Adam Gopnik recently had an interesting review of two books in the New Yorker, “How To Be A Dictator: The Cult Of Personality In The Twentieth Century” by Frank Dikotter and “The Infernal Library: On Dictators, The Books They Wrote, And Other Catastrophes Of Literacy” by Daniel Kalder. Both books explore specific traits that are shared by some of history’s worst dictators.
Gopnik lays out what he calls the “standard biography” of dictatorships. “There’s the rise, which is usually assisted by self-deluding opportunists who believe that they can restrain the ascendant authoritarian figure…Next there is the attainment of power, and the increasingly frantic purging, followed by a cult of personality made all the more ludicrous by the passage of time, because it is capable only of inflation, not variation…Then comes the isolation of the dictator within his palace—friendless and paranoid—and the pruning of his circle to an ever more sycophantic few. The dictator, rather than exulting in his triumph, withdraws into fearful seclusion. Finally, after all the death and brutality imposed, the dictator’s power, and often his life, ends with remarkable suddenness”.
It is hard not to look at that description and think that we are just in the third phase of this biography when looking at the Trump presidency. In 2016, the Republican party unified behind a man clearly unfit to be President in order to ensure their own maintenance in power and solidify their own corruption of the judicial branch. They constantly assured themselves and the American people that they would be able to constrain Trump’s worst impulses. Remember how Mattis, Kelly, and Tillerson were touted as effective checks on the President. Well, they have all been purged along with much of the national security leadership. The President is now surrounded by his own sycophantic few, with Pence, Pompeo, Mulvaney, Kushner, and Barr all seeing Trump as the vehicle for their own ambitions and desires.
Dictators have always relied on fear to ensure their power and Trump is no different. But rather than keeping the whole populace living in fear, Trump realizes he can stay in power merely by intimidating Republicans in Congress, something he has been remarkably successful at doing. As long as he can keep the GOP, especially Republican Senators, in lockstep with him, he will be safe. Gopnik emphasizes another key point about dictators, namely that, “horribly grotesque in most areas, they tend to be good in one, and their skill at the one thing makes their frightened followers overrate their skill at all things”. For Trump, that one thing is really his ability to dominate the news which resulted in his upset victory in 2016 and has led both Republicans and Democrats to probably overestimate and fear his political capabilities.
Dikotter highlights the dictator’s need to be omnipresent, best exemplified by Mao’s and Stalin’s cult of personality or the statues, images, and billboards depicting various tin-pot autocrats. Gopnik describes this as the “black comedy of egotism”. For Trump, omnipresence means dominance of the news cycle every day. That was the plan for his 2016 campaign; it will be the plan for the 2020 campaign; and it is his entire political raison d’etre. For Trump, being the constant focus of media attention not only feeds his own narcissism but also provides an even more effective political clout than the Kim statues in North Korea or Saddam’s billboards in Iraq.
Trump’s omnipresence is complemented by a cult of personality that often resembles some of the worst autocratic regimes. Just think of those sickening sycophantic Trump cabinet meetings where every member was required to flatter the dear leader with the most saccharine and treacly words. Perhaps even more stomach churning is the belief among white evangelicals that Trump has been sent by God, with some going so far as to claim he is the “second coming of God”. That belief has been echoed by former and current cabinet members such as Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, and Rick Perry. Trump himself, in typical autocratic self-aggrandizement, has declared that “I am the chosen one”. And, of course, Fox News is always there to chip in with their own brand of propaganda and hero worship.
Kalder’s book, on the other hand, focuses solely on the readings and writings of past dictators. As Gopnik summarizes, “The worst dictators tend to be the most enthusiastic readers and writers…Their power did not grow out of the barrel of a gun. It grew out of their ability to form sentences saying that power grew out of the barrel of a gun, when in fact it was growing out of the pages of a book…By contrast, Hitler and Mussolini were apocalyptic pessimists. Their work expends far more energy on the melodrama of decline and decadence”. That contrast leads Gopnik to posit that “Kalder’s analysis suggests another signal difference. The Soviet Union, and left totalitarianism in general, is a culture of the written word; the Third Reich, and right authoritarianism in general, is a culture of the spoken word”. That is certainly true of Trump who excels in his impromptu ramblings about decline and decadence at political rallies but apparently can not read any policy analysis that is more than one page and does not contain bullet points and pictures.
