From the time Donald Trump wrapped up the GOP nomination in early May, the Republican Party has achieved a degree of unity that would have shocked observers of the race just a few months ago. House Speaker Paul Ryan may be withholding his endorsement, Mitt Romney and the Bush family are unlikely to ever come around, and some senators in tight races are sitting out the Cleveland convention. But the Republican Party, from its representatives in Congress to its political operatives, has otherwise fallen in line at an astonishing rate. Even the politicians Trump has insulted and demeaned—from Marco Rubio to John McCain—are, to one extent or another, supporting his candidacy.
They’re not lining up because Trump has become “presidential.” Trump has steadfastly refused to develop into a more mature and policy-oriented candidate. The only consistent feature of his positions is that they keep changing: His platform remains a black hole; he resists even minimal efforts at coherence. But there is one aspect of the man that never changes and thus forms the core of what we might call “Trumpism”: He appears to actually believe in a sort of ad hoc authoritarianism. The prominent features of this ideology include a respect for thuggish foreign leaders, an appetite for violence, a hatred of the press, and a quasi-fascist disregard for anything that can be perceived as weakness. His press conference on Tuesday, in which he raged at reporters who were (at last) asking him some tough questions, was a near perfect embodiment of his nature.
Together, these two realities—the Republican surrender to Trump, and Trump’s authoritarianism—portend a very disturbing future. If Trump gets elected, Republicans will almost certainly control both houses of Congress. (They currently hold the power on Capitol Hill and will likely only forfeit it if Democrats sweep in November.) If you don’t think the authoritarian candidate and the ideologues in the House and Senate will make peace, you haven’t been paying attention for the last month. Both sides could very easily get what they most desire in a Trump presidency. The results would be terrifying.
In the rare instances when Trump does talk seriously about policy—his “energy speech” last week, or the release of his Supreme Court “shortlist”—there is rarely any original thought on display. Trump’s positions aren’t rooted in research or firmly held beliefs. Rather, his method appears to be calling right-wing think tanks or experts and merely repeating their suggestions. Watching the energy speech was disconcerting: Here was a man mouthing right-wing talking points with an obvious lack of interest in the policies he was advocating. As one expert described the speech to the Times, “It’s a fairly standard Republican anti-regulation, pro-production vision, but with no real details and some outlandish Trumpian flourishes.”
If Trump doesn’t care about policy per se, what does he care about? “A statue in Washington, D.C.,” was the answer Trump himself gave recently. It’s true that our republic has managed to retain its democratic character while erecting statues to Lincoln and Roosevelt, but Trump’s remark hints at the way he would approach elected office. He wants to be a great man, which to him means a strong man. From his adoration of Vladimir Putin, to his support of the Chinese Communist Party’s not-so-gentle approach to protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Trump has always displayed a longing for what he considers toughness. Toughness is the only consistent aspect of his political commentary dating back to the 1980s. The only other contender might be his opposition to free trade—which is itself wrapped in language about America lacking sufficient strength.
So: We have a man who relishes strength and cares not for the details of policy. How is that likely to play out when he’s in office? Do we imagine him standing up to a Republican Congress, arguing for the specifics of his policy prescriptions? There are none. Far more likely is that Trump will simply go along with whatever Congress wants, then bask in the glory of legislative victory. Trump’s appeal is frequently described in terms of his status as an outsider or in his ability to sell himself as a negotiator. But do we really expect him to push back against Republican orthodoxy on an issue like tax policy? Paul Ryan’s budget guts social spending and offers huge tax cuts. Trump himself has proposed a gargantuan tax cut. There’s not exactly a lot of friction here.
Trump is more likely to save his political capital to achieve his authoritarian goals, whether it’s stocking the federal government with cronies or cracking down on the meddlesome media. And this is where Republican politicians and their craven appeasement of Trump come in. As they have proven over this last, depressing month, they are not concerned by Trump’s authoritarian style. They are not going to challenge him for attacking the media or abusing executive power. If there is one thing the last 16 years have shown, it’s that Congress doesn’t mind having its power usurped, so long as the president is a member of the majority’s party.
The GOP establishment would have you believe they’ve got the problem in hand, that any attempt by Trump to act outside the norms of American democracy would be reined in by Congress. “What protects us in this country against big mistakes being made is the structure, the Constitution, the institutions, no matter how unusual a personality may be who gets elected to office,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said recently. “There are constraints in this country. You don’t get to do anything you want to, so I’m very optimistic about America. I’m not depressed about the nature of the debate.” McConnell was letting voters know that Congress would not simply roll over and play dead in a Trump presidency.
Believe him at your own peril. In late February, the Times reported that McConnell had developed unprecedented plans that would “have lawmakers break with Mr. Trump explicitly in a general election.” Three months later, you don’t hear much about such plans. The Kentucky senator himself has now endorsed Trump for president. If a Trump president is letting McConnell get his way on his pet issues, do you trust the majority leader to stand up to the strong man when he asks for appropriations for his statue?
Trump may very well still lose the presidency and cause lasting, harmful damage to the Republican Party. But if he gets into office, expect to see a combination of his authoritarianism and the party’s partisan agenda in action. Liberals have long fretted about the Republican Party’s post–Tea Party incarnation achieving massive policy victories. More recently, that fear has been replaced by a concern over what Trump’s presidency would mean for democracy. The prospect of both fears being realized in a single election is the stuff of nightmares.
Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.