During the bull market of 1929, when almost no one imagined that stock prices might fall, some investors were alarmed when they heard their newspaper boys telling them to buy.
The investors who listened closely to those exclamations understood that the market was far too overbought. They decided to get out—while many who didn’t have such keen ears, and were then ruined by the sudden sell-off, took very quick trips from their office windows to the sidewalk.
Even on its face, the idea that President Trump is a Hitler, or some other form of aspiring dictator, sounds overbought. Cadres in public-opinion circles are still spreading that word about Trump as avidly as the paper boys of 1929 were telling their customers to buy.
It has gotten to the point that a senior senator in the president’s own party has said of Trump’s comments about the media: “That’s how dictators get started.”
Some commentators aren’t buying it. One of those is Néstor Díaz de Villegas, a leading Latin American poet who now resides in Los Angeles.
In a blog titled “Donald Trump’s Perestroika,” Néstor writes: “If Trump is influenced by the Russians, his source of inspiration is not Putin but Gorbachev. In our frame of reference, Trumpism is comparable to perestroika, while his counterattack on the press may be likened to glasnost.”
Néstor’s comment is effectively off-limits—first because he writes in Spanish, and more because our taste-makers do not grant him the right to have that opinion. Néstor is a Latino immigrant. As such he is required by prevailing political etiquette to heap abuse on Trump—so his spirited defense of Trump is nullified.
But Néstor is right, while Senator McCain is wrong. Dictators do not “get started” by suppressing journalists. They get started by forming themselves as dictators. They do not emerge from whole cloth. Their personalities take years, even decades, to unfold; and the process occurs in full view.
A signal mark of dictators is that they are wholly infatuated with the politics of protest, in which they have been embroiled from young adulthood. Such an infatuation has no visible presence in Donald Trump’s life.
A second rule for dictators is that they avoid any profession which interferes with their pursuit of total power. The aspiring dictator moves through life as a vagrant, stalking his or her main chance for power. The image of Donald Trump, who spent decades in a stable business career with only a marginal relation to politics, does not fit this pattern.
For Senator McCain’s information, dictators do not start out by suppressing media. They only do that as mature actors, when their political personalities are fully formed. Trump is still working like a business executive. Of course he has a strong instinct for politics, but he’s still getting his hands on the political ropes.
With the public and with the media, that ambiguity is Trump’s double-edged sword. His demeanor, while appealing to many, presents his enemies a nice fat target. Among other things, it’s why we have the wholly improbable calls for impeachment in the opening days of his administration.
The idea of Trump-as-dictator is a stink bomb in the national debate; highly repellent but hardly formative. Trump’s administration will depend on his ability to be the nation’s chief executive and put his programs across.
If Trump loses, his enemies will do a dance on his political grave. If Trump wins, his enemies will forgive themselves and move on to the next controversy. And those of us who adore the contest of ideas will relish the inevitable moment at which the canard of Trump-as-dictator makes a big, wet splat on the sidewalk of history.
David Landau, who writes history and fiction at different times, is a DC contributor.