SYNDICATED COLUMN: Our Obsession with Trump Shows Authoritarianism Has Arrived

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Bernie Sanders has joined the chorus of politicians and pundits who warn that the U.S. is sliding into authoritarianism under Trump. But he’s kind of wrong about how.

There are indeed reasons to worry that civilian and constitutional rule are giving way to institutional post-democracy. Trump’s cabinet and top White House staff contain enough military generals to give Pakistan a run for its money. Trump’s party controls both the House and Senate yet the president prefers to dash off executive orders rather than making the necessary effort to shepherd legislation through Congress. And of course there’s his police-state rhetoric, like when he “joked” that cops should bash their suspects’ heads into the sides of their squad cars.

But the most reliable indicator of looming authoritarianism can be found in the media, specifically in its obsession with the president.

A study by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that 41% of all news stories during the president’s first 100 days were about Trump. That’s three times higher than any other president. Six months in, news outlets still devote hundreds of broadcast hours and thousands of words dissecting 100-character tweets Trump dashed off in seconds at four o’clock in the morning.

Trump has a lot on his plate: healthcare, tax reform, the border wall, Venezuela for some reason. But one story towers above all others in news coverage: the Russia-Trump connection. Fifty-five percent of all stories about Trump on TV network news since Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel have been about the Russia probe, according to the conservative Media Research Center.

(Count me among the guilty: as a political cartoonist, it’s hard not to notice that images of Trump garner more clicks than those about climate change. Here I go again, right here in this column.)

Americans are divided along party lines. But Trump has brought us together in one respect: he’s making everyone feel anxious by creating a constant atmosphere of crisis.

The president’s Republican supporters are worried sick that a Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy will force Trump out before he can carry out his promises. “BREAKING NEWS! WATCH: Top Republican Issues Warning About ‘Taking Out’ Trump – This Is Terrifying…. ” warns an email blast from TeaParty.org. From the same email: “Establishment RINOs just teamed up with the bloodthirsty Democrats to betray their constituents and keep Obamacare – the DISASTER that is destroying he [sic] lives of millions of Americans.”

            These emails hit in boxes of Republican voters at an hourly rate. Here’s another:Within the darkest, dankest bowels of our government, the Leftist Deep State has nursed its wounds and regathered its might. They’re preparing for another surprise attack. The highest Deep State archons have gone absolutely berserk with gnashing, fist-bleeding, spit-flinging rage.” Terrifying! Given how much effort goes into working them up, it’s amazing how few gun owners go on a shooting spree.

Liberals are going crazy too. “Get Organized to Drive Out the Fascist Trump/Pence Regime. In the Name of Humanity — We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America!” urges an email from RefuseFascism.org. “We’re in a crucial moment in history, when the danger of a full-out fascist regime, as we have analyzed, threatens the people all over the world and the planet itself as a viable place for humans and other species to thrive and survive.” Even the bugs are doomed!

No false equivalence here — I’m an unapologetic leftie. The point I’m making here is, everyone is obsessed with Trump, not just the media. And that obsession is a strong clue that the authoritarian era may already be underway.

For 15 years the global embodiment of authoritarian rule was Turkmenistan under former Soviet strongman Saparmurat Niyazov. Like Trump, Niyazov was a quirky megalomaniac who routinely issued executive orders on everything from grandiose construction projects (a vast manmade lake in the world’s hottest desert) to the mundane (a ban on chewing tobacco, ejecting dogs from the capital because of their “unappealing odor”).

Like other visitors to Turkmenistan, I was struck by the ubiquity of Niyazov’s image on currency stamps, statues and posters. But what really made an impression on me was how carefully the Turkmen people studied his every move, both literally and figuratively.

Whenever Niyazov’s motorcade left the presidential palace, the police shut down most streets in Ashkhabat. Motorists carefully tracked his schedule to avoid getting stuck in traffic — or arrested. Because college applicants knew that the president personally reviewed their applications, savvy students sprinkled their essays with quotes from the leader’s book, the Ruhnama. When the Father of All Turkmen let his hair go from dyed to white back to black again, countless thousands of his hapless subjects felt it wise to follow suit.

As in the U.S., where leftist opposition increasingly focuses against the person of Donald J. Trump (as opposed to the systemic oppressions of capitalism and militarism), political opposition in Turkmenistan was directed against Niyazov, the center of the nation’s personality cult. En route to my hotel, my taxi driver pulled over to toss his saved-up household trash over the fence surrounding the presidential palace. Judging from the lawn, he wasn’t the only one.

Prisoners will tell you that serving time safely requires a close watch on guards’ mood swings and shift changes. Survival is part of human nature; studying those with power of life or death over you is key to survival in situations where individual rights are slim to nonexistent.

