When Hillary Clinton, who was almost our president, riffed on President Trump and what she saw as his "authoritarianism" she displayed an odd definition of the idea. She said that at the "core" of authoritarianism is "to sow mistrust toward exact the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence…"
So, authoritarianism involves sowing distrust in the people in power?
Clinton fittingly invoked Orwell in her perverse definition of authoritarianism. We could wave off her backwards understanding to sloppiness or partisanship. But this is a small shadow of something far bigger: Clinton has a fundamentally authoritarian mindset, and she had built around her a circle of sycophants who enabled that mindset.
Events since the election have confirmed my suspicion during the campaign that, whichever of the two major party candidates would be worse overall, Hillary Clinton was the greater threat on the score of authoritarianism.
This sounds backwards, considering Donald Trump's stated disregard for freedom of the press and civil liberties. Most media commentators saw Trump as the authoritarian threat because of his unsettling fondness for strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, his support for lawless lawmen like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and his talk of busting heads in the name of law and order.
These fears of Trump the authoritarian were reasonable. But this story always omitted two crucial factors, which eight months into the Trump presidency are now evident: (1) the weakness Trump, and (2) the power of elite institutions.
Donald Trump is too disorganized and too short of attention span (and his administration is too dysfunctional) to be an effective authoritarian. Trump could inspire and rally millions of previously disengaged people with his bombastic populism, but he cannot make the trains run on time.
Also, Trump has simply proven incapable of expanding his base of support. His approval ratings have consistently been far below the 46 percent he garnered on Election Day. Of all the foundations on which to build an autocracy, one of the least likely is a close second-place finish in the popular vote based largely on, "He's terrible, but at least he's not Hillary."
Hillary, meanwhile, had proven very adept at her efforts to amass power. She successfully made herself a multimillionaire by trading on government connections. She acquired the resumé for a presidential run, remarkably without ever attaching herself to any vision or principles. She successfully evaded federal transparency laws for years, managing to run the State Department outside the prying eye of federal authorities and FOIA requesters alike. And she had layers and layers of seasoned supporters backing her—believing her justified—in her disdain for and evasion of transparency.
In fact, the Washington Post and others have scolded journalists who asked too many questions about her evasion of public records laws.
This highlights the biggest reason Hillary was the greater threat on the authoritarianism score: She would have the elites on her side.
When Donald Trump imposed onerous visa standards, every academic, most journalists, every celebrity, and every lawyer in the country raised a furious cry. The judicial system struck down Trump on flimsy grounds, because of how unseemly and mean-spirited his order seemed.
A favorite canard about totalitarian Trump is the notion—repeated by Hillary in her new book—that Margaret Atwood's play about a theocracy in which poor women are made sex slaves and baby incubators, was "prescient." Somehow, Donald Trump has put the U.S. on the verge of a theocracy obsessed with fertility.
Look around at the culture war and ask yourself if that's where we are headed. The ACLU has sued to force Catholic hospitals to abort babies. State after state punishes small businesswomen and men who don't want to participate in gay marriages. California is entertaining speech codes about pronouns for men who identify as women, vice versa, and everything in between.
Freedom of Speech is under attack from the Left, on campus and in America's largest most powerful corporations.
Were Hillary President, she would have taken up some or all of these cultural crusades, and she would have had massive elite support—far more than Trump will ever have for his hoped-for trampling on civil liberties. Recall that Clinton literally campaigned on amending the Constitution to curb the First Amendment when it comes to criticizing politicians, and on suspending gun rights without due process. These are both matters where 90 percent of the news media agrees with her.
Google, the academy, the news media, all celebrities, Apple, K Street, the courts, the bureaucracy, and the legal establishment would be rallying behind her destruction of the Bill of Rights. But with Trump as president, all of those institutions, for better and for worse, are today part of the #resistance.
If authoritarianism was your concern, America dodged that bullet. It's just that we jumped into the path of a different bullet.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's commentary editor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.