News & Politics

Trump Is Building an Autocratic System in America One Concession at a Time

The president is breaking an already flawed democratic system.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

On a Tuesday night rally in Nashville, Trump once again made a pitch to the crowd that the FBI had “infiltrated” his campaign, saying that “nothing like this has ever happened in the history of our nation.” Then he went on to lead the crowd in booing John McCain.

Trump’s attack on the investigation and the investigators may seem like just another repetition of the kind of blatant lie he has using against Robert Mueller’s team for weeks. It is. And it’s the same kind of attack he’s using against former FBI director James Comey. And former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe. And Sally Yates. And James Clapper. And John Brennan. And pretty well every official who has so much as voiced disagreement with Trump.

Meanwhile, Robert Mueller and the FBI have proceeded as they always do—quietly, step-by-step, working behind the scenes, avoiding publicity, and ignoring Trump. Which is exactly what Donald Trump wants.

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Trump’s attacks on Meuller’s investigation are a mirror of the way Trump has, day in and day out, gone after the press. Trump has regularly claimed that any story that uncovers uncomfortable facts is “fake news.” He regularly states that even the most rapidly growing platforms are “failing.” And he paints all media sources outside the Fox-verse as joined in a left-wing conspiracy. 

By doing this, he’s been enormously successful in undermining the role of the press as a gatekeeper and alarm for the public. He’s been successful expressly because much of the traditional media is still caught up in whether it’s appropriate to call a lie a lie, while Trump races ahead, gleefully tossing bombs over his shoulder. 

On one hand, there is a justice system plodding stolidly onward, building a case behind the scenes. On the other hand, there is a media that’s all too readily distracted by the latest shiny object, unwilling to stay focused on any of Trump’s outrages because it would take away from following the new outrage, and unwilling to go after Trump on his own terms because it’s beneath their idea of journalistic dignity. Far ahead of both is Trump, who is willing to do anything, because issues like dignity and appropriateness never enter his thoughts.

Which is why Trump is winning. Why he is, as Jonathon Chait points out in the New Yorker, carving away America democracy one slice at a time. So that when Mueller finally emerges, and the press finally wakes up, it could be far too late.

Hungarian communist leader Mátyás Rákosi invented the phrase “salami tactics” to describe how his party established a dictatorship. The phrase has come to describe a way of taking power in increments, by forcing your opponent to repeatedly choose between either giving up a small concession – a slice of the salami – or staging a total confrontation.

Think of where America was even on the day of Trump’s inauguration, when the argument of the day was about crowd sizes. Or where we were the following March when Jeff Sessions actually consulted with legal experts and recused himself. Or where we were that May when the firing of James Comey generated enough outrage that even Congressional Republicans supported the appointment of Robert Mueller as a special counsel and praised him as a thorough and impartial investigator.

We are not now that nation.

Slice, by slice, by slice … scandal by scandal by scandal … Trump has eaten away the core of both the justice system and America’s sense of justice. Despite every form of corruption from misuse of public funds to plain old bribes, Scott Pruitt is still there. Despite every form of corruption, Ryan Zinke is still there. Despite the disastrous mishandling of hurricane response in Puerto Rico that by any measure was far worse than what happened with Katrina, it took a Harvard study to reveal the massive death toll … and America seems to be okay with that.

This is the country where immigrant children are ripped away from their families and American citizens are left to die in the dark. Because Trump knows what every autocrat in history has known: Most people will go on ignoring what is happening around them, until it’s far too late to take action. And that includes the people who are caught up in following normal procedures in the middle of an emergency.

So now Giuliani is simultaneously all but conceding that members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, and calling the entire investigation illegitimate. Trump’s defensive line on the facts of the case is retreating at the same moment his procedural attack on the investigation is advancing. Republicans are converging on the position that they have the right to decide which laws matter and who should be investigated.

Trump is making a day to day calculation. Is what remains of the ability of the free press and the justice system small enough that he can now discard the investigation? No? Take another slice. How about now. Slice. Or now.

He may eventually calculate incorrectly. It may be that either firing Mueller, or allowing Mueller to present his case, results in the kind of outrage that ultimately diminishes Trump’s power, if not removing him from office completely. But that is far, far, far from a sure thing. In the meantime, Trump is already destroying the ability of the nation to respond to this — or the next — assault.

 

Mark Sumner is the author of the nonfiction work "The Evolution of Everything" as well as several novels including "Devil's Tower."