Is Trump's behavior authoritarian? Columnists are asking the question

2/3/2017, 6 a.m.
Ten days into the the Trump administration, the word "authoritarian" is popping up all over the media.
Donald Trump at the Freedom Summit, a forum for GOP Presidential hopefuls in Greenville, South Carolina on May 9, 2015. (Photo: William Walker/CNN)

— Ten days into the the Trump administration, the word "authoritarian" is popping up all over the media.

It is seeping into newspaper columns, TV segments and political discourse. Critics on both the left and the right are warning about President Trump's behavior, saying it signals creeping authoritarianism.

Some of them are wondering if the new president has autocratic tendencies; others are alleging it outright and saying that he is eroding American democratic norms.

The cover story in March's edition of The Atlantic, a magazine well-read in Washington, is titled "HOW TO BUILD AN AUTOCRACY." Conservative Trump critic David Frum is the author.

The magazine's editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, said he was publishing the article a week early, on Monday night. "Given the precipitous quality of this past weekend's executive order, I thought that David's piece ought to be read sooner, rather than later," he told CNN.

Some of the concerns stem from the Trump administration's constant media bashing. On Sunday Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway asked, not for the first time, why journalists and commentators who underestimated Trump haven't been fired. And the president went out of his way to call the media the "opposition party" in a tweet on Monday.

"Those of us who've studied authoritarian regimes know that the first step is you want to intimidate people who'd be saying things that the leader doesn't want to hear," CNN presidential historian and former Nixon library director Tim Naftali said on "CNN Tonight" last week.

Trump supporters may dismiss all of this as anti-Trump panic. But the discussions are not just happening in the usual circles.

"Anecdotally, I'd say that journalists are starting to recognize the authoritarian tendencies of this administration and to be more explicit about the risk of democratic erosion in their coverage," Dartmouth political science professor Brendan Nyhan, who has been frequently sounding an alarm about authoritarianism recently, told CNN.

"One key factor," Nyhan said, "seems to be the growing number of conservatives and former Bush officials who are speaking out, which helps make clear that these concerns aren't just partisan or ideological opposition to Trump."

Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen jump-started the conversation in November, right after election day, by writing an essay, "Autocracy: Rules for Survival," for the New York Review of Books.

Last week on MSNBC, she said "just fact-checking everything" Trump says "doesn't quite go far enough. I think we have to understand the power play. We have to understand the aesthetics of using language so that it turns into mush. We have to keep writing in the bigger story and keep trying to understand the truth."

Last week Evan McMullin, who ran for president as a conservative alternative to Trump, said the anti-media attacks are "what authoritarians or leaders with authoritarian tendencies do. It's from the playbook that they use."

Over the weekend libertarian-minded billionaire Charles Koch, without citing Trump by name, said at a conference that the United States could "go the authoritarian route ... or we can move toward a free and open society."