Ineptness, Corruption, and the Totalitarian Threat to American Democracy

img_8525

This is part of a longer post I wrote almost a month ago on the danger President Trump poses to my friends and to my country. It’s a little long, but please take the time to read it with an open mind and prepare for what I believe is coming:

I fear the threat that Trump’s ineptness, corruption, and totalitarian impulses pose to our democracy. Because I think this is such a critically important issue, I’m going to spend a little more time on it.

Trump’s character and personal impulses gravitate toward ruthless dominance. Trump loves attention and adulation. He puts his name on everything – often in big gold letters. He craves the adoration of his fans. After winning the election, he continued his rallies in a “Thank You” tour and has said he wants to continue them even after he is in office. He appears to hate to share attention. In a joint interview shortly after Mike Pence was selected as his vice presidential running mate, he could be seen dominating the conversation, even cutting in abruptly when he felt the attention turning too much to Pence.

Trump has delusions of grandeur. After painting a dangerous world in his RNC acceptance speech, he said “I alone can fix this.” He thinks he knows more than generals and intelligence officers. When asked who his closest advisor was he named himself because, and I quote: “I have a very good brain.” I remember watching a news story that referenced in passing how as a teenager he claimed that he was the best baseball player in New York. This was during the Mickey Mantle era Yankees. Everything he does is “tremendous,” or “the best.” He seems to have difficulty recognizing any flaws in himself and very rarely admits his mistakes.

Where he is always right, a “winner,” and “the best;” anyone who dares challenge him is “terrible,” a “loser,” “disgusting,” or something more ominous. There seems to be little nuanced middle ground. He comes up with derogatory nicknames for his opponents – “lyin’ Ted,” “crooked Hillary,” “little Marco.” Any kind of criticism, even satire, sets him off on an angry tirade. For example, he tweeted his outrage at Saturday Night Live’s impersonation of him. He is constantly attacking newspapers for their disparaging stories. During his campaign he got into feuds with a gold star family, a former beauty contestant, Fox reporter Megyn Kelly, and many others.

A Vanity Fair writer from the 1980s said that after referring to Trump as a “short-fingered vulgerian” Trump would regular send him news clippings with the outline of his hand traced in gold sharpie. “See, not so short,” read the commentary. The reporter says he still gets them in the mail! The New York Times has tracked at least 289 people, places and things Trump has insulted.

All of this would be high comedy if it weren’t for the fact that he is now commander in chief with a military at his disposal and his finger on the nuclear button. Such anger, long memory of grievances, and vindicativeness is even more alarming given his threats of violence and his apparent relish in brutality. I will document that more below. Also disturbing is that he has sixteen million twitter followers whose animus he can personally direct at specific persons or institutions.

He appears almost completely selfish and self-centered. In the past, he used and discarded women. His stiffing of contractors and other ruthless business decisions show a disregard for others and for his word. He brags about his wealth and accomplishments and presses every opportunity to plug his businesses. He has exploited every opportunity he can to enrich and aggrandize himself.

He is a bully. During the second presidential debate he visibly seemed to be stalking Hillary Clinton to exude dominance and try to intimidate her. During each debate, he constantly interrupted her. He regularly threatens to punch people, sue them, lock them up, and even worse. He verbally berates others and spreads malicious accusations about them, which are often untrue. When challenged or attacked, he deflects and viciously counterattacks: “You’re the puppet!”

He appears to crave absolute control. As I will document below, he does not seem to understand our constitutional freedoms. For example, he does not seem to understand that the press is there to do anything but rubberstamp his ideas. When told that soldiers would disobey an illegal directive he had proposed, his response was telling: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me – believe me.” “I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”

I’ve already documented his breathtaking disregard for the truth (see the section “Science, Reason, and Truth”). To him, words appear to be just another tool to impose his will on others. He appears to have no shame. Although he can be charming and seems to have a preternatural ability to connect with a crowd, he often comes across as coldly lacking in empathy. After the Orlando shooting that killed 50 people, he tweeted, “Thanks for the congrats about being right about radical Islamic terrorism.” Incredibly tone deaf. The same could be said about his comments about John McCain not really be a war hero (“I like people who weren’t captured”), his mocking of the sick or disabled, or indeed many of his brutal proposals.

It is unethical for a psychologist to firmly diagnose Trump from a distance, but there are good reason to think that he is a narcissist and perhaps even a sociopath. I don’t say that lightly.

