Jun 4th 2018

On the Path to Authoritarianism

by James J.Zogby

 

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute

 

When Donald Trump was elected, I, like many others feared what his presidency might do to the country. A year and a half into his term in office, our concerns have been justified. 

He and his team are dismantling health care reform, erasing needed environmental protections, casting aside international treaties and agreements, exacerbating income inequality, and putting vulnerable communities at risk.  

What I find as troubling as these policies, however, is the profound damage he has done to civil discourse and our political culture, and the danger he poses to our democracy. There are warning signs that he is taking us down the path to authoritarian rule from which it will be difficult to recover. 

What are those signs? An aggrieved and angry constituency, and a charismatic leader who is able to prey on their discontent by creating a breakdown of trust in democratic institutions and a fraying of social cohesion.  These are the guideposts on the path to authoritarianism and they describe the trajectory of the Trump presidency.  
   
A new president and Congress can undo some of Trump's destructive policies as quickly as they were implemented. But the damage inflicted on our culture and institutions will take generations to repair.  


There was a time when I would caution folks not to pay attention to Trump's tweets or to listen to his nightclub-style stand-up comedy routines. They were, I would argue, distractions. He was making outrageous and obviously false statements only to take press attention away from the destructive policies he was pursuing. In this, I was only partially right. He was, to be sure, engaging in classic misdirection. But, as we have come to see, the tweets and rally speeches carry their own poison. 


As a case in point, in just the past week Trump has launched a number of "twitter rants" in which he repeatedly attacked a variety of "enemies". There were 75 tweets, in all, with one-half of them targeting his foes: the media, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the courts, Democrats, and, of course, Hillary Clinton. 

There were 10 tweets accusing the FBI of planting a "highly paid spy" in his campaign, calling the law enforcement agency "corrupt" and "dishonest"; 18 tweets denouncing the "Fake witch hunt" against him; another 10 attacking the media as "corrupt", "dishonest", having a "double standard"; and finally another dozen mentions of Democrats, whom he accused of planting a "highly paid" spy to infiltrate his campaign (which he termed #Spygate) and coddling MS-13 killers. In the end, he says those who were guilty of collusion were the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Democrats, and Russia.   

While all of this might be described as political gamesmanship or dismissed as the idle ranting or mere frustrated and disgruntled chatter, it is in fact quite dangerous. Trump is, after all, the president and his tweets are read by millions. They are given an even larger audience when repeated by the well-established right-wing echo chamber of Fox News and a host of websites and talk radio programs. All of this has enabled him to spin a narrative of distrust and discontent that has taken hold among his aggrieved supporters.

Central to his narrative is an intensely divisive "us versus them" mindset, a complete disregard of civility, and a dangerous erosion of confidence in some of the basic institutions of our society.  
In an especially revealing interview a few months ago, Trump explained to the interviewer that the reason he focused on discrediting and demeaning the media and other institutions was so that when they came after him, his supporters would be inclined to disbelieve what was being reported. And this is what has come to pass. 

Not only has Trump used his tweets and speeches to foster mistrust of the courts, the DOJ, and FBI, he has also preyed on his supporters' social, political, economic, and cultural discontent by targeting for blame a number of minority racial and ethnic communities. This has contributed to fueling xenophobia and racism, legitimating displays of unconscionable bigotry.    

One example of the impact of this world to which Trump has given birth was on display this week when a Trump-supporter, TV star Roseanne Barr launched an offensive and racist twitter rant late one night. In one particularly egregious tweet she described former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett as being the offspring of the "Muslim Brotherhood and the Planet of the Apes". The ABC television network, that carried her show, promptly responded by denouncing her comments and canceling her contract. 

Barr quickly apologized in a tweet, but her supporters flooded her twitter account with protests supporting her and amplifying her racism. At first, Barr pleaded with them to stop defending her, saying that her tweet was wrong and inexcusable. Then, true to form, Barr shifted gears assuming the role of the victim of unfair elites.   

Since Barr is known to be a supporter of Trump (and he is a supporter of hers), all eyes were on the president to see how he would respond. Here's what he wrote:

"Bob Iger of ABC called Valerie Jarrett to let her know that 'ABC does not tolerate comments like those' made by Roseanne Barr. Gee, he never called President Donald J. Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made about me on ABC. Maybe I just didn't get the call."
   
The net effect of Trump's tweet was to dismiss the uproar over Barr's racism, to turn the tables by accusing the network of a double standard, and to validate his (and Barr's) supporters sense of being victims of a hostile media. 

It took America two generations to put the lid on the type of overt displays of racism Barr exhibited in her tweet. To be sure, racism didn't go away but people learned to be ashamed enough not to be public about it. In just a few years, Trump has blown the lid away giving comfort to bigots of all stripes. He has used this and his other rhetoric to build his movement of discontent, all the while discrediting his opponents whether they be from the "other party", law enforcement, or the media. This is how democracies are wounded and the path to authoritarianism is paved. There is danger ahead.  

 

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More Current Affairs

Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"