The stunning pace at which the norms and ideals that have guided the American experiment for the past 240 years are being upended in Washington, D.C., is both disorienting and disturbing. A country that was founded on the principles of enlightened and democratic governance is now being asked by its leader to embrace the most ruthless of totalitarian dictators.
We have reached an inflection point in American history, which will determine whether we find our way back to the country we once knew or go the way of Russia, China, or even North Korea.
This past week was the point in the Donald Trump presidency when he left us no doubt of who he is and what his intentions are for this country— and that should frighten every thinking American.
You need only listen to his language to understand who Donald Trump holds in esteem. When he describes the leaders of our traditional allied countries as “weak” and “ineffective,” Trump is signaling to his base that we should ignore the democratically-elected leaders we once viewed as our partners in building western-style democracy. The recent photo from the G-7 talks in Canada, showing major western leaders gathered in frustration around Trump, who sat, arms folded with his impetuous smirk, says all we need to know about how Trump views the world’s democracies. They are now our “back-stabbing” enemies.
Meanwhile, Trump no longer hides his infatuation with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping, leaders he describes as “strong,” “talented,” and “respected.” These are leaders of the world’s most authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships and they are the role models for the current President of the United States. It’s positively Orwellian.
We’ve long believed that it couldn’t happen here. That Americans could never fall under the thrall of a would-be dictator. But it is happening, and this is the moment that we can no longer deny the threat that Trump poses.
America wouldn’t be the first democratic country to fall into dictatorship. Indeed, many nations have followed that path, and they’ve left behind a well-trod road map of how a country descends into the abyss.
First, you demonize the media and elevate organs of propaganda. When Trump calls the media “the biggest enemy of the people,” which he did again this past week, it’s part of his strategy to discredit independent sources of information. He tells his followers to tune out legitimate news organizations in favor of politically-motivated entities like Fox News, Breitbart, and Alex Jones’ Infowars. Trump used these news sources last week to gush over his new best friend, Kim Jong-un.
Second, insist you’re above the law. In repeatedly claiming that he can pardon himself, Trump is signaling to his supporters that the law does not apply to him and that efforts to investigate or rein in his abuses are illegitimate.
Third, discredit due process, and establish decision-making mechanisms that leave power solely in the hands of the leader. One of the little-reported aspects of Trump’s imposition of tariffs is that U.S. businesses can apply for exemptions on a case-by-case basis. But these exemptions don’t go before Congress or an independent court. They are decided solely by the White House, which gives Trump incredible power to reward business friends and punish those who resist him. It’s particularly troubling given Trump’s recent, shocking demand that the U.S. Department of Commerce come to the aid of the outlaw Chinese company ZTE, which came just days after his daughter Ivanka was granted initial approval for several Chinese trademark applications. That decision has raised legitimate concerns that Trump may be making secret deals with foreign governments to enrich himself and his family. The ability to grant tariff exemptions raises the prospect of similar deals with American companies.
Fourth, undermine the independence of the federal justice system. Trump has made no secret of his desire to rid the FBI and the rest of the Department of Justice of independently-minded investigators and prosecutors in favor of those who pledge loyalty to him— and he’s willing to destroy the FBI and the department in his efforts to achieve his goal.
Finally, dehumanize a vulnerable minority, casting them as an enemy and an existential threat to the country. Every dictator throughout history has used this tactic to gain power through fear. Trump is simply the latest. When we see Mexican or Central American refugees and asylum seekers arrested and separated from their children at the border, it’s part of the dehumanization process. It’s Trump signaling to his followers that we don’t need to treat refugees or undocumented immigrants with dignity and compassion.
After 240 years, America’s traditions and institutions have survived plenty of tumult, but they are being tested like never before by a man who clearly lusts for absolute power and by a sizable and almost cult-like following that seems blind to his abuses. As we head into another election season, we all must recognize what is truly at stake. America is in trouble, and our future is on the line.