One would think the world has seen too many authoritarian regimes not to recognize the slippery slide our country rides at this moment. The almost mind-boggling series of revelations involving the president of our country and Russia over the past weeks and months – let alone this past week – if taken incident by incident seems almost to have stunned Americans into a fog. Taken together, they could be seen as real-time collusion with an enemy of our country and possibly treason at the top of our executive branch of government.
The fact that it is the media, not ordinary people, sounding the alarm concerning the guard rails of our democracy is also alarming. A percentage of ordinary people are blindly accepting the state of affairs like a frog dumped into a cold pot of water with the heat turned on. The slow rise in temperature is misleading. In the end, the frog is boiled to death.
The march of Fascism in 1930s Europe surely lives in the memories of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Because the slide toward World War II was not stopped, those generations had to fight and die to win back the freedoms some believe are at risk again.
Governments such as Nazi Germany as well as contemporary leaders in Russia, Turkey, Syria, China and North Korea all employed, or currently practice, similar authoritarian tactics. These regimes count on ordinary people to keep stepping back, staying silent, accepting what they’re told. Waiting for common sense to return doesn’t seem to be an option.
William Shirer’s book The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940 outlines actions Hitler took while creating the Nazi state. Lest we forget that in 1933, the last competitive elections Germany held before World War II, Hitler got elected. Two weeks after the election, Hitler was able to pass an Enabling Act which effectively gave him dictatorial powers. Consider whether these authoritarian tactics have been in evidence in the United States the past two years:
* Speak to your base of supporters as if they are the victims who deserve what you alone can deliver.
* Assume a strong nationalistic stance, frightening your base over perceived porous borders; dehumanizing immigrants, minorities and those you perceive unimportant to your world view.
* Belittle and marginalize targeted elements of society and the people who attempt to come to the defense of those you have marginalized, and convince your supporters that their woes, real or imagined, are the fault of your targets.
* Systemically undermine law enforcement and legal systems so your base begins to distrust them; when they investigate your activities, you can label them the corrupt element, paving the way to replace them.
* Attack or neutralize the other constitutional pillars of democracy: the justice system – so that when they consider the constitutionality of your actions, you can label them as biased and unfair; and your party’s elected congressional representatives – demanding absolute loyalty to you, rather than to the Constitution and the people who elected them – creating a voting block that blindly supports you no matter what you do.
* Create a cult of personality that requires and demands personal loyalty. Place members of your immediate family in positions of authority, keeping a tight rein on those to whom you assign power.
* Take every opportunity to amass personal wealth and wealth for your key supporters, causing anyone hoping to gain a power position or financial advantage to work through your coffers, reinforcing the loyalty you demand.
* Bluster irrationally at long-time allies ( in this case Western democracies) and blow up (or threaten to) multilateral agreements and treaties, keeping other geopolitical entities off balance. Then strike only bilateral agreements, in which you can play a destabilizing, nation-by-nation game.
* Endear yourself and your “movement” to religious leaders and groups, effectively silencing them via a solidifying hook, assuring them that what you do and how you do it is preordained.
* Accuse any who oppose your activities of the very bigoted, unethical, hateful and corrupt activities of which you, in fact, are guilty; truth does not matter. Power does.
* Crack down on any opposition in increasingly brutal ways, removing foes from positions of influence and labeling as unpatriotic those who would reflect reality.
* Hang out with fellow authoritarian figures with whom you identify, employing false moral equivalences to justify your actions and the questionable actions of those governments against attempts to rein in your authority.
* Systematically attack and intimidate the media attempting to reveal the truth about your actions, labeling them “fake news” and causing journalistic output to be controlled by your increasingly bizarre outbursts. Encourage your followers to attack or silence any news sources or journalists who do not act as your personal public relations megaphone.
Our president’s stance plays into the hands of a foreign power whose stated goal is to destabilize Western democracy and our country in particular.
No less a media figure than MSNBC news anchor Brian Williams has said that worrying about the state of our democracy would not be a bad thing to do right now because our president seems to have turned it over to the president of Russia. I know there will be loyalists who believe anything Trump says. As a skeptical journalist, I am not one of them.
It is time for us to be very, very worried. In addition to the spirited resistance of journalists, what can be done by the general public? Pay attention. Read. Ask questions. Hold public officials accountable and make them explain their decisions. Demand transparency. Use your First Amendment rights to petition, to assemble, to speak up. Most of all, recognize this for what it is – an authoritarian attempt to destabilize our democracy.