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The Confidence Trap: Donald Trump wants to be a dictator. It’s not enough just to laugh at him.

July 8, 2019

A list of reminders excerpted from the Guardian article by

He cages children, he holds a military parade, he muses about being president for life. Yet we fail to see him for what he is…

Demonising a group – in this case, migrants – as an alien threat, an army of invaders, so intensely and for so long that eventually any fate, no matter how brutal or inhumane, seems deserved, even when it is inflicted on that group’s youngest and most vulnerable members. Breaking up families, caging children in hot, fetid, disease-ridden camps – this is what dictators do…

What dictators always do: he’s building a hereditary dynasty… Those images [of Ivanka Trump] at the G20 looked absurd to us, but they will take their place in the showreel, so that, come the 2024 or 2028 elections, they can be used as proof of Ivanka’s supposed experience on the global stage.

It’s all there, if you can bear to look at it. From the kleptocratic impulse – Trump pushing to meet foreign leaders at his hotels, so that he can profit – to his undisguised admiration for his fellow strongmen…

Legitimising, the slave state Kim [Jong-un] rules so bloodily…

Palling around with Mohammed bin Salman, even though the UN and the CIA both agree the Saudi leader was directly responsible for the violent murder of US resident Jamal Khashoggi…

As for the simpering deference Trump shows Vladimir Putin, it’s a wonder Trump’s supporters describe him as a strongman at all…

Draw up a checklist of the semiotics of dictatorship and Trump ticks every one.

He muses out loud about being president for life, saying it would be “great”.

He’s indicated often that he would not accept the outcome of an election he lost.

He’s threatened to jail his political opponents.

He has the despot’s attitude to the truth – lying routinely, even about trivial matters, partly to demonstrate power.

So great is his sway over his devotees, he can make them believe even what is provably false.

And he has the despot’s contempt for a free press, forever railing against the “fake news” media and all but abolishing the White House daily briefing, which at least aimed to hold successive administrations to account.

Note his abuse of power to pursue vendettas against the companies that own media organisations that displease him: seeking to raise postal charges on Amazon, as retaliation against the Washington Post, owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; and moving to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger to hurt CNN.

The most chilling moment of his encounter with Putin last weekend came when the two men bonded over their shared loathing of journalists: “Get rid of them,” Trump said to his Kremlin counterpart, perhaps envious of the toll of 26 murdered journalists notched up in Russia during the Putin years.

His disregard for the rule of law is also that of the autocrat. His aides simply ignore subpoenas to appear before Congress…

In the name of his invented migrant “crisis” at the southern border, he became the first US president ever to declare a national emergency solely to circumvent the authority granted to Congress by the constitution. “That was a pretty straightforward authoritarian power-grab,” according to Kristy Parker, a former Department of Justice lawyer now with the Protect Democracy advocacy group.

Why don’t we see all this as the behaviour of a would-be dictator? Part of it is a language problem. The archetypal despot lodged in the collective imagination does not speak English. Dub a Trump speech into, say, Italian, show it in black and white, and perhaps then we’d spot the similarity.

Part of it is that Trump has not been able to do his worst. No elections have been overturned, no dissidents jailed, no journalists arrested. The restraints of the US system have, so far, kept Trump in check.

Yet that can lull us into a false sense of security, what political scientist David Runciman calls “the confidence trap”: the belief that, because democracy has withstood past threats, it will withstand present and future ones too.

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