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Donald Trump: Strong Leader Or Dangerous Authoritarian?

President-elect Donald Trump has the power, and has shown a willingness, to effect change in ways critics charge is bullying.
Andrew Harnik
President-elect Donald Trump has the power, and has shown a willingness, to effect change in ways critics charge is bullying.

Even before he is sworn in, Donald Trump is putting his own stamp on the role of chief executive.

That has some people rejoicing — and others worried about where he's going to take the country. Here is why some of Trump's critics say the president-elect could be a threat to democratic institutions and why others say those fears are overblown.

Trump is shaping up to be more than just an activist president. With one tweet, he drives down the stock price of a major American company. With another, he unleashes a flood of death threats against a local labor leader who displeased him.

Evan McMullin, a former Republican House staffer and CIA operative who ran as an independent for president against Trump, points to Trump's intervention with the Carrier company. Trump's involvement led to Carrier agreeing to keep 750 jobs in the U.S. instead of moving them to Mexico.

McMullin charged that the Carrier deal showed that Trump has authoritarian instincts.

"The most fundamental part of authoritarianism is this idea that what the authoritarian believes should go," McMullin told NPR. "They are the only authority. It's the president making decisions about particular companies rather than working within the system to create laws that affect companies in the context of the rule of law."

But others, even critics of Trump, say the Carrier deal was not necessarily a sign of a populist authoritarian in the making — it was merely bad economic policy.

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, a Trump critic, said the president-elect is giving new meaning to the bully part of the bully pulpit.

"It just sets a dangerous precedent that a president can take a private company by the throat," Stephens said. "It's not what you'd expect from a guy who supposedly believes in the power that supports free markets."

And, say others, it was a pretty lousy deal — since Carrier has announced it plans to automate the plant and lay off even more workers.

But Trump's supporters say his intervention with Carrier shows Trump is a strong leader — doing exactly what he promised to do during the campaign. Conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham, who is in contention for White House press secretary, said what Trump did, when he reminded Carrier's parent company about its defense contracts with the federal government and got the company to accept the package of incentives the state of Indiana was already offering, was well within the bounds of executive action.

"Giving companies incentives to stay in states, as you see governors do all the time," Ingraham said, "what's wrong with that? What's wrong with doing things that actually help regular, working-class Americans and that are popular?"

But the debate about Trump and democracy doesn't stop there. His critics say they can find no instance where Trump spoke in defense of democratic institutions or values. During the campaign he questioned the ability of a U.S.-born judge with Mexican parents to preside fairly over a lawsuit against him. Trump was suggesting that being an American has more to do with ethnic heritage than shared values.

Over the weekend, Trump cast doubt on U.S. intelligence and said he doesn't plan to take daily intelligence briefings. He has repeatedly sided with Russia, casting doubt that Russians hacked Democratic National Committee emails and the emails of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta — and colluded to release them via WikiLeaks.

The CIA concluded Russia did so in an effort to help install Trump as the next U.S. president. Trump dismisses any evidence of that. President Obama has launched a "full review" of international meddling related to U.S. elections going back to the 2008 election, when China was found to have hacked both the Obama and McCain campaigns.

When it comes to freedom of speech, Trump is famous for his attacks on the media. Those are standard for political candidates, but Trump went even further, threatening to alter libel laws so journalists could be "sued like they've never been sued before."

During the campaign, Trump also promised to throw Hillary Clinton in jail. Even after he won, his critics say his magnanimous offer to refrain from prosecuting her showed a lack of understanding of the U.S. democratic system, under which presidents don't get to decide by themselves whom to prosecute, let alone throw in jail.

Then there's the ongoing debate about Trump's constant stream of statements that have no basis in fact. Coupled with the torrent of fake news stories (which Trump has repeated), these falsehoods, Trump's critics say, could undermine liberal democracy.

Whether stating with zero proof that millions of noncitizens voted illegally, claiming falsely that climate change is a hoax, questioning baselessly (for years) whether Obama was born in the United States, stating that he "heard" the unemployment rate might really be 42 percent or that everything people hear from the "dishonest media" is a lie, Trump's messages are designed to sow confusion, McMullin said.

After all, if citizens can't believe anything they hear, then the easiest path is to just trust the leader. And, Trump has said, "I alone" can fix the country's problems.

To McMullin, this is a hallmark of authoritarians. He points to Trump's false claim that millions of illegal votes prevented him from winning a popular-vote majority, for example.

"It serves to undermine our democratic institutions," McMullin said. "If those institutions are weakened, if we have less faith, for example, in elections, that strengthens the hand of the authoritarian."

The response of Trump's supporters to that critique hasn't been what you'd expect. Instead of insisting that Trump is telling the truth, Trump's surrogates, like his former campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski, said falsehoods are just part of Trump's leadership style.

"This is the problem with the media," Lewandowski said at a recent Harvard University forum. "You guys took everything Donald Trump said so literally. And the problem with that is the American people didn't. They understood that sometimes when you have a conversation with people, you're going to say something, and maybe you don't have all the facts to back that up, but that's how the American people live."

Lewandowski seems to be arguing that since the average American might not know what he's talking about, why should Trump?

Other Trump surrogates, like Scottie Nell Hughes, openly embrace Trump's role as the first president operating in a post-factual world.

"There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts," Hughes said recently on The Diane Rehm Show. "And so Mr. Trump's tweets, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth."

The argument that Trump's repeated prevarications pose a threat to democratic institutions, and to American democracy itself, is rejected by former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove. He dismissed it as nothing more than left-wing hyperventilation.

"This is far-fetched, starting with the authoritarianism," Rove told NPR. "Yes, there are Republicans concerned that he rambunctiously doesn't understand the restraints on the executive, that he doesn't understand the prerogatives under Article 1 that Congress enjoys — yeah. But the process is going to teach him those constraints — and reality is going to teach him those constraints."

Former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston agrees. He points to the checks and balances American founders designed to restrain any president who tries to chip away at rule of law, individual rights, a free press or an independent judiciary.

"I think the next few years will be a kind of stress test for the liberal, democratic constitutional institutions that we have built with such pain and such struggle over the last two-and-a-quarter centuries," Galston said. "I am cautiously optimistic that our institutions will pass that test, but they will be tested."

This is what the conversation is like at the dawn of the age of Trump, where it's not yet clear what a Trump presidency will mean — for the economy, foreign policy or democratic institutions.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 12, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
In an earlier version of this story, Corey Lewandowski's name was misspelled Cory and Bret Stephens' name was misspelled Brett.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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