CHRISTOPHER LEBRON – What Totalitarianism Looks Like

At noon on January 20, 2017, a new American era began. Donald J. Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. Immense power was invested in a man with a personal history littered with misogyny, allegations of sexual assault, lawsuits, employees cheated of wages, self-aggrandizement, race baiting, and denial of science. Our president is undeniably a man with a wanting character. Granting that it is not necessary to like the leaders of a democracy, it is necessary that they grasp the responsibilities of democratic governance, including respect for free speech, reciprocal obligations, and public accountability.

In a week’s time, Trump and his proxies have trampled on the expectations of even this very low bar, throwing tantrums over crowd size, naming billionaires with no civic experience to prominent cabinet positions, and making the stunning, Orwellian claim to the existence of “alternative facts.” Alarming as each moment has been, we cannot misjudge such actions as being merely appalling statecraft. Rather, when taken as a whole, they amount to a fairly coherent set of actions that displays the traits of an emergent totalitarian regime. This is unprecedented in American history. When the president’s chief strategist declares he is at war with the press and identifies the pillars of free speech as “the opposition party,” we need to ask how many institutions will be severely weakened, maybe permanently, as an administration wantonly challenges the foundations of democratic life.

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