E.J. Dionne Jr. is an opinion writer for the Washington Post, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Recently, Dionne released a book, called One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported, with the help of his colleagues Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann. While he was in Chicago to moderate a discussion with Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, Tim Koenning of The Gate had an opportunity to ask a few questions about one of Dionne’s recently released pieces in the Washington Post, titled “Trump is Faithfully Following the Autocrat’s Playbook.”
The Gate: Early in the article, you mention that ever since Trump came down the escalator to announce his campaign in 2015, he set aside stewardship and decided to pursue his own purposes. What are these purposes?
E.J. Dionne: Let me just say at the outset: of course every politician pursues his or her own interests, and I don't pretend otherwise. All other presidents we've had—presidents I've agreed with and presidents I've disagreed with—have understood that stewardship is an important part of their job, and I think they have also understood that there are certain rules and norms in a democratic republic that respect the limits on the power of the president.
When you look around the world at autocrats, and how they have undermined democratic institutions, Trump is, as I said in that piece, following the autocrat's playbook. You demonize and try to delegitimate your opponents, and you even say, imply, or let your supporters say that they belong in jail. You attack the free press, particularly the parts of the media that are critical of you. You demonize whole groups in society—which he has done particularly with Latinos, but also with immigrants more generally. You condemn dissent, which for example he has done in the case of kneeling NFL players. You attack parts of the judicial system that might impinge on your power.
In his unsystematic systematic way, he has steadily done one of these things after another. So, I think we—meaning my friends Tom Mann, Norman Ornstein, and I in our book, One Nation After Trump—make this case about his autocratic or authoritarian streak. We had a lot of discussions with each other that, in dealing with Trump, you do not want to be alarmist, but you actually must be vigilant. I think Trump's opponents have to acknowledge and hope that our institutions can be strong enough to survive this assault, but we also worry, and I worry, that those institutions are only as good as the people occupying key roles in them. At this moment, I really do worry that for a variety of reasons, with some notable and honorable exceptions, but there aren't many of them, Republicans have, for the most part, not chosen to call these things out. Many of the conservative institutions, and particularly conservative media institutions, have actually gone along with this demonization and with steps that I think in the end are antithetical to a robust democracy. So, I am very worried about Trump, as he is not like other politicians whose views I disagree with.
Gate: What you're saying about Republican leadership—is that what you were touching on at the very end of the piece, where you end with the question, "Don't they?"
Dionne: Right, and I think we know from the things that Republican politicians have said privately to reporters, to some of their supporters, even to some Democrats in Congress, that they know there's something wrong here. And rather than stand up to Trump, they said, "Oh, this is about tweeting," or, "We mustn't be divided." They have this obsession with this tax cut. It appears that they will tolerate anything in order to get this tax cut through. Now, obviously in some ways you could say it's easy for me to say that because I think the tax cut is a bad idea. But, I think it would be just as wrong if a president who agreed with me on universal health care coverage were doing some of these things. It would be incumbent upon me and people like me to call them out on these things.
Fortunately, I don't think we've had a president like that on the other side yet. Funnily enough, you know President Bush, both President Bushes, have put out very strong signals of their own that this is unacceptable. I disagree with George W. Bush on a whole lot of things—and I do think some of the seeds of this were planted in the Bush years, particularly dividing the country between the "real" America and the rest—but he never would have conceived of going this far. So I think there are a lot of Republicans who know that there is something wrong that they ought to be calling out, and they're not yet.
Gate: Another thing you wrote about was Trump's distractions. It seems that every week there's a new one that we're being led towards. Obviously those distractions don't work on everybody, right? Who do you think they're aimed for? Are they aimed for his base, anyone he can fool, or some other audience?
Dionne: The other night in a conversation, I said that there's almost a scientific rule that the more often Trump uses the words "Hillary Clinton," the more you sense he thinks he's in trouble. And the corollary is whenever he goes after Jeff Sessions, he thinks he's in trouble. So I think this serves a couple of functions for him. One, there are probably 25–30 percent of Americans who really despise the Democrats and broadly support Trump, and love him for the enemies he's made, and will sort of cheer whenever he does something like this.
I also think it is an effort to confuse the broader dialogue, in that it's really striking that Trump uses the very words that describe what he did or is accused of, and tries to attach them to his opponents. With this DNC story out of Donna Brazile's book, he started using words like "collusion." Well, I suppose if you want to push the envelope really far, you might be able to use that word, but really that's not what this is about. And you can go right down the line where he is simply trying to say, "Well really they're guilty of the thing that I'm being accused of, and I'm not really guilty of it," and I think that there's more and more resistance to that in the media, but I think it has some effect of confusing the public conversation.
Again, I think that's an authoritarian move, that you want citizens to be uncertain of the facts. There's a great Hamilton quote that the tyrant create confusion and reap the whirlwind. It's in our book if you want to look it up. It's a great Hamilton quote, and that's sort of what he does. So I think it serves that second purpose too.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity. The featured image is licensed under the Creative Commons.
Tim Koenning is a second year public policy and political science major interested in education policy and electoral politics. This past summer, he interned in the Office of Governor Mark Dayton in St. Paul, Minnesota. In his free time, Tim enjoys running varsity track and cross country, and cheering on the Washington Wizards.