Now, whether or not you agree with this kind of trait-based analysis of Trump as dictator, the reality is that he is abrogating more and more power to himself, challenging the separation of powers in ways this country has rarely, if ever, seen. And, by and large, the Republican party is supporting and abetting Trump’s enormous power grab.
As I have previously documented, from the start of his presidency, Trump, like other presidents, has abused the principle of national security in pursuit of policy goals. Unlike other presidents, however, Trump has “used the national security exception to expand his powers into other areas not normally associated with national security or, at best, only tangentially related to it”. The Muslim ban, tariffs, sending the US military to the Southern border, redirecting congressionally authorized funds to try and build his border wall, bypassing congressional review to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, and even government support for coal and nuclear power plants were all implemented by Trump declaring some sort of national emergency, simply a raw abuse of power unchallenged by the Republicans in Congress.
When Democrats finally began to be able to constrain Trump by winning the House in 2018, the response to any oversight was to basically deny the legitimacy of that Democratic power. Trump has used the questionably constitutional concept of absolute immunity to prohibit almost all of his advisers from responding to the House subpoenas and provided few, if any, of the documents requested or subpoenaed by the House. The strategy, which so far has been successful, is to force the House to litigate compliance with those subpoenas and drag those judicial cases out until the 2020 election or very close to it. Of course, having demanded that the House go to court to enforce the subpoenas, the Trump administration is now arguing in court that the judicial branch has no role in resolving disputes between the legislative and executive branch. As Eric Swalwell so eloquently said, “This circular BS is exactly why @realDonaldTrump was impeached for obstructing Congress. Throughout the hearings House GOP whined, ‘wait for the courts.’ In this case, @HouseDemocrats went to court, and Trump says courts shouldn’t be involved”.
The concept of absolute immunity sounds remarkably like the divine right of kings, exactly the type of situation the founders feared. But it is clearly the position of the Trump administration. As District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson recently ruled in the case involving the subpoena of Don McGahn, “the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings”, adding that “absolute immunity from compelled congressional process simply does not exist”. The administration immediately appealed that ruling.
In a pretty severe illustration of just how much our systems have failed, we have now reached a point where NGOs can get more information more quickly from the government using the FOIA process than Congress itself. American Oversight and the Center for Public Integrity have probably received more documentary evidence about the Ukraine extortion plot than the US Congress.
Those documents, as well as some unredacted emails obtained by Just Security, show that the administration just flat out lied to Congress. The General Counsel of the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] sent a letter to Congress stating that “at no point did the pause in obligations [to deliver congressionally authorized funds to Ukraine] did DOD OGC indicate to OMB that, as a matter of law, the apportionments would prevent DOD from being able to obligate the funds by the end of the fiscal year”. In reality, multiple officials in the Department of Defense and in OMB were pointing out that the withholding of the Ukraine aid was an illegal violation of the Impoundment Control Act. The emails also make clear that this illegal withholding of aid was being done at the express order of the President. In addition, the Department of Justice redacted these court-ordered FOIA emails in such a way as to cover up the widespread discussions of the legal problems with withholding the aid.
Of course, Trump officials have been lying to Congress since the beginning of the Trump administration when Trump was filling his cabinet. Sessions lied about his contacts with Russia. Kushner and a myriad of other Trump officials lied about their financial holdings and foreign contacts. Ross refused to divest from all of his holdings but lied about it on financial disclosure forms. Finally, Michael Cohen is in prison for lying to Congress, apparently at Trump’s direction, about the attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow that were ongoing throughout the 2016 campaign.
In addition, Ross brazenly lied to Congress about how the addition of the citizenship question to the Census originated. The administration maintained that lie when it was challenged in court, even repeating the lie to the US Supreme Court. Administration lawyers have also lied to courts about the details of its family separation policy.
The administration not only lies to the courts, it withholds documents as well. Just a few weeks ago, the Justice Department notified the judge in the citizenship case that there are more than 2,000 documents that the administration failed to provide to the court during the discovery phase of the trial. Included in these 2,000 plus documents are 257 emails involving six key Commerce Department officials including Secretary Ross himself. Similarly, the DOJ’s aforementioned misleading redactions in the documents provided to the Center for Public Integrity were in their own way a violation of the court order to accurately produce those documents.
