To judge by the tone of coverage of President Trump, one might conclude the United States was on the verge of becoming a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship — or perhaps that it had already undergone such a transformation.
Which means that it's once again time to take stock of what's normal, what's abnormal, and what's truly alarming about the words and actions of the Trump administration.
I first proposed those categories of evaluation one week after Trump's inauguration. Some things the new president was doing were the kind of moves you'd expect from any Republican president elected in 2016. Others were unusual but followed pretty predictably from the distinctive policy positions Trump staked out on the campaign trail, especially on immigration and trade. Finally there were the statements and actions that were so sharply discontinuous with normal presidential behavior that they deserved to be considered truly alarming.
Fifteen months into the Trump administration, it remains a useful exercise to apply this schema to the news — as much to tamp down unjustified hysteria as to pinpoint precisely what's most worrying about what we see unfolding before us.
What's normal? The big tax cut. The spike in military spending. The resulting major increase in the budget deficit. (How Reaganesque!) The shredding of regulations. The nominations of conservative jurists to federal courts. All of those things, or something very much like them, would have happened had Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or Jeb Bush ended up winning the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2016.
Then there's the abnormal — the things other Republicans wouldn't have done because, unlike Trump, they didn't tap into the dark populist currents coursing through the conservative electorate. (Their failure to do so is a big reason why Trump prevailed over them in the primaries.)
Think of the travel ban. The amped-up ICE raids. The rescinding of DACA. The announcement that the military will apparently be sent to the border. The steel and aluminum tariffs. The possible trade war with China. No one else who ran for president in 2016 (or at any time in the recent past) proposed moves like these. But Trump did. That he's following through is abnormal in the sense that it's a significant break from recent history. But it's also what roughly 46 million people voted for. (That also goes for the president's standoffishness toward NATO and other democratic allies, and indefatigable admiration for Vladimir Putin and other autocrats, which was as clear as day during Trump's run for the White House.)
That leaves the truly alarming.
There's a lot of it — though not quite as much as the president's most strident critics allege. The scope and scale of the corruption is stunning, as is the flagrantly unpresidential message, conveyed nearly every day by Trump himself, that no person or institution ever rises above rank partisanship, that politics is invariably a zero-sum game among factions out to advance their own narrow and selfish interests.
This message is often broadcast via presidential tweets in which the occupant of the White House takes aim at his various enemies and opponents, issuing threats and ultimatums to ostensibly independent federal agencies (the FBI) and insufficiently loyal members of his cabinet (Attorney General Jeff Sessions), as well as to such private entities as CNN, The Washington Post, and most recently Amazon.
If these tweets counted as executive action, then Trump would be guilty of truly alarming behavior every day — behavior that would make him an outright authoritarian. The reality, though, is that, aside from Amazon's stock price taking a (most likely temporary) hit, there have been few real-world consequences from the president's demagogic bluster. It's as if Trump is playing an autocrat in a TV show while in the real world refraining from using the full powers of the presidency (which he doesn't really understand) to punish his media critics and curtail press freedoms in a concrete way.
But there is an exception that may well stand as the single most alarming thing Trump has done so far, which is to work in tandem with the Sinclair Broadcast Group to create an alternative (right-populist) news source at local TV stations around the country.
Under Trump, Fox News has evolved into something like a state-media outlet, marching in rigid lock-step with a Trumpified Republican Party. And now this model is metastasizing, as Sinclair's right-wing management enforces a rigid political line on hundreds of local news broadcasts while threatening with severe monetary penalties employees who might be inclined to resist the policy.
What's even worse is that Trump is actively urging his FCC to approve Sinclair's purchase of a network of Tribune stations that will increase the company's reach to three quarters of American households. This can only be described as an effort to establish a nationwide propaganda network that seeks to advance the agenda and political prospects of the president and the Republican Party.
If the effort succeeds, it will stand as one of the most blatant efforts yet on the part of the president to actively manipulate public opinion by uniting the formidable powers of the executive branch and the Twitter-based bully pulpit with the crucial support of wealthy allies in business and media.
And that is truly alarming.