According to Brian Klaas, who has studied despots and their victims in many countries, Donald Trump isn’t a despot — yet. He was democratically elected and is bound to the institutions of U.S. democracy. Yet much of what protects democracy are people’s expectations, not law. In “careening through the soft guardrails of American democracy,” the president “is corrupting political norms, as Americans gradually come to accept previously unacceptable behavior.” Ultimately the Constitution is “ink on a piece of parchment.” People must be responsible for upholding democracy.
How can we understand what Trump is doing and where he is leading the country? Klaas explains it in his excellent new book, The Despot's Apprentice, a lively and enjoyable read despite its grim diagnosis.
Distinguishing himself through unusually harmful deeds, hateful words, and useless noise
He does things that most other U.S. politicians of any party would never do. During the campaign, his staff tweeted an anti-Semitic meme of the Star of David, stacks of money, and the word “corrupt.” Trump never apologized; his Jewish son-in-law covered publicly for him. Trump attempted to prevent Muslims from entering the US, refused to release tax returns, criticizes Democratic opponents more severely than foreign leaders, and has refused to clearly condemn domestic hate groups. He has tweeted approximately 1,000 times about “ratings,” “crowds,” and “Fox and Friends” (a television show that “offer[s] only overwhelmingly positive coverage of his administration, even in the midst of its most egregious scandals”) but only 40 times about Afghanistan, 12 times about poverty, and about “human rights only once—to mock them”.
Sowing distrust of the press
Trump deliberately turns public opinion against journalists. As Klaas puts it, for a despot, “[w]hen you can’t bend the press to your will, the next best thing is to bend public opinion against the press itself.” In one poll, only 9 percent of Republican voters said they trust the press generally, and a large majority of Republican voters said they would trust information from Trump above information from longstanding respected news outlets (whether liberal-leaning or conservative-leaning).
In March 2017, Trump tweeted “Change libel laws?”, meaning he wanted to make it easier to prosecute the press for unflattering coverage, given that the New York Times has “gotten me wrong for two solid years.” Klaas pointed out that the complaint was about “’wrong’ analysis or interpretations of him” and not malicious or deceptive reporting. Prosecuting the press ought to be difficult to avoid a chilling effect; this is part of longstanding First Amendment interpretation. In June, Trump tweeted a threat against Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, to inflict sales tax on Amazon because he doesn’t like the coverage in the Washington Post. Another despot might think to threaten “something other than,” Klaas quipped, “a tax they already pay.”
The New York Times reported that a senior administration official discussed using the potential merger as “leverage” against CNN. “In other words,” Klaas said, “they are openly acknowledging a terrible conflict of interest—even embracing it, contemplating an egregious abuse of power—in order to threaten CNN into submission.” More childishly, Trump retweeted a video showing a person with “CNN” over his face being punched. The Internet user who modified the video had the word “Asshole” in his username and had also posted numerous comments “using the N-word and joking about killing African-Americans.” Trump thereby “amplified the voice of a racist who joked about murder while endorsing a culture permissive of violence against media representatives”.
Legitimizing outlets that lie
Years ago, Joseph Farah claimed that Democrats intended to open concentration camps, soybeans turn people gay, and Obama was born outside the US. Trump connected with Farah and promoted the so-called “birther” conspiracy theory about Obama. Trump also appeared on InfoWars which has claimed “that the parents of twenty young schoolchildren who were murdered [at Sandy Hook] made the entire thing up as part of a government conspiracy” and he has retweeted “people who peddle bogus conspiracy theories like the now infamous Pizzagate hoax, which falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington DC pizzeria.”
“It goes without saying that the president should never be even remotely tainted by such people,” Klaas said, much less encourage them.
More subtly, after a press conference in Riyadh featuring Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, American journalists had to rely on “a transcript from Saudi state television. In this absurdist twist, the world’s most powerful democracy had to rely on journalists from one of the world’s most brutal autocracies—one that lacks a free press—in order to report on a press conference featuring a US secretary of state.”
