The most consequential election since 1860
My father fled Hungary in 1956 to escape the institutionalized mistrust, fear of retribution, corruption, nepotism, and lack of human dignity of Soviet rule. He saw America as a beacon of hope and was drawn to our strong democracy, rule of law, system of justice, and moral stance in the global fight against oppression and injustice.
Democracy can die more quickly than you think
That beacon of hope has come under threat. We have become inured to it, but Trump’s words and actions are unprecedented. No President before him came close to undermining our democracy to the extent that he has.
The roadmap from democracy to authoritarianism has been surprisingly consistent:
- Create a cult of personality
- Delegitimize independent institutions
- Attack free speech
- Obliterate the concept of objective truth
- Elevate the worst elements in society & marginalize people of integrity
- Eliminate all forms of accountability
- Restrict the public’s access to information
- Weaponize the levers of justice
- Sow division and intimidate the opposition
- Assault the legitimacy of national elections
The remainder of this article illustrates how each of these steps has taken root during the Trump administration, and reveals how far we have already crept down the road to authoritarianism.
1. Create a cult of personality
Authoritarians channel the basest of emotions to feed their need for adulation. They demand not just loyalty, but absolute fealty.
George Conway argues that Donald Trump suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder. Two defining characteristics according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), are the need for excessive admiration and a complete lack of empathy:
“The essential feature of narcissistic personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.”“Vulnerability in self-esteem makes individuals with narcissistic personality disorder very sensitive to ‘injury’ from criticism or defeat.”
According to psychologist Dan McAdams, the “fundamental life goal” of an extreme narcissist “is to promote the greatness of the self.” Trump proudly quoted a supporter who called him the “second coming of God” and the “King of Israel” and recently declared that:
“I’m the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness, and chaos.”
Although the president is sworn to protect the American people, he only takes care of those who supported him and actively seeks to punish those who didn’t. When wildfires raged across California, Trump sought to withhold aid because those affected did not support him.
He also usurps the powers allocated to Congress and asserts “absolute” authority over states when they go against him, saying:
“The federal government has absolute power. It has the power. As to whether or not I’ll use that power, we’ll see”
2. Delegitimize independent institutions
A critical step in obtaining unfettered power is to turn people against the institutions that underpin our democracy.
Attacks on an independent judiciary
Trump has sent a clear message that he will attack anyone ruling against his interests.
“Let me just tell you, I’ve had horrible rulings, I’ve been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall, OK? I’m building a wall… And it’s a wall between Mexico. Not another country.”
“There should be no trial. This should have been dismissed on summary judgment easily. Everybody says it, but I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump, a hater. He’s a hater. His name is Gonzalo Curiel.”
As president, he questioned the legitimacy of another judge who ruled against him based on which president had appointed him.
He also publicly disparaged the forewoman on the jury that convicted Roger Stone, his 2016 campaign advisor, as “tainted.”
Attacks on the independence of law enforcement
It is unprecedented for a president to publicly comment on ongoing investigations. Yet Trump has repeatedly sought to influence and discredit investigations that affect him.
Former FBI director Robert Mueller was widely respected with a reputation as a straight-shooting, by-the-book investigator. His appointment to lead the Russia investigation garnered bi-partisan praise.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters:
“I have a lot of confidence in Bob Mueller. I think it was a good choice.”
Then Trump began a multi-year campaign to delegitimize the investigation and disparage Robert Mueller, continuously repeating words such as “rigged” and “witch hunt”.
He called former FBI Director James Comey and others at the FBI as ”human scum”, and accused them of treason (the penalty for which is death) for their involvement in the investigation. Attorney General Bill Barr claimed the Russia investigation was unjustified and that the FBI acted in “bad faith”.
In response, the DOJ and FBI mounted a robust defense of the investigation. They both criticized “many of the president’s acts directed at witnesses, including discourag[ing] cooperation with the government and suggest[ing] possible future pardons”.
However, the continuous attacks succeeded in turning Americans against the investigation:
- 58% of people said the FBI broke the law investigating Trump
- 54% said conflict of interest prevented Mueller from doing an unbiased job
Attacks on the intelligence agencies
As president, Trump has repeatedly disparaged intelligence agencies who report to him. He referred to them as “so called American intelligence”, and publicly cast doubts on the competence, integrity, and honesty of their leadership.
