David Frum and Ross Douthat square off in a NYT online debate on the question of, "Has America become a 'Trumpocracy,' and is what we’re watching a tragedy or a farce?" Douthat's opening probe broadly defines the opposing sides:
"I think we represent two poles of conservative skepticism: I’ve been most worried about Donald Trump’s incapacity, the chance that we’ll stagger headless into some geopolitical disaster; in your book, you seem most worried about the president’s dictatorial tendencies, and you think that authoritarian danger is alive and well. What would you say to convince me that I’m underestimating the danger of Trump as cunning would-be despot, as opposed to just Trump as 'chaos president'?"
Frum's response (I'm trying to be as economical as I possibly can be in reproducing each side of the debate) is essentially this: that Russia gained a kind of Russia-lite partner by hook and by crook (Frum strongly implies Trump's active collusion) and that it has "scored points for the argument that democracy is a joke and a fraud"; that Trump has made a mockery of financial laws and norms as they pertain to the president (not releasing tax returns, snubbing the emoluments clause); that Trump has a willing party to protect him ("Trumpocracy is the fusion of Trump’s authoritarian instincts with the G.O.P.’s plutocratic instincts"); and that, with impunity, Trump fired an FBI director who was investigating him, suggesting more of the same is to come. "This is new. And it is dangerous," writes Frum.
This is one of those debates in which either side can still be comfortably taken, since none of us knows how Trump's presidency will ultimately play out. One is reminded of the nice, polite, intellectual debates that took place in the early to mid-1930s about Adolf Hitler, when it could still be argued that the little corporal was unquestionably a bit of a lunatic, but his chief concern was merely to Make Germany Great Again — to put people to back to work, to make the trains run on time, that sort of thing. No one envisioned the six-year global carnage of 70 million dead, which could now be reproduced in minutes with the press of a button by a similarly deranged POTUS.
But all in all — knowing only what we know now — I'd say Douthat gets the better of Frum in this debate. Trump has so far shown himself to be largely a presidential stumblebum (witness his tangential involvement, at best, in the recent shutdown), which, as Douthat notes, could nonetheless "stagger headless into some geopolitical disaster." At the outset, though, Douthat asks Frum to "convince me that I’m underestimating the danger of Trump as cunning would-be despot, as opposed to just Trump as 'chaos president.'" And I'd say Frum comes up short in that challenge. Trump is sleaze incarnate, to be sure; he's a con man, a crook, an obstructor of justice and an utterly witless pawn of Vladimir Putin. But a would-be despot? He may not lack Putin's legislative enablers, but he definitely lacks Putin's brains. In short, Trump is too stupid and incompetent to ever join the ranks of notable tyrants.