Feb 14th 2020

Comrade Trump 

 

NEW YORK – “In just three short years,” US President Donald Trump declared in his recent State of the Union (SOTU) address, “we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny.” This baseless pronouncement – more propaganda than reality – recalled Joseph Stalin’s 1935 proclamation that “Life has improved, comrades; life has become more joyous.”

When Stalin touted “the radical improvement in the material welfare of the workers” brought about by the Soviet regime, production statistics were lagging; famine had ravaged populations, especially in Ukraine; and the Great Purge – a brutal campaign of political repression – was already in sight. Likewise, as Trump praises his administration for supposedly restoring America’s greatness, US allies and friends are scrambling to reduce their dependence on the US, which has become both a threat to global stability and an international laughing stock.

Trump’s declarations about the economy are similarly misleading. Yes, GDP growth remains relatively strong, and stock prices have reached record highs. But, as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer pointed out after the SOTU, “millions of people struggle to get by, or don’t have enough money at the end of the month after paying for transportation, student loans, or prescription drugs.” The “blue-collar boom” that Trump touted has left out a significant share of blue-collar workers.

I am not claiming that Trump is the new Stalin, let alone equating today’s US to the Soviet Union of the 1930s. But I know propaganda when I hear it, and Trump’s words are nothing less than the genuine article. I also know how effective good propaganda can be in terms of creating space for dictatorial behavior – and how vulnerable even the strongest democracy can be to totalitarianism.

Of course, propaganda involves more than just words. Authoritarian rulers use other tools to cultivate an aura of greatness. Architecture is one such tool. From the Egyptian pharaohs to the Roman emperors to contemporary dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, authoritarian leaders have often used (or abused) architecture to manipulate public perceptions, by creating grandiose public spaces that reflect their splendid image of themselves.

Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial 1938 cinematic masterpiece Olympia, based on the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, was shot in a manner intended to emphasize the masculine, domineering air of the stadium – and, by extension, the Nazi regime. Then there was Albert Speer’s early 1930s makeover of Berlin, which channeled the regime’s totalitarian ambition into uniformly imposing and brutal neoclassical architecture.

Stalin replicated Hitler’s imperial model with his own architectural “classicism”: high rises with domes, spires, and other trimmings meant to denote power. Stalin also took inspiration from New York City’s Manhattan Municipal Building, which signified the Empire State’s grandeur in the 1910s.

Now, the Trump administration is circulating a draft executive order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” which would have architects adhere to “classical” structures, inspired by Greek and Roman tradition. The order underscores the symbolic value of buildings, and explicitly opposes the 1962 “Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture” – supported by President John F. Kennedy – which called for design to flow from the architectural profession to the government.

Perhaps this should not be surprising. Long before he became president, Trump was using architecture to assert his power and privilege. The gaudy gilded constructions that characterize his numerous Trump buildings, for example, have much in common with the lavish rococo tastes embraced by contemporary autocrats like China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

These leaders have also engaged in another classic form of authoritarian power projection: military parades, which are a tried-and-true method for authoritarian figures seeking to impress supporters and opponents alike. In 2017, Trump could not contain his excitement at a Bastille Day military parade in Paris – there, a ceremony rather than muscle-flexing – held next to the Arc de Triomphe (incidentally, one of Speer’s inspirations for Nazi Berlin). Two years later, Trump held his own, dizzyingly expensive military parade.

It may be tempting to dismiss such performances as distractions. But they directly enable a predilection for dangerous or reckless behaviors, including the rejection of all checks on executive power – crucial to a functioning democracy. 

Trump’s inability to accept criticism is particularly concerning. Stalin prosecuted his perceived adversaries as “enemies of the people,” imprisoning or killing thousands for disloyalty. Of course, Trump may not be able to get away with quite that level of repression, but he has used the same rhetoric, calling his media critics the “enemy of the people.”

Moreover, immediately after his acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate in a sham impeachment trial in which no witnesses were called, Trump fired those who had testified in the House of Representatives about his efforts to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a political rival. It was a sterling example of the retribution on which dictatorships depend.

Indeed, when impeachment witness Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman was fired, security officers marched his twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, a lawyer on the National Security Council staff, out of the White House alongside him. It was pure petty vindictiveness. In the USSR in the 1930s, Yevgeny would have been dubbed a ChSVR (Member of an Enemy of the People Family) and sentenced to five years in a Siberian gulag.

This is how dictatorships begin. As the US prepares for its next presidential election in November, it is every citizen’s responsibility rationally to examine Trump’s dictatorial impulses, which reelection would only reinforce. It is not safe to assume that he won’t go too far, or that he is too much of a “mediocrity” – as Leon Trotsky called Stalin (an assessment with which many Bolsheviks agreed) – to transform his country.

