On the other hand, there were clear signs that Trump tended toward an autocratic approach to government. Nothing stands as a better example than his narcissism. And two quotes serve as perfect examples.
When speaking about the so-called Islamic State, Trump said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals.” Clearly, that was an absurd claim. At the time I thought that anyone with more than a third grade education would find his statement completely untenable. I was wrong.
The other claim was far more treacherous. When speaking about Washington, D.C. and describing everything as a mess, Trump said, “I alone can fix it.” Only a dictator speaks in such exclusivity and superlatives. That, more than anything else should have set alarms screeching.
After Trump was first sworn in, a concern surfaced that he would immediately set about establishing and exercising the power he so admires in other dictators. I am hesitant to suggest that Trump is clever. He’s not. But neither is he stupid. Initially he was savvy enough to move only on the xenophobic nonsense that fueled his campaign, e.g. the Muslim travel ban. Had he attempted a power grab that early on, he would have lost the support even of the now subservient Republican senate.
Trump took gradual steps to mimic the members of the autocratic club he so desperately wants to join. But it takes time to lay a foundation, to prove that you belong, and that requires deviously simple steps. First, every autocrat must lie. Over time, of course, lies add up. But there is a tipping point after which it does not matter. No one can keep track (with the exception of the Washington Post), and the familiarity that comes with persistent untruths tends to numb even the most critical of minds.
For Trump, taxes were a good place to start lying. When queried about releasing his tax returns—as Americans have become used to in presidential politics—Trump declined, saying he could not release them because he was under audit. That was not true. But it sounded reasonable enough, so many people let it slide and some were even willing to believe his claim of being a successful businessman. Never mind that the bankruptcy of one venture after another told a different story. Trump knew that without his returns no one would know that even his famed real estate holdings, specifically his golf courses, were hemorrhaging millions.
Beyond lying, a successful dictator must disparage and demean his opponents. In this particular regard, Trump is practically phenomenal. In reality he could put many dictators to shame. For he chose to go after true American heroes, like John McCain. It was a risk. But he banked on Kool Aid being a refreshing drink. Good people could disagree with McCain's politics, but no one could question that he was a patriot and a war hero. Trump, by contrast, faked bone spurs to avoid military service. No heroism there. Then again, that was so long ago. Not unlike an airborne virus, Trump’s attacks against heroes were an hallucinogenic capable even of unmasking the totally shallow and superficial Lindsey Graham. Previously, Graham considered McCain his best friend. But apparently death and autocrats have a way of making one forget. Lindsey has a new friend, now. Only one.
In order to join any fraternity or club, one must first cozy up to its leaders or its most influential members. For Trump, secret meetings and phone calls with Vladimir Putin were followed by accepting Putin’s word over US intelligence agencies; protestations of a love affair with Kim Jong Un; warning Syria’s Assad of a missile attack so there would be no loss of life or major damage; defending the brutal Mohammad Bin Salman after his orchestrating the murder and dismemberment of an American resident. The list goes on, but it is too long for this piece.
Manipulating the populace is one of the most critical steps in an autocrat’s evolution. Trump accomplished that by holding post election campaign rallies and misgoverning by tweet. He took a page from PT Barnum, and turned it into his own circus. Barnum realized that if you keep entertaining people, no matter how absurd or extreme the illusion, no one has time to examine reality. I believe magicians call it misdirection. The rallies created the illusion of massive support that both galvanized the base and frightened any moderate Republicans. The result was that the Senate was quickly added to Trump holdings. And it cost him nothing.
Eventually, of course, people become suspicious of a burgeoning autocrat and opposition mounts. It then becomes necessary to eliminate any accountability. For his first two years Congress, controlled by Republicans, questioned nothing Trump did. But when the Democrats sought a desperately needed accountability, even enlisting the impeachment process, Trump simply refused to cooperate. He withheld evidence, ignored subpoenas and sought assistance from the conservative courts he was packing.
Delegitimizing the voting process is one of the most critical moves in the autocrat’s play book. It is the reason that various non-profits closely monitor elections around the world, usually in countries that have a history of corruption. This year, thanks to Trump and Republican legislatures around the nation, the United States of America will join the countries needing international monitoring. But whatever the outcome it will not matter, because there is an open seat on the Supreme Court.
If there had ever been an indication that Trump was trying to become another Putin, his rush to fill the seat before the election is proof positive. Unlike other dictators, however, Trump does not hide his ambitions. He unabashedly admits what he is doing. He wants his people on the Supreme Court so that they can hand him the election—an election he has promised to fight in the courts. Still, there is one final thing Trump needs to do to gain admittance into the autocratic club. And he can only accomplish it if he is reelected.
In a contested election, Trump will receive a great deal of pushback from Democrats, especially those elected members of Congress. If the Supreme Court indeed hands him the election, Trump will disband that Congress, especially if both houses are controlled by Democrats. That is the final stage of his autocratic initiation. Trump will then rank among the most despicable despots in history. The sad thing for American democracy is that the evidence was there each step of the way. When Trump succeeds, we will only have ourselves to blame.
Autocracy is not a turn. It is a slide. And we are all on it. But unlike an amusement park ride, it does not end with giggles in a splash of water. It ends with death. It ends with the drowning of democracy, itself. It ends with Republicans leading a national salute and chant, “Heil Trump!”, while Democrats are left with "Heil Dic!"
What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
In my last blog, I challenged a statement by the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. I suggested that the document disguises a clear bias in favor of Republican political candidates. Nonetheless, the statement cleverly avoids transgressing IRS regulations that prohibit religious organizations from engaging in partisan politics. The rules are the result of granting tax exempt status to religious organizations. In the process, these same regulations should safeguard the free exercise of religion for everyone. That would seem to include not politically coercing congregations during worship services.
Sadly, some individual bishops, don’t seem to understand. Case in point, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria, Illinois. On April 14, 2012, he preached a homily that was an extreme affront both to the Gospel and to the Constitution.
Jenky does not seem to appreciate the Constitution or the world of debate. Does he truly see himself as so self-important that he (as well as the Bishops’ conference) is always right about everything? That only bishops have the answers to all of life’s questions? He must have failed the course on logic in the seminary, for he appears ignorant of the basic principle of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. The building blocks of compromise and consensus. But his diseased logic is minor compared to the symptom.
He castigated politicians who disagree with the Bishops’ position on health care reform. He then proceeded to compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. He certainly is entitled to approve or disapprove of any politician. He is even obligated to explain Catholic values (as he understands them), and how they apply to policies under consideration by various government agencies and elected officials. After all, freedom of religion does not equate with the elimination of religion. Politics and religion should not be adversaries in the lives of the citizenry.
However, Bishop Jenky is not entitled to abuse the role of preaching the Word of God by using it for partisan politics. He has no right to belittle and demean the President or any other individual politician. He betrays his own corruption by attempting to tell his congregation that they must oppose one candidate and vote for another.
Contraception is at the heart of Jenky’s tirade. Theologically, the Catholic Church is on dicey ground when it comes to this subject. Already, more than 80% of Catholics practice some form of artificial contraception in their sexual activity. Putting that aside, Jenky’s actions are not really about faith or theology.
It seems to me that he is simply drunk with the perception of his own power. His preaching makes a mockery of religion and a caricature of himself.
I do not wish the people of Peoria to suffer because of the vicious rhetoric of a misguided bishop. But perhaps the only way to rein in such hateful speech is for the IRS to investigate and ultimately strip the Diocese of its tax exempt status.
In the meantime, let’s hope that Jenky’s routine only plays in Peoria.