Both Trump and his inner circle are incredibly ignorant and inept. Trump has no prior experience in government or the military. He touts his business acumen, but filed for bankruptcy 4 times and some estimate he could have made more money by just investing the money loaned from his dad in index funds. I did not know until recently that he does not actually have an MBA. He only has a bachelors in economics.

None of this would be terrible if he showed a willingness to to learn or surround himself with competent people. Some of his picks for cabinet/advisor posts have been better than others, but many of them are shockingly unqualified and have indeed publically expressed their opposition to the mission of the department they would head.

For example, Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is currently suing the same agency and is a climate change denier. Betsy Devos has never taught at a public school or even attended one, but she is was chosen to be his Secretary of Education. Rick Perry once said he wants to shut down the Energy Department (though he couldn’t remember it’s name at the time). Now he is the one who will run it. And so on.

Shaun King did a comparison of Obama’s cabinet and Trump’s in terms of education and the contrast is striking. Again, this is not to say that education is the be-all and end-all. I’m sure there are highly gifted individuals without degrees. But a lot of these jobs require technical skill and nuance.

Further, Trump appears to be selecting people, not based on skill or fit, but based on their loyalty to him. Like Trump, many of these people seemed poised to use their position to promote businesses they are connected to, oil for example. Many of them traffic in a variety of conspiracy theories and prejudices (as I’ve already touched on). The man who said he wants to be a president for everyone has selected an echo cabinet of far right “yes men.”

I already mentioned Trump’s massive conflicts of interest with his businesses and the potential this poses for corruption. This isn’t just unethical, it could be unconstitutional. It is ironic but in no way surprising that the man who attacked Hillary for “pay to play” drama with her charity is ready to engage in the same kind of thing with his businesses. But it’s not just Trump as an individual, the decisions he makes will effect policy and precedent for what other powerful business people could do. The threat of creeping kleptocracy is real.

Although Trump has never held political office, he has already broken many of our traditional democratic norms. Unlike every other presidential candidate since 1973, he has refused to release his tax returns. In not doing so, he broke his promise that he “absolutely” would release them. Such returns are particularly important in weighing his qualifications because Trump has no record in public office to examine. Instead, he touted his qualifications as a businessman. As mentioned before, his excuse of being under audit does not hold water. What is Trump trying to hide?

Trump has encouraged violence and intimidation of opponents, both literally and stochastically. He has encouraged his followers to beat protesters on multiple occasions. When he looked to be challenged at the Republican National Convention, he ominously insinuated that there would be riots if he lost. One of his lackeys, Roger Stone, threatened to release the hotel room numbers of delegates who voted against him.

As I said before, not unlike a dictator of a “banana republic,” he threatened to jail his political opponent. In fact, he said that if Hillary won, perhaps some “second amendment people” could “do something about that.” Trump denied this was a call to shoot her, but it was widely perceived that way. Perhaps this was because of calls by Trump surrogates such as Al Baldasaro to have her “put in the firing line and shot for treason.”

Before both the Republican Convention and the election, Trump accused his opponents of rigging the election against him, speaking in conspiratorial language geared toward inciting his followers to revolutionary action. Unlike every other presidential candidate, he refused to accept in advance the election results and our traditional peaceful transfer of power. Unlike every other modern president, he has refused to put his companies in a blind trust, sparking numerous conflicts of interest and perhaps even a future constitutional crisis.

Trump revels in violence. He speaks gleefully about “bombing the hell” out of ISIS or cutting off it’s head. He once told an apocryphal story of how General Pershing had his soldiers dip bullets in pig’s blood before shooting Muslim insurgents. Trump said that we should do the same thing, so to speak.

He has advocated the use of torture. I remember my jaw dropping from the way he discussed it at one rally. Speaking of waterboarding, Trump said: “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I’d approve more than that. It works…and if it doesn’t they deserve it anyway for what they do to us.” It wasn’t just the words, but the malicious delight in which he spoke them and the roars of applause his celebration of cruelty incited in his followers.

On another occasion, after citing some of the heinous things ISIS does to it’s victims, Trump said that we should be able to do the same things to them, to “fight fire with fire.” He said he wants to use even tougher forms of torture than waterboarding. (Incidentally, there are good moral and practical reasons to not torture other people. It does nor reliably work and it inspires the enemy to react in kind.)

Trump has said that he would be willing to commit war crimes and violate the Geneva Convention to crush his enemies. In particular, he has called for targeting the families of terrorists, even if they are innocent. When former National Security Agency and CIA director Michael Hayden said that the US military had been trained to refuse such orders as illegal, Trump tellingly insisted: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me – believe me.” “I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”

Trump has advocated plundering invaded countries’ resources to pay for said invasion. Speaking to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos of how we should have taken Iraq’s oil, Trump said, “In the old days, you know when you had a war, to the victor belong the spoils. You go in. You win the war and you take it.”

