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Donald Trump Is Already Acting Like an Authoritarian

Just days since the election, the worst fears about him are coming true.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Before President-elect Donald Trump eked out a victory on election night last week, the greatest source of liberal apprehension was that he would reject the legitimacy of his defeat, inviting his most reactionary supporters to seek revenge in various unsettling ways.

Instead, Trump described the presidential election as “open and successful,” presumably a moment for his supporters to bask in happily. Victory, however, has not quenched the thirst for revenge.

It is one thing for the losers of an election to lash out in anger as they cycle through the stages of grief. It is another thing altogether for the winners to do so. And yet the post-election landscape has been defined by a frightening outburst of retribution and calls for reprisals against Trump’s political enemies.

The way the Trump entourage and his rank and file supporters have responded to their triumph mirror each other perfectly. The tone of his pre-presidency was set during his victory speech, which was itself unusually gracious for a man of Trump’s narcissism and disdain, but was delivered to supporters beseeching him to jail Hillary Clinton and shoot President Barack Obama—interruptions which did not faze him at all.

Trump has been similarly unfazed by a national outpouring of racial hatred and violence directed at African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims, frequently done in his name. What has fazed Trump are the imagined sins and crimes of those who have been most clear-eyed about the dangers of his presidency. The same Republican officials who acquiesced to Trump during the campaign trail are now shrinking from any sense of responsibility to promote pluralism or obligation to reject threats to the constitution. The descent between where we are today and unchecked authoritarianism is long, but we are sliding down it very fast.

The spike in acts of racial violence and agitation since Tuesday has been directed at protesters, ethnic and religious minorities on college and school campuses, and private and public property in their communities. Trump and his goons have made clear that the perpetrators of these acts aren’t the ones with much to fear.

Sheriff David E. Clarke’s name has been floated as a potential secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. His Wednesday tweet suggested that the U.S. constitution, which contains a right to free assembly in its first amendment, equips him with tools to suppress protest movements that run counter to the “will of the people,” more of whom wanted Clinton to be president than Trump.

The most blistering and unblinkered official condemnation of Trump’s behavior, and the toxic environment his victory created, came from Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “Every news piece that breathlessly obsesses over inauguration preparations compounds their fear by normalizing a man who has threatened to tear families apart, who has bragged about sexually assaulting women and who has directed crowds of thousands to intimidate reporters and assault African Americans,” he said.

Their fear is legitimate and we must refuse to let it fall through the cracks between the fluff pieces

If this is going to be a time of healing, we must first put the responsibility for healing where it belongs: at the feet of Donald Trump, a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate. Winning the electoral college does not absolve Trump of the grave sins he committed against millions of Americans. Donald Trump may not possess the capacity to assuage those fears, but he owes it to this nation to try.

When asked about Reid’s comments this past weekend, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway called them “beyond the pale,” and warned him to be careful in a “legal sense.”

Trump’s enablers are feigning ignorance of the white nationalist, anti-Semitic pedigree of Trump’s campaign chairman, Steve Bannon, who has spent his time since election day courting cooperation from European far-right leaders, and whom Trump on Sunday tapped as the chief strategist for his administration. At the same time, they are still batting about the question of whether to pursue Trump’s promise to jail Clinton.

In The New York Times, this ambivalence about prosecuting Trump’s political enemies for illusory crimes and actions that have already been investigated was delicately woven into a familiar storyline about how new presidents always face the choice between “looking forward” and “looking backward.” The article compared a politically motivated Clinton prosecution to Obama’s decision not to investigate the architects of President George W. Bush’s torture regime. For shoehorning authoritarian threats into a framework of business-as-usual bipartisanship, Trump rewarded the Times on Twitter with a sustained attack on its journalism, and for having the temerity to accurately report that Trump believes “more countries should acquire nuclear weapons.”

Facing calls to condemn acts of racism he emboldened, Trump confined his condemnation to protesters and the media until late Sunday, when Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes successfully pressed him to tell perpetrators of hate crimes to stop.

Trump’s campaign was so unmoored from factual or ideological premises that it has been tempting for optimists to hope Trump used demagoguery as a campaign tactic he will no longer find useful as president. Everything we’ve seen suggests just the opposite.

In the same 60 Minutes interview, he told Stahl, “I’ll conduct myself—in a very good manner, but depends on what the situation is. Sometimes you have to be rougher.”

The themes of Trump’s campaign were vilification, revanchism, and revenge. What he won are the tools of repression and amnesty required to punish his scapegoats, and what his supporters won is the expectation that he will use them.