Descent into Dictatorship?
America’s descent into chaos moved into a higher gear this past week. It will take a lot of civil courage on the part of a lot of Americans to put the dictatorship genie back in the bottle.
The actions and rhetoric emanating from the Oval Office strongly suggest that Trump’s term in office will be characterized by an effort to establish a dictatorship across the United States of America.
Ok, go pour yourself a stiff drink and if you are still up to it, read this and think further.
There are several factors that point in the direction of an effort by the current President to eclipse America’s democratic institutions.
The core issue is that Trump faces impeachment because of his relations with Putin’s Russia. America’s Commander in Chief, members of his family and his entourage may have to go to jail for actions that are at odds with the law. Trump can be expected to do just about anything to head the judicial posse off at the pass.
Becoming a dictator would not constitute a great characterial leap for the President. Trump has repeatedly flagged his admiration for the “strongmen” that have appeared in several countries in recent years. The list is long: apart from Putin in Russia, whom Trump cannot seem to stop gushing over, there are Erdogan in Turkey, Duerte in the Philippines, Sissi in Egypt, Orban in Hungary, Kaczynski in Poland, the Saudi leadership and so on.
Trump admires these guys because they have either managed to dispense with the messy business of democratic governance, they are moving in this direction or they want to make sure that democracy will never raise its ugly head in their jurisdiction.
Trump may also aspire to becoming one of the richest men in the world, following in the footsteps of the Russian President who has reportedly amassed a fortune worth a cool $200 billion.
The process whereby the American President would establish an authoritarian order in the US is well underway. Trump has systematically denigrated the institutions that have traditionally underpinned American democracy.
He has laid into the country’s independent media, accusing those reporting from the left and the centre of producing “fake news” whenever their reporting has called into question his policies and/or his character.
He has sought to discredit and diminish America’s intelligence services. He fired his FBI Director in an effort to head off the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 US elections. He has attempted to undermine the intelligence community by arguing that it was way out to lunch in claiming that Saddam Hussein harboured nuclear weapons in the lead up to the American intervention in this country in 2003. In fact, it was members of the Bush II Cabinet who manipulated ambiguous intelligence to create a case for invasion.
He has distanced himself from Congress, not only from the Democratic party, but also from the Republican party under whose banner he ran for the Presidency. His recent attacks on the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and other leading Republicans, suggest that Trump seeks to be able to operate independently of the US legislature.
But what of his prospects? Unfortunately, the US President has several arrows in his quiver.
First, he can argue with some justification that Congress has consistently failed to attend effectively to the nation’s business.Its approval numbers are now in the low twenties. (Note that since 1975 the only major spike in the Senate’s traditionally low-lying performance ratings came in 2001, when you know what happened.) Trump’s approval ratings in contrast are still around 33-35%.
The dysfunctionality of Congress results from a series of issues – insane political party financing rules that give more power to money than votes, the lack of professionalism of the political class, gerrymandering, antiquated electoral college rules, inadequate civics education and the like. American democracy is under serious duress.
Second, Trump’s credibility among Republicans. while sinking, is still high on key issues. So, for example, the press has recently reported statistics showing the extent to which a large proportion of Republican supporters tend to give Trump significantly greater credibility than such traditional bastions of American democracy as the New York Times.
Third, with the burgeoning Korean crisis – there are plenty other potential ones to choose from – Trump can try to leverage the argument that the US faces the prospect of imminent conflict. A major military confrontation would allow the President to appeal for unity around his leadership and provide scope for dismantling congressional mechanisms of checks, balances and oversight in ways reminiscent of what transpired after 9/11.
Trump’s standing in the opinion polls is much less than enough if he is seeking to govern with a democratic mandate. But it is more than sufficient if he plans to overturn the established order. In 1933, Hitler had the support of only 33% of the population but this provided him, nonetheless, with a platform to begin destroying Weimar Germany’s democratic values and institutions.
The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, may mark a new departure. There are links between key officials in the White House and the organizers of the white supremacist cum neo-Nazi cum KKK militants. The departure of Steve Bannon, Trump’s eminence grise, will not change this significantly; if anything, it is likely to provide new opportunities for the Alt-Right to gain profile and influence.
While condemning the Charlottesville violence in general, Trump failed to make a distinction between the white neo-fascists who seek to take the US backwards and the Americans who stand for a forward-moving country embracing decency and tolerance. The Alt-Right reminds one of Hitler’s Sturmtruppen, the popular army that was brought together under the NAZI banner and that proved to be the key to Hitler taking and holding power.
American democracy has an impressive array of defences. These have recently been put on display. The Senate voted 98 to 2 to create circumstances that would make it extremely difficult for the White House to undo sanctions against Russia. The courts have opposed Trump’s travel ban. A Senate majority – by only one vote but still –succeeded in derailing Trump’s call for a repeal of Obamacare. In the wake of the Charlottesville violence, the five most important American military leaders made a forceful statement condemning racial hatred and neo-Nazism and affirming the extremism on display in Charlottesville went against the core values of the US military. And we should not forget that the Democratic party – despite a seriously flawed campaign – won three million more popular votes than did the Republicans.
That said, the as yet only emerging anti-authoritarian coalition will have to become considerably more combative if it is to catch in the bud the emerging American dictatorship.
Timing is crucial. History is replete with moments when a resistance movement went into action too soon, before a critical mass of the population understood the stakes. History is also littered with situations when the resistance only got its act together after the authoritarian elements had come to control the essential pillars of democratic governance. In the wake, a generation or more would typically then have to pass before effective resistance could be organized.
The United States now finds itself at, or close to, this threshold.