Below is an excerpt from the penultimate chapter of my forthcoming book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, due out this summer from Verso Books. It seemed especially relevant right now.
From the first day that Trump assumed the presidency, the White House was embroiled in some kind of chaos – some of it internal wrangling, some of it a product of the press responding to his provocations. Longtime Beltway observers were shocked by all the turmoil, believing it signaled an administration already in distress early in its tenure.
But the chaos was by design, something Trump positively cultivated, following the pattern set by dozens of other authoritarian leaders throughout history – using the turmoil to create so much general uncertainty that his rigid, unyielding positions eventually come to define the general consensus. Wielding his Twitter account – which he described as his way of “speaking directly to the people” – like a combat veteran with a grenade launcher, Trump also demonstrated that he was masterful at creating distractions that kept his critics and the press hopping from one “outrage” to another, paying little attention while he quietly enacted his agenda on a broad array of policy fronts.
Trump’s first real foray into asserting an authoritarian style in enacting his agenda came when he followed through on his campaign promises to sign a Muslim immigration ban when he became president. His first attempt at doing this came with one of his first executive orders, issued Jan. 27, banning all travel from seven Muslim-majority nations: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
When the order came before the courts after several states sued to block it, Trump’s legal team attempted to argue that the order was not a “Muslim ban” – that is, a religious-based ban that would have run afoul of the Constitution on several counts, notably the Establishment Clause – but in short order, ran aground on the shoals of Trump’s own campaign rhetoric. The federal judges who reviewed the case all cited the candidate’s vows to institute a “Muslim ban” as evidence the order was intended to apply a religious test and therefore likely unconstitutional, and ordered it blocked.
The judges’ rulings infuriated the president, who tweeted after the ruling February 4: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”
Yet when the case went before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Trump’s legal arguments again foundered. “Are you arguing,” queried Judge Michelle Friedland, “that the president’s decision is not reviewable?”
After much obfuscation, Department of Justice lawyer August Flentje said: “Uh, yes.” The appellate court upheld the order blocking Trump’s order.
That weekend, the Trump team sent out Stephen Miller, the 31-year-old “senior adviser” who was a onetime Jeff Sessions staffer closely associated with Stephen Bannon, and himself had a background of dalliances with white nationalists, out to act as the administration’s spokesman on the news talk programs. And he made an indelible impression.
“The president’s powers here are beyond question,” he told Fox News Sunday. “We don’t have judicial supremacy in this country. We have three co-equal branches of government.” He also criticized the appellate court. “The 9th Circuit has a long history of being overturned and the 9th Circuit has a long history of overreaching,” he said. “This is a judicial usurpation of power.”
A week later, on Feb. 21, Miller told Fox that any replacement order would follow the same template: “Fundamentally, you’re still going to have the same basic policy outcome for the country, but you’re going to be responsive to a lot of very technical issues that were brought up by the court and those will be addressed. But in terms of protecting the country, those basic policies are still going to be in effect.'"
So when Trump filed a second executive order banning travel from Muslim nations – reduced to six nations, with Iraq dropped from the list – that, in order to bolster its case, claimed erroneously that Islamist terrorists posed the greatest domestic threat to Americans, and that those six nations had a history of producing immigrants who later committed terror crimes. That order, too was struck down by a federal judge, who ruled that Miller’s Feb. 21 comments were evidence that the order’s intent had not changed.
Floundering displays of incompetence amid assertions of authoritarian certainty such as this became part of the daily White House circus. In mid-February, it emerged that National Security Adviser Mike Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials during a November meeting, and after a weekend of turmoil, Flynn was fired. Trump eventually replaced him with a vastly more respected national-security figure, retired Gen. H.R. McMaster.
The chaos became ceaseless. Sean Spicer banned outlets from press briefings. Another cabinet pick, would-be Labor Secretary Andrew Pudzer, was forced to withdraw after allegations of abuse by his ex-wife emerged. Thousands of open government jobs went unfilled because, Trump explained, the administration wasn’t even trying to fill them.
Tension with the press became intense, especially as Trump attempted to control the message to the public. He did this by regularly asserting the Alt-America version of reality, making himself the final authority of what was “factual” in that universe. True to that reality, he inverted the concept of “fake news” on its head by labeling the mainstream press “fake.” While the press scrambled to make sense of his seemingly open dissembling, his real audience – his red-capped Alt-America followers – received the message clearly: Don’t believe the lying press. The only person you can believe is Trump.
Thus, Trump’s response to the increasing blizzard of stories detailing his incompetence was to blame the institutions recording it, rather than addressing the chaos and floundering. At his contentious February 16 press conference, he went to open war with the media.
“The press has become so dishonest that if we don't talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people, tremendous disservice,” he said. “We have to talk about it, to find out what's going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”
The next morning, he tweeted:
The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
Trump’s Twitter account, indeed, became his chief agent of chaos, whipping up storms of media and diplomatic controversies that became the focus of much of the daily news reportage around the White House. On March 4, he launched what became his most notorious tweetstorm.
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
Is it legal for a sitting President to be "wire tapping" a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!
I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
It later emerged that Trump was inspired to send out these tweets after reading a Bretibart News story, based on anonymous sources, alleging that Obama had tapped Trump’s phones during the campaign. Fact-checkers found the story to be utterly groundless.