Vladimir Lenin, himself a ruthless Bolshevik, wrote in 1922 that, “Stalin concentrated in his hands enormous power, which he won’t be able to use responsibly,” owing to traits like rudeness, intolerance, and capriciousness. Trump has all of them in spades. The more power he concentrates in his own hands, the dimmer the long-term outlook for American democracy becomes. His reelection could mean lights out.


Nina L. Khrushcheva is Professor of International Affairs at The New School. Her latest book (with Jeffrey Tayler) is In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, if cornered, any populist might resort to Trump’s endgame methods: trying to coerce elites into committing fraud to prevent a transfer of power, or deploying right-wing extremists on the ground to intimidate lawmakers. These desperate acts signaled Trump’s weakness. But it is important to note that most Republicans still did not disown Trump even when confronted with his blatant lawlessness on January 6. ... Other right-wing populists may well take notice of this fact. The recent events in the United States have shown that elites who are prepared to collaborate with authoritarians will tolerate quite a lot in the end. This ignominious precedent is especially likely to hold true in other countries where crony capitalism has implicated the business community in illegal behavior."    
Jan 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "May, a decent and honest woman, was far outdistanced by her successor and his colleagues in the Trump sycophancy stakes. In January 2017, Johnson’s senior fellow Brexiteer and principal ministerial fixer, Michael Gove (a former journalist with The Times newspaper), conducted an interview with then President-elect Trump that plumbed new depths of oleaginous toadyism. Gove wallowed in Trump’s endorsement of Brexit. It subsequently came to light that Gove’s then-employer, Rupert Murdoch, was in the room while the interview took place. And why not? The owner of Fox News as well as The Times was entitled to keep an eye on his two protégés."
Jan 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Does anyone really think that the vast majority of Republican legislators who could not bring themselves to object to the attempted coup at the Capitol — or any of the other outrageous antics Trump has unleashed on America for the past four years — will suddenly experience sleepless nights and pangs of conscience now that he is gone? Au contraire. This band of spineless, morally bankrupt congresspeople and senators are far more likely to follow Trump and carry Trumpism into the 2024 presidential election." ..... "A recent survey of Europeans revealed that the majority believe that America’s political system is hopelessly broken, that President Biden will be unable to halt its decline on the world stage, and that China will become the world’s leading power within a decade. What if they are right? America’s Trump-inspired death spiral has practically ensured any real recovery will likely take decades — and multiple terms with a Democratic president and Congress at the helm — to achieve."
Jan 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "What our polling tells us is that what the peoples of Middle East want is regional unity and investment in the future that can bring peace and prosperity. They’ve had enough of war and want ​stable employment, education, health care, and better future for their children. It’s time we start listening to them."
Jan 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Trump intentionally and directly incited the insurrection of January 6. But he does not bear sole responsibility. Every one of his enablers, and the enablers of his enablers, is guilty. Fox Corp’s hidden backers, especially those who are so fond of touting their piety, must now ask themselves, as the Gospel of Mark instructs: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? "
Jan 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "What’s astonishing is that the bottom 50% reduced their borrowing over roughly the same period, but their debt servicing costs increased. Over this time, smaller corporations saw their profit margins dip consistently into negative territory. The decades-long fall in interest rates appears to be the only thing that has kept smaller corporations afloat. Smaller corporations thus appear to be caught in a vicious circle. The fact that their debt-servicing burdens have increased sharply despite deleveraging and falling interest rates points toward rapidly deteriorating financial fortunes. This is reaffirmed by the severe losses registered in their negative profit margins."
Jan 11th 2021
EXTRACT: " The answer can’t be to pretend that the crisis is now over or to believe that the way forward can be found by simply impeaching the President or using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. That will not do. January 6th had antecedents. And more than one man has responsibility for what happened."
Jan 10th 2021
EXTRACTS: ”Not everyone who mobbed the Capitol on 1/6 was a terrorist, but there were many terrorists among them. Some people came armed, or with ties for taking congressional representatives and senators hostage. Some were desperately looking for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi in order to assassinate them….” …… ”Although the Capitol police had a major failure when they did not stop the breach of the building by the mob, they were remarkably successful at spiriting the politicians down to the basement and its tunnels that led to nearby offices.” ….. “The goal of the Trump-inspired insurrection was to stop Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden as president. Trump moved on several levels to accomplish that goal. He conspired with senators to have them object to the Arizona and Pennsylvania vote counts. In fact, he was trying to convince senators to join this effort by telephone even after the Capitol had been breached and senators were being escorted to the basement, according to Mike Lee. He also tried to disrupt the proceedings by encouraging the breach of the Capitol by a flashmob and by cadres. He may have stopped security forces from being deployed, as part of his coup, to ensure that the insurrection was not stopped prematurely.” …… “Significant blows have been dealt to the Trump terrorist network in the past two days, but the vast well of support it has built up among less violent supporters, and among media enablers like Fox, Breitbart and Newsmax, will make it very difficult to root out.”