While it is easy to be glib about Hitler-Trump comparisons, it is also totally appropriate to think about what the signs might be that a Trump Presidency was turning into a dictatorship. (See NYT articles on constitutional scholars’ concerns.) Moreover, it would also be appropriate to look for, and publicize the things he is already doing or saying that might indicate a willingness to take those steps. Also of interest, whether these things were previously being done by other politicians. More importantly, perhaps, is the question whether a US president could do those things, or rather what checks and balances would have to be overcome.
I have to admit that I started this list expecting to reassure myself how far even a Trump Presidency would be from such a situation. Actually, however, he seems, at least rhetorically, to have taken first steps on almost all these paths. To be a bit less frightening, I have therefore split them into two classes: “First Signs” and “Tipping Points.”
“Tipping Points” being the ones from which there is no return. Most of them represent fundamental destruction of our system of checks and balances. “Tipping points” usually require governmental as well as political power.
Sadly, we are already seeing most of the “first signs,” most of which do not require governmental power.
I. First Signs
Attempts to Intimidate the Media
Obviously, a truly free media is critical to a democracy. While some would argue that he does not really intend to intimidate the media, that in fact he wants and needs what can be perceived as their hostility, it is unarguable that he engages in behavior that is objectively intimidating. Perhaps worst is the encouraging of physical fear in journalists, and the control over credentials (not limited, sadly to the Trump campaign, but very different in his overall context)
Ignoring of Legislative Mandates and Conditions
I am not sure that this one should not be listed as a “tipping point,” except that so far he has no executive power. He has certainly threatened Paul Ryan. I would think that counts. (No comment on what kind of protector of the Constitution Ryan has proved to be here.)
Demonization/Dehumanizarion of Political Opponents
No doubt about this one. From ncknames to insults, to threats (e.g on sending Clinton to jail.)
Failure to Protect Minorities/Freedom of Speech
Deportation and exclusions, racial derogation of judges, threats on Washington Post owner, the list is endless.
Blaming Problems on Unpopular Groups
The analytic problem here is that he blames problems on almost everyone, even majority groups (like women), but his pattern is to attack those against there is already a pattern of public hostility. Fanning those flames is the essence of demagoguery.
Attacks on the Legal Profession?
Interestingly, we seemed not to attract his ire, even though we are unpopular. He focuses on judges, and the laws, not lawyers. It may have something to do with how many he must rely on given the massive number of law suits he has been involved with. So, lawyers are powerful and unpopular, and he leaves us alone. What does that mean?
Does it have anything to do with our profession’s relative silence on Trump? (Interestingly, it appears that the legal profession did not take on Hitler’s rise to power, although there was heroic resistance from some after the event. I am no expert on this, so would welcome correction.) It may be that the above linked NYT article is the beginning of a change. It will be interesting to see if we are now honored with attacks.
II. Potential Tipping Points
Establishing Personal Paramilitary Outside the Chain of Command
This is truly a frightening possibility, which if achieved, essentially could put him beyond control by all the other institutions of our society.
We do know that he has a far tougher internal security system that most candidates, and is totally used to getting his way. Moreover, his contempt for recognized constitutional limitations on the military has to be seen as a strong warning sign.
Use of Systematic Violence by Supporters
We see this already, as well as a willingness to encourage it. If nothing else, it shows an absence of any kind of limits or constraints. Watch for this for the warning that he sees social disintegration as an acceptable price (or perhaps benefit) of his keeping power and getting his way.
Use of IRS and Other Government Institutions to Intimidate and Punish
We saw this under Nixon, and I think that is the real reason that the system ultimately moved against him. Particularly unacceptable to the corporate elite was the contribution shakedown. Interestingly, it may have been this that resulted in limited corporate opposition to 1970s campaign finance reform. The reform was a protection for corporations. That lesson is lost.
Given the already explicit threats to people like Bezos, he has already make clear his willingness on this one, and maybe thats why so much of the non-party corporate elite is getting nervous.
Game over, with the foundation set by W.
There is, of course, a difference between fighting against writs of habeas corpus in court, and actually refusing to obey them when granted.
Ignoring Court Orders
Again, there’s a difference between a “signing statement,” and an ultimate refusal to obey a court order that such a statement is invalid in context. But its hard to imagine a President Trump not at least flirting with the threat of not obeying court orders, given his record of trying to de-legitimate courts. Even the threat would be damaging beyond imagining. Contrast Nixon: “This President obeys the law.” (Look at this article by, of all people Robert Bork (who fired Cox) talking about Nixon Counsel Wright: “Nor was Haig thrilled with Wright’s flamboyant statement to the district court in handing over the subpoenaed tapes, when he asserted, “This president obeys the law,” leaving the question of which president didn’t obey the law unanswered.” I hope we never get our answer to that question.
Supreme Court Packed With Personal Allies
OMG. Do you really feel comfortable relying on Mitch McConnell to prevent this? Such a full switch would mean the end of all the protections implicitly relied upon in the above analysis.
Its good to see that in the last few days there has started to be serious attention to these threats.
p.s. The Guardian has and article with a number of historian views on issues related to this.