The Autocrat’s Playbook: Year One In The Age of Trump
Natasha Baker, NLC Silicon Valley
As we wrap up 2017 and reflect back on the first year of the Trump presidency, I pose a challenge to the reader to set aside (just for a moment) all of the policy-based issues that inevitably draw partisan ire. Yes DACA, the transgender military ban, the Muslim ban, the wall, and others are critical issues and the president’s hateful and ignorant stances are worthy of condemnation. But in the midst of daily scandals, which make it impossible to keep up with everything, I fear we are missing the big picture, the common thread that is pulling at the fabric of our democratic republic.
The big picture is that Donald Trump wants to be king and is doing his very best to change our democratic republic into an autocracy. That means swapping out our system of checks and balances for one in which all power is concentrated in his hands. Fortunately, the transformation is not complete. We the people have already made progress — and can continue to make progress — in curbing Trump’s march towards autocracy.
Below is an analysis of a few of the classic autocratic steps Trump has taken since January 20th as well as examples of how we the people and our institutions have fought back.
Step #1: Undermine the Media
Upset about negative media coverage from NBC, Trump tweeted on October 11, 2017 that NBC should have its license revoked because of “all of the Fake News coming out of” it. This followed a pattern Trump established in his campaign days of denouncing any news he disagreed with as “fake.” The purpose of condemning unfavorable news coverage is to get his base to question the validity of a free press. His chronic lying exacerbates the problem, as it becomes harder to distinguish between fact and fiction and therefore harder for the public to call out the government for wrongful behavior. And the more Americans lose confidence in the media, the easier it will be for Trump to regulate them. With time, only favorable news about the president would be allowed. And then where would we be?
The gutting of net neutrality is not coincidental. Without net neutrality, internet service providers can charge different amounts to access different websites and internet-based services. Depending on the extent of Trump’s influence, that could mean that “critical” sources of media such as The New York Times and CNN might become more expensive to access than “favorable” sources of media such as Fox News. Or consider this possibility: with more mergers happening, if internet service providers and media outlets start buying each other up, we might end up with some internet service providers only offering “favorable” content and others offering only “critical” content, creating “red” and “blue” internets that fuel the silo effect of our party affiliation determining where we get out news — and our facts. These scenarios may seem like remote possibilities at this point, but they can happen if we don’t intervene. Autocrats want and do control what information and how information is disseminated to the public because “[a]n informed citizenry is a tyrant’s worst enemy.” Expect Trump’s attacks on the media to continue so that future policy changes will not receive the type of pushback that the gutting of net neutrality is currently facing, which includes not only public protests, but also lawsuits from several state attorneys general.
One of the devastating side effects of media control is self-censorship, where those being controlled start to control themselves out of fear of retaliation, making the job of the autocrat easier. Consider the recent scandals involving environmental federal agencies and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since January 20th, the words “climate change” and “global warming” and related content have been disappearing from government websites and communications, including from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, now headed by Trump appointees who have moved swiftly to scale back the agencies. Just this month, CDC staffers suggested eliminating seven words including “transgender,” “evidence-based,” and “diversity” from the agency’s budget proposal to secure Republican support for its 2019 budget.
Of course, the different policy priorities of any administration will show through in government communications. But when certain facts — such as the existence of climate change and the existence of transgender people — are met with such partisan rancor that government agencies would rather self-censor than risk losing funding, the resulting chilling effect leaves the public in the dark and the government unprepared to respond when needed. If we don’t talk about climate change, then we won’t be prepared to fight it when it devastates our people, property, and land. If it’s out of sight, it’s easier to not fund it, as evidenced by proposals in the House tax plan that will make recovery in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria harder and will eliminate the tax deduction for personal losses from natural disasters (including wildfires and hurricanes) not covered by insurance or other assistance. Fortunately, at least as to the CDC, the public has spoken out and pushed back so forcefully that the CDC had to issue public statements clarifying the record.
Step #2: Undermine the Judiciary
Similarly to the denouncing of unfavorable media coverage as “fake,” Trump and members of his cabinet have denounced unfavorable judicial decisions as partisan, calling into question the impartiality and fairness of the courts. While still a candidate for the presidency, Trump made multiple racist remarks and personal attacks about a federal judge who was overseeing a case against Trump University. His Attorney General Jeff Sessions followed suit in condescending remarks he made about a federal judge in Hawaii who struck down Trump’s Muslim ban. If the judiciary is undermined, and the public loses confidence in the ability of the courts to rule fairly and impartially, then when Trump begins to outright defy court orders, it will not spark outrage from his supporters because who is going to listen to those crooks anyway?
