An American Despot

People with faith in America’s ability to resist Donald Trump haven’t been paying attention

In the first week of the 45th presidency, the following things happened:

- Journalists covering riots in the Capitol on the day of the inauguration were charged with felonies

- The Press Secretary brazenly lied to journalists about matters of fact

- The first speech by the new president described “American carnage” and promised to put “America first”, using a slogan popularized by Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s

- The president issued gag orders to several federal agencies, including the EPA

- The president suspended the Syrian refugee program, and suspended immigration from a number of Muslim majority countries

- The president described himself as “in a running war” with the press

- The president’s chief adviser described the press as “the opposition” and advised them to “keep their mouths shut”

- The president is falsely claiming that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the election

- The White House drafted executive orders to bring back CIA “black sites”, and the president made favorable statements about torture

- The White House directed the EPA to remove its webpage about climate change

- Senior State Department employees’ resignations were accepted in a break with precedent

As a species, we are atrocious at predicting the future, especially when the events are unprecedented. That is why the election of a reality TV star with no political experience to the highest office in the land seemed impossible but now seemed inevitable.

“Columnists and magazines that a month ago were saying #NeverTrump are now vibrating with the frisson of his audacity, fawning over him or at least thrilling to his rising poll numbers and telling one another, “We can control him.”
No, you can’t.” — Adam Gopnik in the prescient “The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump” on May 20, 2016

Assurances following the election that Trump could be controlled or that his campaign bluster was just that now seem quaint or more accurately: delusional.

The set stage

“The big unknown isn’t what Trump will do: his pattern of behavior is clear. It is whether the American political system will be able to deal with the unprecedented challenge his election presents, and rein him in.” –John Cassidy in “Trump’s Challenge to American Democracy

America has lost faith in its institutions. A party that spent the Obama years obstructing and accusing controls the House and the Senate. A frustrated and misled population is eager for change. Communication technology that is infinitely better at spreading information than vetting it disseminates fake news and conspiracy theories at the speed of light.

Along comes a man promising change-the radical kind. A man who’s not afraid to say “what’s really going on”. A man who understands that sometimes to make change, you have to get your hands dirty. A man who knows that economic and social dislocations aren’t caused by abstract, global forces, but by dark conspiracies and malicious elites. A man who assures a throbbing crowd that “I alone can fix it.”

That man is now our president, and his convictions and worldview appear to have remained intact.

The path backwards

The path to despotism in other countries seems unlikely here. America isn’t the Weimar Republic in 1932 or Italy in 1921. Each dictator is unique in the details of his rise. Hitler seized on pervasive anti-semitism and a deep sense of persecution at the hands of foreign powers. Mussolini similarly promised a restoration of Italian greatness that resonated with an emasculated population.

But there are broad similarities in how despots act. According to Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt, there are 10 Ways to Tell if Your President is a Dictator:

1) Systematic efforts to intimidate the media.

2) Building an official pro-Trump media network.

3) Politicizing the civil service, military, National Guard, or the domestic security agencies.

4) Using government surveillance against domestic political opponents.

5) Using state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents.

6) Stacking the Supreme Court.

7) Enforcing the law for only one side.

8) Really rigging the system.

9) Fearmongering.

10) Demonizing the opposition.

He thinks Trump demonstrates risk on all 10. The editors at FiveThirtyEight agreed that Trump already exhibited 3 and decided it was too soon to tell for the remaining 7.

In addition to these, populist dictators demonize immigrants or other unpopular scapegoats, they blatantly and remorselessly lie, they position themselves as the sole savior of a nation going off the cliff.

“For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.” — Andrew Sullivan in “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny”

If we descend into despotism, it will be an American despotism. Trump won’t have an official news network, but his tens of millions of followers and surrogates in alternative publications like Breitbart will suffice. The CIA won’t assassinate journalists, but individual reporters will be demonized by name, silenced by lawsuits, and excluded from the halls of power. Immigrants and Muslims won’t be rounded up and executed, but discrimination will become more tolerated and lives will be disrupted by thoughtless dictums. We won’t descend into expansionist wars, but secret wars will continue to rage in places far beyond the eyes of the American public. People won’t be arrested for speaking truths, but their facts will be drowned in a sea of official lies.

We must remind ourselves, as the hashtag says, this is not normal. As the Onion so beautifully put it, Report: It Still Nowhere Near Okay to Act like Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a legitimate president only insofar as he is legally occupying the role. In every other way that a president matters, as a moral leader, as a role model, as a representative of our country’s better angels, he fails.

“What makes America vulnerable to being blindsided by such a threat is our unwavering — and outdated — belief in the famed strength of our institutions… Not only are America’s institutions particularly ill-equipped, in this moment, to stand up against Trump; in some cases they may actually enable him.” — Darron Acemoglu, Author of Why Nations Fail, in “We Are the Last Defense Against Trump

To those with an unshakeable faith in America’s institutions I ask this: Why didn’t our Grand Old Party weed out a completely inexperienced candidate with a political view at odds with their core beliefs? Why wasn’t our press’ exposure of the lies and sordid histories of Trump and his cronies enough to sink his campaign? Why did our electoral college award the presidency to a man manifestly unqualified for the office? These institutions didn’t just fail to prevent this; they played a critical role in getting us here.

Speaking truth to tyranny

“This leaves us with the one true defense we have, which Hamilton, Madison, and Washington neither designed nor much approved of: civil society’s vigilance and protest. In fact, this is not unique to the United States. What is written in a constitution can take a nation only so far unless society is willing to act to protect it. Every constitutional design has its loopholes, and every age brings its new challenges, which even farsighted constitutional designers cannot anticipate.” — Darron Acemoglu

During the Obama years, I could zone out with the reasonable expectation that my government would generally act in the nation’s, and to a lesser extent, the world’s best interest. That may seem hopelessly naïve, but it’s how I felt. Now, I’m not even sure that Trump is acting in his own party’s best interest, let alone the nation’s or the world’s. For most people, gaining power is a sobering experience. Despite Trump’s cowed appearance at his first meeting with Obama, I think whatever sobering effect has given way to the delusions and narcissism we saw on the campaign trail.

We can hope, or we can act. It can start with giving to members of our civil society dedicated to opposing Trump, calling elected officials to oppose his cabinet appointees, voting and volunteering in the midterm, and running for office yourself. These mundane steps may be crucial to preserving our democracy.

But this all starts with recognizing the real danger that lies ahead. When somebody dismisses concerns about Trump the dictator, challenge them. When someone says that we have to accept Trump the president, ask them why. Our democracy is safe only as far as we are willing to defend it. The greater the threat, the greater the defense required.

Our descent into despotism may seem unthinkable, but every unspeakable event in history began with an unthinkable one.