Telling his own lies
"In modern American history, no president has ever told so many easily debunked lies in such a short period of time," Klaas asserts. In this book he spends a lot of time explaining different types of lies and different motivations for them.
In the 2016 election, the popular vote went to Hillary Clinton. These votes were cast legitimately by American citizens, according to everyone who has looked into it, including Trump’s lawyers. It is Trump himself who insists, without evidence, that immigrants voted fraudulently. (Of course, “40% of American adults didn’t vote at all,” and therefore “[a]pathy beat Trump by 10 points”.) His electoral college win was fairly narrow yet he asserts otherwise. Lest we mistakenly believe that Trump cares in general about the validity of democratic elections, we must note how quick he was to congratulate the Turkish president Erdogan on his 2017 “win” of a rigged election and accept Trump’s own explanation of his “conflict of interest” in matters concerning the Turkish president due to owning property in Istanbul.
Six months into his presidency, when Trump claimed that he’d signed more legislation than any president since Harry Truman, he had in fact “signed fewer bills than Presidents Clinton, Carter, Truman, and FDR,” and none of them were the ten pieces of legislation that, as candidate, he’d promised to implement within his first 100 days as president “as part of his ‘Contract with the American Voter.’” Twelve of the 38 bills he'd signed simply “renamed buildings or memorials, made low-level appointments, or were procedural tweaks.”
In July, after giving a speech to the Boy Scouts of America “in which he thanked the children attending for voting for him (they can’t vote)” and then telling them about an orgy on a yacht, he said that “the head of the Boy Scouts had called him to say that ‘it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them.’ This was untrue," Klaas writes. "The Trump administration later acknowledged that no such call had happened.”
Trump continues to insist on the guilt of the Central Park Five in a crime that occurred in 1989, “ignoring clear and acknowledged evidence that he was wrong about a clear-cut racist miscarriage of justice,” after DNA evidence and a confession pointed to someone else and the Central Park Five have been released.
The consequence of so much lying is to normalize it and make it a joke. Sean Spicer, Trump's former spokesperson, appeared on the Emmy awards in September, joking, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period...’” It was a reference to the first and perhaps most famous lie Spicer was instructed to tell: that more people had turned out for Trump’s inauguration in Washington than for anyone else’s inauguration, even though aerial photography, police records, and subway records indicated otherwise. The fact that Spicer could transform his lie into a public joke alarms Klaas. “When you live under the cloud of an incompetent government that routinely lies, jokes are a common coping mechanism,” Klaas explained, noting that he’s seen it “firsthand while living in authoritarian states.”
Sowing distrust of courts, intelligence agencies, science agencies, and the Congressional Budget Office
As a candidate, Trump said that a judge should recuse himself because of his “Mexican heritage,” which Paul Ryan called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Trump was “encouraging the public to believe that the courts and their representatives are not independent arbiters of law, but biased by their own race and therefore untrustworthy.”
Intelligence agencies determined that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. Trump ordered them to find Iranian noncompliance within three months so that he would have a reason to back out of the deal. It is dangerous, Klaas notes, when intelligence agencies are asked to give "politically motivated findings rather than dispassionate, objective ones.” The information is already distrusted based on partisan identity. A poll in June found a Republican/Democratic split among the American public: Democrats accepted “the unanimous conclusion of the intelligence community” that Russia interfered in the US 2016 election, while Republicans rejected this information.
Under the Trump administration, an EPA climate scientist was reassigned as an accountant. In August, “a group of scientists leaked their latest climate change report to The New York Times before it could be buried by the Trump administration. That’s a truly shocking canary in the coal mine—when researchers from thirteen government agencies, including NASA feel the need to leak the latest findings of a clear scientific consensus for fear that their government would refuse to publish it.” In September, Trump picked Rep. Bridenstine of Oklahoma, a climate change denier with degrees in business and psychology, to lead NASA.
He casts doubt on the “independent, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office” (“fake news” according to the White House, “deep state” according to Newt Gingrich), even though Trump’s own Health and Human Services secretary hired a Republican to lead it, so “it’s hard to see how it would be biased against the Trump administration.” Reports like the CBO’s “serve a crucial function in a democracy: they are the legislative scorekeepers that everyone can trust.” Today, however, “undercutting the gravitas and authority of independent institutions is crucial to eroding democracy and amassing greater power.”
