“If the Russians try anything,” an adviser says in one episode of Yes, Prime Minister, the 1980s British sitcom that ranks as one of the most insightful television shows ever made about politics, “it will be salami tactics.”
“Salami tactics?” his boss, the bumbling prime minister, asks.
“Slice by slice,” his adviser confirms, taking on the accent of Henry Kissinger, or perhaps Dr. Strangelove. “One small piece at a time. So will you press the [nuclear] button if they invade West Berlin?”
“It all depends,” the prime minister says.
“On what? Scenario 1: Riots in West Berlin. Buildings in flames. East German fire brigade crosses the border to help. Would you press the button? The East German police come with them. The button? Then some troops. More troops. Just for riot control, they say. And then the East German troops are replaced by Russian troops. Button?”
The prime minister is starting to sweat profusely.
“Then the Russian troops don’t go. They are invited to stay to support civilian administration. The civilian administration closes roads and Tempelhof Airport. Now you press the button?”
“I need time to think about this,” the prime minister pleads, desperation mounting in his voice.
“You have. Twelve hours,” the adviser says.
As I watched the slow-motion car wreck of American politics over the past week, it occurred to me that we are all the show’s hapless prime minister now, with the role of the salami-slicing Russians played, appropriately enough, by our own leader. President Donald Trump is engaged in a piecemeal attack on the most basic institutions of a free country. Any one action he takes has some spurious justification and looks like such an incremental change from what came before that it does not seem worth fighting over. Cumulatively, the impact is that of a ground invasion.
As the example in the show makes clear, salami tactics work for two intertwined reasons. The first lies in complicating what should be a simple question so much that it never seems to brook a clear answer. If Trump had come out on his first day in office and fired the head of the FBI, admitted to all of the contacts his family and campaign have had with Russia, shut down the government for weeks on end, and talked up a spurious national emergency, even some of the Republican leaders who have turned out to be scandalously feckless over the past two years might have stood up to him.
Instead, Trump has taken one step at a time, using his media allies to complicate the situation by maligning his adversaries (“Buildings in flames!”) and developing transparent excuses for his own actions (“We just want to restore order!”). And so the great American public is, like the hapless prime minister, simultaneously aware that something very bad is going on and utterly unsure what to do about it.
The second has to do with “normalization.” In the days and weeks after Trump was first elected, writers like Masha Gessen exhorted us not to treat Trump like any other president. In the way in which this fear was usually expressed, it has proved to be both too pessimistic and overly optimistic. It was too pessimistic because Trump’s behavior has proved to be so extreme, and the media so tightly tethered to traditional categories of what constitutes a scandal, that they still report on every one of his tweets with the shocked demeanor of a 1970s network anchor reining in a guest who insists on throwing F-bombs. Two years into Trump’s presidency, most media outlets thankfully cover him as the norm-breaking liar he obviously is.
But the warnings about normalization were also too optimistic because they underestimated how easily Trump could shift the goal posts of public discourse even as the media denounced him as a liar. Two years ago, the mainstream media were (rightly) outraged by Trump’s erratic tweets; now they are about equally outraged by the fact that he is toying with the idea of a national emergency and might just be a Russian agent. Call it meta-normalization, if you will: Every sentient American is deeply aware of how abnormal the president is. But the fact of his abnormality has, itself, been thoroughly normalized.
To any scholar of history or international politics, there is, of course, nothing particularly surprising about the fact that Trump is engaging in salami tactics. From the communist parties who subdued Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and 1950s to the authoritarian populists who now occupy seats of power from Caracas to Warsaw, the basic set of strategies has remained strikingly consistent: Aspiring autocrats fire critical bureaucrats on made-up charges of malfeasance. They reform independent institutions to render them more “efficient.” They pass new regulations for universities to ensure they are up to modern pedagogical standards. The effectiveness of this course of action is remarkable: Eight years into the rule of Viktor Orban in Hungary, it is very difficult to pinpoint one particular action he took to disable democracy. And yet, it is clear that all the slices of the salami have now been cut and consumed.
(It is a particularly bitter historical irony that the phrase has now completed a full historical circle. Salami tactics originally described the way in which Hungarian communists crushed their liberal opponents at the beginning of the Cold War. Now Orban—who came to political prominence as a dissident in the last stages of the Soviet Union—is using them to quash liberal democracy.)
But though the basic fact that an authoritarian populist like Trump should resort to salami tactics does not come as a surprise to me, the sheer power this strategy has proved to have even here in America does still boggle my mind. When I am asked for a particular example of what Trump has actually done to concentrate power in his own hands—as I have been many times over the past years—I sometimes struggle. Sure, it’s easy to point to his horrendous rhetoric or his absurd tweets. But he has not thrown any of his critics in jail, shuttered a newspaper, or banned a political party. Isn’t there something to the charge that we’ve all been a little hysterical?
But though it is difficult to pinpoint any particular action Trump has taken as a reason to push the metaphorical button, it is clear that he has managed to undermine the central institutions of our political system to a remarkable degree. Congressional Republicans have long since given up the pretense of exercising a check on the executive: Over the past days, key figures like Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, and Lindsey Graham, the influential senator from South Carolina, have actively started to lobby for the president to undermine their constitutionally mandated powers by declaring a national emergency. The White House is exercising more and more control of the FBI and the Department of Justice. Trump is starting to politicize the U.S. Army. And the naked partisanship of his judicial appointments provides reason to fear that the courts will, in time, prove to be less of a bulwark for traditional constitutional protections than many observers still assume.
None of this is to say that Trump is likely to succeed. While salami tactics have proved to be powerful even in the hands of a rank political amateur, they cannot compensate for Trump’s ample shortcomings. As I have argued before, he has failed to deliver tangible benefits for his supporters, to staff political institutions with his allies in a disciplined manner, or to cast the challenges he faces as being a threat to the country rather than his own fate. As a result, he now faces determined opposition in the House of Representatives and remains too unpopular to put independent-minded judges and bureaucrats under as much pressure as he would like. Unless a real emergency appears on the horizon, or Democrats run a disastrous campaign in 2020, there is a good chance that we will find a way to stop the gradual ground invasion after all.
And yet, the power that salami tactics have proved to have even in the United States should quash any self-congratulatory pretensions that the Constitution somehow makes us immune from authoritarian takeover. “You wouldn’t really press the button, would you?” the adviser asks the prime minister at the end of the scene.
“I might if I had no choice,” he responds.
“Oh,” the adviser points out. “But they’ll never put you in a situation where you have no choice. Salami tactics, remember?”