On a single day in early March, Le Monde published simultaneous op-eds by Robert Paxton and Timothy Snyder, two definitive historians of the 1930s and 1940s, analyzing the implications of the Trump administration. Paxton and Snyder didn’t exactly come to contradictory conclusions – they echoed each other in speculating that a terrorist attack might be used by the Trump team as a prerogative for instilling some form of martial law. Still, Paxton argues that qualifying the Trumpian regime as “fascist” obfuscates the true aims of Trump and his Republican cabal to undo the regulatory state that protects workers and the environment – that is to say, they are aiming for a retreat of the state, which is the opposite of 1930s totalitarianism. Snyder, on the other hand, has been publishing a series of interviews and anecdotes from Hitler’s early years that, without explicitly mentioning Trump’s name, seek to demonstrate how quickly a republic of laws can be manipulated into an autocracy.
It seems to me that the reason it’s so difficult to pin down what Trump is is that Trump isn’t anything. An interrogation of Trump’s political remarks over the last few decades leads one to the conclusion that to ascribe to him any sort of ideological adherence or coherence is too generous. His biography is far more instructive. If Trump exhibits authoritarian tendencies, it’s not because he believes in it as a form of popular governance, but because, as Adam Davidson has pointed out, Trump spent his entire life in the New York real estate market, which is more comparable to Eastern European or Mid-East-style money-and-power nexuses than to any sort of free and fair exchange. As Davidson wrote, Manhattan real estate “is not a marketplace characterized by competition and dynamism; instead, Manhattan real estate looks an awful lot more like a Middle Eastern rentier economy. It is a hereditary system. We talk about families, not entrepreneurs. A handful of families have dominated the city’s real estate development for decades.” It’s a kind of mafia — a strictly hierarchical structure, in which the patriarch makes all decisions, and the threat of violence underlies any transgression. If Trump refuses to condemn the so-called “alt-right,” it is not only because he is accustomed to such ambient, latent violence, but also because it is useful to him in reinforcing his regime.
This may be a distinction without a difference but I think it’s useful to identify what one is fighting against, in order to inform the response. So for example, when Trump rants about leaks to journalists, it’s probably not because he’s plotting to stifle the press for ideological reasons; it’s a much more base response to being disobeyed. In reality, Obama waged a more ideological battle on this front — he prosecuted more leakers and whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined. Obama’s DOJ even went so far as to name a journalist as a co-conspirator in a whistle-blower case under the 1917 Espionage Act, and DOJ lawyers obtained the journalist’s phone records and tracked his comings and goings from the State Department. These egregious overreaches were later walked back, and the DOJ announced reform measures in response to immense public pressure. In contrast to Obama’s quiet war, Trump obviously likes to air everything publicly on Twitter — to turn controversy over to the court of public opinion where, he thinks, he can win. And, seen from the outside, his ravings about the illegality of leaks do seem to be justified.
What Trump doesn’t get (this phrase is going to get worn out fast) about leaks is that not only are they necessary to a transparent democracy, as part of the press’s quest to police government actions (for example, regarding the special-op in Yemen that killed at least ten Yemeni civilians and one American Navy Seal); but also, the press assumes much of the responsibility for them. When journalists obtain leaked information, they normally don’t publish it point-blank. There is an extensive conversation, usually involving the editors of the publication, about whether the value of the information to the public justifies any sort of security risk that may be involved. What’s more, often the editors are on the phone with government officials, who may be trying to make their case as to why the publication should refrain from publishing the information. These negotiations can be tortuous, but they are crucial. BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the Christopher Steele dossier on Trump’s Russia connections was a wrongheaded one, because the information was, in addition to being highly uncertain, not really that useful to the public discussion. It made BuzzFeed appear to be seeking to live up to its name. That kind of move erodes public trust in journalistic circumspection.
Taking the fight to Trump may sometimes be better accomplished obliquely, though there is a real quandary here – do we continue to decry Trump’s failure to observe the norms and dignities of his office, in order to remind ourselves of what the presidency ought to be? Or do we accept that Trump’s persona makes this kind of battle of wits dishearteningly Sisyphean? I’m not sure what the correct response is, but the press might be better served to turn directly to the public to explain what they are up to and how it benefits everyone. Government is now more than ever a protracted PR campaign, and everyone will be better off to recognize that.