Shrugging off other countries’ violations of human rights and democracy
As candidate, Trump publicly “mocked the international condemnations” of the 1988 chemical attack that killed thousands of Kurds in Halabja. He also endorses torture, which is “a crime under both international and American law” and “despite just about every military official in the United States disagreeing” that torture yields usable, accurate information.
Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2016 as president of the Philippines, promised that he would assassinate journalists and give police impunity to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months in office. Under him, police have indeed been killing people in the street, and some people have been tortured. The European Union has condemned Duterte, but Trump gave Duterte a personal phone call to compliment his approach to crime.
Before Trump took office, he swore he would not allow Putin to invade Ukraine, something Putin had already done years previously. When a talk show host pointed out to him that Putin kills journalists, Trump responded on air, ”I think our country does plenty of killing also,” adding of the assassinations, “I haven’t seen any evidence,” and that Putin “hasn’t been convicted of anything.” (Most authoritarian despots are not convicted of their crimes, Klaas helpfully notes.)
While the European Union tried to push Poland toward better democratic principles, Trump chose to “endorse Poland as a model for the West” because, according to Klaas, he preferred Poland’s “good optics with rapturous crowds chanting, ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’...he sold out democracy in a friendlier major European nation, in exchange for a good photo opportunity.”
Nepotism and conflicts of interest
Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner know about “jewelry design, how to run a fashion business, or New York real estate development,” yet are leading the way on “counterterrorism, trade deals, and how to cope with the threat of a nuclear North Korea.” Ivanka did not even register to vote in time to vote for her father in the presidential primary. Between the election and inauguration, she tried to sell access to herself for a coffee date for tens of thousands of dollars (before being forced to call it off as it violates political ethics). She was given the formal title “Special Assistant to the President” despite the Trump Transition Team having said she would not get a title. Klaas compares Ivanka Trump’s role to that of Gulnara Karimova and talks about Trump’s nepotism having reached a level
“unfathomable in other functioning democracies. It’s hard to imagine German Chancellor Angela Merkel or British Prime Minister Theresa May surrounded by a cadre of men in uniform, jockeying for influence against a daughter and son-in-law. This is banana republic stuff. If this staffing pattern existed in some other country, with generals being hailed as saviors rescuing the people from the civilian leader, alarm bells would be going off for every pro-democracy monitoring group in the world.”
Klaas also discusses “a core tenet of democracy: that public service should be dissociated from private interest.” These conflicts of interest play out in numerous ways. “But at least Americans never had to wonder,” Klaas said, “whether Clinton failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide because he was worried about Clinton Tower Kigali, or whether Obama failed to stand up to Assad in Syria because his daughter Malia had a clothing line pending in Damascus.” In April, Trump’s family hosted China’s President Xi for dinner at their private resort. Ivanka Trump’s brand sells shoes that are manufactured in China, and, during that dinner, China approved the sale of new Ivanka products. In July, Trump praised Xi “hours after prominent human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobao died in China while in state detention for his outspoken pro-democracy, pro-human rights views”.
In addition to all the despot-in-training approaches above, Trump exploits the fact that “[p]artisanship has become more about tribal identity than about disagreements on how to govern American society,” and he wearies people with the sheer number of onslaughts “because you can’t fight 100 battles all at once. Citizens are forced to pick and choose.”
The conclusion by the author, an expert in despots, is that Trump is uncomfortably similar to one and can swiftly lead the country down the path to authoritarianism if ordinary citizens are not careful and do not make a greater effort.
Published in the US on Nov. 14, 2017, this book is a timely accompaniment to the neverending cascade of scandals besetting the president. If there is a book of similar quality challenging this argument or its conclusions, I am not aware of it. No need to "Buy Ivanka's Stuff," but I will give you a "free commercial" (as Kellyanne Conway might put it) and suggest buying The Despot's Apprentice.