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On the Emerging American Autocracy

The victory of senatorial candidate Doug Jones in Alabama on 12 December over a racist bigot, pedophile and religious zealot, supported by the incumbent President and Republic National Committee, is the first good news that America’s democrats have had in a good while. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. At best, it may be the end of the beginning. America’s democrats still face an uphill struggle.

There has been increasing speculation about Donald Trump’s mental health in the media. Okay, he has been deemed deranged by a number of psychiatrists. But there is a logic to what he has been doing and what I expect he has in mind. And he has become increasingly daring as he has sensed that he faces little effective opposition in Congress, where Republicans even after the Democrats’ victory in Alabama still have the majority, and most of them are about as brave as sheep.

The recent episode with the retweet of the UK fascist organization’s anti-Muslim videos is indicative of the President’s agenda. His decision to declare US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital goes in a similar direction. This was in blatant disregard for the longstanding realities of Middle East politics, in a cheap effort to secure a short-term advantage stateside. That Trump went this route will not have been lost on anyone around the world who has traditionally believed in the notion of American leadership.

Trump is neither crazy nor stupid. We should not forget that he beat out sixteen other candidates for the Republican nomination and Hillary Clinton for the Presidency. He is not a professional politician but he has identified key structural flaws in the US political system and has sought to exploit them to his advantage, so far very effectively.

My sense is that Trump wants to establish an autocracy, something akin to what we see in Turkey or Russia. He has not been shy about expressing admiration for the leaders of these and other countries with an authoritarian bent.

As part of this process, Trump wants to tame the key actors that are expected to oversee the presidency – the Congress, the independent agencies of the US government, the media and the like.

In particular, he seeks to discredit and render dysfunctional the American intelligence services whose job it is to monitor the activities of foreign countries and how they interact with the government and the Presidency as well as domestic actors that may want to take the law into their hands. The recent onslaught of Republicans close to Trump against Special Counsel Mueller is part of this process. The accusation that the democrat-inclined deep state is preparing a coup d’état against Trump says more about the proclivities of the President’s entourage than anything the Democratic Party might be considering.

With his compromised links to Russia’s money and its political leadership, Trump has to be thinking of shutting down American democracy. His complicity is as yet unproven but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming and mounting. The two phone calls between Putin and Trump over the last week say it all. The two leaders are trying to sell the idea that America and Russia only need to be joined at the hip for them to be able to attack the world’s strategic challenges. This is so much hogwash.

The back story is about Putin creating security problems in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria and Russia’s ongoing efforts to circumvent the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear weapons that effectively sealed the end to the Soviet threat in Europe during the Cold War. This sets the stage for Trump to negotiate understandings with Russia to deal with the security challenges that it itself has generated.

I expect that Trump is also on the payroll of the big American money that finances the US political process and then holds it hostage to their interests. So, for example, it has been reported that American billionaire Sheldon Adelson played a prime role in the Trump decision to support the idea of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, the only country in the world that has thus far done so.

I expect that Trump wants to become as rich as Russian President Putin, reportedly worth a cool two hundred billion. Anyone who follows the money path in US politics should not be surprised by this attitude. The tax bill going through the US Congress makes it abundantly clear that a significant portion of the Republican Party is prepared to do almost anything to reduce its members’ personnel tax burden and to protect the interests of those that finance their campaigns, lying through their teeth in the process.

Trump believes that with thirty to thirty-five percent of the US electorate on his side, suitably manipulated, he can prevail. And prevail he may. When an electorate is splintered, as typically happens in a country where the political centre has wilted, it can be sufficient to retain the allegiance of one-third or so of the population to control the political discourse. If the American President manages to maintain this level of support, he stands a good chance of being able to continue to dominate the political course of the country.

Once a dictator is in place, it can be very difficult to dislodge him. Typically, the leader who becomes a dictator and the structure that he spawns stays around for at least a generation and very often two or three. Think of the Soviet dictatorship that lasted seventy-four years, the Chinese one that has lasted sixty-eight years, the Cuban one that has lasted fifty-eight years, the Iranian one that has lasted thirty-eight years, the Zimbabwean one that lasted through much of the recently-deposed President Mugabe’s thirty-seven years at the helm – and so on and so forth.

US democracy is close to the tipping point. America’s democrats need to be thinking about measures to head off the Trump anti-Democratic Revolution at the pass –before it is too late. They need to be prepared to put the long view before the short-term advantage, the electorate before the moneymen, country before party – and to think very hard about how to repair their dysfunctional democracy.

America’s future depends on this – but so does that of other countries around the world. The Jones’ victory in Alabama can open a pathway in this direction but there will have to be many more such victories if American democracy is to find its feet again.

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