate. They currently hold 239 seats in the House of Representatives compared to the all-time opening record by the Democrats of the 75th Congress, who held 333 seats. Even with substantial gains in 2018, Republicans are unlikely to come close to 60 seats in the Senate. The last time Republicans held 60 or more seats was in March of 1909, and Republicans have never topped 250 seats in the House since they held 270 seats at the beginning of the 71st Congress (1929-1931). Simply put, there is no realistic way that Republicans could ever hold the kind of majority the Democrats held in 1937 at any point in Trump’s presidency or for any part of the foreseeable future.

Even if Trump and the Republicans received reelection by landslides, there is no guarantee that they would work together in any meaningful way. The 75th Congress featured Democratic senator Josiah Bailey of North Carolina joining Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan in writing the Conservative Manifesto that denounced much of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal measures. The Senate also rejected Roosevelt’s court-packing plan even though the Democrats possessed enough votes to support the scheme.

Alongside the divisions in the 75th Congress, the 18th Congress’ successor showed the destruction of the Democratic-Republican Party, as President James Monroe retired and the party split first into supporting the candidacies of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay for the presidential election of 1824, and then into a Pro-Administration faction and Anti-Administration faction with the beginning of both the 19th Congress and of John Quincy Adams’ presidency in 1825. Trump had nowhere near that support with 304 electoral votes and he certainly did not have the backing of the popular vote. Roosevelt also had a previous Electoral College victory of 472 votes to Herbert Hoover’s 59 votes from 1932 to further argue for the popularity of his programs. Additionally, most Republican lawmakers did not take immediately to Trump in 2016. Even the one who have not always stayed close to him, as Jeff Sessions’ support of and attack from Trump clearly illustrated. Trump, many of his supporters, and many of his opponents may believe that he can rule arbitrarily with the consent of Congress, but that is highly unlikely given the highly fragmented legislature, both inside the Republican Party and within the Democratic opposition.

Trump, many of his supporters, and many of his opponents may believe that he can rule arbitrarily with the consent of Congress, but that is highly unlikely given the dissension of a highly fragmented legislature, both inside the Republican Party and within the Democratic opposition.

Trump’s bluster against media companies and websites combine with his actual reprisals against the same companies and websites to reveal his actual weakness regarding censorship of the press. The closest anyone has come to being arrested over protesting the current administration was when a court found Code Pink activist Desiree Fairooz guilty of disrupting the peace by laughing at Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing as Attorney General. However, a higher court later acquitted Fairooz. By contrast, author Studs Terkel recorded an interview with noted African-American reporter and writer Alfred Duckett in which Duckett claimed that African-American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Afro-American needed clearance from the federal government before reporting on racial discrimination in the United States military during the Second World War. Franklin Roosevelt headed the federal government in question. Roosevelt also blatantly violated the liberty of Japanese-American citizens by placing them into internment camps. It would be stunning if thousands of people were similarly moved by the Trump administration due to resistance amongst the opposition in the national legislature as well as in many courts.

Regarding the Supreme Court, Trump’s influence might seem the most long-lasting as he might be able to choose several justices on if some of the more aged justices retire or die. Nevertheless, Trump cannot foresee with complete accuracy what his nominees will do on any number of given issues. For example, Democratic presidents nominated justices who turned out to be more conservative than expected with the appointments of Felix Frankfurter in 1939, Robert Jackson in 1941, Tom C. Clark in 1949, and Byron White in 1962. Republican presidents nominated justices who turned out to be more liberal than expected with the appointments of Harry Blackmun in 1970, John Paul Stevens in 1975, Anthony Kennedy in 1988, and David Souter in 1990. There is no reason to believe that Trump will appoint multiple justices who completely agree with his agenda.

On the first anniversary of Trump’s winning the presidency, commentator and author Matt Taibbi wrote an article entitled “Nothing Has Changed.” He argued that what he considered to be the toxic atmosphere of both the 2016 election and of Trump’s insensitive and undignified remarks continued unabated throughout Trump’s first ten months in office. While I agree with the title of Taibbi’s piece, I believe in that statement for a different reason than he intended. Trump is brash and horrendous at political compromises, but he would not be the first president that was ineffective as the chief executive. In a span of twenty years of American political history, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan all shared the dubious distinction of being the only presidents to not receive the nomination of their parties as their first terms came to a close when they had not explicitly refused the possibility of a second term. The United States recovered from such divisive and unsatisfactory examples of leadership despite the nation enduring a long American Civil War that the aforementioned presidents did little to prevent in the long run.

Many commentators (and college students) became overwhelmed with fear at the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. They expressed fears of nuclear annihilation and of further marginalization of minorities by officials from the federal government. Thankfully, the presidency of Trump has been highly reminiscent of the presidency of George W. Bush. Bush/Trump says something people consider offensive, idiotic, or silly. Critics collectively roll their eyes while supporters defend him tooth and nail. While Bush was in many ways a better unifier and a better president than Trump has proven to be, a slogan from the Bush years has come back to haunt Trump. Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote an article for The Nation in 2004 criticizing the Republican Party for its supposed incompetence. The article was entitled “Dissent is Patriotic.” The country and its political scene did not change as easily as many American feared. For the reasons in this article, Trump can only be a politician struggling to pass his agenda through Congress and the courts. Whatever his (or others’) dreams about becoming an autocrat, they must be gently laid to rest.

Luke Voyles ’18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at lrvoyles@wustl.edu.

Luke Voyles

Luke Voyles '18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at lrvoyles@wustl.edu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *