BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In her short book On Violence, the philosopher Hannah Arendt observes that the signal feature of a tyrant is his refusal to be held accountable. The tyrant does what he wants, and his subjects have no recourse to question his choices.
Several months ago, I accused the newly elected president of showing early signs of fascism. Although I meant what I said, I hoped soon after writing the post that I was merely having an overheated reaction to the ugly Nazi rally that Richard Spencer had recently led in support of Trump.
Well, events will prove or disprove Trump’s fascist credentials. The signs today indicate he is overfriendly with fascist creeps but, perhaps for tactical reasons, stops short of openly endorsing them.
What is crystal clear though–and has been since before the presidential campaign–is that Trump is a committed tyrant. Thank goodness he is not yet an accomplished one, but he has made it palpably evident that he intends to govern without accountability.
Consider his main rule of conduct: never admit error. This is as plain a principle for avoiding accountability as can be formulated. As an individual, this attitude would merely qualify you as an irremediable clod, but as president, it has further-reaching political consequences. A president who refuses to admit mistakes places his actions outside the scope of democratic checks.
When federal courts rejected Trump’s travel ban in February, he did not enagage those judgments based on the comparative merits of his case; rather, he denigrated the court’s competency even to review his decisions. This move came naturally to a president who is allergic to admitting error. If Trump made no mistake, there was no authority equal to calling him out.
Then there is Trump’s follow-on rule: never apologize. This is a deeply anti-social corallory to Rule Number One, generally observed in bullies who are shunned into reclusiveness. It is also a defining trait of tyrants. Did Mao apologize for the tens of millions killed in the Great Leap Forward? Not a peep. Indeed it is ridiculous to expect of tyrants the sincere self-reflection required for atonement-seeking. They are unrepentant titans of history.
Perhaps Trump’s most naked rejection of accountability has been his declaration of war on the press. Despite its partisan flaws, the press still exists to hold the powerful to account. Trump hates this, and to stifle criticism, he has resorted to the churlish logical fallacy of poisoning the well, calling the press “very dishonest” and even “enemies of the people.” In a charmingly historical grace note to this attitude, Trump’s fascist supporters at the August torchlight march in Charlottesville invoked Hitler’s version of the “fake news” tagline, calling the media the lügende Presse. No doubt Trump liked that.
Trump’s attacks on the press have led him to redefine any outlets he doesn’t like as the “mainstream liberal media,” betraying a garish ignorance of the press’s landscape and history. While many press outlets that are critical of Trump would happily accept the liberal label–for example, The Nation, Harpers, Mother Jones–some of the most critical are either diehard rightwing platforms (like The Weekly Standard), libertarian (Reason), or historically critical toward presidents of both parties (the New York Times and Washington Post). My favorite case is the Atlantic Monthly, which has literally reoriented its editorial line to resist Trump’s demented attacks on truth and dignity. Based on its intellectual heritage, the Atlantic is a quintessentially Republican newspaper, founded by the GOP’s earliest fellow travelers, and in support of their defining policy goal of abolitionism. But even a founding GOP publication is all liberal lies in TrumpWorld.
Then there is the matter of Trump’s tax returns. Strictly speaking, Trump could frame his refusal to disclose them as a protection of his individual privacy before he became a candidate for president. Although he hasn’t articulated a coherent case for his reticence, he seems to point in this general direction, claiming his taxes wouldn’t be “interesting” to the public.
But there is a reason that all recent presidents have disclosed their tax returns, and it has everything to do with accountability. As the highest political leader in the land, the president should not just conform to the minimum requirements of transparency and accountabililty, but should make himself a model of those values. Trump’s steadfast refusal to follow precedent gives the appearance he has something to hide.
Well, Trump cannot hide his affinity for tyranny. The truth, as Orwell liked to say, is right in front of our noses: Trump scornfully rejects the very idea of accountbility. He wishes with all his political instinct to be a tyrant. So far, our free society and democratic insitutions have limited his ability to follow through, but we should do better than just wait and see how things shake out. Remember, the vote is another form of democratic check on Trump’s power; if it goes against him, he is likely to invoke Rule Number One and claim the “dishonest, paid-off” voters have no claim against his legitimacy.