In the first year of Vladimir Putin’s long run as prime minister of Russia people reassured each other it would all be OK. Soon he will stop attacking our institutions, they told each other.
Soon his attacks on the press and his high profile critics will stop. The threats against every kind of dissent will stop they told themselves, the tone will change, the flashy campaign will end, the calls to imprison his enemies will end, and the spokespersons that deliberately spread misinformation and claim the media is not an honest broker will fall silent.
That’s what most people expected. But even the oligarchs who helped fund Putin’s massive campaign didn’t grasp what a threat he represented to their interests until they found themselves under arrest, forced to give up their profitable businesses or forced into exile. In particular they were targeted if their businesses included major media outlets sharply critical of the Russian leader.
Here in the United States we tell ourselves our nation has checks and balances against these kind of abuses, we have longstanding institutions that can guard against the rise of a charismatic authoritarian leader in the Vladimir Putin mold.
That’s true. But a president has power to change institutions; a president has the power to change public perception of what is normal, which can lead to changing institutions.
Last week Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski ominously announced that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet “should be in jail.” Lewandowski was referring to a Times article published in October that leaked pages from Trump’s 1995 state tax returns.
So Trump’s threatening surrogates are still casually issuing jail threats to journalists who are doing their constitutionally protected work and they look like they will continue to do so even after Inauguration Day, which represents a dramatic change to the institution of the presidency from day one.
Of course the person happiest to see Donald Trump take the White House is Vladimir Putin, who has hardly been able to contain his joy. Behind him the world’s gallery of authoritarian leaders have also taken heart at Trump’s ascent.
This week President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines claimed that Trump had endorsed his murderous drug crackdown, allegedly telling him that his so-called death squads are going about the cleanup business “the right way.”
And what does it say that America’s greatest enemies, including the Islamic State, Iran, Russia, and North Korea, have all endorsed Trump? In August an ISIS spokesman wrote, “I ask Allah to deliver America to Trump.” ISIS wanted a Trump win because they believe his leadership will weaken America’s institutions, his policies will alienate the Muslim world and his presidency will send jihadists flocking to them worldwide.
Even China made it clear they they preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton, believing he shared their authoritarian leadership styles and his citing his lack of concern for human rights. What this should remind us is that Trump’s greatest fans around the world really don’t have our interests at heart.
Meanwhile here in the U.S. Trump has been telling us relentlessly that we live in a violent hellscape that “only” he can fix. Our inner cities are a murderous Thunderdome where black people live in total anarchy he tells us, our immigration system is a bureaucratic mess that permits hoodlums and jihadists free reign to attack us. Unknown people want to kill us. Only he can stop them.
None of this is true, however. Violent crime nationally is at historic lows. Our immigration system is adept at deciphering real threats to our nation. Trump is making these threatening claims to change our perception of reality and to legitimate his increasing power grabs. It’s the authoritarian playbook in action.
Recall how the Republican Party first rejected Trump, then mocked him, then appointed him supreme leader and fell over themselves to do his bidding. People will long remember how quickly they and their institutions fell.
There is a warning in that quick collapse for our wider democracy. This weekend Paul Ryan and other craven Trump underlings appeared on TV to pathetically defend Trump’s absurd claim that up to three million illegal immigrants voted in the election, a soothing fantasy he concocted to protect himself and his voters from the reality that Clinton won 2.8 million more popular votes.
The GOP’s capacity to go lower to maintain their grip on power is deeper than anyone has understood. We simply can’t allow ourselves or our institutions to spiral downward with them.
To resist Trump’s growing authoritarianism we have to reject the dark reality he wants to create for us. America is already great, it’s not dark dystopia that he swears it is. We have to say so.
Remember too the lesson of Putin’s first year. It’s not OK, none of this is. Remember that. Start saying it too.