Although Trump has often been seen as an isolationist, he has at times (inconsistently) called for more hawkish moves. For example, during the primaries he called for sending 30,000 soldiers to Syria and shooting Iranian ships out of the water.

Trump has expressed an openness to nuclear proliferation, saying that perhaps Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia should have nuclear weapons. He has refused to rule out using nuclear weapons again, even in Europe. Reportedly, he once asked a foreign policy advisor three times why we couldn’t just use nuclear weapons.

Trump has said that he might have supported the illegal and horrific internment of Japanese citizens during World War 2.

Trump touts “law and order,” and says that police need to be allowed to “get a lot tougher;” which is problematic without qualifications for the reasons I’ve already discussed. He has called for the mandatory death penalty for anyone who kills a police officer. He also thinks death by lethal injection is not painful enough. His insistence that the Central Park five are guilty, even though they were cleared by DNA evidence implies that he cares more about control than actual justice.

Many of Trump’s followers also show a perchance for violence along with fanatical loyalty to Trump. Trump once said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” Many of them seem hell-bent on proving him right.

Trump’s rallies are often frenzied, with chants of “build the wall” and “lock her up resounding.” I don’t doubt that many people who go to such rallies are good people who hear hope and even compassion in his message. I have a dear cousin who I respect who had that take-away.

But there are darker forces at work in these venues. Hateful t-shirts are sold outside with lines like, “Trump that bitch,” or “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica.” Reporters have released audio of racist, misogynist, and other such hateful slurs and threats from attendees. Trump regularly spreads fear and hatred toward Muslims, Mexicans, and even the reporters in the press pen. Protesters have been assaulted at rallies, encouraged on by Trump. After a white man punched an exiting black protester, he told reporters “next time we might have to kill him.”

Indeed, Trump fans have carried out a number of assaults against minorities and others they perceive to be critical of Trump (for some examples, see here). Trump himself seems to recognize this mob spirit was a hallmark of his fans. Recently, at one of his “Thank You” tour rallies, he joked with the audience about how vicious they were:

“You people were vicious, violent, screaming, ‘Where’s the wall? We want the wall!’ Screaming, ‘Prison! Prison! Lock her up!’ I mean, you are going crazy. I mean, you were nasty and mean and vicious and you wanted to win, right?” Trump said, speaking in Orlando, Florida, at one of the stops on his ‘Thank You’ tour.

“Now it’s much different. Now you’re laid back, you’re cool, you’re mellow, right? You’re basking in the glory of victory,” the president-elect added.

I’m less sanguine about how mellow some of them really are or about how long Trump will wait before inciting them once again.

I want to be clear here on why I see this as unusually dangerous. Violence isn’t new. People on both right and left have stooped to it at times. I’ve seen articles about how Hillary supporters (or sometimes just Trump opponents) have assaulted Trump fans. I condemn that as well.

Although I cannot prove it, I highly doubt that is happening as much as the reverse. Hillary didn’t talk about wanting to beat, jail, or kill her opponents. She did not cater to fascist groups who were already primed for violence. And for the most part, she did not deal in fearmongering or scapegoating of vulnerable minorities.

Violence is usually wrong and always less than ideal. But it’s worth pointing out that there does seem to be a difference between, on the one hand, people reacting with violence because they justifiably feel their rights and even their lives are threatened by the other side; and, on the other hand, people being violent simply because they feel their power or privilege is threatened. These are not the same.

I guess what scares me is this becoming normalized. What scares me is the fanatical loyalty many Trump supporters feel – not to a party or to principle – but to a man. One who has shown his own fascist bent, who communicates to them directly through twitter, and who is not afraid to target people through that medium.

While it is unclear how far down that road Trump is willing to go (hopefully no further), Putin’s vigilante killings of journalists and Duterte’s masked men who gun down civilians are scary reminders of how effective mercenary elements can be. They can do the dirty work while the leader maintains plausible deniability that this was what he wanted.

And while Trump’s rallies might partly be based on his ego; they could also serve to further intensify and expand his legions of loyal followers.

