President Trump is not a tyrant, but he doesn’t shy away from admiring them. And, that should give one pause in feeling secure that our nation’s leader is committed to sustaining the world’s longest running democratic republic. For those who don’t see his lack of understanding how a democracy functions, they should consider his statements flattering those leaders who have corrupted or demolished their own democratic institutions, by denying open and unfettered public elections or not allowing media to distribute uncensored information.
For instance, Trump suggested that our country should form with Russia a “Cyber Security unit to guard against election hacking,” even though our intelligence services at that time said Russia, most likely on Putin’s orders, had been hacking of our elections in order to swing the election to someone whom they preferred. This accusation was later confirmed in Special Investigator Mueller’s report. Meanwhile Putin has, in practice, ended free elections in Russia.
Trump flat out congratulated Chinese President Xi Jinping on his National Congress, which only meets for a week every year, allowing him to serve as president for life. He told the National Republican Congressional Committee at a spring dinner that he referred to Xi as “king” not president because of that change. “He liked that. I get along with him great.” Trump’s largess in bestowing admiration on anti-democratic leaders extends to even countries that are not world powers.
The New York Times (Feb 2, 2018) quoted Trump as saying Egyptian Pres Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a “fantastic guy”, although El-Sisi got elected by jailing or threatening them with prosecution, leaving only an obscure ardent supporter of his as an opponent. According to the NYT, “most other Western leaders have been largely silent.”
That same NYT edition showed Trump’s support for another national leader who has destroyed democracy in his country “Cambodia PM Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 33 years has led a sweeping crackdown on opponents before elections this summer. Trump flashed a big thumbs-up as he posed for a photo with Mr. Hun Sen, who later praised the American president for what he called his lack of interest in human rights.”
Trump’s statements appear to spring from his belief that he shared with Fox News in an Interview when he said, “when it comes to foreign policy, I’m the only one that counts.” That does not sound like a Republican or a Democrat, but someone who thinks of himself as being above the process of reaching government decisions within a democratic republic. Trump’s off-hand comments are a warning sign that professors of government at Harvard University, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have identified as what happened in Europe and Latin America when their democracies broke down.
They see the clearest warning sign of this downward spiral beginning with the ascent of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics. They refer to political scientist Juan J. Linz’s work in identifing the behavior of politicians who pushed Europe’s democracies into collapsing just before WWII, as consisting of three traits: “a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments.”
Levitsky and Ziblatt concluded that Trump exhibited all three. In his electoral campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters; pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton and had his rallies chant “lock her up”; and threatened legal action against unfriendly media. What I find most disturbing, is when he questioned the legitimacy of our country’s election results, because he didn’t like them.
On the 2012 presidential election night Trump tweeted minutes after the polls had closed on the West Coast, “This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!” He did so because he mistakenly assumed that Obama had won the election without the majority popular vote. Ironically, Trump won his presidential election without winning the popular vote, but he made no mention of that fact. Instead he fabricated an unsubstantiated accusation that there were millions of illegal votes cast for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, something that even Trump’s foremost media ally, Fox Network, has not even attempted to prove. He reverted to this visceral response when the polls indicated that he might lose the 2016 election to Hilary, claiming that it would have been rigged if she had won.
He ran his billion-dollar business as a family operation and continues to have that close-knit family orientation in running the White House. That may be fine for a business or maybe even for the inner workings of an administration’s office staff, but to carry that mentality to how the nation’s government should operate, reveals either an ignorance or an outright hostility to our basic democratic institutions.
That attitude emerged early in his first term. After the first 100 days in office he blamed the constitutional checks and balances built into US governance for his legislation stalling. “It’s a very rough system,” he said. “It’s an archaic system … It’s really a bad thing for the country.”
Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons of the Twentieth Century, lists one of the lessons to learn and practice to avoid the collapse of a democratic society is to defend the institutions which keep it alive, like a critical media and an independent judicial system. He concludes that “Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.” Those who may hold the title of president or control a country called democratic, are in fact tyrants or dictators, if they work to undermine and ultimately extinguish those institutions. We should not admire or flatter them.