In the three years since he first descended his golden escalator to announce his presidential bid, Trump has made clear he yearns for fealty along with authority.
President Donald Trump reliably tells the truth on one thing: He likes the way dictators do business.
“He speaks, and his people sit up at attention,” Trump said on Friday morning of North Korean despot Kim Jong Un in an interview with Fox News — a network where he receives no shortage of praise. “I want my people to do the same.”
Some of the people who worked for Kim have been fired, “Fox & Friends” hype man Steve Doocy pointed out. Trump corrected him: “Fired may be a nice word.”
Some less nice words: Poisoned. Blown apart by anti-aircraft guns. Sent to work camps.
It’s not that Trump isn’t aware. Fox’s Bret Baier reminded the president of Kim’s record earlier this week during their Air Force One interview en route home from the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore that Kim is “clearly executing people.”
But the president blew Baier off. “He’s a tough guy. Hey, when you take over a country, tough country, tough people, and you take it over from your father I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have. If you could do that at 27 years old, I mean, that’s one in 10,000 that could do that,” Trump explained. “I think we understand each other.”
Vladimir Putin’s also a tough guy whom Trump praises for running his country well. So is Rodrigo Duterte, whose executions of drug dealers without trial in the Philippines is something Trump has said he’s looking into.
He’s spent the three years — to the day — since riding down that escalator in Trump Tower demanding loyalty, fantasizing about torture, dividing the country into “followers” and enemies.
“Using even language like ‘the enemy of the people’ — it’s a Stalin phrase. People say, ‘He’s a loudmouth, he’s never had the governing experience,’” said Eric Edelman, President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Turkey during the early days of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s consolidation of power. “But what he has done is begun to stress these norms and stress them constantly, and people become inured to it.”
Edelman went on: “I’ve seen this play out in Turkey, and that’s how this stuff gets normalized. And after a while, people say, OK, that’s the way it is.”
This is perhaps the most important aspect of Trump’s approach: Make it seem normal. Old guardrails become distant memories. Is this time that he declared himself above the law such a big deal, or is it old news already, since he also said it last week or last month or last year?
He stocks his staff with supplicants and family members, then pits them against one another to watch them fight for his favor in a nonstop West Wing soap opera. His lawyer says, echoing Trump himself, that he could murder people and no one would be able to do anything about it unless they impeached him first.
Political enemies should be investigated and jailed, Trump says. He’ll pardon whom he wants to, whomever gets his attention by running to a Fox News set. He blames it on a justice system he undercuts. He says the Department of Justice inspector general’s report “blew it,” but also that it “totally exonerates me,” with the same logic that has him attacking NFL players for kneeling during the anthem but also saying he would pardon Muhammad Ali for refusing to be drafted on his own beliefs (although Ali’s conviction was already overturned by the Supreme Court, so he doesn’t need a pardon).
Debate over whether special Russia prosecutor Robert Mueller could be fired becomes a general acceptance that he probably will be — and then, among Republicans vying to demonstrate their fealty, an inevitability. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with whom Trump has openly feuded, has gotten into the act, saying that he believes Mueller should “wrap it up.”
“We should definitely be concerned,” said Steve Levitsky, who included a dictator litmus test in the first chapter of the book he co-authored, “How Democracies Die.” “Unambiguously, Trump checks off all the boxes for a very authoritarian figure.”
If you’re offended, Trump and his aides say, if you disagree, if you want an explanation, you’re either an idiot or not a patriot. Free speech, by the White House’s definition last week, doesn’t cover protesting police. Trump’s press secretary and secretary of state both personally attacked reporters this week for asking for details on what the administration was doing, and in the course of it, said a number of things that were completely and clearly not true.
Or maybe you didn’t realize Trump was joking. That’s a go-to line for the president and his aides. Like when he said Democrats who disagree with him are committing treason, or said he thinks police should be “rough” when they’re arresting suspects. After yearning on Fox News for the treatment Kim enjoys at home, Trump told reporters he “was kidding and you don’t understand sarcasm” — then turned to the one who asked him about his praise for Kim and said, “You’re the worst.”
Accept whatever Trump says, Trump says, because he says that’s the only way to stay alive. That’s how he answered a reporter Friday who asked him how he could have so many nice things to say about the same man responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier, whom he spoke so passionately about last year.
“I don’t want to see a nuclear weapon destroy you and your family,” he said.
Trump and his aides insist that separating parents from their children is the law, though it’s not. He says that he’ll consider doing something for the kids if he can leverage it against Democrats for money to pay for his border wall. That would be, as he tweeted, Friday, a “WIN!”
The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda. Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration. Go for it! WIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2018
Meanwhile federal contractors are holding migrant kids in former Wal-Marts, where the walls are decorated with murals of presidents — including Trump.
“He’s completely reversing the vision that I encapsulate with Lady Liberty holding up the torch to the world and saying, ‘If you are an immigrant, we care about you,’” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who tried to tour a detention center two weeks ago and is leading a congressional delegation on another attempt for Father’s Day. “Deliberately injuring children to send a message, to send a message of deterrence to the world is the complete opposite.”
Merkley said a president who cared more about democracy and American ideals would have taken a different approach, but “Trump doesn’t have the ability to recognize and admit, ‘I did this, I am changing the policy, I am choosing to treat children horrifically.’” He added, “You can see the arc of the dehumanization of immigrants that created the grounds for treating immigrants like this.”
But Trump understands the dynamics of power and the media better than perhaps anyone who’s ever lived. He sees what people say he can’t do — and see what they don’t do to stop him when he does it.
When Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the courts during the Great Depression and Richard Nixon tried to bend the Justice Department to stop the Watergate investigation, they were eventually stopped by their own parties. Trump, however, seems to have cowed the Republican Party into shrugging off whatever he does.
“It’s one thing to elect somebody with authoritarian impulses, which we clearly have done,” Levitsky said. “Our people and our institutions need to stop him. What worries me most is that Republicans seem increasingly unwilling or unable to do that.”
When Pew Research last year polled the statement, “A system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts would be a good way to govern our country,” a third of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats agreed. When the Economist and YouGov asked, “Do you favor giving the government power to shut down ‘biased or inaccurate’ media outlets?” 45 percent of Republicans said yes and 18 percent of Democrats agreed.
“I’m already worried — I don’t know if it’s where the country’s headed, or where it’s already gone,” said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican member of Congress from Oklahoma, a founding trustee of The Heritage Foundation and national chairman of the American Conservative Union. “The fact that the American people are willing to accept a president who praises authoritarian governments is very disturbing.”
Now, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is headed to jail not for the crimes he’s charged with — at least not yet — but for flagrantly tampering with witnesses. So far, 18 people have been indicted, and five have pleaded guilty in the Mueller probe.
If Trump pardons them all (as Rudy Giuliani was already teasing on Friday afternoon that the president might, and as his pardons so far seem aimed at telegraphing), no one will be surprised. If he fires Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein and closes down Mueller completely, everyone will have seen it coming.
It’ll be like that Cabinet meeting when he nodded along as the vice president and 15 accomplished adults prostrated themselves before him, and for a few hours, everyone obsessed at how strange and suspect a spectacle the whole thing was. Or when both sides were to blame in Charlottesville.
“The Founders weren’t worried because they said, ‘[The president] can’t get away with that, because Congress has the ultimate power to stop it,” Edwards said. “Trump is nothing but a loud-mouthed bully unless the people who have the power to check him don’t do it. Then his claims are accurate: He can get away with it.”