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CONNECTIONS: The makings of a dictator

There are handbooks on becoming a dictator. You have to have the taste for it and the talent but, if you do: create an oligarchy, encourage thuggery, undermine checks and balances and silence the press.

About Connections:  Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Hypothetically, when the history of this period is written, it will be the day of Trump’s proposed parade that is cited as the last day of American democracy. Every reporter and historian will select that day and that visual. because a military parade is emblematic of the strongman – the dictator the perennial president.

That hypothetical is impossible; most will repudiate it. Those who voted for him and do not regret it think Trump is doing well: a president like other presidents; perhaps even more effective. Some who voted for him and regret it, and many who did not vote for him would counter that our system of government is stronger than any one man. They may be the same people who think Trump is inept, senile, dumb or crazy.

It is possible that our president is a vulgarian, a womanizer and a racketeer, but he is neither dumb nor crazy. He may or may not be the smartest man in the room, but he is absolutely the one most certain of his goals, unwavering in his loyalties and a genius promoter of whatever he chooses to sell. His goal is uninterrupted power, his loyalty is to himself and his pocketbook, and what he is selling is what he told you he was selling: to be above the law.

At a campaign rally before he was elected, Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

So how does one accomplish the goals of having uninterrupted power and being above the law while lining his pockets?  Actually, there are documented steps. Honestly, there are handbooks on becoming a dictator. You have to have the taste for it and the talent but, if you do: create an oligarchy, encourage thuggery, undermine checks and balances and silence the press.

Oligarchy

Those who envision a dictatorship as one all-powerful man misread history. Dictators must have a group around them that supports and enables them including the military, the police and the oligarchs.

Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze
bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BCE. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

The term “oligarchy” was first used by Aristotle. By it, he meant rule by the rich, rule by a minority. It was not a compliment. Aristotle believed the rich would rule in their own interests exclusively without regard for others.

The man who wishes to rule for life both creates an oligarchy by transferring wealth and sustains it by creating opportunities for his cronies to make more. History is clear about why oligarchs support dictators: They do it for the money.

The recent change in the tax laws shifted an unprecedented amount of money to the small percentage of super rich. Notably, it is the only piece of legislation passed during his presidency that Trump supported unambiguously.

Apparently Facebook facilitated the election of Trump. In the end, that may be disputed; what is undisputed is that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has more money than many small countries and he made it by turning his customers into a salable commodity.

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo courtesy Forbes

Historians will note that the president’s cabinet is made up of billionaires inexperienced in government and unsympathetic to the aims of the departments they run. Some entire departments – for example, education and the veterans’ administration – may be privatized. It appears that, whenever he can, the president is enriching his cronies beyond their own dreams of avarice and, in return, they are supporting him.

Thuggery

Since an oligarchy does not benefit the majority, there has to be a plan to keep the masses in check. Myriad handbooks instruct: To build an effective oligarchy, there must be owners on top, thugs at the bottom and the multitude trapped in between. The masses must be made impotent: dependent for food, clothing and shelter on the oligarchs (the employers) and afraid of the ones with the clubs. The dictator identifies immigrants or others who are different as enemies while praising the thugs as patriots. The dictator has licit – police and military – and illicit enforcers.

Checks and balances

History doesn’t always get it right in real time. When enough time has elapsed, however, when the hot heads have cooled and the representatives of special interests are silenced, history establishes truth and even justice.

It may be fair for historians to point out that the Republican legislature refused to fulfill its constitutional duty and check the president. Current commentators express the opinion that it is out of fear; looking back, the historian’s conclusion may be more complex. Perhaps the Republicans, too, believe in the efficacy of an oligarchy over the messiness of democracy.

Sen Susan Collins, R-Maine

It appears – in tweets, at least – that the Department of Justice is treated as an enemy as long as it questions the legality of anything Trump does or has done. The attorney general appears to be acting as the president’s lawyer, not the people’s lawyer as the Constitution envisioned. Senator Susan Collins said the Republicans made a deal with the devil. In the future, it may be fair comment to state the checks and balances failed. If so,that is what history will record.

Silencing the press

History teaches that a dictator privatizes government functions to enrich cronies, and simultaneously takes over the media and makes it a state organ.

The dictator does this because, as Joseph Goebbels said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. [The state must sustain the lie because] the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.”

Kellyanne Conway. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Or, as Kellyanne Conway said more succinctly, “The White House has alternate facts.”

Silencing the press is difficult to do in America. Today, more people are watching the news more often than ever before.  Does this evince a new and heightened interest in American history and civics? Nope. In Trump’s America, the news is the best soap opera on TV.

A backward glance may find Trump had a better plan. History may report that he was a strategic rather than spontaneous politician.

The president did nothing as clumsy as try to silence the media. He simply made it less powerful by challenging the validity. You can read, watch and listen, but do not know what to believe. It is one prong of a frontal attack on truth.

The tax bill was an economic reflection of an oligarchic form of government. True, false – how would you know?

One-hundred thousand dollars was funneled through the president’s inaugural fund to people to whom he owed money, including his wife. True? False? Who do you believe?

Would history report that the president was out of control, tweeting aimlessly? History may note that, while the public was reading ambiguous or unintelligible tweets and watching Episode Four of “The Porn Star and the President,” Trump eviscerated the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department and the FBI; turned the attorney general into his lap dog; stacked the federal bench with lifetime appointments; allowed his cabinet to empty the treasury of the American people to spend it on travel and – of all things – a dining room table; used the president’s bully pulpit to oppose Amazon, which owns the Washington Post, and the CNN merger; and turned the presidency into a personal profit center. While some people were organizing to protest if and when Trump fired Mueller, he dumped McCabe, Baker and every U.S. attorney.

Robert Mueller

The sweep of history could disclose that the news was like a train wreck: awful, startling and sad, but no one could look away. While Americans were watching in stunned silence, Trump was killing clean power, expanding coal mining, sabotaging green jobs, poisoning the air and water, selling off public land for private development, gutting the State Department, and challenging the FBI and CIA.

The possibility is that history will agree with Trump that the press failed, but may disagree with how. The media professionals were reporting the drama and missing the facts – reporting what he said and missing what the president did.

Moreover, it may emerge that viewers were watching one outrage succeeding the next – shock followed by shock until none were shocking, until all were the new normal. The public was being systematically desensitized; the perception of the norm was changing and, finally, American values. The stories were manufactured: Some would happen, some had happened, some never happened and it didn’t matter. The intent was not to inform but to flood. Flooding undermined America’s ability to sort and absorb facts. The country became morally weary. Oddly, at the same time that it was apparently flooded, it was actually less well-informed.

Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Blackmail

You read mysteries to find out whodunit. You read history knowing because, in its way, history solves mysteries. What will it say about the Trump/Putin bromance? Is it possible Putin has something on the American president? If so, what could it be? What would Trump fear Putin could disclose? After all, Trump tells you what he wants, he telegraphs his punches and he brags about his sexual exploits. What would embarrass or frighten him? One possibly that would really threaten a president – he didn’t win the election. If Putin manipulated enough votes to throw the election to Trump, then Putin is the man who could prove it. If so, then Trump needs Putin in 2020 to win again – and only history will tell.

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