About that “whomever.” Kagan is understandably worried that Trump would aim his power at Beltway elites, the class of people that he has repeatedly attacked over the course of his campaign. But elsewhere Kagan has implored U.S. policymakers to lead, to convince the American people to support projects that the elite favors, but that might be unpopular, at least at the outset. He has even engaged in blatant fearmongering to make his case. Kagan would celebrate the prospect of a mass political movement if it was mobilized and led by a single skillful (or merely cynical) leader willing to aim his vast power at establishing, for example, “benevolent global hegemony. ” And what if such a leader committed to “extending American power” globally, and convinced the American people to “accept their role as upholder and defender of the liberal world order”? Kagan is fine with that, too, as Daniel Davis explained on the Skeptics blog. It could be said that Trump isn’t so much shaping public attitudes as channeling them. This also offends elites who believe that a leader’s job is to give Americans the policies they need, not the policies they want. (Of course, the assumption that the elites know what the public needs is what makes them elites.)
But Trump isn’t merely responding to voter sentiment; he is shaping it in pernicious ways. As Kagan correctly notes, Trump caters to the public’s darkest, ugliest instincts—especially xenophobic instincts—and then exploits these fears to whip up support.
Indeed, the issues often seem secondary, or maybe even irrelevant. Trump has changed his positions on matters of consequence—explaining away his past support for abortion rights or gun control, with a wave of his hands—and suffered no obvious consequences, which is why he can’t be trusted any more than the elites. In the elites’ case, a few tell the many what they need. In Trump’s case, one man performs that function. And given that his views are often contradictory, usually uninformed and connected by no common philosophical thread, or reflecting a coherent theory of international relations, we have no basis for assessing whether his foreign policies, in practice, will be all that different from the elites that he so often scorns.
In short, Kagan is right to be concerned about Trump’s authoritarianism, and about the authoritarians who support him. Kagan evinces no such qualms, however, when such power is turned to ends that he favors. That suggests that he isn’t really that worried about authoritarianism, per se, but rather merely Trump’s brand of it.