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!"
“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!”
Perhaps I should retitle this post “Unraveling the Web”. There is a duality of treachery and naiveté at work in our world. That has, of course, always been the case. But today a new veil seems to have descended over nations, clouding the judgment of the innocent; its opaqueness obscuring the deception and intent of the deceivers. We must not allow ourselves to be so hoodwinked that we are left to repeat the phrase of failure: “Wow! I didn’t see that coming.” Nor can we take refuge in the hubristic assertion: “It will never happen here.” For even in the United States, unwitting citizens have fallen victim to intentional malevolence.
Only by exposing the first thread we can hope to avoid being ensnarled in an intricate web that paralyzes not only the body, but also the mind. And to understand the depth of insidiousness, the true nature of this deceit, we might begin in the Middle East with ISIS and the name of God.
For all its propaganda, the so-called Islamic State has nothing to do with God. It is not about submission, as the word Islam means. It is not about faith. If anything the Islamic State is an insult to true Islam, for rather than calling for submission to the one God, it demands obedience to itself and its own narrow construct of religion. ISIS is an insult to every faith. Much more evil though, is that at its core ISIS is an insult to Allah.
Along with submission, Islam also means peace and purity. But these ideals, like freedom and justice, cannot exist in a society where the beliefs and self-described “truths” of some—a singular interpretation of revelation—are determined to be the only interpretation, and consequently forced on everyone. This remains the case whether those “truths” are held by a majority or a minority; whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim truths. In other words, peace, purity, freedom and justice cannot exist in a society that is ruled by religion. Any religion. But then ISIS is as uninterested in those virtues as it is in truth. As uninterested in truth as it is in faith.
The Islamic State was woven from a seemingly simple thread that seduced the innocent: Submit your lives to God. But as that thread pivoted from point to point, and the web began to take shape, the idea of the divine was lost in a complex and convoluted design. God faded into mere illusion. The twisting and tangling fibers serve oppression and megalomania in pursuit of world domination, or what the ISIS rebels euphemistically call a worldwide caliphate.
The first Arabs to be ensnarled by ISIS did not recognize its deceitful use of religion. They did not realize the extent to which someone else was about to determine the meaning of submission to God. “Wow! They didn’t see it coming.” The effect was too swift. The entire Middle East, and by extension the rest of the world, quickly became entangled, stuck to the silk. Violence is now both the attraction to this web and the only way out—unless we can find a way to unravel the net of ISIS, expose its true purpose, disengage its hold on people and emasculate the ideology. That requires the whole world to remain on alert.
In the West it was initially easy to be critical. Distance from the fighting, combined with ignorance of Islam, lead some westerners to sit smugly in judgment. After all, “It will never happen here.” But reality is far more complex and unsettling, because Muslims are not the only ones to fall prey to religious treachery and twisted faith.
A quote often attributed to Sinclair Lewis (he never wrote it, but it does reflect his thought) reads: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” Such a statement twins two worlds—politics and religion. It speaks to the advancement of corporations over people; to a government by the corporate elite, for the corporate elite. It also suggests the inability of US citizens to recognize when they are being manipulated and their faith and patriotism distorted for someone else’s design and gain.
All across the South and creeping up through the Midwest, state after state has duplicated deceptive and misleading legislation all designed to sow division and enshrine bigotry. From voter ID, to welfare, to immigration to marriage equality, Americans are being conned by clever, reckless, and yes, duplicitous, politicians. These wholly unnecessary and ostensibly simple laws are being codified for one reason only—to dominate and control.
But most cunning for their disingenuousness are the legislators invoking religious freedom. The problem is, this concept of religion does not represent freedom. It is a new kind of slavery. Not unlike ISIS in Iraq, in Syria and beyond, these American politicians have decided what true religion is, how to live it, and how to shun and exclude anyone who is different. These politicians are no closer to true Christianity than ISIS is to true Islam. But then, like their counterparts in the Middle East, they are not interested in truth, either.
ISIS is coming to America. In fact, it is already here. We have yet to determine its nomenclature. But make no mistake: It is the same beast. A different name; a different religion. The same kind of leaders; the same result. And when it is too late, when these purveyors of false truth have successfully duped and misled the country, the average American citizen will be left with only one reply, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming.”