On July 16, 2018, President Trump stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin and sided with the Russian leader, publicly questioning the U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election:
“I addressed directly with President Putin the issue of Russian interference in our elections.… He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be…. I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that president Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
He then called the U.S. probe into the Russian election interference a “witch hunt” — right in front of the Russian leader — and demurred from holding Russia accountable for anything at all.
In response, the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats reiterated the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow had meddled in the election:
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,”
General Michael Hayden, who headed the CIA from 2006 to 2009 and the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005, warned:
“[Trump] is undercutting the validity of institutions on which we’re going to have to rely long after he’s left office
Attacks on his political opponents
Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, writes:
“Putin & other autocratic populists cast their opponents as radicals & revolutionaries. They don’t focus on their own records — often there is little to celebrate — but the horrors that will happen if they lose power.”
Similarly, Trump demonizes the other party, painting them as not just as wrong, but unpatriotic and an existential threat to the country. It is not enough to just disagree with Democrats. He casts them as “radical socialists” who want to destroy the American way of life.
He doesn’t just disagree with his Democratic opponent — a practicing Catholic — but claims that he is “against God”. He then spread false claims that the Democrats dropped the word “God” from Pledge of Allegiance during their 2020 convention.
In reality, they sang the Star Spangled Banner on the first night. The other three nights they recited the Pledge of Allegiance in full — with the words “one nation, under God”.
Trump uses language such as “human scum” to describe his political opponents. “Human scum” is the language that dictators use to dehumanize their opponents:
- Adolf Hitler called his enemies human scum.
- Joseph Stalin called his enemies human scum.
- Kim Jong Un called his enemies human scum.
- Vladimir Putin calls his enemies human scum.
And, now, so does the U.S. President, Donald Trump:
He also accuses his political opponents of treason (the penalty for which is death):
- Accused Barack Obama and Joe Biden of treason
“We caught President Obama and Sleepy Joe spying on my campaign. That’s treason. That’s illegal. These people should take ’em and do something with ‘em.”
- Accused Congressional Democrats who did not applaud during his State of the Union address of being “un-American” and “treasonous.”
- Accused House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff of treason for his ill-advised parody of Trump’s call with the leader of Ukraine:
“It should be criminal. It should be treasonous. … He should resign from office in disgrace, and frankly, they should look at him for treason.”
- Accused the Obama Administration Justice Department of treason
“[Michael Flynn] was targeted in order to try and take down a president. I hope a big price is going to be paid. A big price should be paid. … It’s treason.”
3. Attack free speech
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Trump’s non-stop attacks on press credibility “dangerously undermined truth and consensus in a deeply divided country” and endanger US democracy and global press freedom.
He frequently whips up crowds into a rage by vilifying the media. He calls the press “the Enemy of the People and the Real Opposition Party”, and criticizes them as “fake, fake, disgusting news”. He describes the journalists at his rallies as “horrible, horrendous people”.
Senator John McCain warned that suppressing the free press was “how dictators get started”:
“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time.”
“Enemy of the people” — language with a deadly history
The Nazis described Jews and other groups targeted extermination as “enemies of the people”.
The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, used the label “enemy of the people” to justify the cruelest repression against anyone who in any way disagreed with him. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev outlawed the term, saying:
“The formula ‘enemy of the people’ was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating” [persons who opposed the party line].
Raising costs of speaking out
Trump’s re-election campaign has spent more than $16 million on legal fees, including multiple lawsuits that make it increasingly costly to publish critical stories about him.
He and his enablers in Congress have intimidated legitimate whistleblowers by threatening them with retaliation and revealing their identities.
His administration has repeatedly killed the microphones of reporters in press briefings who ask questions he doesn’t like, and even tried to ban certain journalists from the White House press corps.
4. Obliterate the concept of objective truth
When my father was a child living behind the Iron Curtain, he rapidly learned that whatever the government said, the opposite was probably true. The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.
President Trump had made 20,055 false or misleading claims. By flooding the media with lies, we are unable to react to one before he has already moved on to the next one. At one point people give up refuting the lies.