Trump openly admires dictators and their methods. He has praised Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Ung. He praised the Chinese government’s brutal massacre of peaceful protesters at Tiananmen Square as “strong.” His first wife Ivana once claimed that he kept a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bed. Trump has approvingly retweeted a Mussolini quote and his campaign has (accidently?) featured Nazi SS soldiers in a campaign ad. More recently, Filipino President Duterte has said that Trump called to express his support of Duterte’s brutal extra-judicial killings of Filipinos associated with drugs.

As many on both the right and left have pointed out, Trump seems to not understand the Constitution and many of his proposals would violate it. Useful, partially overlapping summaries can be found here, here, here, and here

Former ambassador and Special Counsel to the President, Jeff Bleich, lays much of this out well. I will quote him at length and add a few additional comments at the end:

The first amendment guarantees that the government “shall make no law respecting religion.” This means what it says — you can’t have a law that is based on religion. America in fact was founded by people who had been persecuted for their religious beliefs and came here seeking relief from governments dictating what religion was acceptable. Donald Trump disagrees with this amendment. He advocates barring people from the United States because of their religion. On December 7, 2015, he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He further allowed that he might require the registration of all Muslims in a database and mandate special identification of Muslims.

The first amendment also guarantees that the Government can make no laws “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” Donald Trump said on February 26, 2016, that he plans to “loosen the libel laws” in the United States so that he can sue journalists who write unflattering articles. “We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when the New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money.”

The first amendment further guarantees “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” At a public forum on November 22, 2015, supporters of Donald Trump punched and kicked a protestor who had been chanting anti-Trump slogans. Trump stated “Maybe he should have been roughed up. It was disgusting what he was doing.” After a similar incident in which a person at his rally was arrested for punching a peaceful protestor, Donald Trump said he would look into paying the attacker’s legal fees because the man “obviously loves the country.”…

The fourth amendment guarantees the right of people to be secure in their houses and forbids searches without probable cause. Donald Trump said on November 19, 2015, that he would permit the use of warrantless searches despite the Fourth Amendment. “We’re going to have to do things we never did before. And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.” The fourth amendment’s provisions do not include allowing for violation of the fourth amendment.

The fifth amendment guarantees that no person shall be denied life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Donald Trump on February 10, 2016 stated that people accused of being in the United States illegally “may or may not” be entitled to due process. When his interviewer, Bill O’Reilly, stated “I’m telling you, all settled law says once you’re here, you are entitled to our constitutional protection, every single case,” Donald Trump responded “I disagree.” So, that is clear; he also disagrees with the fifth amendment.

The sixth amendment was written to serve as a bulwark against government leaders locking up their political adversaries, among other things. It requires that in all criminal cases there must be a public trial, an impartial jury, and numerous other protections to ensure a fair trial. On June 3, 2016, Donald Trump stated that his likely opponent for President, Secretary Hillary Clinton, “has to go to jail” even though she has not been accused of a crime, let alone subject to any criminal proceeding. He has urged dispensing with the trial process in other cases, as well. With respect to a U.S. Sergeant, Bowe Bergdahl who was accused of desertion, Donald Trump said that the U.S. military should forego a court martial and that he “should have been executed” and that someone should “throw him out of a plane” without a parachute…

The eighth amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Donald Trump has endorsed the use of torture and killing the loved ones of criminals as a way to stop terrorism. On March 22, 2016, he stated that “Look, I think we have to change our law on the waterboarding thing” and that he would “go further” than waterboarding. He said with respect to one suspect, “he may be talking but he’ll talk faster with the torture.” And he proposed that as Commander-in-Chief he would discourage terrorists by directing people to kill children and families who have not committed crimes or engaged in terrorism. “When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.” This has been cruel and unusual punishment since even before the United States was established…

The thirteenth amendment forbids slavery or indentured servitude. This issue has not come up with respect to indentured servitude in the U.S. However, Donald Trump has refused to respond to news reports and video that he did not oppose or condemn the employment of indentured servants building a new Trump golf course in Dubai.

The fourteenth amendment states that all persons born in the United States are citizens of the United States. Donald Trump announced that he would repeal this provision. “Mexico and almost every other country anywhere in the world doesn’t have that. We’re the only ones dumb enough, stupid enough to have it.”

The fourteenth amendment also protects the rights of all persons, including non-citizens, from being deprived by a State of life, liberty, or property without due process or being denied equal protection of the law. See the first, fifth, and sixth amendments.

Trump’s call to bring back “stop and frisk” procedures would violate the Fourth Amendment. Such procedures have been ruled to be discriminatory and unconstitutional. Trump’s desire to bring back torture would not only violate the Eighth Amendment, as noted above; it would also violate international treaties we have signed: “The United States has signed an international treaty banning torture, and the Constitution states that ‘all treaties’ are ‘the supreme law of the land.'”

