On April 9, John Bolton will become Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, signaling the arrival of perhaps the most dangerous phase yet of the Trump administration. In Bolton, an unrepentant advocate for carrying out wars of aggression, Trump will have his Henry Kissinger, and the world will be less safe for it.
Most importantly, Bolton’s appointment should put to rest any misguided hopes regarding the future of the Trump administration: It is sure to become more extreme, more chaotic, and more reflexively violent both domestically and abroad. In short, there is a very good chance that the first year of the Trump administration will be seen, in retrospect, as a relatively calm one, and that the worst is yet to come.
One month after Bolton’s first day, he and Trump will be faced with the decision either to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal or, as Trump promised during the campaign, to rip it up. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress expect the Iran deal not to survive the May deadline. Also in May, Trump is scheduled to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss a range of issues including denuclearization of Kim’s regime and potential lessening of US military activity in the region.
Bolton, for his part, recently advocated for a first-strike bombing of North Korea and has long pushed for the United States to bomb Iran and force regime change there. In one recent meeting, he told members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), a cult pushing for regime change in Iran, that they would be in power by 2019.
Trump’s newfound freedom — he is alternately described as “unhinged” or “unleashed” — is often framed as a challenge to establishment Republicans. Is he dragging them down to his level? Will his extreme policies forever taint the party with accusations of overt, rather than covert, racism, sexism and xenophobia? In truth, however, Trump has governed as a traditional conservative. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, Ted Cruz and Ben Shapiro both acknowledged that they had no substantive disagreements with Trump as a president.The dangers Bolton poses cannot be overstated, but it’s important not to overlook what his appointment signals about the even greater dangers of Trump himself. By all accounts, he is embracing a government-of-one-by-fiat practice of leadership, and appears freer to indulge his whims, bigotries and conspiratorial fantasies. “Fourteen months into the job, Trump is increasingly defiant and singularly directing his administration with the same rapid and brutal style he honed leading his real estate and branding empire,” The Washington Post reported on Saturday.
In many crucial areas, congressional Republicans, especially the hardliners in the Freedom Caucus, are to the right of Trump: immigration, health care and gun control, just to name a few. Time after time, Trump seemed willing to accept some level of compromise that the Freedom Caucus simply wouldn’t. Even more notably, Mitt Romney, who through the alchemy of conventional wisdom has rebranded himself as a moderate, recently said he was to the right of Trump on immigration. Romney’s stance won’t surprise anyone who remembers his 2012 lobbying for “self-deportation” — that is, making life so miserable for immigrants that they choose to leave the United States.
The key dynamic at play, then, is not Trump “radicalizing” the GOP, but rather a feedback loop of mutual radicalization in search of the farthest right position possible. That’s why there’s nothing contradictory in saying that Trump’s policies are horrifying and that he’s basically governing as a conventional conservative. That is an indictment of conservatism, not a softening of a critique of Trump.
In attempting to predict how far Trump will go and how bad things will get, many people have asked whether or not it’s correct to call him a fascist. The more appropriate question to ask is: How do hard right regimes evolve and mature, and what are the warning signs for worst-case scenarios? Robert Paxton tackles this in his book, The Anatomy of Fascism. In his formulation, fascist — or potentially fascist — regimes have two options as they develop: to radicalize, or to revert to a traditional authoritarian rule. “Fascist regimes could not settle down into a comfortable enjoyment of power,” Paxton writes. “The charismatic leader had made dramatic promises: to unify, purify, and energize his community; to save it from the flabbiness of bourgeois materialism, the confusion and corruption of democratic politics, and the contamination of alien people and cultures.”
It is the dynamism of fascism, the grotesque thrill of violence and of fulfilling what the charismatic leader calls history’s great plan, that gives the fascist regime its horrifying and distinctive power. Fascists “could not survive without that headlong, inebriating rush forward,” writes Paxton. “Without an ever-mounting spiral of daring challenges, fascist regimes risked decaying into something resembling a tepid authoritarianism.” The need to keep raising the stakes makes fascism inherently self-destructive, as its unthinking brutality ultimately consumes itself — but not before unleashing its terror on the world.
It is impossible to predict how exactly the remaining years of the Trump presidency will play out, of course. But Capitol Hill watchers suspect that there will not be any new major legislation this year. If that’s true, and Trump’s momentum stalls, there is a real danger he will focus his restlessness and need for chaos on foreign policy, where the president has nearly unfettered power, thanks to decades of executive authority consolidation at the hands of both parties. Trump’s desire to show dominance through foreign policy becomes even more horrifying with Bolton at his side.It’s clear that Trump has chosen radicalization over normalization, and applying these historical lessons to this president offers some clues as to what to expect from the rest of his term. Trump’s power, like that of a fascist leader, comes from a base that is in constant need of fuel for its anger and resentment, not from traditional conservative power structures like the military, organized religion or finance. Those institutions support Trump, clearly, but his political power is best illustrated by his never-ending campaign rallies, where he is typically at his most hateful. This dynamic is also evident in Trump’s use of Twitter to provoke his base and appeal its members’ most bigoted desires, and has further manifested in the evolution of Fox News to a full-on embrace of white nationalism in Tucker Carlson’s primetime slot.
The only way to break the feedback loop of right-wing radicalization is to create incentives for Republicans to fear general elections more than primary challenges from their right. There are a few ways that could happen. The Supreme Court could rule partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional, thereby radically changing districts and creating a dynamic in which “safe” GOP-held seats could reasonably be lost to a Democrat. In addition to that, a massive blue wave in 2020 could put Democrats in control of redistricting following the 2020 census. The other way to combat GOP radicalization is to implement universal voter registration programs, same-day registration, re-enfranchisement for formerly and currently incarcerated people, and other initiatives to expand the vote.
The real danger is not that Trump is unleashed from his party — it’s that he is the very embodiment of a party unleashed from any pretext of a belief in a democratic pluralistic society. That won’t change when Trump leaves the scene, and while he’s still in power, he will only get more dangerous.