Why liberals (and conservatives) overestimated Trump’s threat to democracy

The Wall Street Journal editorial page makes fun of liberal academic and commentators who warned that Trump aspired to dictatorship. (N.B.: many conservatives also warned that Trump aspired to dictatorship, but never mind.) Far from demolishing checks and balances, Trump has been thwarted by them at every turn. He has submitted to judicial orders halting his travel bans. He has given up on health care reform after Republican members of Congress nixed it. He helplessly throws tantrums as bureaucrats leak his plans. He has not prosecuted journalists, set mobs on his political enemies, spied on Democrats, or set up a paramilitary force of brown shirts. He has huffed and puffed—and hyperventilated.

I think the commentators can be forgiven. They were merely taking Trump at his word—pretty much the biggest mistake one can make these days, but a mistake that many respectable people have made in the past. On the campaign trail and in office, Trump has made promises and representations that hinted that he would roll over any person or institution that stood in his way.

What fooled everyone is that Trump made promises that no normal politician has ever made. Normal candidates for the presidency always tell us that they will work with Congress, honor the press, curtail executive power, consult the people, compromise with the loyal opposition, and govern in the interest of the general public rather than a specific group. We never believe these candidates because all people who want to be president claim to believe in truth and justice—and nearly all of them have broken their promises once in office.

What was strange about Trump was that his promises to disregard checks and balances seemed like promises against interest—and, for that reason, they seemed credible. What commentators did not understand is that Trump realized that pretending to want to be a dictator electrified his political base, and gave him his victory in the primaries. Perhaps the only people who did not believe Trump were ordinary Republicans—the ones who took him “seriously but not literally,” held their noses, and voted for him in the general election.