Andrew McCabe, the Deputy Director of the FBI fired by Trump in his purge of FBI officials involved in the Russia investigation, is also claiming that the Trump administration is withholding documents that would aid him in his wrongful termination suit. McCabe, along with other FBI personnel such as Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, appear to have been part of a political purge where individuals who expressed criticism of Trump in their private conversations were disciplined while those critical of Hillary Clinton were not. A similar political purge at the State Department was uncovered by that department’s Inspector General. And there is some indication that Barr’s continuation of the investigation of the origins of the Russia probe, combined with his refusal to accept the findings of his own Inspector General who found no wrongdoing, is another attempt to damage Trump’s political opponents.
As mentioned above, it is clear that the president was ordering his administration to illegally violate the Impoundment Act in order to further his effort to extort Ukraine into investigating his expected political opponent in 2020. Elsewhere, the Secret Service has apparently neglected to file the required reports documenting their expenses for protecting the President’s primary residence. According to the Washington Post, “The Secret Service has failed or been late in recent years to provide even those limited cost reports. The agency did not file such reports in 2016 or 2017”. I think we can all assume this failure to report was done at the direction of the President.
Trump has also attempted to control the media, first by threatening to block the ATT-Time Warner merger and then intervening to deny Amazon a major Pentagon contract. The former was an attack on the owners CNN which failed because the courts intervened. The latter is an attack on the owner of the Washington Post which is still being litigated.
By any definition, Trump already acts like an autocrat. He denies the legitimacy of the separation of powers, claiming absolute immunity from congressional oversight, and brazenly lies to the courts or openly defies their rulings. He defies legal subpoenas from Congress and then tells the courts they have no right to resolve disputes between the legislative and executive branches. He abuses the national security exception to unilaterally implement policy. He purges non-partisan career employees that he suspects are not sufficiently loyal to him personally. He uses the levers of government to pursue and harass media outlets he considers insufficiently disloyal. And he ignores laws for his own personal benefit.
The fallout from Trump’s apparently impulsive and irrational decision to assassinate Qasem Suleimani has led Trump, his administration, and some leading Republicans to become frighteningly more explicit in suport of a Trump autocracy.
It is now clear that there was no “imminent threat” that required Suleimani’s assassination. Initially, the administration offered nine different explanations and subsequent reporting has largely confirmed that there was no real threat. This has been further confirmed by the inability of the administration to provide any such evidence to Congress, even in a confidential briefing, as well as the fact that the administration classified the notification to Congress required by the War Powers Act so that members of Congress can not even discuss its contents.
Nor had the decision apparently been legally vetted based again on the multiple opinions they offered. The Pentagon claimed the authority to kill Soleimani was based on “10 U.S. Code § 127e”, which is nonsensical because that statute simply covers funding for “foreign partners who support US special forces”. The National Security Adviser claimed justification based on the 2002 law Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq which, as Oona Hathaway notes, “was passed to permit the president to act to address threats posed by Iraq. Relying on the law would require a conclusion that the threat from Soleimani, an Iranian government official, was posed by Iraq”. Mike Pence tried to resurrect an old canard, tying Suleimani and the Iranians to the 9/11 attack, as a basis for justification under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. Pompeo followed that up by trying to link Suleimani to the Taliban.
Without any imminent threat or legal backing, Trump’s assassination of Suleimani not only violated international law but US law as well. It puts America back in the game of assassinating government figures of regimes we don’t approve of, reminiscent of the CIA’s dirty wars of the 1950s and 60s. And, worse, it opens the door for other foreign governments to do the same. Trump has also violated the UN Charter by refusing to provide a visa to the Iranian Foreign Minister so that he could address the UN.
Perhaps even more distressing was the President’s repeated threats to commit war crimes. Those threats involved bombing Iranian cultural sights and responding with disproportionate power to any Iranian response. Those threats also showed that Trump was abrogating the war powers held by Congress to himself. In a tweet, Trump simply declared to Congress that he had the absolute power to wage war on Iran, writing, “These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner. Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”. This unilateral assumption of the power to make war became abundantly clear when the administration’s congressional briefers refused to commit that Trump would seek congressional authorization to assassinate Iran’s Supreme Leader.