General Hayden and the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, warn that the obliteration of objective truth has been a precursor to government collapse, civil war and dictatorship in other countries, and worry the same thing can happen here.
In addition to just lying on his own, Rick Wilson warns that Trump will be aided by foreign and domestic actors producing deepfake audios and videos:
“Given bad actors at home and abroad [and] Trump’s willingness to cheat…you should doubt your eyes, your ears, and the truth of any video you see. Profoundly convincing deepfakes will enter the political bloodstream this election.”
As if to prove this point, Trump recently retweeted a recording from a graduate of a Russian spy academy that U.S. intelligence describes as part of a Russian campaign to denigrate Joe Biden.
Promotes conspiracy movements
In this environment, people become increasingly susceptible to conspiracy theories. In May 2019, the FBI described “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” as a growing threat that may drive people to carry out criminal or violent acts.
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy movement with millions of members. It began in October 2017 around the idea that President Trump is the world’s only hope to defeat “deep state” elites who worship Satan and murder children. It’s influence within the Republican Party has grown rapidly:
- At least 20 Republican candidates for Congress openly support QAnon or its beliefs.
- Trump retweeted QAnon-supporting accounts more than 130 times
- Trump’s former national security adviser General Michael Flynn added the #TakeTheOath hashtag to his Twitter profile and shared a video of himself leading friends in an oath, which included the QAnon slogan: ‘Where we go one, we go all.’
When asked by a reporter about QAnon during a press conference, Trump responded:
“I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate…. I have heard that it is gaining in popularity…. I’ve heard these are people that love our country…. I don’t know really anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.”
The reporter explained that “QAnon believes you are secretly saving the world from this cult of pedophiles and cannibals. Are you behind that?” to which Trump responded:
“I haven’t heard that. Is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?… And we are actually, we’re saving the world.”
5. Elevate the worst elements in society & marginalize people of integrity
Rampant corruption in authoritarian regimes rewards those who do their bidding, while smear campaigns and loyalty purges ruthlessly destroy those that show any independence.
Trump has surrounded himself with unethical people whose only qualification is personal loyalty. His former campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, national security advisor, foreign policy advisor and personal lawyer are all now convicted felons.
Embraces nepotism and the corruption that comes with it
Like the dictatorial Kim Dynasty in North Korea, and the authoritarian House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, Donald Trump’s family members have outsized roles in his administration.
His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been called the “Secretary of Everything”. His portfolio includes:
- Leading a task force to reshape the federal bureaucracy
- Spearheading criminal justice reform
- Leading a shadow coronavirus taskforce
- Tackling the country’s opioid abuse epidemic
Kushner’s influence eclipses cabinet members’, and he is the key contact person for foreign diplomats, executives and members of Congress seeking to promote their agenda.
His security clearance was downgraded by career White House security specialists after an FBI background check raised concerns that foreign governments might try to gain influence by doing business with his family’s businesses. President Trump intervened and granted both his daughter and him top-secret security clearance, raising concerns about serious conflicts of interest:
- Shortly after a meeting in the White house between Kushner and Citigroup’s CEO to discuss financial and trade policy, the bank lent Kushner Companies $325 million.
- Kushner Companies also received a $184 million loan from Apollo Global Management after several White House meetings between Kushner one of the firm’s founders, to discuss infrastructure policy.
- At the end of 2018, the Chinese government granted 18 trademarks to companies linked to Ivanka Trump and her father that she had been trying to obtain since 2016
Pardons convicted war criminals
Trump pardoned soldiers convicted of war crimes despite strong opposition over weakening norms against the inhumane treatment of POWs that could endanger American troops.
Eddie Gallagher — Navy Seal platoon leader known to fire indiscriminately into crowds. Accused of shooting an elderly man carrying a water jug and a girl walking along a riverbank. Turned in by fellow platoon members — including one of the most experienced members — who described him as “freaking evil” and “toxic”. The former Secretary of the Navy who was fired for resisting Trump’s order to restore Eddie Gallagher’s rank after he had been demoted, wrote in an op-ed:
“This was a shocking…reminder that the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”
Clint Lorance — Army First Lieutenant who ordered his troops to shoot three unarmed Afghan villagers, two of whom were killed. Turned in by his own men, nine of whom testified against him.