Trump’s understanding of eminent domain laws seems to violate the Fifth Amendment. His threat to extort Mexico to make them pay for a border wall would not only be a disaster for our diplomatic relations, it would also violate domestic and constitutional law. Trump has said he will follow Obama’s precedent in a heavy use of executive powers, something many conservatives see as unconstitutional.

On multiple occasions Trump has threatened the separation of powers and an independent judiciary. Examples would include his threat to remove Judge Gonzalo Curial because of a personal vendetta; his threat to “swamp” the court with “real judges and real legal opinions” in response to criticism from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and his threat to ensure Hillary was convicted and jailed.

More needs to be said about Trump’s threat to a free press, because this is especially alarming. Trump started out his campaign speaking to any reporter who would give him airtime. This free media is partly what helped launch his candidacy into the stratosphere.

But Trump has always had a volatile relationship with the press, even before this election. He was soon blacklisting news organizations such as The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and Politico who he felt were too critical or unflattering of him. This limiting of the media’s access looks to continue into his presidency:

Trump hasn’t had a news conference since July. He has blocked the media from traveling with him or even knowing whom he’s meeting with. His phone call with Vladimir Putin, which occurred shortly after the election, was first reported by the Kremlin.

This is highly unusual. In 2000, President-elect George W. Bush called a press conference three days after the Supreme Court determined the outcome of the election. In 2008, President-elect Obama also met with the press three days after being elected.

As the media began to dig more into Trump’s past and call him out more on his lies, his anger grew. He threatened to open up libel laws to make it easier to stifle an adversarial press. These laws are well protected, with important Supreme Court precedents to back them up. But if Trump appoints enough sympathetic judges to the Court, he could perhaps get the libel laws he wants.

But if he doesn’t, there are other ways of undermining the press. One of them is to deluge them with frivolous lawsuits. He has twice threatened to sue the New York Times. While he had no case and the Times is a big enough paper to afford a suit; such threats have a chilling effect on news sources, especially smaller papers, who might think twice about reporting critical information.

Another way to undermine the press is to delegitimize its credibility. Trump was soon doing this with a vengeance:

At the president-elect’s often incendiary rallies, Trump frequently blasted the press as “dishonest,” “disgusting” and “scum.” The crowds that gathered to watch him would often turn and jeer at the reporters, hemmed in the press pen.

On the internet, the vitriol from Trump fans continued. In April, the journalist Julia Ioffe received a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse and death threats after she wrote a critical profile of Trump’s wife Melania for GQ magazine. In October, a Trump supporter sent Newsweek ’s Kurt Eichenwald ( who has been vocal about his epilepsy) a video that triggers seizures. Other Newsweek staffers have received anti-Semitic slurs on Twitter and memes about hanging journalists from trees.

Even the few news outlets who backed Trump weren’t always safe. In March, Florida police charged Trump’s then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski with battery after he appeared to grab Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields as she approached Trump to ask him a question. (Florida ultimately decided not to prosecute Lewandowski, and he landed a job at CNN.)

Robert Reich chronicles another such encounter: “Referring to the journalists at his rallies, Trump said, ‘I hate some of these people,’ adding (presumably in response to allegations of Vladimir Putin’s treatment of dissident journalists), ‘but I’d never kill ’em.'”

This kind of stirred up hatred is not only baseless, it is dangerous. It has a chilling effect on a press that is meant to hold public leaders accountable.

Another way of undermining a free press is to either bypass it altogether by connecting with voters directly or to build up an alternative propaganda outlet that can be relied on to tout the party line. Trumps use of twitter and his rallies serves to bypass the media.

Steve Bannon’s Breitbart and some other far right news sources seem to have effectively become propaganda arms of the Trump administration. Trump’s dishonest use of rhetoric and his use of repetition, theater, and emotion also bear the hallmarks of propaganda.

There is a very real danger of creeping Russian influence over our democracy and some of its leaders, including Trump. There is strong evidence that the Russians hacked into Democratic Party e-mails and released them through WikiLeaks in a manner intended to hurt Hillary’s campaign and help elect Trump as president. Over the years the Russians have gotten better and bolder in their cyber attacks against America and many of our European allies. There is also evidence that the Russians flooded the interned with fake news stories designed to hurt Hillary and promote Trump.

This should be concerning to all patriots. This should be a bipartisan issue, and indeed, top Republicans and Democrats have come out to denounce such attacks. Seventeen government security agencies have indicating this is happening, including both the FBI and the CIA. But, outrageously, Trump has said he doesn’t believe it. He shrugs it off as ridiculous or implies that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.

