I saw a new article circulating on the net. It was the latest of the “Donald Trump is a dictator/acting like a dictator” ones, although it was a report on a discussion that had taken place between Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale and Bill Maher. I say that because usually these types of articles are opinion pieces, and I guess a historian from one of America’s top universities slamming the president of the day for behaving like a dictator is newsworthy. Yet despite the Prof’s credentials, he didn’t really state what a dictator is, which seems a bit remiss for a historian (but then again, he may get more TV gigs if he doesn’t inform the public too much!). Simply put, a dictator is an official who is appointed legally or who attains power in a legal vacuum, but who then goes on to commit illegal actions, either with or without the consent of elected representatives and the judiciary.
Now, to the best of my knowledge, Trump has acted within the law as of early April 2017. Snyder could have given the above criterion for judging whether a dictatorship existed in America and almost certainly would have had to reply in the negative. But, did he need to define what a dictator is? After all, we all know a dictator, don’t we?? Trump was elected like Hitler, Snyder said. Like Hitler, he focuses on the role of leadership as opposed to consensus, produces bite-size messages as opposed to open letters of persuasion, and trades in myth as opposed to reason. Indeed, most of those accusations are true (if I haven’t made it clear at this point, I would really like to disassociate myself from being a Trump fan).
Nonetheless, what Synder cited are circumstantial pieces of evidence. A dictator doesn’t have to possess a strongman image, or employ myth, or use simple promotion tools, or even get elected. What separates a dictator from a president who gets up our nose is that the dictator shelves the rules of the game and does so deliberately. In American history, there have been several presidents who behaved as dictators for all or parts of their terms of office. You had Lincoln, Wilson, and FD Roosevelt, to name but three. Snyder didn’t tell Maher and the public that, either.
So, the answer to the question posed in the title is that Trump would be a dictator if he acted illegally.
We are not at that point.
If you would like more information on dictatorship, I would like to take this opportunity to make a shameless plug for my newly re-edited and rewritten book The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship, available as an e-book for $3.99 and paperback for $24.99.