US President Donald Trump speaks at the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Monday. Associated Press
Eric Lewis, The Independent
Let us agree that Donald Trump is not the Manchurian Candidate. A useful idiot for the Russians, perhaps, but not an agent of a hostile power. He has certainly lied about his contacts with the Russians, which gives them leverage, but we must accept Mueller’s collusion that he was not acting in conspiracy with Putin.
Let us stipulate as well that he is not Hitler or Stalin, or even Mussolini. He has no ambition to be an engineer of human souls, to change human nature or to commit genocide. His goals are more narrowly narcissistic and mercantile. He will do whatever makes him feel good (and others feel bad) in the moment — or whatever makes him money without reference to legal or moral consequences.
The United States is not Weimar Germany, or the early Soviet Union, or 1920s Italy. But as Eric Vuillard observes in his brilliant novella, Order of the Day, “Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps.”
It is difficult to try to draw lessons from great catastrophes in evaluating the age of Trump and the European pseudo-populists. To be sure, there are many tiny steps that do not lead to catastrophe. The Balkan wars in the early twentieth century appeared to rise up periodically and then to simmer down. The very fact that a wider war had not broken out in 1912 and 1913 made the mass slaughter of the First World War all the more surprising.
Few catastrophes are like the Second World War, which lurch forward ineluctably and in plain sight. Most catastrophes are seen as inevitable only in retrospect. But tiny steps are ignored at our collective peril. It is far better to recognise possible tiny steps that corrode the bonds of global order, critically evaluate the impact of those steps and try to avoid the path to creeping catastrophe. And there are many such steps right now that augur real danger.
Indeed, the men who stumbled into the First World War were by and large more serious and cautious men, with knowledge of history. Trump may lack global ambition, but he shares the grandiosity, ignorance and self-delusion that are harbingers of catastrophe.
Respect for the rule of law is at the core of any viable republic. Most authoritarians at least pay lip service to the stability of the legal order. The most repressive states have all featured a legalistic veneer of elaborate codified laws and nominally independent judges. Hardened dictators insist that the law is being implemented neutrally.
For Trump, however, the rule of law is an abstraction for losers. The law constrains, and he is not to be constrained. Judges who find against him are just another group of elitists, another bunch of fakers attempting to frustrate him. A judge who rules against him does so because they are Mexican or a political hack or part of an ultra-liberal, politically correct Ninth Circuit. He is busy packing the courts with judges who will do his bidding, but in the meantime, the decisions of courts that he does not like do not deserve respect.
We now have the ominous “state of emergency”, cobbled together from Trump’s hostility toward Latin American “invaders” as well as his own political opportunism. He knows that the statutory framework delegating the power to the President to declare emergencies is narrow: limited in time and subject to issues that arise quickly and cannot await the delays of the appropriations process, like natural disasters that require urgent humanitarian relief. Trump’s state of emergency is, by his own admission, not an emergency. He doesn’t care that Congress has declined to exercise its prerogative to appropriate funds for a wall. He wants a wall and he wants it now, certainly before the 2020 election. So he conjures a nonexistent crisis of legal asylum seekers, calls it an emergency because he can, and will concretise his Roger Stone stunt to “Build the Wall” at the heart of his campaign.
History is replete with elected leaders discerning fake emergencies to destroy structural norms and govern by decree. Hitler used the Reichstag Fire to declare a national emergency and suspend the Constitution and virtually all civil liberties. Argentina has had 52. India and Pakistan have both operated for long periods of time under states of emergency. These emergencies have always reduced the civil rights of the citizenry and have often been used to justify appalling cruelty, torture, mass detention and extrajudicial killing. Today, once-democratic governments in Eastern Europe are decimating an independent judiciary, shutting down universities and curtailing press freedom.
The United States can survive a wasteful non-emergency wall, but the precedent of ignoring Constitutional allocation of powers and the rule of law for political ends is one that will not go away. Trump’s promises to “look into” the status of CNN, NBC and Saturday Night Live threatens self-censorship if not worse. Packing the courts with extreme, minimally qualified judges (after qualified Obama judges were stonewalled) threatens to turn the judiciary into an extension of the Trump regime. Creating a supine judiciary is at the top of the autocrat’s playbook everywhere.
We have operated under the optimistic assumption that the rule of law was a solid and self-executing infrastructure, that neutral principles had their own weight and gravity that did not require the commitment or goodwill of those who wield the levers of power.
Recently, Trump evoked political violence as a possible 2020 campaign tool, telling Breitbart that he has the support of the police, the military and Bikers for Trump, “the tough people,” whom, he said “don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.” This is the stuff of stormtroopers and blackshirts and violence in the streets.
So how does Trump get away with hostility to democratic norms, judge-bashing, stigmatising journalists and suggestions of political violence in the streets against “enemies of the people” that recall the worst of 20th-century despots?
I believe in part it is because he shares with many authoritarians a sense of theatre. Even his worst opponents can’t seem to look away. That is probably why Trump won the presidency. If the root of all humour is cruelty, Trump is very funny. Whether it is parody of others or self-parody, the audience shakes its head and laughs. Low-energy Jeb; Little Marco and his water; Pocahantas; his entourage of third-rate goombahs and grifters.
But much of human history is both awful and funny. It does not repeat itself first as history and then as farce; it is tragedy and farce all at the same time. Stalin, the stumpy, pockmarked man from provicincial Georgia, would bring his Politburo to his Moscow dacha in the middle of the night and then pair them off to dance with each other. Armando Ianucci made a riotous film, Death of Stalin, which captured the absurdity and incompetence of Stalin’s courtiers, each of them a mass murderer in how own right.
Trump’s entertainment value, his barbs directed at his inept coterie, his comic cluelessness about the world does not make him a monster; but it does not make him harmless either. Trump uses humour to make everyone else small.
Our democracy depends on respecting serious people who must do serious things to govern a complex society in an interdependent world. Trump is deeply unserious and dangerously ignorant. Mocking journalists chips away at freedom of expression. Mocking judges chips away at the rule of law. Mocking foreigners chips away at the values of pluralism, tolerance and respect for human dignity. Mocking allies as deadbeats and developing countries as “shitholes” destroys world order.
You can laugh your way to catastrophe.
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