April 24, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

There’s no such thing as a competent authoritarian

DeSantis wouldn't be better or worse than Trump.

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For years, Democrats have worried about the prospect of a more disciplined heir to [Donald] Trump,” the Times declared in a profile last year of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis’ star has since fallen, but fear of a competent Trump remains.

For the Times, as for many, the criminally indicted former president is a dangerous figure, but his dangerousness is limited by his buffoonery. 

Trump lacks focus, is lazy and barely knows where the levers of government are, much less how to manipulate them. 

When the Republicans lose elections, they try staging a coup. When they control a legislative chamber, they try wrecking the economy.

Wouldn’t a more deliberate, knowledgeable figure be more of a threat to the republic?

The answer is … not necessarily. 

Incompetent fascism can be just as dangerous, or even more dangerous, than competent fascism. 

In many ways, in fact, incompetence and authoritarianism are inseparable.

If you doubt that, you have only to look at the current, slow-rolling, debt ceiling debacle.

Steering toward catastrophe
As part of our byzantine and often just bad legislative fiscal framework, Congress places a limit on the total amount of money the US can borrow to pay existing debts.

This is a limit on paying money that has already been spent

It’s like if there was a law that said you’d spent too much on your credit card and so you weren’t allowed to pay it off at the end of the month.

If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, the US couldn’t pay its bills. It would default. 

That would be catastrophic. 

Loss of faith in federal credit would send shockwaves through the economic system. Moody’s estimated that the US would lose 7 million jobs, erase $10 trillion in household wealth, and double unemployment to 8 percent. 

Republicans often tout themselves as the party of small business. A default would crush small businesses. 

For that matter, it would be bad for large businesses. If you care about business, or about anyone who votes for you, you would not precipitate an unnecessary and completely avoidable financial disaster.

And yet.

The Republicans are determined to use the debt ceiling as blackmail, taking their own constituents hostage in an effort to force the Democrats to do their bidding.

And what is their bidding? 

Even the Republicans aren’t sure. 

Which is why the current stand off is so incredibly dangerous.

Republicans don’t even know
The GOP has various demands. The 70-member Mainstreet Caucus has called for a clawback of what it claims are unspent covid funds, an end to the pause in student debt payments and a return of non-defense discretionary spending to 2022 levels.

The radical Freedom Caucus has called for cutting climate change funding and the $80 billion in funds for the IRS in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Probably some Republicans would like to slash Social Security and Medicare, though that’s so unpopular they’ve shied from it publicly.

Does the Republican speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, endorse all of these demands? Some of them? Which are most important?

No one knows.

The Republicans haven’t been able to come up with a budget. McCarthy has reportedly said he has  “no confidence” in Jodey Arrington, the chair of the Budget Committee.

Worse, it seems likely that some Republican members will not vote for a debt ceiling increase under any circumstances. Many in the GOP, like Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert, revel in showing they are more radical than Republican leadership. They don’t want concessions; they just want to be able to go on Fox and say they voted “no.”

The Democrats have said they want a clean debt ceiling bill and won’t negotiate with hostage takers. Biden has also issued a budget based around an extremely popular $5 trillion tax increase on the wealthy. 

Now the Democrats are standing back so they can watch the Republicans froth at the mouth and bash their heads together like coconuts. 


Authoritarians are bad politicians
This is obviously satisfying. But as the government approaches the debt ceiling, All this thunking takes on an ominous tone.

An organized, competent, disciplined Republican Party could be very dangerous in many respects. They could come up with clear priorities. They might be able to force concessions. 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who is a disciplined legislator, has been able to stack the Supreme Court with rabid christofascists and repeal abortion rights, for example.

But an organized, competent disciplined GOP would almost certainly not be playing chicken with the debt limit. 

They’d realize that driving the economy over the cliff is likely to have bad results for the people at the wheel.  

In the past, GOP threats around the debt ceiling have consistently backfired. Polling indicates Republicans always receive most blame.

If the GOP did completely wreck the economy and precipitate a recession, the electoral results for them would be exceedingly dire.

But the GOP is no longer sensitive to electoral incentives. 

Republicans have relied on gerrymandering, voter suppression and structural advantages to remain competitive though they are a minority. They’ve retreated to a rightwing media bubble telling them lost elections are illegitimate.

As a result, they have less and less accountability to voters, which means they have trouble gauging what’s popular and what’s not popular, even with their own constituents.

So a more competent authoritarianism is an oxymoron. To stay competent politically, they need to maintain faith with small-d democratic principles. The current GOP chaos is in large part the result of abandoning them.

That’s why incompetence is so dangerous. 

In a democratic system, competent politicians make some effort to appeal to voters – to try addressing their problems and improving their lives.

But the GOP no longer knows what voters want and largely doesn’t care.

When they lose elections, they stage a coup. 

When they control a legislature, they wreck the economy.

Trump was so dangerous because he was undisciplined. He didn’t see or care about guardrails, plowed through them and took the country with him.

The looming debt ceiling disaster shows that Republicans are as blundering and incompetent as their orange god. They are just as dangerous.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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