News & Features » Columns

Trump's authoritarian instincts came out to play this week

Mango Mussolini



As I – and probably a thousand other observers – have noted on more than one occasion, the breakneck speed at which things happen in the Trump administration often prevents us from fully digesting them.

In recent days we've seen the president cancel (via a high-school-breakup-style letter) and then maybe un-cancel a planned summit with murderous North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – who played Donald Trump like a two-dollar fiddle, by the way – for which the White House made commemorative coins and Republicans nominated the president for the Nobel Prize. We've seen yet another mass school shooting, met by more thoughts and prayers and nothing else from a cowardly administration that is entirely under the NRA's thumb. We've seen legislation rolling back parts of the financial reform passed after the Great Recession and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' evisceration of the oversight of avaricious for-profit "universities." We've seen Trump's increasingly aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement lose track of nearly 1,500 children who came to this country from Latin America, some of whom have likely fallen victim to sex traffickers. We've seen an ACLU report alleging that migrant kids were kicked, beaten and threatened with sexual abuse by Border Patrol agents. We've seen the Congressional Budget Office utterly decimate the Trump administration's optimistic deficit projections. And we've seen a Washington Post report of the president privately reveling in his MAGA crowds' enthusiasm for rounding up and tossing out Hispanics.

Each of these things is scandalous in its own right, deserving of its own column. There's too much to choose from. Everything is fucked every which way all the time, and the president keeps bringing out the worst in America.

But amid all this seemingly everyday insanity and depravity, a disturbing undercurrent lingers. It's always been there, of course, ever since Trump announced his plans to run for president in 2015 by explicitly catering to white Americans' very worst bigotries and fears. This last week, though, it boiled to the surface in two very distinct ways, one of which has disturbing implications, the other of which could provoke a full-on crisis.

I'm speaking, of course, about the president's authoritarian inclination, which has defined every aspect of his administration from Day One, a through-line that connects his appeal to white evangelicals (among the most authoritarian groups in the U.S., according to the seminal book Authoritarianism and Polarization in the American Politics), his sympathy with white nationalists, his spiteful immigration policy, his ambivalence toward African-American civil rights and his unquestioning fawning over law enforcement and the military. These are all traits of authoritarianism, well-defined by political scientists over the years, and as Trump remolds the Republican Party in his own image, it too is becoming an authoritarian organ, a frightening proposition considering it has near-complete control of the federal government.

The first story, of course, is the NFL's decision – made by its white team owners – to require its players to stand for the National Anthem, thereby preventing African American athletes from using their platform to publicly protest police violence toward black men. The players can choose not to come on the field for the anthem, but the NFL wants them out of sight.

The league, of course, is a private organization, and it can make and enforce whatever rules it wants. But it goes without saying that this is a blatant capitulation to Donald Trump, who for the last year has thrown a temper tantrum about kneeling players, calling them "sons of bitches" and pushing for a boycott of the league if they weren't punished. Fearing the loss of the MAGA fanbase, the spineless NFL did as the racist president dictated and told its black employees to keep their mouths shut and do as they're told. The same president who said there were "some very fine people" marching with white supremacists in Charlottesville now says those who don't pay proper tribute to a nationalistic ritual "maybe shouldn't be in the country." That is the very definition of authoritarian behavior, which goes hand in hand with institutionalized racism.

The second story highlights a different but no less dangerous aspect of Trump's authoritarian tendencies: tearing down institutions to prop up the leader. This week, Trump launched something of a counteroffensive to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of his campaign's collusion with Russia, alleging that the "Criminal Deep State" (whatever that means) had embedded (a word Trump could not correctly spell on the first try) a "Spy" (false) inside his campaign "for the sole purpose of political advantage and gain," yet another ploy to undermine an inquiry that is ensnaring his closest confidants and advisers.

There was, of course, no spy. There was a human source whom the FBI used to talk to campaign advisers who were suspected of being too cozy with a hostile power, which is exactly what law enforcement should be doing when there's evidence that segments of a campaign are colluding with another government. If anything, Trump should be happy the feds were trying to root out these malign influences.

The rest of Trump's claim is ludicrous on its face. If the so-called Deep State wanted to hurt the Trump campaign, why was the extent of this investigation not revealed until well after the election? Why did FBI agents specifically deny it was taking place, in fact – even as the FBI shattered its own protocols to damage Hillary Clinton? It's stupid, and Trump knows that; he's playing his base for suckers, muddying the waters so that whatever damaging information emerges can be hand-waved away as a "Witch Hunt!"

Stupid though it may be, it's no less damaging to our institutions and norms, the things that have kept the constitutional government functioning for 230 years. As those things are eroded in the pursuit of political power, the slide toward authoritarianism becomes ever more evident.


We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club for as little as $5 a month.