How to talk about Trump's Dictator Remark
You defeat a strongman by revealing their weakness
Over the last week, several pieces laid out in great detail the consequences for democracy if Trump returns to the White House.
Robert Kagan, a neo-conservative columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a column entitled “A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending.”
If Trump does win the election, he will immediately become the most powerful person ever to hold that office. Not only will he wield the awesome powers of the American executive — powers that, as conservatives used to complain, have grown over the decades — but he will do so with the fewest constraints of any president, fewer even than in his own first term.
David Frum, another neo-conservative, wrote in The Atlantic about the dangers of another Trump stint in the White House:
A second Trump term would instantly plunge the country into a constitutional crisis more terrible than anything seen since the Civil War. Even in the turmoil of the 1960s, even during the Great Depression, the country had a functional government with the president as its head. But the government cannot function with an indicted or convicted criminal as its head. The president would be an outlaw, or on his way to becoming an outlaw. For his own survival, he would have to destroy the rule of law.
Finally, Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Swan, and Charlie Savage of the New York Times laid out in excruciating detail just how radical and dangerous a second Trump term would be:
[Trump] has said he would order the military to attack drug cartels in Mexico, which would violate international law unless its government consented. It most likely would not.
He would also use the military on domestic soil. While it is generally illegal to use troops for domestic law enforcement, the Insurrection Act allows exceptions. After some demonstrations against police violence in 2020 became riots, Mr. Trump had an order drafted to use troops to crack down on protesters in Washington, D.C., but didn’t sign it. He suggested at a rally in Iowa this year that he intends to unilaterally send troops into Democratic-run cities to enforce public order in general.
And then, during a Fox News town hall, Sean Hannity asked Trump:
Any plans whatsoever, if reelected president, to abuse power? To break the law? To use the government to go after people?
Hannity gave Trump an opportunity to deny the claims made by Kagan, Frum, and others. After some back and forth, Trump doubled down by saying — “Except for Day One.”
There it is. Clear as day. The man leading in the polls to be the next President of the United States is openly promising to abuse power and subvert democratic norms. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s remarks have dominated the political conversation. Many of the responses to Trump’s comments are playing right into his trap. It would also be political malpractice and a moral failure for Democrats to ignore the dangers of a Trump term, but how we talk about it matters a lot.
1. Don’t Amplify Strength
Back in 2002, former President Bill Clinton offered one of the most trenchant analyses of American politics. In a speech after Democrats had just gotten clobbered in the 2002 midterms, Clinton explained George W. Bush’s post-9/11 political success:
When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have someone strong and wrong than weak and right.
This analysis explains why Donald Trump won in 2016, almost won in 2020, and is leading in the polls. People are uncertain about the country and the world’s future. They are bombarded by images — often out of context — containing violence and chaos at home and abroad. To many, the world feels out of control. In this sort of political environment, people gravitate towards authoritarians. They are willing to sacrifice a lot for the perception of safety and security.
When Democrats panic about how Trump will seize and deploy power, we are inadvertently making him seem strong to a segment of the electorate. Every time we talk about how he is a dangerous dictator who will never leave office, we are amplifying Trump’s message.
Strength is the vector upon which American politics is decided, and it’s one on which Trump currently holds a significant advantage. In a recent poll from George Washington University, Trump has an 11-point advantage on “strong leadership.” There are very few historical precedents of a presidential candidate being seen as weaker and still winning. Biden had a slight lead on the “strong leader” question in 2020.
Therefore, Democrats need to talk about Trump’s wannabe strongman agenda without making him seem strong.
2. Authoritarianism Comes from Weakness
I am not arguing that Democrats should ignore Trump’s offenses against democracy. Far from it. It’s not IF we talk about Trump’s authoritarianism. It’s HOW we talk about it.
When talking about Trump’s authoritarian plans, frame them as emanating from weakness, not strength.
Donald Trump is not a strong person. He is a coward incapable of winning elections or advancing his extremist popular agenda without resorting to illegal, anti-democratic methods. Like any bully, Donald Trump pretends to be a dictator to hide his own weaknesses. He can’t win an election fair and square and is afraid to even try.
He is running for president for himself, not the public. His campaign is a desperate ploy to avoid facing the consequences of his many illegal actions.
Here is a version of a message I wrote in 2020 when I felt Democrats were speaking similarly about Trump’s dictatorial ambitions:
Trump pretends to be strong, but he is too weak and insecure to be President. He talks a tough game, but Trump has never stood up to anyone in his life. He bows down to dictators, gets his marching orders from CEOs, and hides in his bunker when things get tough. Trump is a clown who simply isn’t up to the job of President.
The best way to beat a wannabe strongman is to reveal his weaknesses, not talk about his strengths.
3. Connect the Message to People’s Lives
Polls show that voters care more about the economy and Trump’s pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act than how he would destroy democracy. The specific ways Trump would weaponize the government to punish his enemies and benefit himself and his rich, politically connected friends are esoteric and disconnected from the everyday concerns of voters under financial pressure.
Progressives often fall into the trap of talking about Trump and becoming defenders of a political system that most voters feel is corrupt and disconnected from their lives. Trump’s pledges to light the entire system on fire have more appeal than we would like to admit. Simply arguing that Donald Trump would “destroy democracy” doesn’t mean much to a lot of voters who are likely to decide the election. Like all arguments about Trump’s behavior, temperament, and crimes, we must specify how it will affect people’s lives. Here are a couple of ways to do that:
Trump will focus more on punishing his enemies and relitigating the 2020 election than helping you and your family;
Trump will weaponize the government to promote extremist policies that he can’t pass through Congress, including a de facto ban on abortion, rollbacks of rules to protect clean water and air, and eliminating protections for workers.
Across the country, people are desperately looking for help. They are anxious and afraid for their financial security and personal safety. We have to show that Trump is too weak to help them; otherwise, his dictator schtick will appeal to the masses.