Obama adamantly denied the allegation, as did everyone in the intelligence community. James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence under Obama, told NBC’s Meet the Press that in the national intelligence activity he oversaw, “there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president, the president-elect at the time, as a candidate or against his campaign.” FBI director James Comey asked the Justice Department to issue a statement refuting Trump’s claim.
In reality, Trump’s tweets had put his own manifest incompetence on public display: Anyone even remotely acquainted with American surveillance knows that wiretapping is an extremely limited practice legally, permitted only after evidence is presented to a federal surveillance court panel that then approves or disapproves the warrant. If Trump really had been surveilled by the Obama administration, as he claimed, that meant there was enough evidence for a court to approve it. He either was making clueless and reckless allegations, or he was in reality in deep trouble.
Nonetheless, the White House continued to insist that other evidence was going to emerge demonstrating that Trump had been right. Sean Spicer spun Trump’s tweets for reporters, using “air quotes” to claim that he hadn’t been referring to wiretapping specifically: "The President used the word wiretaps in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities."
Spicer then berated reporters for not picking up on news reports that vindicated Trump, notably a report the night before from Fox News pundit Andrew Napolitano, who claimed that the surveillance had actually been conducted by the British intelligence agency GHCQ: "Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement, quote, 'Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command (to spy on Trump). He didn't use the NSA, he didn't use the CIA ... he used GCHQ.’”
Intelligence officials in the UK were outraged, dismissing the allegation as “utterly ridiculous.” Fox News backed away from Napolitano’s claims, and shortly afterward suspended him from appearing on the network. But Trump adamantly refused to apologize, claiming that Spicer had only read the news story to reporters.
As the media tried to make sense of it all, Kellyanne Conway’s delicious turn of phrase, “alternative facts,” was heard often. Pundits and late-night comics had enjoyed a field day with the term, using it to scornfully refer to the administration’s growing record of spinning a spurious version of reality.
Conway herself had grown weary of being the butt of their jokes. “Excuse me, I’ve spoken 1.2 million words on TV, okay?” she told an interviewer. “You wanna focus on two here and two there, it’s on you, you’re a f—ing miserable person, P.S., just whoever you are.”
What Conway’s critics missed was that, despite their derision – and to some extent, because of it – the gambit worked.
Overall, Trump’s travails seemed to hurt him badly in the polls. By mid-March, according to Gallup, only 37 percent of Americans approved of his performance, while 58 percent disapproved. Those were shockingly low numbers, especially compared to other first-term presidents at similar junctures in their tenures, who were generally in high-approval zones: 62 percent for Obama, 58 percent for George W. Bush, 60 percent for Ronald Reagan.
And yet in the places where it really mattered – that is, in the congressional districts of Republican Trump-backing lawmakers – Trump’s ratings remained high, well over 50 percent. Conservative-oriented polls by Rasmussen put his approval rating at 55 percent. Among Republicans over, 81 percent found Trump “honest and trustworthy.”
"I think he's doing good," Gary Pelletier, a Buffalo, N.Y., retiree told a local reporter. "People are complaining that he's not doing enough, but I'm all for whatever he's doing."
"He's doing everything he said he was going to do," said another Buffalo resident named Phil Pantano, 60.
This was always the role that Alt-America has played: a refuge for people who reject factual reality, a place where they can convene and reassure one another in the facticity of their fabricated version of how the world works. From its beginnings in the 1990s as an alternative universe with its own set of “facts,” to its growth during the early part of the new century through the spread of antigovernment conspiracism, through its evolution into the mainstream of conservatism through the Tea Party, and finally its ultimate realization as a political force through the ascension of Donald Trump, Alt-America’s primarily usefulness was as a ready tool for right-wing authoritarianism. The army of followers was already fully prepared by 2015, when Trump picked up their waiting scepter.
It was also the real-life manifestation of Robert Altemeyer’s “lethal union” of right-wing authoritarian followers with a social-dominance-oriented authoritarian leader: that moment, as Altemeyer says, when “the two can then become locked in a cyclonic death spiral that can take a whole nation down with them.”
Other experts on authoritarianism similarly fear the outcome of Trump’s authoritarianism. “You submit to tyranny,” writes Yale historian Timothy Snyder, “when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.”
Accepting untruth, Snyder warns, is a precondition of tyranny. “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” he writes, and “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”
Snyder sees Trump’s insistence on setting the terms of reality as a classic ploy: “This whole idea we're dealing with now about the alternative facts and post-factuality is pretty familiar to the 1920s,” he told Vox’s Sean Illing. “It’s a vision that's very similar to the central premise of the fascist vision. It's important because if you don't have the facts, you don't have the rule of law. If you don't have the rule of law, you can't have democracy.
“And people who want to get rid of democracy and the rule of law understand this because they actively propose an alternative vision. The everyday is boring, they say. Forget about the facts. Experts are boring. Let's instead attach ourselves to a much more attractive and basically fictional world.”
The political reality on the ground, however, will depend on how Trump responds to challenges to his authority. His history so far, particularly his manifest incompetence, points to a bleak outcome.
A longtime Democratic presidential adviser warned Ron Klain told Ezra Klein: “If Trump became a full-fledged autocrat, it will not be because he succeeds in running the state. It’s not going to be like Julius Caesar, where we thank him and here’s a crown.
“It’ll be that he fails, and he has to find a narrative for that failure. And it will not be a narrative of self-criticism. It will not be that he let you down. He will figure out who the villains are, and he will focus the public’s anger at them.”