In the briefing to Congress that apparently provided no evidence of any imminent threat, administration officials basically told members of the Senate that any debate about limiting the President’s war powers would “embolden” the Iranians. Lindsey Graham seconded that opinion, saying, “I’m going to let people know that at this moment in time to play this game with the war powers act…whether you mean to or not, you’re empowering the enemy”. As Ari Melber so aptly put it, the position of the administration and Graham means that a debate in Congress to exercise its constitutional role, the very act of democracy, is now an enemy of the United States.
In addition, Trump and the Republicans are now portraying Democrats of being treasonous enemy sympathizers. Trump out and out lied when he claimed that “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration”. Pompeo had previewed this message by saying, “In 2015, the Obama-Biden administration essentially handed power to the Iranian leadership and acted as a quasi-ally of theirs, by underwriting them — underwriting the very malicious — that killed Americans”, again implying that the Obama administration willingly funded the weapons that killed Americans. And it was interesting to see Pompeo use the phrase “Obama-Biden”, pointing to another line of attack in 2020 and perhaps indicating an actual rationale for the strike in the first place.
The President retweeted a Dinesh D’Souza tweet that claimed Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was not informed of the raid “for pretty much the same reason” that the Iranians were not notified, basically accusing Schumer of being a potential traitor. Similarly, KellyAnn Conway said the reason Adam Schiff was not notified was because he would leak it to the media and therefore the Iranians. Republican Representative John Rutherford accused Democrat Pramila Jaypal and the so-called “squad” which includes Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley of being “Ayatollah sympathizers”. The very democratic act of questioning Trump is now the equivalent of aiding and abetting the enemy.
If this is how Trump acts now, imagine what he will do if and when he is acquitted of impeachment in the Senate. Trump is apparently working with McConnell to rig the trial, meeting with him secretly last Wednesday. The Majority Leader, a supposedly unbiased juror in the case, has already declared, “Everything I do during this [trial] I’m coordinating with White House counsel. There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position.”
We already have seen that literally the day after Trump became certain Mueller could not touch him, he started to rig the 2020 election. Trump has already grabbed far more power for himself than many of us realize. Hopefully this piece makes that abundantly clear. As we waited to see what the Iranian response to the Suleimani assassination would be, (and their response is clearly not over), one of the fears was a cyber attack. Sarah Kendzior reminds us that the Trump administration “changed the nuclear posture review so that nukes are a recommended response to cyberattacks“. Imagine an unconstrained Trump, who has openly mused about using nuclear weapons and who has already declared his willingness to unilaterally wage war without congressional authorization, being confronted by a large Iranian cyber attack after his impeachment acquittal.
Another trait of many dictators is to pass their power on to a family member after they die. Think of the Kims in North Korea or the Assads in Syria. Trump himself has already hinted that he wants to serve more than two terms and has even talked about ignoring the will of the people if he is voted out of office. And his campaign manager Brad Parscale has openly talked about a Trump “dynasty that lasts for decades”. With that in mind, it was rather shocking to see that Don Jr. and Ivanka currently rank as two of the top four choices to replace Trump in 2024, should he make it that far. Don Jr. in fact, is second, just 11 points behind current front-runner Mike Pence. Now, we all know this poll is meaningless but we also know how much Trump always needs to one-up his father, who left his heirs a company, and he could do this by leaving his heirs a country.
It is hard to wrap your head around the fact that Trump is already acting like a dictator. Life goes on; you go to work every day; there is a functioning opposition movement; we still have elections. But that is true in every illiberal democracy these days, such as Hungary or Poland. The desire for normalcy forces us to provide post-hoc rationalizations and explanations for the President’s increasingly impulsive and incoherent actions and words. Far too often, Republicans and the press desperately have to explain what the President meant to say or what he meant to do. It is like putting lipstick on a rabid pig. As Senator Schatz notes, “I’m convinced that the desire not to seem wacky prevents journalists from describing what is happening accurately. It is legitimately difficult to not sound a bit crazed in describing what Donald Trump is doing to the country.” That desire for normalcy can lead to paralysis in actually stopping an autocratic leader. Gopnik reminds us of the “Death of Stalin” that shows “he probably died sooner than he otherwise would have, because his flunkies were too terrified to do anything when they found him unconscious in a pool of his own piss”. Trump, however, is still very much alive.
(Photo credit: The Hill)