Such an attack would be unacceptable no matter what country perpetrated it. We have interfered in other countries elections before as well, and that was shameful and wrong. But this coming from the Russians is particularly alarming. Not because there is anything wrong with Russians as Russians, but because Russia under Putin is a repressive totalitarian state that opposes us and many of our Western allies.

It is not clear that Trump knew about Russia’s efforts to tip the scale in his favor. But there is a host of troubling connections between Trump and Putin. Trump has effusively praised Putin and at times indicated they have a friendship (though inconsistently). He has expressed hope for a good working relationship between our two nations.

Someone in Trump’s circle intentionally changed the Republican platform to weaken its support for our NATO ally, Ukraine. Trump has said himself that he might not honor America’s commitments to our NATO allies. Trump seems to have business connections to Russia, as do others in his inner circle including his nominated Secretary of State, Rex Tillman. There are reports that the Russians also hacked the Republican Party’s documents, raising the question of if they have blackmail material on Trump or other Republican leaders.

Peace with other countries is, of course, a good thing, all things being equal. But not at the cost of betraying our allies and genuine national interests. The Russian scandal is hard to overstate.

The timing and circumstances are scarily ripe for a totalitarian takeover: After years of progress, democracy appears to be on the wane in places all over the world. Many people are still hurting in our only slightly recovered economy. Much of the growth that has occurred has only gone to the top. People are angry about that. Government has been gridlocked, ineffectual, and often corrupt. People no longer have as much faith in our democratic process.

Many of them are afraid. Afraid of terrorist attacks and perceived threats from our changing economy, demographics, and values. Republicans have exploited these fears and added to them with dishonest conspiracy theories and fearmongering rhetoric. Many people are more willing to give up freedoms (especially those of others) for their security.

Trust in the free press has been diminished. Many people on both right and left have started to gravitate more toward partisan sources, including ones that are not always fact-based. To my mind the right has been particularly bad here. News itself has become more sensationalized and less deep. And with twitter and the internet, leaders or groups have the ability to communicate directly with people, bypassing a press pool.

There is evidence of a highly organized and well funded effort by some Christians on the far right to impose a form of Christian theocracy on America (see Hedges). While the organized movement is small, it has a lot of influence on more moderate Evangelicals and has made major inroads in the Republican Party, including some members of Trump’s cabinet and inner circle. Trump does not appear to be particularly religious, but he has shown himself willing to be swayed by such views in exchange for flattery and loyalty on other issues (issues that the Religious Right has been more than willing to back). There appears to be an unholy coalition forming between the Religious Right, the Alt-Right, and big businesses to shore up power and achieve mutually agreed on aims.

Technology has made government surveillance much easier and efficient, and since 9/11 we have been more willing to let the government infringe on our privacy. There is an argument to be had that this is necessary, or at least sometimes is. There is an inverse tension between security and freedom at different ends of a spectrum. There are costs and benefits to both sides. But one of the dangers of giving up freedoms in our move toward an extreme security side of the spectrum is that this gives incoming leaders a frightening amount of power that could easily be abused.

Not unrelatedly, many police departments have become more militarized and Trump has made heavy use of generals in his cabinet, some in heretofore civilian roles like Homeland Security. As a progressive, I’m painfully aware right now that military, intelligence, and police cultures tends to lean conservative. And it is conservative citizens that tend to own military-style guns and be willing to use them.

I’m sure many of them our true patriots who would be willing to stand up for our constitutional rights. But many others seem willing to follow the party line, no matter what.

Republicans now dominate not just in the White House, but also in the House and Senate and possibly soon the Court. And there is every reason to think they will go along with most of what Trump wishes. I’m going to quote Robert Kagan at length here because he captures this dynamic well.

A mass political movement is thus a powerful and, to those who would oppose it, frightening weapon. When controlled and directed by a single leader, it can be aimed at whomever the leader chooses. If someone criticizes or opposes the leader, it doesn’t matter how popular or admired that person has been. He might be a famous war hero, but if the leader derides and ridicules his heroism, the followers laugh and jeer. He might be the highest-ranking elected guardian of the party’s most cherished principles. But if he hesitates to support the leader, he faces political death.

In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories — and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.

A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. After all, they are voters and will need to be brought back into the fold. As for Trump himself, let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.

