The Media Are Melting Down About a Trump 'Dictatorship.' It's 2016 All Over Again.

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December 5, 2023

The supposed threat of Trumpian autocracy is once again front page news. But the media issued the same warnings in 2016, and America is still a free country.

With former president Donald Trump dominating the GOP presidential primary polls, the Washington Post feared "looming dictatorship." CNN braced for his "purges" of civil society. And the New York Times predicted he would take "vengeance on his political adversaries." The Atlantic published a whole issue "on the threat a second term poses to American democracy." On MSNBC, host Joe Scarborough called Trump an "authoritarian" who would "imprison and execute" his opponents if given the chance, and former senator Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) said Trump would be "even more dangerous" than Adolf Hitler.

Flashback: The same outlets and commentators freaked out about a MAGA monarchy before Trump was elected president in 2016.

Washington Post, Oct. 12, 2016: "‘Donald Trump Will Protect You’: Some Fear He Is Running To Be a Dictator"

The populist candidacy that upended the GOP order and has torn through many of the norms of American politics is now raising a concern among critics in both parties: that Trump is, in effect, running to be a strongman with dictatorial powers.

New York Times, Oct. 10, 2016: "Threat To Jail Clinton Smacks of ‘Tin-Pot Dictators,’ Experts Say"

The assertion by Mr. Trump is taking its place in a litany of statements he has made during the campaign that many legal specialists have portrayed as a threat to the rule of law. ...

Michael B. Mukasey, a former federal judge and attorney general in the George W. Bush administration who has criticized Mrs. Clinton over the email issue, said that if Mr. Trump won, Mr. Obama could eliminate the threat by preemptively pardoning her. But he likened Mr. Trump’s threat to what happens in a "banana republic."

Atlantic, Aug. 10, 2016: "An American Authoritarian"

Fascism has been back in the news with Donald Trump’s candidacy for the American presidency. His populist claim to speak for the white everyman, along with his menacing leadership style, have brought forth comparisons among this "homegrown authoritarian," as President Barack Obama has called Trump, and foreign strongmen.

The apocalyptic coverage persisted throughout Trump's term, with outlets claiming that everything from his interior design tastes to his criticism of the Postal Service were signs of his inner dictator.

CNN: "Judge Tells Trump He’s Not a King—the President Is Not So Sure"

The impeachment battle over Ukraine, Trump’s efforts to keep Americans in the dark over his financial past, the lingering questions left over from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report and Trump’s determination to rule as an unchallenged commander in chief now all boil down to two simple questions.

But rather than ushering in autocracy, Trump allowed himself to be repeatedly checked and balanced. Congress thwarted construction of his promised wall on the southern border. Courts wouldn't let him block his Twitter followers, let alone deport "Dreamers" or rein in "sanctuary cities." And Trump's own staffers made a habit of ignoring or defying him. He famously failed to follow through on threats to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci.

What the media really seem to fear is Trump's continued democratic appeal. Polls have piled up in recent weeks showing Trump beating President Joe Biden in a rematch, both nationally and in the swing states that will likely decide the election.