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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Sep 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face. Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire."
Sep 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of the United States and the United Kingdom could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the post-war order in large parts of the world. The basic principles of this order had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in 1941 by Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland."
Sep 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "After Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, millions demonstrated their disapproval. We can expect the same, no matter how this election turns out. With both sides framing this election in “end of the world” terms; with the president calling into question the legitimacy of the vote, even before it happens; and with the president warning his supporters that they may have to take up arms to defend him – we have a recipe for disaster that may occur in the days that follow this election. This may very well be the Armageddon election of our lifetime."
Sep 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Huawei case is a harbinger of a world in which national security, privacy, and economics will interact in complicated ways. Global governance and multilateralism will often fail, for both good and bad reasons. The best we can expect is a regulatory patchwork, based on clear ground rules that help empower countries to pursue their core national interests without exporting their problems to others. Either we design this patchwork ourselves, or we will end up, willy-nilly, with a messy, less efficient, and more dangerous version."
Sep 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s footprint in global foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased notably since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. That served to bring Chinese overseas FDI closer to a level that one would expect, based on the country’s weight in the global economy. China accounted for about 12% of global cross-border mergers and acquisitions and 9% of announced greenfield FDI projects between 2013 and 2018. Chinese overseas FDI rose from $10 billion in 2005 (0.5% of Chinese GDP) to nearly $180 billion in 2017 (1.5% of GDP). Likewise, annual construction contracts awarded to Chinese companies increased from $10 billion in 2005 to more than $100 billion in 2017."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Emergence and spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 have created and still creating health issues, economic challenges, political crises and social conflicts around the world. These challenges and conflicts lead the international community to re-evaluate global governance and international structures, which is based on the second world-war and post-cold war. The pandemic will emerge a new era of international society that will not be similar to the pre-Corona world."
Aug 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Russia has changed, and has been changing, since its beginnings in ancient Muscovy to its current condition as Putin’s realm. Some general features appear in much of Russian history. Most of its rulers have been authoritarian—but so, too, were most of England’s, France’s, and Germany’s. Many of its political and intellectual elites have considered Russia a special civilization deserving a place in the sun—but just as many have not, wanting to transform Russia into a Western state with Western values. Many Russians have been enamored of their country, but even more have probably damned it for destroying them and their children. What, then, is Russia? It is, and has always been, many, oftentimes contradictory, things—sometimes coexisting, sometimes getting the upper hand, always shifting, always eluding simplistic analysis. But, and this needs to be emphasized, the same holds true for every other country in the world."
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Double dips – defined simply as a decline in quarterly real GDP following a temporary rebound – have occurred in eight of the 11 recessions since the end of World War II. .............Financial markets aren’t the least bit worried about a relapse, owing largely to unprecedented monetary easing, which has evoked the time-honored maxim: “don’t fight the Fed.” Added comfort comes from equally unprecedented fiscal relief aimed at mitigating the pandemic-related shock to businesses and households.......This could be wishful thinking."
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACTS: "There is no question that the re-election of President Donald Trump would endanger both the US and the world. Moreover, there is ample reason to fear that a close election could drive the US into a deep, prolonged constitutional crisis, and perhaps into civil violence.........One can only hope that the election will produce a decisive winner both in the Electoral College and in the popular vote. Yet, even then, tallying the final result may take time, owing to the massive increase in mail-in voting that is expected. Every ballot that has a postmark of November 2 or 3 (depending on the state) will be considered valid, which means that the final result will not be known until after Election Day. During that window of uncertainty, either or both campaigns may try to claim victory based on the current vote count. In any case, there is no chance that Trump will wait graciously in the Oval Office for days or weeks to receive the final tally. In interviews, he has already issued vague statements suggesting that he will not leave the White House if he loses; indeed, he seems to be actively preparing for such a scenario. If he follows through, the world’s leading superpower will find itself facing a protracted – and perhaps intractable – constitutional crisis.
