The Slide to Autocracy

Alan Zendell, July 25, 2018

I was one of many who was struck, early on, by the similarities between Donald Trump’s rise to power and that of Adolf Hitler. The number of websites devoted to the subject is astounding, and a year-and-a-half into the Trump administration the debate still rages. Love him or hate him, you have to acknowledge that Trump is without peer in his ability to disrupt, and there are few subjects that have done more to wreck friendships and familial relationships, even marriages, than Trump’s shameless tendency toward fascist autocracy.

I have experienced it with respect to one friend, in particular, who is noteworthy because of his brilliant, scientific mind which makes his embracing of Trump’s values unfathomable to me. My friend, in his own words, was “lit up” by the comparison to Hitler because it triggered images of millions of Jews dying in concentration camps.

That’s understandable because he’s Jewish, and his family suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis. But since he knows I’m Jewish as well, I was amazed that he would think that was what I was implying, until I realized his reaction was entirely visceral. The fault was mine – I’d been imprecise. Adam Roy, writing in the Jewish medium may have best expressed what I meant: “We want to believe that the Nazis were a special, exceptional kind of evil, because it’s easier for us. But the reality is that their brutality was just another manifestation of humanity’s worst flaws … the unthinking cruelty we unleash upon each other as soon as society gives us license.

That is what I see embedded in Trump’s governing. He is not anti-Semitic, nor is he anti-anything in principle, because that would imply that he possessed an ideology of his own. Trump is simply an opportunist who will attack and scapegoat any convenient target or group if it furthers his own ends. I doubt that he has any intention of gassing his political enemies into extinction, though apparently, he would have no compunction against locking them up.

Like Hitler, Trump’s great gift is the ability to cleave and divide, though it remains to be seen whether he can destroy the basic democratic institutions he considers his enemies. Among those so honored we can list the free press, Democrats, the loyal opposition in Congress, and any court that attempts to slow his rush to absolute power. But like Hitler, he can’t undermine democracy single-handedly. He requires our complicity as a society to give him the license referred to by Roy.

Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs addressed this yesterday in a chilling article, “Trump is Taking Us Down the Path to Tyranny.” Sachs believes President Trump is attempting to remove the checks and balances prescribed in our Constitution to avoid a repetition of the tyranny from which our revolution freed us. It’s clear in everything he does, and it makes me wonder why anyone is still puzzled by his fascination with Vladimir Putin.

Trump craves the power Putin wields. He would be Putin if we let him, but he’s not Putin’s equal. Does Putin ignore and denigrate his own Intelligence people? Would he undercut them in public statements heard around the world? Does anyone believe Putin has kept his own people in the dark over what he discussed with Trump?

Sachs points to a long list of “one man” actions taken by Trump, none of which are illegal, but which in sum imply complete disdain for our constitutional separation of powers. Eschewing any interaction with Congress, Trump has instigated a trade war with adversaries and allies alike, abrogated the Iran nuclear deal, and instituted new sanctions against Iran which are intended to cripple its economy. Likewise his attempts to impose a travel ban on Muslim countries and his withdrawal from the treaty obligations of the Paris Climate Accords.

The issue isn’t whether we agree with those actions, it’s whether they should have been taken without the consent of our duly elected representatives. But it’s not all Trump’s fault. Any legislator or judge who allows him- or herself to be cowed into submission is wholly culpable in our slide toward autocracy. That’s where the comparison with Hitler is frighteningly believable.

Professor Sachs points out that “[s]imply by invoking the phrase ‘national security,’ Trump can push the Congress and Supreme Court to give him almost any degree of latitude.” But he can only do that if they allow him to. It’s worth noting that the Constitution grants the power to declare war only to the Congress, though the president can bring us to the brink of war and even initiate hostilities entirely on his own authority – unless someone stops him.

Sachs reminds us that a Swedish think-tank that specializes in analyzing democracies now ranks the United States 31st in the world, and The Economist now rates us a “flawed democracy.” And as a final note, he quotes Hitler’s subordinate Hermann Gὅring on how easy it is to get a population to back an autocratic leader. “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

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3 Responses to The Slide to Autocracy

  1. jlexpert says:

    The “Slide to Democracy” is an interesting title, and Zendell’s quality of writing is first class.

    It seems to me incredible that not one word in the article refers to the successes of the movement created by the socialist leaning Bernie Sanders whose Presidential Bid was undermined by the also seemingly autocratic HRC and DNC. Did HRC and the DNC eliminate “taking no account of other people’s wishes or opinions” and make all attempts to dominate the Democratic Party’s standings in the last Presidential election?.

    Many practicing Jews, that I know personally, were pondering or decided to leave the Democratic Party when it became clear that Obama was a member of Reverend Wright’s anti-Semitic church for about 20 years, during a period when Obama was also seen socializing with the anti-Semitic, anti-white, Louis Farrakhan. Many more left the party when Obama kneeled/bowed to autocratic Muslim leadership. Still more Americans turned to the GOP when Obama loaded a plane with cash headed for Iran. And still more Jews and other Americans, of many faiths, left the Democratic Party when it became clear that HRC was primarily concerned about getting her way despite the fact that by that point, previously Democratic Party voters took the entire election away from the Democrats.

    Specifically, words matter! And words that are used to describe Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, et al, are just, in my opinion, meant to be provocative and do not appear to be useful to either end of the fractured Democratic Party when talking about the President of the United States.

    I think that Democratic stalwarts need to focus on bringing the party together and needs to develop a more inclusive strategy among legal American residents that are primarily concerned with their safety, health and earning a living.

    I think that the mid-term elections will help clarify the country’s feelings about these specific issues.

    We’ll see!

    • alanpzendell says:

      I appreciate the comment, but I would be much happier if the title really had been “The Slide Toward Democracy” instead of Autocracy.

      As to the rest, I agree that among the failings of the Democratic Party was the rigging of the 2016 primaries against Bernie Sanders. Debbie Wasserman Shultz will live in infamy, as she substantially helped elect Trump. I didn’t mention any of that because it wasn’t relevant to my subject, which is dealing with current reality of a President who would rather be a Dictator. The sins and errors of the Democrats are in the past. We can only hope they do better this year or our two-party system may be in serious jeopardy.

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