For a guy who has lived his whole life in the United States, Donald Trump has a pretty rudimentary grasp of democracy. He is, however, surprisingly well versed in the tactics of arbitrary authoritarianism—the kind once associated with tropical banana republics and cheerless Eastern European regimes.
From scapegoating foreigners and religious groups to curbing democratic checks and balances, Trump's government is already provoking the type of constitutional chaos that you'd expect from an autocrat's rise to power in a fledgling democracy.
It's a role that Trump seems to embrace with Orwellian enthusiasm. He has no regard for facts or the objectivity of the past, no restraints about tweeting anger and hate, and seems to thrive on confusion and fear. But despite generating constant turmoil around him, Trump tries to project an image of composure and calm—a rock in the middle of a stormy sea.
Some think the chaos is a product of incompetence, but I think it's just as likely by design. It makes the country dependent on Trump for interpretation. He becomes the only guide who can navigate the country through the confusion he's created. And Trump loves it when all eyes on him for leadership. The image that best captures Trump's government so far is that of the president sitting at his desk, surrounded by clap-happy sycophants who hand him leatherbound executive orders for him to scrawl his name with that slow, deliberate penmanship of the illiterate.
But there's another important ingredient to Trump's chaos. It's the growing collection of leaked executive orders that Trump has not yet signed. That pile of unsigned decrees is—in some ways—just as important as the ones he's already inked.
Here's why: For authoritarianism to function properly, there has to be a constant atmosphere of fear and unease. There has to be a looming and present threat that the leader is capable of doing anything at any moment, and that nobody is safe from his reach.
The leaked and unsigned executive orders that target DREAMers, legal immigrants, and the LGBTQ community are, as they say in Nicaragua, where people are familiar with such tactics, designed to meterle el mono a la gente—which roughly translates as scare the crap out of people.
But the unsigned decrees are not solely intended to frighten people or float trial balloons. They also confuse people into being thankful that Trump has somehow done them a favor by NOT signing. It's addition by subtraction. But it's also a veiled threat: Trump is saying, "I've got this executive order on my desk. I didn't sign it today, but don't push me."
This is Trump attempting to get different opposition groups to cower before him. He's telling the LGBTQ community, legal immigrants, and DREAMers to keep their heads down and their feet moving. He's saying, "Don't protest my government, because I can make things worse for you. Quickly."
It's an extension of the same tactic he uses against CEOs, who watch his Twitter account with bated breath every morning in hopes that their business decisions have not upset the president. Media companies and celebrities also risk the wrath of Trump's Twitter rage, but they already operate in the world of scandal and are less susceptible to the president's angry finger-wagging.
The historically marginalized groups singled out by Trump's unsigned executive orders have less of a defense shield. And that makes those unsigned orders as nasty as the ones that already bear the president's signature.
The lesson from all this is for people to lose their fear. Fear and uncertainty are the fuel that keep Trump's motor purring. But knowing that nobody is safe is also liberating. Trump is not just targeting certain groups, he's targeting everyone who's is not a white, Christian, American-born conservative male like he is. When added up, that's most of the country.
So fear not, Gentle Americans. When solidarity replaces fear, Trump's project will become unviable.