What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him…Imagine the power he would wield then. In addition to all that comes from being the leader of a mass following, he would also have the immense powers of the American presidency at his command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military. Who would dare to oppose him then? Certainly not a Republican Party that lay down before him even when he was comparatively weak. And is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands, likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-corrupt?

In fact, this Republican coalition already agree on a great deal. They are antagonistic toward Muslims (or see such antagonism as profitable). They want a powerful police force and military. They want to maintain white privilege. They are free-market capitalists who oppose regulations. They tend to be fiscally conservative. Because of these things, they want to cut social safety nets and they tend to resent talk of civil rights or social justice. They tend to oppose science and public education.

And it’s not just the aims they agree on, its also the means. Ruthless dominance is the name of the game.

Also, with demographic changes and Trump’s (coming) unpopularity, totalitarianism might be their best chance at grasping at waning power. A Republican study after their failed 2012 election bid indicated that they had to expand their base by reaching out to more minorities. But in this election they have effectively burned many of those bridges for years to come. Already in this election, Hillary received close to 3 million more votes than Trump did. How can Republicans keep winning without stooping to unscrupulous means?

They are already attempting to suppress the vote of minorities and cheat in gerrymandering (something democrats do as well, to be fair). The recent Republican power grab in North Carolina is also an alarming example of what could be coming if true patriots from both right and left don’t come together to stand against such totalitarian moves.

Back in early May, psychologist and blogger Andrew Sullivan predicted almost exactly what would happen: disenfranchised white voters would be drawn into Trump’s populist demagoguery and vote him in. On the eve of the election Sullivan gave another dire prediction of where we are headed. I am going to end this section by quoting from it at length because it sums up much of what I have been trying to say here about why Trump is so dangerous:

He sees the judicial system as entirely subordinate to his political and personal interests, and impugned a federal judge for his ethnicity. He has accused the Justice Department and FBI of a criminal conspiracy to protect Hillary Clinton. He has refused to accept in advance the results of any election in which he loses. He has openly argued for government persecution of newspapers that oppose him — pledging to open up antitrust prosecution against the Washington Post, for example. He is the first candidate in American history to subject the press pool to mob hatred — “disgusting, disgusting people” — and anti-Semitic poison from his foulest supporters. He is the first candidate in American history to pledge to imprison his election opponent if he wins power. He has mused about using nuclear weapons in regional wars. He has celebrated police powers that openly deploy racial profiling. His favorite foreign leader is a man who murders journalists, commits war crimes, uses xenophobia and warfare to cement his political standing, and believes in the dismemberment of both NATO and the European Union. Nor has he rejected any of his most odious promises during the primary — from torturing prisoners “even if it doesn’t work” to murdering the innocent family members of terror suspects to rounding up several million noncitizens to declaring war on an entire religion, proposing to create a database to monitor its adherents and bar most from entering the country.

We are told we cannot use the term fascist to describe this. I’m at a loss to find a more accurate alternative.

The Establishments of both right and left have had many opportunities to stop him and have failed by spectacular displays of cowardice, narrow self-interest, and bewilderment. The right has been spectacularly craven. Trump has no loyalty to the party apparatus that has elevated him to a possible victory next Tuesday — declaring war on the Speaker of the House, attacking the RNC whenever it fails to toady to him, denigrating every single rival Republican candidate, even treating his own vice-presidential nominee as someone he can openly and contemptuously contradict with impunity. And yet that party, like the conservative parties in Weimar Germany, has never seen fit to anathematize him, only seeking to exploit his followers in the vain and foolish delusion that they can control him in the future in ways they have not been able to in the past.

The Republican media complex have enabled and promoted his lies and conspiracy theories and, above all, his hysteria. From the poisonous propaganda of most of Fox News to the internet madness of the alt-right, they have all made a fortune this past decade by describing the world as a hellhole of chaos and disorder and crime for which the only possible solution is a third-world strongman. The Republicans in Washington complemented this picture of crisis by a policy of calculated obstruction to every single measure a Democratic president has attempted, rendering the Congress so gridlocked that it has been incapable of even passing a budget without constitutional crisis, filling a vacant Supreme Court seat, or reforming a health-care policy in pragmatic fashion. They have risked the nation’s very credit rating to vent their rage. They have helped reduce the public support of the central democratic institution in American government, the Congress, to a consistently basement level never seen before — another disturbing analogy to the discredited democratic parliaments of the 1930s. The Republicans have thereby become a force bent less on governing than on destroying the very institutions that make democracy and the rule of law possible. They have not been conservative in any sane meaning of that term for many, many years. They are nihilist revolutionaries of the far right in search of a galvanizing revolutionary leader. And they have now found their man.

