The Most Disturbing Ways President Trump Governs Like a Dictator
As we pass the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s election, we can also examine his rise to power. Throughout his term so far, Trump has bucked the norm. His use of social media, off-the-cuff threats to unstable powers like North Korea, and direct opposition to the mainstream media all sound alarm bells. In March, The Atlantic took a disturbing look into at how Trump might slowly dismantle democracy. Many of its predictions came true. Here’s a look at what Trump has done lately to signal a rise to autocracy.
10. He treats the press as opposition
Early on in the Trump transition, Nic Dawes, a journalist who has worked in South Africa, delivered an ominous warning to the American media. “Get used to being stigmatized as ‘opposition,’” he wrote. His prediction came true, and worse. Recently, The New York Times revealed Trump told reporters, “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”
Trump has directly attacked the press since his campaign, calling it the “enemy of the American people” and repeatedly leveling criticism on Twitter. Most recently, he challenged NBC after a critical story. “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” He wrote in a tweet.
9. Trump’s Twitter usage isn’t amusing — it’s dangerous
The president uses his personal Twitter account for range of reasons, from threatening enemies, to criticizing the press, to calling for political action. He bragged about his account’s effects at a campaign rally in September, CNN reports.
“I doubt I’d be here without social media, to be honest with you,” he told Fox News in October. “When somebody says something about me, I’m able to go ‘bing, bing, bing,’ and I take care of it.”
According to CNET, a Pew Research Center study recently found two-thirds of Americans now get some of their news from social media. Nearly 75% of Twitter subscribers now get their news from that service, up 15% from a year ago. That means people are listening to Trump’s tweets — which the White House calls official statements — regardless of their factual accuracy.
8. He still has some shady business dealings
Back in July, former head of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub left his post six months early due to frustration with Trump, The Economist reports. “It’s hard for the United States to pursue international anti-corruption and ethics initiatives when we’re not even keeping our own side of the street clean,” Shaub told The New York Times.
Trump entered office with more business interests than any president in history. While his children oversee the business at this time, experts remain unclear on how that process actually works. An estimated 159 of the 565 Trump firms do business abroad, often with politically connected partners. The full extent of his entanglement remains opaque, because he makes liberal use of LLCs and still refuses to publish his tax returns.
7. He takes law and order into his own hands
At the Republican National Convention, Trump said, “The first task for our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens our communities.” His response to civil unrest demonstrates a frightening trend.
In July, he told police officers not to be “too nice” when arresting suspected gang members. While intended as a joke, many police departments called it dangerous rhetoric. Last August, he initially failed to denounce anti-racism protesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Va. Instead he said violence came from “many sides.”
More recently, he called for the death penalty for New York City terrorism suspect Sayfullo Saipov. As CNN notes, that edict could complicate the case. “It is entirely inappropriate for the president to call for a specific punishment for a federal criminal defendant, especially one who has not been convicted,” said Ron Weich, dean of the University of Baltimore law school and a former federal prosecutor. The president also uses civil unrest for his own gains.
6. He deliberately distracts the public from important issues
While Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the president was on Twitter attacking NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem. At the same time, tensions continued rising in the wake of continued North Korea missile tests, the Senate voted on Obamacare, and Trump’s administration released a new version of his “travel ban.” Every time something controversial comes up, he takes to Twitter to distract the public.
The Christian Science monitor evaluates this tactic, noting that Trump knows how to use social media to fire up his base and his detractors. The scary part is, it’s dangerously effective.
5. Trump and Putin have this terrifying tendency in common
In The New York Review of Books, the Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen noted a commonality between Trump and Vladimir Putin. “Lying is the message,” she wrote. “It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie … they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: Blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.”
The president also grabs at power like a child does at candy, Salon reports. He told American and Japanese troops that no nation should “underestimate American resolve.” Then he joked, “Every once in awhile, in the past, they underestimated us. It was not pleasant for them, was it?” That sounds awfully close to a threat.
4. He’d rather spend his time persecuting his enemies
In a recent radio interview, Trump expressed his displeasure with the Justice Department, Business Insider reports. “Because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI,” he said.
“I am not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing,” he said. “And I am very frustrated by it.” He’s referring to the Democratic Party-funded dossier designed to find connections between Trump and Russia. If he had his way, that investigation would focus very differently.
3. He believes he has absolute power
In late June, Trump told Native American tribal leaders there was a new sheriff in town. Axios reports that when leaders complained about land use regulations that prevented them from extracting energy resources, he responded, “But now it’s me, the government’s different now. Obama’s gone; and we’re doing things differently here. So what I’m saying is, just do it.” When a leader questioned the legality of that, Trump continued, “What are they going to do? Once you get it out of the ground are they going to make you put it back in there? … You’ve just got to do it.”
Trump may actually believe he has the unilateral power to lift any regulation he wants.
2. He’s the ‘only one that matters’
When asked about vacant State Department posts, Trump told Fox News he’s the “only one that matters … when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.” He later called leaving positions vacant “cost-saving,” related to his business acumen.
Trump recently told reporters, “My attitude is the only one that matters,” when it comes to dealing with North Korea. “I think I have a little bit different attitude on North Korea than other people might have,” he said. “And I listen to everybody, but ultimately my attitude is the one that matters, isn’t it? That’s the way it works. That’s the way the system is.”
1. The president fires those who get in his way
The president asked FBI director James Comey to look the other way after Vice President Mike Pence asked Michael Flynn for his resignation. He said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Trump fired Comey in May, after drafting a letter that White House special counsel called “problematic.” The New York Times reports that he called Comey a “nut job” and said firing him lifted pressure off the White House.
The chief executive also tried to get the Justice Department to go easy on former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt for ignoring a court order in a racial profiling case. He also stood accused for years of violating basic human rights in his prisons. Trump’s pardon of Arpaio was his first use of presidential clemency powers, which do not require the president to consult other agencies.
How the president could become a dictator
These represent only a portion of the ways in which the Trump administration continues abusing the norms of democracy. And experts say it’s hard to fix.
“Populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter,” wrote the political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz. “Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce.”
Conservative expert Barry Goldwater did offer some guidance. “If I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’” Goldwater writes in The Conscience of a Conservative, “I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.”
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