Consider the pardoning of former sheriff Joe Arpaio. As a law enforcement officer, Arpaio repeatedly broke the law and ordered his subordinates to break the law by racially profiling Latinos in his district and unlawfully jailing them out of a belief that they were undocumented immigrants. After ignoring multiple court orders requiring Arpaio to stop engaging in such illegal behavior, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court. But within a matter of weeks, Trump pardoned him. Trump does have legal authority to pardon anyone who has been convicted of a federal crime. But by pardoning Arpaio, Trump is sending the message that it is ok to break the law if the breaking of the law is in support of a policy position that he supports.
By nominating a flurry of hyper-partisan judges to the federal bench whom the Republican-controlled Senate has been quick to confirm, Trump is also helping Democrats to lose faith in the judiciary’s capacity to uphold the law and to protect the rights of the people. Fortunately, public outcry over some of the most unfit candidates has resulted in their names being removed from consideration.
But the public outcry must continue. Without it, Trump will be ready and able to pardon anyone — including himself — that may face charges as a result of the Russia investigation or any other scandal as of yet undiscovered. He is setting up a scenario where willful defiance of the court is seen as a way of responding to a partisan and weak judiciary, instead of an affront to the rule of law. Consider what might have happened if the Supreme Court had not decided to uphold Trump’s Muslim ban and instead had ordered the federal government to allow people from the named countries to enter the U.S. The Supreme Court oversees the U.S. Marshall Service and the Supreme Court could have sent the U.S. Marshalls to the nation’s airports to enforce its order. The Trump Administration could have decided that it would direct its officers to ignore the order. Then what? We could end up with a scenario very similar to what Spain is facing now, with violence spreading as different law enforcement agencies clash and the public becomes the casualty caught in the middle.
Step #3: Undermine the Electoral Process
After last year’s election, bitter that he didn’t win the popular vote as well as the electoral college vote, Trump tweeted that he would have won the popular vote but for millions of people voting illegally. Still bitter on May 11, 2017, Trump issued an executive order establishing a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, whose purported mission is to address voter fraud. There has been significant debate as to what extent voter fraud exists, but the debate misses the point. Trump’s desire to regulate voting is classic dog whistle politics: no one likes the idea of voter fraud, so he can rally people behind the idea of fighting it. But what he is actually trying to do is to undermine the votes of people who did not and will not vote for him by making it harder to vote in the very places where he did not win. Since voters can be a check on him, the logical step is to undermine voters’ ability to do so. Why else would the Commission want to get the voter rolls — including the dates of birth, last four digits of social security numbers, driver’s license information and voting history since 2006 — of every voter from every state?
Election laws impact voter turnout. If it becomes harder for Trump opponents to vote, then when Trump wins re-election (gulp), he can say he legitimately did so because there was a vote and as autocrats do, he can conveniently brush aside the fact that the ability to vote was not equal across the country. While voter suppression has had a long history in the United States, it is another matter when the president himself is bent on orchestrating it to maintain his power.
And what if Trump doesn’t win re-election? After years of telling the public that the whole system is rigged anyway (while rigging it himself), he will feel he has cover to denounce the results, and his supporters will rally behind him when he does not step down. And then what? Civil war? Trump poses a genuine threat to the peaceful transfer of power — a hallmark of our country and of all stable democracies.
So What Do We Do?
In light of Trump’s efforts to undermine the checks and balances that curb his power, what do we do? As The Atlantic so aptly described, “If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it. It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled.” Because we are not Honduras, because we are not Cuba, because we are not Venezuela, because we are not Hungary, we must not accept Trump as the new normal. In addition to the examples of resistance mentioned above, our lack of acceptance of Trump as the new normal was on display recently in Virginia, New Jersey, and Alabama where progressives got out and voted. We volunteered and donated and called our representatives. Since the election of Trump, we decided to run for office ourselves. We went out to the airports and filled the halls of Congress. We started new organizations that are resisting every day and planning to take over legislatures across the country. We made noise.
But making noise — putting into action the desire to uphold the checks and balances that keep our democratic republic functioning — should not be a partisan issue. It should not be just progressives leading the charge. Republicans and Democrats alike should not accept the Republican-controlled Congress’ decision to cover its eyes and ears to these concerted efforts to undermine our way of life. A free and open press, the rule of law, and a government accountable to the people through popular elections benefit everyone — except, of course, anyone with autocratic aspirations. So as we head into 2018 and the mid-term elections, I hope that on everyone’s New Year’s resolutions list is the following: RESIST.
Natasha Baker is a Skadden Legal Fellow at Open City Advocates, where she provides post-disposition representation to incarcerated juveniles in Washington, DC. In her spare time, she can be found doing capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian martial art) and preparing for the 2018 midterm elections. She is a 2012 NLC-Silicon Valley fellow. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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