Not Fidel Castro. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

December 6, 2023   4 mins

A giant landfill of words has been dumped out on the subject of Donald Trump. I hate to add to the pile, but I feel I must. Unlike most participants in this industrial disaster, though, I have no wish either to praise Trump or to bury him. What I want is clarity.

The word most often associated with Trump is “authoritarian”. From the New York Times, Atlantic and Economist to the Guardian, Vanity Fair and Politico, we are told, with ritual repetition, that Trump is the second coming of Hitler or Mussolini, an aspiring dictator eager to herd his opponents into the great American gulag. Naturally, people panic. I want to calm them down. Using as few words as possible, I’m going to show that the combination of Trump and authoritarianism is an impossibility.

What’s an authoritarian, anyway? The word is squishy. It can mean someone who likes to have his own way or someone who compels you to do things his way. Since we’re dealing with extreme emotions, I’m going with a hardline definition: an authoritarian, let’s say, is an actual or would-be dictator.

If you expect to become an authoritarian, you have to wield absolute control over a key institution of government such as the military (Franco, Peron, Pinochet) or a mass movement with a paramilitary wing (Lenin, Mussolini, Mao). Neither condition applies to Trump. Every federal institution is set ferociously against him. What would happen if Trump ordered the FBI or the 101st Airborne Division to start shooting Democrats? Homeric laughter would happen. And if Trump is training a militia somewhere off the 18th hole at Mar-a-Lago, not even the Times has heard about it.

The conservative establishment has, on occasion, co-opted an authoritarian as a bulwark against the Left. That was Hitler’s bridge to power. But the Republican and conservative elites here ran shrieking for the door the moment Trump won the nomination in 2016. They coined the term “Never-Trumper”: when it comes to the presidency, they prefer the entire population of the United States ahead of the evil Orange Man.

What kind of a person becomes an authoritarian? Well, it may look like fun, but authoritarianism is really hard work. You need to be in the prime of life, in your 30s or 40s (Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Mao, Castro). Very rarely, an exceptional person such Caesar is granted literal dictatorship (the Romans invented the whole idea) in his early 50s. In a clear case of ageism, however, no septuagenarian has ever been offered the job.

The authoritarian personality favours clever manipulations and conspiracies. Best in class was Stalin, who held the purely administrative job of First Party Secretary but seized total power by seeding loyalists everywhere. Trump, who was a builder of buildings, a task with a beginning and an end, can scarcely think ahead from breakfast to lunch. This is a life playing out at the Short Attention Span Theatre.

Trump never dealt with a permanent bureaucracy before his election. Far from being a Machiavellian, he proved to be something of a simpleton — or if we want to be kind, a naif — who was constantly tripped up and outmanoeuvred by his own bureaucrats. Even if you are one of the 10 humans on earth who still believe the Hunter Biden laptop was a Russian hack, you have to admit that failure to kill that narrative reflects poorly on Trump’s conspiratorial skills.

Still, I know what some political depressives will be thinking — and they’re wrong. January 6 was not an insurgency aiming to install Trump as Chief Authoritarian. In an insurgency, people with guns shoot at each other and lots of them die. In the firefight to convert Augusto Pinochet into El Supremo, 3,000 Chileans died. That’s an insurgency. On January 6, only one person died — a young woman who was shot by a Capitol policeman while trying to break through a door into the House chamber. She was unarmed, as was the rest of the trespassing mob. There’s no such thing as an unarmed insurgency.

What else can I say to reassure the fretful? Shall we talk about the Trump rhetoric? To borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton, Trump should be sent to a reeducation camp run by Miss Manners, no question about it. But we’re talking about authoritarianism here. Now, both as a kid in Cuba and in my professional life, I had the pleasure of sitting through entire Fidel Castro speeches. I mean, I served freedom by deciphering every cough and mumble that bearded authoritarian could utter in a four-hour tirade. And say what you will about Trump’s rhetoric, you can be sure of this: he’s no Fidel Castro.

You won’t hurt Trump by calling him an authoritarian. He’s like one of those bull elephant seals, covered with a hide inches thick and full of scars. “Authoritarianism” won’t even reach his sensory apparatus. But tens of millions of Americans voted for the man. If you insist that Trump is an authoritarian, if you continue to maintain that he’s the greatest threat ever to our democracy, then you’re portraying these voters as goose-stepping bigots — and you know full well that they’re not. They’re your family, friends, and neighbours. People in those categories may not be as reliably helpful as, say, a good dog, but only rarely are they involved in overthrowing constitutional norms.

So relax. Trump is too old, too isolated, and too ADD to have a shot at dictatorship — and if he tried, the result would be comedy rather than tyranny. You still want to join the ranks of the anti-Trump resistance? Hey, that’s wonderful. You want to do battle against authoritarianism? I’m there with you. Just don’t mix up the two. I promise it will make you clearer of mind and healthier of body, and it will free us to begin to call our politicians by those vile names that actually fit.

Martin Gurri is a former CIA analyst and the author of ‘The Revolt of the Public‘.