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "the European Union is a community of values as much as an economic and trade bloc. But the behavior of member states such as Poland and Hungary has called into question their commitment to liberal democracy. Above all, in the US, President Donald Trump is widely criticized, even by lifelong Republicans, for not respecting or understanding the US constitution and the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Does Trump even believe in democracy? Does he want all Americans to vote in November, regardless of race or party affiliation, or only those who will support him? And will he accept the election result if it goes against him? "
Aug 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The fundamental difference in values between the West and China will remain indefinitely, and it is here that the West must draw the line. Any concession that entails a sacrifice of fundamental principles, for example in cultural matters, must be rejected. If this values-based approach results in economic disadvantages, so be it. By the same token, the West should abandon the conceit that it can push, force, or cajole China to become a democracy wrought in its own image. "
Aug 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "China is light years ahead of most of the rest of the world in deploying digital payment technology. Alipay or WeChat Pay apps are all that is necessary to accomplish almost anything that requires a payment in China; the country is largely already making paper money obsolete. "
Aug 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seven hundred fifty billion euros is less than 5% of the stock of US government debt held by the public. It’s a drop in the bucket, in other words. And a drop does not a liquid market in safe assets make. Even if this really is Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment,” ramping up EU issuance by a factor of 20 will take decades. "
Aug 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "But the race is not over. In the 2016 election, prices moved the most in the two months just before the election. Trump trailed Hillary Clinton in prediction markets throughout the campaign and was seen as favourite only on election day – showing that the underdog can recover. So despite Trump’s poor position now, he might still regain some ground."
Aug 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "Last year, in the midst of the country-wide protests against corruption, I was honored by a Lebanese humanitarian organization. I began my remarks paraphrasing Kahlil Gibran’s poem “You have your Lebanon, I have my Lebanon.” Like Gibran, I love the Lebanese people, their poetry, art, song, and love of life. I love their generous and welcoming spirit. I also love what Lebanon has given to the world – especially its gifted people. And I love the sheer beauty of the country – its majestic snow-capped mountains and its pristine seascapes. And, like Gibran, I do not love Lebanon’s petty bickering politicians who lead because of an accident of birth. Nor can I embrace the country’s system of sectarian privilege and the corruption that is endemic to the political-economic regime that has squeezed Lebanon dry to the benefit of their chosen ones. And I reject the armed militias, whether they be Christian, Muslim, or secular that in the past and in the present continue to torment those who challenge their dominance. I told the audience that the Lebanon I loved was in the streets making their voices heard demanding fundamental reform – an end to sectarianism, corrupt feudal elites, and rule by force of arms."
Aug 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is time for the world’s governments and companies to wake up. Beijing’s reach is wide and deep. It is taking advantage of the West’s openness – and gaps and inconsistencies in our data protection protocols - to acquire information on all of us. The hacks on Anthem, Equifax, Marriott, and the US government are good examples of how they have already done so. American and Western companies need to take a hard look at the costs and benefits associated with operating in China and continuing to have Chinese partners. Those partners must comply with these Laws. American and Western companies that continue to operate with them may unwittingly well be aiding and abetting the Chinese government."
Aug 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "James Murdoch is not the most obvious candidate for editorial heroism. His route to resigning from the News Corp board because of “disagreements over certain editorial content” has been circuitous and colourful."
Aug 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Say what you will about the slippery slope the US government has been on since Trump came to power, America has a rich history of promoting creative thought, running head-first into particularly uncomfortable subjects, and encouraging robust debate internally and among its allies and partners. Once Trump leaves the scene, America is sure to be perceived as having briefly lost its senses and will come charging back into the mainstream of global thought, debate, and engagement. China has entered the global arena crippled by its own ideology. Ultimately, the US is better equipped to lead the world. It knows that, and so does most of the rest of the world. Someone had better tell Beijing."
Jul 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Chinese government has for years argued that its ‘nine-dash line’ of sovereignty over the entire Sea is based on centuries of maritime history, and that China’s claim is air tight. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has even asserted that ample historical documents and literature demonstrate that China was “the first country to discover, name, develop and exercise continuous, effective jurisdiction over the South China Sea islands”. "
Jul 23rd 2020
EXTRACTS: "Like many, I have long been critical of Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union as a dysfunctional currency area. Notwithstanding a strong political commitment to European unification as the antidote to a century of war and devastating bloodshed, there was always a critical leg missing from the EMU stool: fiscal union. Not anymore. The historic agreement reached on July 21 on a €750 billion ($868 billion) European Union recovery fund, dubbed Next Generation EU, changes that.................Unlike the United States, which appears to be squandering the opportunities presented by the epic COVID-19 crisis, Europe has risen to the occasion – and not for the first time."