For their part, the feckless Democrats decided to nominate one of the most mediocre, compromised, and Establishment figures one can imagine in a deeply restless moment of anxiety and discontent. They knew full well that Hillary Clinton is incapable of inspiring, of providing reassurance, or of persuading anyone who isn’t already in her corner, and that her self-regard and privilege and money-grubbing have led her into the petty scandals that have been exploited by the tyrant’s massive lies. The staggering decision by FBI director James Comey to violate established protocol and throw the election into chaos to preserve his credibility with the far right has ripped open her greatest vulnerability — her caginess and deviousness — while also epitomizing the endgame of the chaos that the GOP has sought to exploit. Comey made the final days of the election about her. And if this election is a referendum on Clinton, she loses.

Yes, she has shrewdly deployed fear against fear — but she is running against the master of fear. The Democrats, with the exception of Obama, have long been unable to marshal emotion as a political weapon, advancing a bloodless rationalism that has never been a match for the tribal national passions of the right. Clinton’s rallies have been pale copies of the bloodthirsty mobs Trump has marshaled and whipped into ever-higher states of frenzy. In every debate, she won on points, but I fear she failed to offer a compelling, simple, and positive reason for her candidacy. Only a party utterly divorced from half the country it seeks to represent could have made such a drastic error of hubris and complacency.

Some — including many who will be voting for Trump — will argue that even if the unstable, sleepless, vindictive tyrant wins on Tuesday, he will be restrained by the system when he seizes power. Let’s game this out for a moment. Over the last year, which forces in the GOP have been able to stand up to him? Even his closest aides have been unable to get him to concentrate before a debate. He set up a policy advisory apparatus and then completely ignored it until it was disbanded. His foreign-policy advisers can scarcely be found. He says he knows more than any general, any diplomat, and anyone with actual experience in government. He has declared his chief adviser to be himself. Even the criminal Richard Nixon was eventually restrained and dispatched by a Republican Establishment that still knew how to run the country and had a loyalty to broader American institutions. Such an Establishment no longer exists.

More to the point, if Trump wins, he will almost certainly bring with him the House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. A President Clinton will be checked and balanced. A President Trump will be pushing through wide-open doors. Who can temper or stop him then? A Speaker who reveals the slightest inclination to resist him will be swiftly dispatched — or subjected to a very credible threat of being primaried. If the military top brass resist his belief in unpredictable or unethical or unlawful warfare, they will surely be fired. As for the administration of justice, he has openly declared his intent to use the power of the government to put his political opponent in jail. As for a free society, he has threatened to do what he can to put his media opponents into receivership.

What is so striking is that this requires no interpretation, no reading of the tea leaves. Trump has told Americans all of this — again and again — in plain English. His own temperamental instability has been displayed daily and in gory detail. From time to time, you can see his poll ratings plummet as revelations that would permanently sink any other candidate have dented his appeal. And then he resiliently and unstoppably moves back up. His bond with his supporters is absolute, total, and personal. It was months ago that he boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would still be with him. And he was right. This is not a mark of a democratic leader; it is a mark of an authoritarian cult.

It is also, critically, a function of his platform. Fascism has never been on the ballot in America before. No candidate this close to power has signaled more clearly than Trump that he is a white-nationalist candidate determined to fight back against the browning of America. As mass immigration has changed the demographic identity of the soon-to-be majority-minority country with remarkable speed, and as those made uncomfortable by such drastic change have been dismissed as mere bigots and racists, Trump offers an electrifying hope of revenge and revanchism. The fire he has lit will not be easily doused. If his policies lead to an economic downswing, he will find others to blame and conspiracies to flush out. If there is Republican resistance to his pledges to roll back free trade, he will call on his base to pressure the leadership to surrender. And if one of his first moves is to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, we will be hurtling rather quickly to a military confrontation, as Iran rushes to build a nuke before Trump can launch military attacks to thwart them. That rush to war would empower him still further.

Yes, he is an incompetent, a dilettante, a man who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Many of his moves will probably lead to a nose-dive in support. But Trump cannot admit error and will need to deny it or scapegoat others or divert public attention. Those diversions could well be deeply destabilizing — and galvanized by events. There will doubtless be another incident between police and an unarmed black man under a Trump presidency. Rather than calm the nation, Trump will inflame it. There will be an Islamist terror attack of some kind — and possibly a wave of such attacks in response to his very election. Trump will exploit it with the subtlety of a Giuliani and the brutality of a Putin.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s