By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
Day after day, massive protests have erupted in scores of cities across America in response to Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States. They are ignoring the counsel of political leaders who had failed them―political leaders who seem willfully ignorant of how well Trump fits the worldwide pattern of autocratic authoritarian rulers.
One of them, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, even played a murky behind-the-scenes role in Trump’s victory, following a documented pattern of Russian support for right-wing nationalist politicians across Western Europe.
At the same time, a wave of hate crimes have swept across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment between the day after the election and the following Monday.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan renewed talk of privatizing Medicare—the epitome of the out-of-touch elitist GOP agenda that Trump ran against. Trump’s repeated defense of Medicare and Social Security was an early part of his base appeal.
Typically elected with minority support, autocratic rulers like Putin, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán consolidate their power by violating existing democratic norms; threatening, bribing and intimidating others in secret; and demonizing vulnerable racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, as well as their political opposition and the free press—much of which Trump has already done during his campaign.
They rely heavily on manipulative political theater, in place of sound, empirically-based policies arrived at through public deliberation. And the worse and the more regularly their policies fail, the more intensely and elaborately they shift blame onto others. They also benefit enormously from the erosion of hard-won social trust in established institutions. (See sidebar “Fake News Helped Elect Trump.”)
As for bringing the nation together, outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid stood virtually alone in pointing out the obvious.
“If this is going to be a time of healing, we must first put the responsibility for healing where it belongs: at the feet of Donald Trump, a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate,” Reid said in a press release. At press time, Clinton’s popular vote lead was almost 1.7 million votes.
“Winning the electoral college does not absolve Trump of the grave sins he committed against millions of Americans… If Trump wants to roll back the tide of hate he unleashed, he has a tremendous amount of work to do and he must begin immediately.”
Trump’s first wave of appointments the following week proved just how right Reid had been. (See sidebar below “Trump’s Troubling Appointments”.) But other leading Democrats seemed oblivious to what was going on.
“We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead,” Hillary Clinton said, as if she weren’t speaking about a man who campaigned on locking her up—and still might try to do so.
“We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country,” President Barack Obama added. “We all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy.”
The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
But Trump is the very epitome of a bad-faith actor, as noted by Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Writing for the New York Review of Books, Gessen, who has lived in autocracies most of her life, and spent much of her career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia, laid out a set of six “Rules for Survival” in an autocracy:
1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. If you think he’s exaggerating, that’s just your instinct to rationalize the unacceptable. (Sidenote: The U.S. press did this with Hitler back in the 1930s. It did not end well.)
2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Indeed, books like They Thought They Were Free, written in 1955, make it quite clear that superficial normalcy was one of Nazi Germany’s most malignant features.
3: Institutions will not save you. America’s institutions are much stronger than Russia’s where Gessen learned this lesson first-hand. “Many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them—including the ones enshrined in law—depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution,” he notes. It’s precisely that good faith that Trump has been waging war against for the past 18 months. The press is already under serious assault—as a proliferation of fake news sites and stories helped Trump get elected—and the courts are surely not far behind.
4: Be outraged. Even though—following Rule No. 1—you’re not surprised. “This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting,” Gessen warns. “It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.”
5: Don’t make compromises. Gessen offers Ted Cruz as Exhibit ‘A’ of what not to do. “Those who argue for cooperation will make the case, much as President Obama did in his speech, that cooperation is essential for the future,” he warns. “They will be willfully ignoring the corrupting touch of autocracy, from which the future must be protected.”
6: Remember the future is Gessen’s last rule, and it carries a glimmer of hope—but also a message of responsibility: “Nothing lasts forever,” he writes. “Donald Trump certainly will not, and Trumpism, to the extent that it is centered on Trump’s persona, will not either.” But it was failure to imagine the future that helped hand Trump the election in the first place. Democrats “offered no vision of the future to counterbalance Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past.”
Gessen isn’t the only one with this sort of background or experience. Susan Faludi, author of Backlash and Stiffed, has written about Hungary’s recent authoritarian turn, and its echoes Trump’s America. Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán “enjoy a certain kissing-cousin resemblance,” she noted, starting with Trump’s wall-building fetish and Orbán’s “thirteen-foot-high razor-wire fence running 110 miles across the Serbian border to keep out Syrian refugees.” Mexicans and Muslims top Trump’s enemies list, Roma and Jews top Orbán’s.
Sarah Kendzior is a Saint Louis-based writer, a trained anthropologist who’s done academic research in Central Asian authoritarian states. She was one of the first writers to warn that Trump could be elected president, even before the GOP primaries started.
Running on American Pain
In May she wrote an op-ed titled Trump is the smartest candidate: He’s running on American pain.
“Having studied authoritarian states for over a decade, I would never exaggerate the severity of the threat we now face,” Kendzior recently wrote. “But an American kleptocracy is exactly where President-elect Trump and his backers are taking us.”