Michael Behenna — Disregarded orders to drive home an Iraqi man who had been interrogated for being a suspected al-Qaeda member. Instead, he drove the detainee into the desert, stripped him naked, interrogated him at gunpoint, and then shot him in the head and chest.
Encourages police and military brutality
In authoritarian regimes, rampant police abuse is the norm and citizens are persuaded to look the other way or even approve of human rights violations under the guise of national security.
While addressing a crowd of law enforcement officers in July 2017, Trump advised police:
“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?… I said, you can take the hand away, okay?’
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump defended war crimes as highly effective and legitimate tools for advancing U.S. national security.
“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families…. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”
At a 2015 campaign rally, he told a (false) story about how General John Pershing used bullets dipped in pig’s blood to put down an insurgency by the Muslim Moro people in the Philippines.
Retaliates against officials who show any signs of independence
Days after he was acquitted on impeachment charges, Trump embarked on a purge of anyone deemed insufficiently loyal or who had presented unwelcome information — particularly regarding Russia. Career experts were often replaced with unqualified loyalists.
- Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) — Fired for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Trump taunted him as “scared stiff and Missing in Action”, “not mentally qualified”, and “a disaster who has let us all down. We don’t want him back in Washington!”
- Gen. H.R. McMaster (National Security Advisor) — Fired after saying there was “incontrovertible” evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election in a speech at a national security conference
- Dan Coats (Director of National Intelligence) — Forced to resign after presenting a report to Congress that provided unwelcome assessments of Russia and resisting demands to change a report on Russia’s ongoing efforts to influence U.S. elections in 2020 and 2024.
- Richard Spencer (Secretary of the Navy) — Fired for resisting President Trump’s order to restore Eddie Gallagher’s rank after he had been demoted following his war crimes trial.
- Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State) — Fired after repeatedly clashing on foreign policy. Claimed Trump tried to get him to do illegal things without understanding they were illegal. He also said that Trump “doesn’t like to read [and] doesn’t read briefing reports.”
- Gen. James Mattis (Secretary of Defense) — Resigned in protest of Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw American forces from Syria and his rejection of international alliances.
- Joe Maguire (Acting Director of National Intelligence and former Navy SEAL) — Dismissed for testifying in Congress about Russian meddling in the 2020 election on behalf of Trump.
- Sally Yates (Acting Attorney General) — Fired after ordering Justice Department lawyers to stop defending Trump’s executive order banning entry from Muslim-majority countries.
- Dr. Rick Bright (head of biomedical research) — Filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was abruptly dismissed after expressing concern about the danger of hydroxychloroquine as a proposed COVID-19 treatment.
Trump also bullied, intimidated, and retaliated against the civil servants who were called to testify against him in the impeachment trial. For example, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified about a call in which Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden. Two days after he was acquitted, Trump removed both Vindman and his twin brother from the National Security Council in a public spectacle. In addition, Trump’s allies insinuated that the Ukrainian-born colonel had “dual loyalties” and might be a spy for Ukraine.
A top national security aide described the effect of Trump’s systematic retribution against impeachment witnesses as:
“not just chilling but frightening…. The broader message to career officials is that you can’t speak up. Even if you see something illegal, something unethical, you can’t speak up..”
Admiral William McRaven (who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden) warned:
“As Americans, we should be frightened — deeply afraid for the future of the nation. When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security — then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.”
(This is all in addition to Trump embracing dictators (such as Mohammad bin Salman, Kim Jong-Un, and Vladimir Putin), while casually insulting our democratic allies — video.)
6. Eliminate all forms of accountability
“The accumulation of all powers…in the same hands…whether hereditary, self–appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny” (James Madison, Federalist №51).
