But the closest we’ve ever come to a dictator? C’mon, man. Contemplate the Four Seasons Total Landscaping incident four days after the election. Aiming to schedule a key press conference about legal challenges to President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, the Trump team shot for the Philadelphia Four Seasons but accidentally landed at a lawn-care outfit between a crematorium and the Fantasy Island adult bookstore. What should have been obvious long before had become gut-bustingly apparent: If this bunch were actually hellbent on implementing fascism, they’d get lost en route to the Reichstag and end up torching a garden supply store by mistake.
None of the above should be particularly comforting. Attempting to overturn a democratic election is no less deplorable just because you’re comically bad at it. The fact that our 45th president lacked the competence, self-discipline, and functional attention span to bring his worst autocratic impulses to fruition was certainly better than the alternative. But Trump’s manifest unfitness for office cut both ways. Those same character deficits helped magnify the toll of “American carnage” in the epically bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And even if Trump’s authoritarian bluster rarely cashed out into any real-world seizure of new powers for the president, it was far from harmless. Four years of 100-proof strongman rhetoric may have the effect of building up our tolerance if and when the real thing comes around in a smoother blend. When (at least) half of the political class feels driven by partisan loyalty to defend or downplay open contempt for constitutional limits, it’s likely to make well-planned assaults on those limits that much easier to execute. Donald Trump may yet end up being a “transformational” president, not because of the abuses he managed to carry out but thanks to the dangerous possibilities he revealed.