Last Exit From Autocracy

Last Exit From Autocracy

The most important ballot question in 2020 is not Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, or Democrat versus Republican. The most important question is: Will Trump get away with his corruption—will his crooked and authoritarian tactics succeed?

If the answer is yes, be ready for more. Much more.

Americans have lavished enormous powers on the presidency. They have also sought to bind those powers by law. Yet the Founders of the republic understood that law alone could never eliminate the risks inherent in the power of the presidency. They worried ceaselessly about the prospect of a truly bad man in the office—a Caesar or a Cromwell, as Alexander Hamilton fretted in “Federalist No. 21.” They built restraints: a complicated system for choosing the president, a Congress to constrain him, impeachment to remove him. Their solutions worked for two and a half centuries. In our time, the system failed.

Through the Trump years, institutions have failed again and again to check corruption, abuse of power, and even pro-Trump violence.

As Trump took office, I published a cover story in this magazine, arguing that his presidency could put the United States on the road to autocracy. “By all early indications,” I wrote, “the Trump presidency will corrode public integrity and the rule of law—and also do untold damage to American global leadership, the Western alliance, and democratic norms around the world. The damage has already begun, and it will not be soon or easily undone. Yet exactly how much damage is allowed to be done is an open question.”