The U.S government has become increasingly violent, intrusive and capricious since 9/11, brazenly listening to our calls and reading our emails and generally treating individual rights like quaint relics of the past. Obama announced his right to drone-kill Americans on American soil; he and now Trump are even deporting U.S. citizens. The erratic nature of Trump’s personality and policy prescriptions have amplified the sense that Americans, like the Turkmen, had better pay close attention to the man in charge if they want to survive.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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9 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Our Obsession with Trump Shows Authoritarianism Has Arrived

  1. «En route to my hotel, my taxi driver pulled over to toss his saved-up household trash over the fence surrounding the presidential palace. Judging from the lawn, he wasn’t the only one.» If it were (almost) anyone else, Ted, I’d dismiss the above as a tall-tale, but I don’t doubt your account. But surely Mr Niyazov, who, unlike Mr Trump, rose through the ranks, had control over his country’s security services ; how then could anybody dump their trash on the lawn of the presidential palace ? Were no guards situated at the fence ? Or did Mr Niyazov, who doesn’t precisely shine as a model of subtlety (but I’ve never met him personally, so what do I know ?), deliberately permit his subjects this relatively harmless way of letting off steam ?…

    Henri

  2. World heads of state have no more privacy than dime-a-dozen plebeians.

    Edgar J. Hoover ruled the nation by twisting secrets from behind a Wizard-of-Oz-like screen for 50 years.

    Potus talks to president of Australia, everyone is amazed at what was said, but no one asks who authorized the bug on the president.

    Whatever authority that can authorize this, is the de facto authoritarian ruler to be feared.

    “[First Man:] I think, I think I am, therefore I am, I think.
    [Establishment:] Of course you are my bright little star,
    I’ve miles
    And miles
    Of files
    Pretty files of your forefather’s fruit
    And now to suit our
    Great computer,
    You’re magnetic ink.” [Needs a technological update]

    EDGE, GRAEME

    • Indeed. As a dictator, Mr Trump strikes me as terribly incompetent, as he seems to have no control over the secret services, who either themselves leak or authorise leaks every time Mr Trump takes a leak. In any event, people in the US – and elsewhere – are now getting an object lesson in who runs the country ; the evidence – consider a US Congress, which hasn’t had the guts to declare war since 5 June 1942 now forcing the US president to increase «sanctions» on Russia – would seem to be that it definitely isn’t the holder of the office of president of that country….

      Wonder what conclusions will be drawn from this lesson ?…

      Henri

      • I conclude that American plebeians have too little interest in how they are ruled to form conclusions about their situation.

        Besides, to think scary thoughts that conflict with ideas instilled and held from childhood is uncomfortable.

      • «Besides, to think scary thoughts that conflict with ideas instilled and held from childhood is uncomfortable.» Ah, that old cognitive dissonance again….

        Henri

  3. hmm, okay – this column is something worth thinking about.

    One thought is that it’s a helluva lot better to pay attention than not. Another is that the RW attacks on the persons of Obama and the Clintons certainly helped out the GOP.

    The biggest problem with authoritarianism is that people always imagine themselves as being on the ‘good’ side. They figure those militarized police are only going after the bad guys, right? Since I’m a good guy I’ve got nothing to worry about. Gun nuts always picture themselves asking “do ya’ feel lucky punk?” – they never foresee that it could be someone else asking them the same question. (For that matter, how about if I feel threatened by somebody exercising his right to open-carry? In Florida I could legally poke him with my sword, right?)

    It’s easy to stir up hatred against some personification of evil (Obama, Trump, Hitler…) It’s harder to stir up strong emotions against abstract principles. Especially when the majority of the electorate doesn’t really understand those principles in the first place.

    Given the real life situation, I’d have to say:
    … GOOD: Fighting encroaching authoritarianism.
    … BAD: Ignoring encroaching authoritarianism.
    … BETTER THAN NOTHING: Fighting the personification of encroaching authoritarianism.

      • Not a «left-wing Trump», Ted, but a leftist who would acknowledge and who could mobilise the pain imposed upon tens of millions by changing economic patterns which, in the United States, given the way that country is run, have enriched the few at the expense of the many and who also understands and acknowledges that, e g, anthropogenic global warming is not a «Chinese hoax». Mr Sanders came close ; I’d like to see someone like him, who would devote even more attention to the manner in which the deep state devotes the country’s resources to the military and other quasi-military agencies in its attempt to attain and maintain global hegemony (I note that Mr Sanders, along with Rand Paul of Kentucky, was one of only two senators to vote against the bill imposing new «sanctions» on Russia, Iran and the DPRK)….

        A combination of Eugene Victor Debs and Bernard Sanders ; can one get that good five-cent cigar in the United States today ?…

        Henri

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