WASHINGTON – His act is familiar to all by now: Donald Trump diverts public attention with clownish acts, outrageous statements and headline-making Tweets. But the U.S. president’s agenda is sinister. He is moving consistently, persistently and successfully to undermine American democracy and enhance his power.
There has never before been such a forceful effort to replace democracy in the land of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln with dictatorship. The reason is simple: Trump is driven by a lust for personal power and for accumulating still greater personal wealth that such power can yield.
Much worse than Watergate
Any honest assessment of the current political situation would find that Trump’s assault on democracy is graver than the Watergate scandal.
That episode was a combination of illegal dirty tricks, obstruction of justice and lies directed by the nation’s top public officials. Their first goal was to secure the re-election of President Richard Nixon and their second goal was to cover up the crimes committed in the pursuit of the first goal.
The United States’ constitutional system strives to check absolute power by a system that established three co-equal branches of government (the judicial branch consisting of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, the legislative branch and the executive branch). Plus, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which enshrines freedom of the press.
Trump is now, ever more brazenly, diminishing the influence and, in time, the independence, of the Congress, the courts and the press.
Trump frequently derides Republican Party leaders in the Senate and the House of Representatives, but — like lap dogs — they remain loyal to him.
Trump, for example, has frequently humiliated Congressman Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, yet as the new tax legislation was signed in December, Ryan declared: “Something this big, something this generational, something this profound, could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership.” That is quite an amazing act of sycophantism.
De-basing political system
Trump’s assault on the courts and the legal system is persistent and vicious. When judges rule against Trump’s executive orders, be it on immigration or repealing environmental regulations, then he blasts the courts as corrupt and opponents of the executive branch.
Trump compounds this assault by regularly attacking the professional lawyers and investigators at the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the intelligence agencies. Rarely does a week go by without Trump turning to Twitter, or giving campaign speeches, to attack the whole system of law enforcement.
At the same time, Trump has proposed hosts of new judicial appointments, almost all of which have strong conservative credentials and/or have been large financial contributors to the Republican Party.
As The Guardian reported: “The makeup of America’s judges is quietly becoming the site of one of Trump’s most unequivocal successes: Nominating and installing judges who reflect his own worldview at a speed and volume unseen in recent memory.”
Most media are intimidated
Then there are his constant tirades against “fake news” and the media that opposes him, plus his calls for legislation to introduce tough new libel laws. His deliberate and cunning acts of intimidation are having an effect.
The mainstream media, be it The New York Times, CNN or MSNBC, which all have commentators who regularly attack Trump (unlike his favorite, Fox News), now all go to considerable lengths to give space to Trump’s supporters and defenders. They have become more cautious, quite often, in their reporting because of the persistent attacks on them from the White House.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona stated on the Senate floor that Trump reminds us of Joseph Stalin when calling the press “the enemy of the people.” Flake said: “Of course, the president has it precisely backward. Despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy.”
Unbalancing political system
The constant efforts by Trump from his first day in office to diminish Congress, the courts and the press have a gradual cumulative impact. There has rarely been a U.S. president who so dominates the news, and inevitably this provides less media space for good coverage of the courts and Congress.
The unbalancing of the political system in favor of an ever-stronger White House has been fortified by the consistent Trump effort to make the rich still richer and American business still more ruthless.
The termination of environmental regulations has been one of the central pillars of this strategy. Another has related to the strengthening of financial institutions, from the hollowing out of consumer protection in this sector, to attacks on financial regulation to tax benefits.
The excessive income and wealth inequality in the U.S. produces an ever greater number of citizens who feel that their government is not treating them fairly. So far, in what is the most bizarre act of American shortsightedness, they continue to see Trump as their champion.
They do so, in sheep-like manner, despite the fact that so many of his actions have damaged the lower-middle class. There is no American public figure who is as masterful a media manipulator as Trump.
There is one effective way out of the current conundrum since Trump feeds off public attention, like moths fly to any source of light.
The one way to cool his heels would be to stop responding to whatever his latest attention-craving, headline-grabbing outrageous Trump tweet is. We should understand by now their ultimately almost always sinister purpose.
By the same token, rather than all the vapid and self-glorifying talking about the “resilience” of U.S. civil society, we Americans ought to prove to ourselves and the world that we can stop the slide into authoritarianism.
This matters all the more given that we have been world champions in telling others around the globe how to run their own affairs, a lot is at stake for America’s standing in the world.
To succeed, we will need to focus far more forcefully on the unprecedented attack by the U.S. president on a constitutional system that has been designed — and historically succeeded in the mission — to guard against the rise of authoritarianism.
At the end of Trump’s first year in office, the U.S. faces graver challenges than in many generations.
Frank Vogl is co-founder of Transparency International and author of “Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power.” www.theglobalist.com
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