Donald Trump is following the path of countless authoritarians before him, and Americans should not consider their country immune.
It is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes to conjure up or exaggerate security threats from within or without their countries in order to emphasize an immediate danger to and instill fear in the general population. The leaders of such regimes then pursue military build-ups, war-mongering or war itself, along with an increase in repression of civil liberties and human rights, and pose as the strong-man or men who alone are able to protect or avenge the country.
The fundamental crudity and mental mediocrity of this attitude means that such false-threat propaganda is typically directed at ethnic minorities, religious groups, other countries with whom past history provides old wounds to be dug up and picked at, or generally at whomever can conveniently characterized as the “other” – not like us, hate us, don’t believe what we believe, want what we have – and is accompanied by nationalism, xenophobia and bigotry.
Examples of this abound: the Mussolini regime’s invasion of Ethiopia; the citation of the North Korean threat and the accusations of chaos in the emerging civilian government as justifications used by the Chun Doo-Hwan government to seize total power in South Korea in 1980 (this despite the members of the military regime having deserted their posts along the DMZ in order to carry out their December 12, 1979 coup d’état); the 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands by the military dictatorship in Argentina; the actions and propaganda of the Nazi party and later government during the 1920s and 1930s; the invasions of Iran and Kuwait by Saddam Hussein; the current Chinese government’s aggression in the South China Sea; and the domestic oppression and aggression toward Syria of the Erdogan regime in Turkey.
To what should be a furious but unsurprised reaction, the Trump Administration has already attempted to play this game, asserting that there have been far more terrorist attacks worldwide in recent years than had previously been publicly acknowledged. The list of examples released by the administration was heavily padded by including numerous terrorist attacks that had already been widely acknowledged and covered by the media. What followed was a typically buffoonish statement by Trump himself that – after having downplayed the credibility and expertise of U.S. intelligence services for the last two years – “I’ve learned a lot in the last two weeks [i.e. since the start of his term in office], and terrorism is a far greater threat than the people of our country understand.”
Taken in isolation, the crudeness of these statements does not immediately mark them as a major threat to the welfare of the U.S., but when set against the background of the Trump presidential campaign and the actions of the administration in its short time in office, they constitute yet another sign of an insecure, authoritarian-minded policy direction. From his initial announcement through Election Day, Trump’s campaign was not only marked by but made as its driving theme a vicious targeting of anyone unwilling to fall into the Trump line.
Among the egregiousness were bigoted denunciations of entire nations and religions, covering U.S. rivals, allies and others in practically every region of the earth (Mexicans, Latin Americans in general, Islam and its practitioners, China, a list that could run on and on); Trump’s reluctance to engage seriously with groups representing people historically discriminated against in America (African-Americans most notably); a mix of tacit acknowledgement and open embrace of white supremacists (depending mainly on what the campaign felt they could get away with or had to attempt to walk back on a particular day); repeated warnings of a dire condition within the nation and society (again emphasizing the racist element by astonishingly claiming that black folk had never had it so bad in America as presently); and ominous assertions that Trump alone – personally – could solve these crises. All of this was accompanied by a background of violent, intimidating or threatening behavior – publicly encouraged by Trump from the podium – toward the media and demonstrators.
The post-election sequel has seen the formation of an unprecedentedly right-wing and militaristic administration, otherwise notable for the inclusion of multiple individuals with a history of large financial contributions to the Republican Party and its allies, for a disregard for ethical standards, and for blatant nepotism. The major actions of the Trump regime so far have been taken in lock step with an authoritarian direction, including militarism, xenophobia and targeting of minorities, and attacks on domestic dissent. Firstly, Trump has pursued above all else multiple, unconstitutional Executive Orders attempting to ban Muslim immigrants, refugees and travelers from entering the United States (along with the unleashing of the Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to also harass and intimidate, generally on the basis of religious or racial stereotyping, U.S. citizens and fully documented immigrants traveling or returning from overseas) and a continued push to construct a wall along the Mexican border.
Secondly, the recent Trump announcement of a 9% increase in the U.S. military budget, while direly needed domestic infrastructure improvements may be put off or shunted to private-public partnership projects.
Thirdly, repeated attacks on the media, including bans on White House reporters from media organizations that Trump dislikes, assertions that media outlets should stop using anonymous sources from within the government, and labeling of the media in general as an opposition party. All of this being partly a ploy to construct villainous targets to whom blame can be passed for future problems with the administration’s policies or public image, and partly an attempt to intimidate the media into submission. This all-or-nothing, you must support me obsequiously or are totally against me attitude – so much a part of Trump’s own paranoid personality – is entirely in keeping with the style of an authoritarian government, and particularly one which lacks broad popular support (Trump again fitting the pattern, as no previous winning Electoral College presidential candidate lost the popular vote by a wider margin).
Lest it be thought that an American audience or other American politicians will easily see through this attempt to lay a foundation for either overseas military adventures or repressive domestic actions (or both), it must be recalled and emphasized that at least three previous major U.S. wars were started deliberately by the U.S. government on the basis of falsified intelligence, the case for war in each instance then being hyped and supported by nationalistic propaganda (the U.S.S. Maine and the Spanish-American War, the Gulf of Tonkin and the Vietnam War, and the claims that Iraq had stockpiles of and was developing weapons of mass destruction and colluding with Al Qaeda prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq). This country is not immune.
Lest it be thought that this scenario is far-fetched, last week Trump stated that “We have to start winning wars again”, the idea that perhaps the U.S. should stop starting wars seemingly never having entered his mind.
Above all, Trump and the historical examples he is wittingly or unwittingly following rely on ignorance to fuel their destructive intentions. This makes it vital, if the country is to be prepared when the Trump Administration feels desperate or looks like it may lose the next election and so acts along these lines in an increasingly alarmist and violent manner, that the people and media continue to expose his pervasive lying, his total disregard for factual discourse, his corruption and nepotism, and the utter insecurity and narcissism of his personality, and that these things be called out baldly and unreservedly for what they are, so that when he attempts to raise the stakes with warning of impending danger or seeks to make the stakes from existing problems appear higher than they really are, his credibility will not support what would inevitably be disastrous for the United States and the world.