Since taking office, Trump has taken steps to avoid being held accountable, including several in flagrant violation of the law
Obstructs justice with systematic perjury to Congress and the FBI
Trump has surrounded himself with people willing to lie to protect his interests. The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee referred several Trump associates (including his son and son-in-law) to the DOJ for possible perjury about Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Hampers oversight by eliminating independent watchdogs
Inspectors general (IGs) expose abuses like corruption, waste and cronyism to both Congress and the agency that they are overseeing. Yet according to former Justice Department IG Michael Bromwich, Trump is “dismantling” the IG system:
“Trump demands loyalty, which means no criticism is allowed and covering up waste, fraud, abuse and misconduct is required. Airing such matters is the legal job description of IGs. At the first sign the work of IGs affects him, he fires them. He is dismantling the IG system.”
After being acquitted in his impeachment trial, President Trump fired five IGs:
- Intelligence Community IG Michael Atkinson (4/3/20) — helped facilitate the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment
- Department of Defense acting IG Glenn Fine (4/7/20) — poised to oversee $3 trillion in coronavirus relief funds distributed to state and local governments and private companies
- Health and Human Services acting IG Christi Grimm (5/1/20) — reported “severe shortages of testing supplies” and “widespread shortages of personal protective equipment” among medical workers battling the virus
- State Department IG Steve Linick (5/15/20) — opened an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts to secure an arms deal with Saudi Arabia
- Department of Transportation acting IG Mitch Behm (5/15/20) — investigating whether the Transportation Secretary (wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY) was giving preferential treatment to Kentucky
Bypasses Congressional approval of cabinet appointments
Despite his party controlling the Senate, Trump continuously flouts the constitutionally- mandated separation of powers:
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been without a Senate-confirmed head for over 500 days, and none of the current top officials was approved by the Senate
- The Acting DHS Secretary, Chad Wolf, has remained in his role well beyond the expiration of his acting term on June 10, 2020, in violation the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998
- The Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director’s appointment was ruled unlawful by a U.S. District Judge.
Intimidates and punishes federally-protected whistleblowers
Trump has used the power of the presidency to intimidate and punish whistleblowers. The House Intelligence Committee wrote about the CIA officer whose complaint precipitated impeachment:
“In more than 100 public statements…the President publicly questioned the whistleblower’s motives, disputed the accuracy of the whistleblower’s account, and encouraged others to reveal the whistleblower’s identity. Most chillingly, the President issued a threat against the whistleblower and those who provided information to the whistleblower regarding the President’s misconduct, suggesting that they could face the death penalty for treason.”
Invites corruption by violating the Constitution
His failure to divest from his businesses violates the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution and has resulted in more than 2,300 conflicts of interest between his official and personal interests:
- Foreign governments have hosted 12 events at Trump properties.
- Nine T-Mobile executives booked rooms at Trump’s Washington hotel the day after announcing a merger with Sprint that required federal approval.
- Trump campaign-affiliated committees, Republican campaigns, and PACs have paid more than $20 million to Trump-owned businesses, the majority spent at his properties.
- His 2020 reelection campaign has used $2.3 million in donor funds for rent, food, lodging and other expenses to his private companies
- The federal government has spent more than $900,000 at his properties at taxpayer expense, at least $570,000 of which was for his 365 visits (a third of his days in office).
7. Restrict the public’s access to information
Controlling what information the public can see is one more step toward authoritarianism.
COVID-19 pandemic crisis
Trump’s response to the pandemic has been reminiscent of the Soviet response to Chernobyl. His administration has muzzled government health officials and scientists to control messaging.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases.
- On February 27th, the White House blocked Dr. Fauci from communicating publicly without clearance after his statement that the virus “appeared to have a higher mortality rate than influenza”.
- Six weeks later, the administration prevented Dr. Fauci and other health officials from appearing in interviews on CBS.
- In May, Trump prevented Dr. Fauci from testifying before Congress about the administration’s coronavirus response, because the chamber was full of “Trump haters.”
- A few days later, the White House blocked members of the coronavirus task force from testifying before Congress.
- In July, he blocked the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Robert Redfield, from testifying before Congress on how to safely reopen schools.
In July, the Trump Administration ordered hospitals to stop sending COVID-19-related data to the CDC. Instead, they are required to provide the data to a private technology firm, which will send it to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In contrast to the CDC database, the HHS database is not open to the public. And data in the new system is reportedly marred by inconsistencies, rendering it “almost impossible” to use for real-time decisions.
