It’s hard to believe that just 15 months ago, it was the exception, rather than the rule, to read about Donald Trump at all, let alone daily. The Republican nominee for president is the latest iteration of an archetype that has a long tradition in American popular culture: the huckster, the charlatan, the carnie barker, the snake-oil salesman, who rides into town accompanied by a brass band, only to be ultimately chased out by a vengeful mob carrying buckets of tar and feathers. But never has one gotten so close to being elected to the highest office of the land, nor has the havoc he might wreak between triumphant arrival and disgraced exit ever been so great.
Two statements made by Trump in the past week illustrate the danger clearly and concisely. The first was his full-throated praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strength as a leader, “far more than our president has been a leader.” The second was his promise, should he be elected, to shoot Iranian speed boats that provoke and harass U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf “out of the water.”
The first statement was greeted by Democrats with outrage and by some Republicans, already queasy over Trump’s deviations from the party’s orthodoxy, with dismay. Some questioned Trump’s patriotism, others his judgment. In fact, it is stating the obvious to argue that the head of an autocratic regime that severely curtails political opposition is a “strong” leader. This is by definition the very nature of authoritarianism. And it is to be expected that he will be a “stronger” leader—if stronger means getting his way more often—than the elected president of a pluralistic government characterized by institutional checks and balances, constitutional protections for political dissent, and an opposition party that has used its legislative powers to directly thwart the president it then accuses of weakness. That Trump does not grasp this demonstrates what should already be painfully obvious by now: The man has a very limited intellectual toolkit.