Since President Trump famously hates to read, it’s unlikely that he has studied historical texts on how leaders with autocratic tendencies — even duly elected ones — have turned their countries into dictatorships.
And yet, it’s absolutely uncanny how he is following those leaders, taking our country into uncharted, undemocratic waters.
In Monterey last week, a few days before the president launched his epic racist and xenophobic attack on four newly elected Democratic congresswomen, a wave of nervous laughter engulfed a hotel banquet room when democracy expert Larry Jay Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, offered what he called “the autocrats’ 12-step program.”
The steps, laid out in Diamond’s latest book, “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition and American Complacency,” sounded uncomfortably familiar:
Demonize the opposition as illegitimate and unpatriotic. Undermine the independence of the courts. Attack and mobilize public furor against the media. Gain control of public broadcasting. Impose stricter control over the Internet. Subdue the elements of civil society — anti-corruption and human rights groups, students, professors. Intimidate businesses by threatening tax and regulatory retribution. Enrich a new class of crony capitalists. Assert political power over the civil service and security apparatus by tarnishing them as the “deep state.” Gerrymander districts. Gain control over the body that runs elections.
“Repeat steps 1 to 11,” said Diamond, “ever more vigorously.”
“It’s very rare, and almost unprecedented to see a liberal democracy with strong protections for civil liberties and the rule of law to have a heart attack and die,” Diamond said. Indeed, the death is slow and by a thousand cuts.
“I think Trump’s ability to dramatically erode democracy in the near term, between now and January of 2021, is limited,” Diamond told me after his appearance before the World Affairs Council of the Monterey Bay Area. “But if he were reelected, I think he would be emboldened to go further in eroding democratic constraints, checks and balances and norms.”
That would be horrendous enough for the U.S., but it would be dreadful for the rest of the planet.
“The world will conclude that the first time might have been an accident or a protest vote,” Diamond said, “but if he wins a second time, it will signal that the United States is in some way embracing and endorsing precisely this kind of illiberal and undemocratic rhetoric and behavior.”
Already, the would-be American strongman has unabashedly embraced and emboldened autocrats — Kim Jong Un of North Korea, with whom he is “in love,” Vladimir Putin of Russia, with whom he is meek, accommodating and credulous.
Trump has toasted the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, who has presided over the extrajudicial killings of many thousands of suspected drug dealers and users. He has cozied up to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and disregarded his own intelligence agencies’ views that the prince ordered the horrific murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Diamond didn’t come right out and say it, but I will: If Trump wins and the House goes Republican again, we can probably kiss liberal democracy as we know it goodbye.
The pathetic thing about Trump is that he doesn’t even understand what he is destroying.
In a now infamous interview with the Financial Times before the Group of 20 summit in Japan last month, Putin said that Western-style liberalism has “outlived its purpose” and “become obsolete.” Rampant immigration, he said, violates the interests of “the core population.” He praised Trump for his hard-line stance on immigration.
This world-class trolling of our very democracy was completely lost on Trump, who later made it clear he is completely clueless about the phrases “liberal democracy” and “liberalism.”
“He sees what’s going on, I guess, if you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco and a couple of other cities, which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people,” the stable genius told reporters at a news conference at the G-20.
“But when you look at Los Angeles, when you look at San Francisco, when you look at some of the other cities — and not a lot, not a lot — but you don’t want it to spread. And at a certain point, I think the federal government maybe has to get involved. We can’t let that continue to happen to our cities.”
Trump does not grasp what every American high school student knows — that Western-style liberalism is the leading political ideology across most of the Western world.
“Liberal democracy” refers to a society that values the rights of the individual, the rule of law, universal suffrage, free and fair elections, competing political parties, an independent judiciary, checks and balances on the government and civilian control of the military.
It does not refer to the left-wing politicians in San Francisco and Los Angeles who want to tax sodas and ban plastic straws.
When Trump ran for president in 2016, it was often said that his detractors took him literally but not seriously, and his supporters took him seriously, but not literally.
Trump should be taken seriously and literally.
He’s not just promising a fair shake to white, blue-collar workers who have been dislocated by globalization and changing demographics, he really does want a white majority country again.
He’s not just riling up his base when he demands a ban on Muslim immigration, he really doesn’t want brown faces entering the country.
His relentless assaults on democracy, as Diamond notes, have presented “an existential moment for American democracy.”
He’s attacked judges who have ruled against him; he pardoned a notorious, law-breaking Arizona sheriff; he lies as easily as he breathes; he demands personal loyalty from FBI directors and attorneys general; he has refused to take seriously the Russian digital assaults on our elections; he has attacked the Office of Government Ethics for investigating his conflicts of interest; he has stopped the long-standing practice of releasing White House visitor logs; he has refused to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis; and he has repeatedly branded his foes as “traitors.”
And now, we have the spectacle of a sitting American president telling four American congresswomen — three of whom were born in the United States — to “go back and help fix the totally broke crime-infested places from which they came.”
This may be thrilling to the swath of Americans whose bigotry is validated by the racist in the White House. But it should be a wake-up call to the rest of us.
Democracy is fragile. Our president is doing his best to break it.