If the possibility that Donald Trump might actually become president sends chills down your spine, you’re not alone. It’s not uncommon for people to point out his masterful manipulation of what looks to be a pretty sizable contingent of the Right. It’s not uncommon for observers to refer to him as a “strongman” in the vein of Vladimir Putin, or to make the not altogether implausible argument that he’s a fascist. (Yes, this derisive term has long been bandied about against anyone who is conservative. But in Trump's case, the allegations against him are pretty specific.)
Fascist or not, he does seem to have a personality type befitting a dictator. According to a 1990 Vanity Fair piece, Trump used to read Hitler’s speeches. Like Napoleon, who summoned the Pope to Paris for his coronation, Trump had RNC Chairman Reince Priebus trek to Trump Tower to procure his signature on a loyalty pledge.
A tried and true power play is to pretend you don’t need sleep; Trump is constantly mentioning this about himself. I would also suggest he benefits from a psychological principle called intermittent reinforcement; when he’s nice to you, you feel so honored and special and happy—because he can be so ruthless toward others.
Is this charismatic figure manipulating us? In a sense, all politicians do that. But Trump is a master. A while back, The Weekly Standard’s Jim Swift published a piece titled “Donald Trump and the 48 Laws of Power,” and since then, I added to it because, frankly, Trump continues to provide new examples of ways he’s playing us.Scott Adams, creator of the popular cartoon strip Dilbert, is even suggesting that Trump is using hypnosis. "What I [see] in Trump," Adams told Reason TV, is "someone who was highly trained. A lot of the things that the media were reporting as sort of random insults and bluster and just Trump being Trump, looked to me like a lot of deep technique that I recognized from the fields of hypnosis and persuasion."
Whatever spell Trump has cast on his followers, one wonders how far it might take him. For Republicans hoping to win an election, this is a feature, not a bug. Persuasion, after all, might come in handy in a general election. And I must confess that having watched Hillary Clinton easily handle her Democratic opponents in that CNN debate, I’m beginning to see why Trump supporters put a premium on toughness. One could imagine Trump (or Fiorina or Christie or Cruz or Rubio) going toe-to-toe with Clinton in the arena; not so much Jeb or Kasich or Carson. There, of course, is a fear among Republicans that Trump’s divisive comments (he’s a Birther, after all) and lack of knowledge might doom him in a general election, but the greater worry might be that he’d actually win.
Since he’s still the Republican frontrunner (a new poll has him walking away with the South Carolina primary), it’s worthwhile to ask what a Trump presidency might actually look like. Those who fear the worst have to hope that our system of checks and balances will rein in even the strongest of men. After all, if Nixon and Johnson could be checked, that suggests a resilient system.
One could imagine that Obama’s dithering has created the kind of environment where a backlash could lead us to elect his opposite. But while in office, Trump could potentially use the precedents of executive overreach set by the Obama administration to strengthen the powers of the president. “I would never do this, but I’ve got to fix what the last guy messed up,” he might say (to wild applause).
But what if Trump turns out to be a pretty good—maybe even great—president? Certainly there were other charismatic figures, like Teddy Roosevelt, that did pretty well (last time I checked, he’s still on Mount Rushmore). And it’s not like people didn’t warn us about Ronald Reagan being a dangerous loose cannon. Likewise, comparisons to dictators are nothing new (remember “Bushitler”?). And long before all that, the Founders worried obsessively about “Caesarism.”
Still, there is a possibility that Trump could take being president seriously—and it’s more than likely that he has no intention of doing many of the things he’s promised his most enthusiastic supporters that he’d do. There’s also the hope that he would rise to the occasion and accept the incredible responsibility that comes with the Oval Office.
This sometimes happens. Prince Hal became Henry V, after all. But the most famous example may be Thomas Becket. Once a drinking buddy of King Henry II, and after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, he assumed the responsibilities and ascetic lifestyle befitting the role. This led to his standing up against the crown in defense of religious liberty—and ultimately, to his death. But the point here is that sometimes people grow into the job.
So Trump presents a high-risk, high-reward situation. It’s a gamble. And the stakes are high. But for a lot of frustrated Americans who feel like they’ve got nothing left to lose, it might be a chance they’re willing to take.