Dr. Bright explained the danger of restricting information about the virus:
“The truth must be based on scientific evidence — and not filtered for political reasons. We must know and appreciate what we are up against. We have the world’s greatest scientists — they must be permitted to lead. Let them speak truthfully without fear of retribution. We must listen so that the government can then take the most powerful steps to save lives.”
Relationship with Russia
Since World War II, presidents have brought along a translator and an official with deep background in the topic to be discussed as a note taker when meeting with foreign heads of state. In contrast, President Trump has gone to unprecedented lengths to conceal details of his conversations with the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- There is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face meetings with Putin at five locations in 2017 and 2018.
- He confiscated his interpreter’s notes of his 2017 meeting with Putin in Hamburg and ordered them not to discuss what transpired — even with senior cabinet members.
The White House also indefinitely postponed the release of the DNI’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” report to Congress earlier this year. The report has been published every year since 2006 and serves to inform the public about threats facing the country. Last year the report warned of the following threats:
- Russia — Russia’s efforts to interfere in U.S. elections “pose a cyber espionage, influence and attack threat to the United States and our allies…. Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities…spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations, or manipulating data…to influence US policy, actions, and elections.”
- 2020 election — “Our adversaries… [look at] the 2020 US elections as an opportunity to advance their interests…. [They] will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions… [and] may seek to use cyber means to directly manipulate or disrupt election systems — such as by tampering with voter registration or disrupting the vote tallying process — either to alter data or to call into question our voting process.”
- Disease — The country “will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability”
8. Weaponization of the Department of Justice
Trump has obliterated the traditional independence of the Department of Justice (DOJ). Attorney General Bill Barr has used his office to shut down investigations into Trump’s companies, reward his allies and punish those who turned on him.
Shutting down investigations into Trump
As soon as Bill Barr took over in February 2019, he immediately began shutting down every investigation of Trump that Robert Mueller had delegated to regional U.S. Attorney’s Offices:
- Shut down six separate investigations into Donald Trump and his businesses.
- Issued new restrictions requiring his written approval to open any investigation into a presidential candidate or campaign.
- Closed seven of the court orders requested by Mueller to obtain information from Twitter, Facebook, and others just ten days after Mueller submitted his report.
- Declined to release Mueller’s executive summary and, instead, released his own summary, which argued that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigations is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
A Bush-era District Court Judge complained that Barr’s version reflected a “calculated effort” to spin Mueller’s findings to benefit the president. Mueller, himself, later went on camera to clarify why the president had not been charged with a crime:
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so…. [since] a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office….Charging the President with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”)
Intervening in cases involving Trump’s allies
AG Barr personally intervened to push for a lighter prison sentence for Roger Stone The DOJ also filed an unprecedented motion to drop charges against Michael Flynn. In a court filing, a former federal judge tasked by the presiding judge with arguing against that decision wrote:
“In the United States, Presidents do not orchestrate pressure campaigns to get the Justice Department to drop charges against defendants who have pleaded guilty — twice, before two different judges — and whose guilt is obvious… There is clear evidence that this motion reflects a corrupt and politically motivated favor unworthy of our justice system.”
Punishing former allies who fall short of abject fealty
- Senator Richard Burr (Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee) co-signed a report that publicly confirmed Russian interference in the 2016 election in support of Trump. Shortly thereafter, of three senators, who had been accused of coronavirus-related insider trading, his home was the only one raided by FBI agents.
- Michael Cohen (Trump personal attorney) was the only one of more than a half dozen senior members of the Trump administration convicted of felonies to cooperate with authorities. When other convicted Trump allies, such as Paul Manafort, were released from prison due to COVID-19, the DOJ intervened and blocked Cohen’s release.
9. Sow division and intimidate the opposition
Authoritarians seek to divide the country and dehumanize their opponents. Trump has stoked racial tensions by embracing white nationalism. He has encouraged police brutality (as described earlier) while remaining largely silent about the shocking police killings of black people that led to nationwide protests. He has incited demonstrations against Democratic governors, while violating the Constitutional rights of protestors who oppose him.