Trump ran, absurdly, as a billionaire “populist,” despite a long record of bullying, abusing, and ripping off the little guy (workers, small business owners, “Trump University” students, stockholders, even his own lawyers), hiring illegal immigrants, outsourcing manufacturing overseas (shirts in Bangladesh, neckties in China, suits in Mexico, etc.) and reaping over $800 million in taxpayer subsidies from New York City alone.
He’s the quintessential example of the very ultra-rich elite he pretended to run against—even more clannish and prone to nepotism than most—but with two crucial differences: First, he has always had intimate connections with criminal types who provide him extra muscle and leverage (starting with New York mob connections through his lawyer Roy Cohen). Second, he has always played the part of an outsider, ripping off sympathy on behalf of the very people he otherwise routinely plunders.
Moving toward kleptocracy, as Kendzior warns of, is merely a continuation of how Trump has always operated, but it’s unfolding in concert with the very establishment GOP interests Trump pretended to oppose. Not only will Trump’s worldwide business empire remain intact, but his children, who will run it, will apparently also be involved in his administration, possibly even with security clearances.
The problematic pattern was explained by MSNBC’s Joy Reid on AM Joy on Nov. 19.
“There are dictatorships around the world where the leader of the country and his family essentially milk the country and use the presidency and the leadership of the country to enrich their own family,” Reid said. “We haven’t had any example of that in the United States, but I want to look at an example. It seems small, but in a sense it kind of makes the point.
“Ivanka Trump did her RNC speech and then immediately tweeted out, ‘Here’s the look, you can buy what I have on.’ OK, that’s just one thing. But then you had the 60 Minutes interview, she then had her staff send out a style alert to the media, that the regular mainstream press could promote the [$10,000] bracelet that she had on, that then the American people could buy. Fast forward to the meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, they served Trump Water at the meeting.”
And we’re still almost two months away from Inauguration Day.
“This is the sort of thing we normally associate with a post-Soviet kleptocracy, or a third world dictatorship,” Washington Post contributor Paul Waldman said in response. “And the stuff that we know about may be the least problematic. It’s the stuff that we don’t know about that we really have to worry about.”
The Washington Post recently reported on how, “100 foreign diplomats, from Brazil to Turkey, gathered at the Trump International Hotel this week to sip Trump-branded champagne, dine on sliders and hear a sales pitch about the U.S. president-elects newest hotel…. Some attendees won raffle prizes—among them overnight stays at other Trump properties around the world–allowing them to become better acquainted with the business holdings of the new commander in chief.”
America’s Impending Fascist Rule
The U.S. government, it seems, is now a marketing arm for Trump enterprises. It’s a long, long way from Jimmy Carter being forced to sell off the single peanut farm he had spent his whole life building. But Carter, of course, was a Democrat.
Meanwhile, the GOP establishment is more eager than ever to return to its Wall Street friendly roots. Not just in ways that Trump openly signed onto, such as repealing the Dodd-Frank regulations that passed after the financial crisis, but also in ways he seemed to fundamentally oppose, most notably by privatizing Medicare.
As far back as 2013, Trump told Conservative Political Action Conference that Republicans should not cut Social Security or Medicare because most Americans want to keep the benefits as they stand now. Again, in January, 2015, Trump pledged, at the Iowa Freedom Summit, to save Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid “without cutting it to the bone” by “making the country rich again.” He’s even implied that Medicare could be part of his plan to replace Obamacare.
Ryan couldn’t disagree more—though he’s not upfront about it.
While Obamacare actually extended Medicare’s solvency by more than a decade, Ryan is claiming the exact opposite, saying we have to phase out Medicare because of Obamacare. And, he’s very sneaky about it, according to Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo.
“Ryan says current beneficiaries will be allowed to keep their Medicare. But after the cord is cut between current and future beneficiaries, everything is fair game,” Marshall points out.
There’s another side to Trump’s economic plans, however. Trump plans to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure over 10 years. Infrastructure spending used to be a bipartisan issue, and for voters, it still is, but not in Washington. Infrastructure spending helps boost the economy, but Republicans under Bush had other priorities—tax cuts for the rich, and expensive foreign wars—and under Obama they had two reasons to oppose it: They had no practical or political wish to help boost the economy, and they had an ideological fetish to pursue: balancing the budget. That fetish goes away whenever a Republican takes office. Deficits exploded under both Reagan and Bush, so there’s no reason not to expect it again.
This is where Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have said they were willing to work with Donald Trump. But David Dayen at the New Republic warns that there are hidden dangers lurking there. The real aim—as with all things Republican—is to funnel a lot of money into private hands.
It’s a complex arrangement by which investors and contracts get handsomely paid—a built-in 10 percent profit margin for the contractors. But don’t expect infrastructure anywhere it can’t turn a tidy profit through user fees. And that leaves the heartland of Trump’s rural and exurban red America shit out of luck.
“You may end up with another bridge in New York City or another road in Los Angeles, which can be monetized,” Dayen explained. “But someplace that actually needs infrastructure investment is [dicier] without user fees.”
This won’t necessarily be a problem for Trump—if he can manipulate, distract attention and shift blame around—the one thing for which he has shown great talent. That’s what autocratic rule all comes down to in the end.