The result has been a sharp increase in social unrest since he took office. Trump’s former Secretary of Defense and retired four-star Marine general, James Mattis, accused him of intentionally trying to divide the country:
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
Uses social unrest as a political tool
In late May and early June, demonstrations sprang up across the country (and the world) to protest police brutality against black Americans. The demonstrations started out peacefully, but violence soon erupted in some locations. Instead of seeking to diffuse tensions and de-escalate the situation, Trump immediately painted Democrats as responsible for the rioting and violence:
“You hear about certain places like Chicago and you hear about what’s going on in Detroit and other cities, all Democrat-run. Every one of them is Democrat-run. The 20 worst, the 20 most dangerous are Democrat-run.”
Trump has blamed the looting and property destruction on antifa (short for “anti-fascist”), an amorphous extreme-leftwing movement, while remaining silent about mounting evidence of violence and incitement by far-right extremist groups that support him, such as the anti-government Boogaloo Boys and the neo-fascist Proud Boys.
- Minneaoplis police say that the man who started the riots was a member of a white supremacist group seeking to “incite violence”:
“Until the actions of the person [known as] ‘Umbrella Man,’ the protests had been relatively peaceful. The actions of this person created an atmosphere of hostility and tension…. this individual’s sole aim was to incite violence.”
- The only group named in any of the documents filed by the DOJ against 53 people charged with committing acts of violence during the protests is the Boogaloo movement.
- Despite the Vice President’s implication that a federal police officer in Oakland was killed by the Black Lives Matter protesters, the alleged perpetrator is a member of the Boogaloo Boys who sought to use the protests to ignite a race war.
- Police in Virginia said white supremacists had instigated riots in Richmond “under the guise of Black Lives Matter”
- The FBI arrested three Boogaloo Boys in Las Vegas after they allegedly planned to “hijack the [BLM] protests into violence” by attacking government officials and property.
Incites demonstrations against Democratic governors
Trump has publicly encouraged demonstrators to protest the COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders in Democratic states:
Shortly after he posted those tweets, thousands of his supporters — including armed militia group members — descended on Michagan’s capital. Several of them packed the capitol building’s gallery and attempted to enter the floor of the legislative chamber. Many state legislators felt threatened and donned bullet proof vests.
In response, Trump told reporters that “These are people expressing their views. They seem to be very responsible people to me” an added that protesters had been treated “rough”. Washington state Governor Jay Inslee accused Trump of “fomenting domestic rebellion”
Intimidates peaceful protestors by violating their Constitutional rights
Trump berated governors for not “taking care of” the protestors after outbreaks of vandalism and violence:
“It shouldn’t be hard to take care of [the protests]. We’re going to take care of it…. General Milley is here,… a fighter, a warrior, had a lot of victories and no losses…. And we will activate Bill Barr and activate him very strongly…. We’re strongly looking for arrests. You have to get much tougher…. You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
After federal property was damaged, Trump sent in unmarked, non-identified federal agents over the objections of local governments. The agents were not professional police and had no training in riot control or mass protests.
They were filmed beating unarmed protestors with their hands up, and abducting people off the street into unmarked vans. Several peaceful protesters were seriously injured, including a Navy veteran whose hand was smashed by officers, and a man whose skull was fractured.
The First Amendment guarantees the rights of citizens to protest.
Yet when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest racial discrimination and police brutality, Trump suggested that he should find himself a new country and called on team owners to fire him:
“I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try, it won’t happen…. Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired’,”
The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Yet Acting Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf (who is in the role illegally) told Fox News that “because we don’t have… local law enforcement support, we are having to go out and proactively arrest individuals.”
The Fifth Amendment guarantees their right to due process of law.
Yet this video shows masked federal agents in camouflage gear, with no badges identifying who they work for, arresting a man without telling him what he was being charged with or reading his Miranda rights. He had no way of knowing if he was being kidnapped by paramilitary vigilantes.
“There’s no other reason for law enforcement not to take five seconds to say, ‘we’re with the U.S. Marshals. You’re under arrest,’ other than to terrify people,” said Sheila H. Potter, chief deputy trial counsel in Oregon’s Attorney General’s office.
The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullens criticized the federal response to protests:
“[Trump] laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.”
10. Assault on the legitimacy of our elections
Trump has continually sought to undermine faith in our electoral system and has cast doubts over whether he would accept the outcome if he lost. Since before he was even elected, Trump has engaged in a “systematic assault on the legitimacy of our election,” according to Dartmouth College political scientist professor Brendan Nyhan:
“Elections have been held during wars and pandemics, but never with the president attacking the result before it has even taken place.”
Casting doubt on legitimacy of mail-in voting
Facing a global pandemic, the president should encourage people to vote by mail and ensure the system can handle the increased volume of mail-in ballots. Instead, he calls mail-in voting the biggest threat to his reelection and casts doubts on the legitimacy of our upcoming election.
- Posted a barrage of tweets preemptively calling the upcoming election the “most corrupt” in American history and alleging widespread fraud.
- Claimed that voting by mail in Republican-run states (like Florida) is safe, but that in Democratic-run states (like Nevada) it is fraudulent.
- Launched multimillion-dollar legal effort to block expanded ballot access and encouraged practices that will suppress Democratic voters from applying for mail-in ballots.
(Absentee ballot request forms sent by the North Carolina Republican Party look like Trump campaign propaganda that Trump supporters are more likely to complete — video.)
A database compiled by the conservative Heritage Foundation lists only 208 cases involving “fraudulent use of absentee ballots” since 1991.
The Trump campaign released a 524-page document in response to a federal court judge’s order to back up its claims of mail-in voter fraud, which cites only a handful of cases of election fraud in recent years — none of which involved mail-in ballots.
Sabotaging the United States Postal Service
Democratic lawmakers and voting rights groups have accused the Trump administration of sabotaging mail delivery before Election Day in the midst of a global pandemic.
Postal workers warn that the changes implemented by the new Postmaster General pose a grave threat to the integrity of the upcoming presidential election. Nick Casselli, a mail worker union president in Philadelphia, said:
“This is a deliberate attempt to affect the upcoming presidential election.”
Trump himself openly admitted his strategy:
“‘they need that money…so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”
Trump replaced USPS’s Board of Governors with loyalists like Trump donor Bill Zollars, who had been the subject of a Justice Department lawsuit for defrauding the Department of Defense of millions of dollars. The Board then appointed Louis DeJoy, a prominent Trump donor with no experience working in the USPS, to replace a career veteran as Postmaster General in May 2020. DeJoy immediately took actions likely to cripple the postal service’s ability to function.
- Removed the top two officials in charge of day-to-day operations.
- Destroyed 671 mail sorting machines, which can each sort 35,000 pieces of mail an hour.
- Removed blue mailboxes in several key states and locked many others.
On-time delivery of first-class mail had hovered around 95% throughout the first half of the year and then abruptly dropped to 85% in mid-July after Louis DeJoy began implementing his changes. Delays of as much as a week in mail delivery have been reported.
Enabling Russian election interference
The Republican-controlled Senate’s investigation into Russian sabotage of the 2016 election outlined an extensive web of contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Kremlin officials, Russian intelligence officers and others tied to the country’s spy services, concluding:
“Trump and his associates’ participation in and enabling of [Russia’s assault on the integrity of the 2016 election] represents one of the single most grave counterintelligence threats to American national security in the modern era.”
What was revealed:
- Paul Manafort was the Trump campaign’s “single most direct tie between senior Trump campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services.” His high level access and willingness to share confidential information with intermediaries of the Russian intelligence services represented a “grave counterintelligence threat”.
- Suggests Manafort and Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik may have been connected to the Russian government’s effort to hack and leak Democrats’ emails.
- Roger Stone tried to get WikiLeaks to time the release of Podesta’s emails to distract from the Access Hollywood tape.
“… of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” — Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, #1
In just three and a half years, America has begun to resemble the regime that my father fled.
Nepotism, corruption, the closing of our borders, a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment bordering on xenophobia, replacement of experienced career experts with unqualified loyalists, polarization of our society, and the delegitimization of the institutions that underpin our democracy.
We should never take for granted that our great democratic experiment will endure on its own without our participation. Tom Nichols said:
“If Trump is in for four more years, we literally will have a completely Trumpified judiciary. We will have a completely Trumpified military, which I think people ought to think really hard about. We will become, basically, a kind of 1965 Eastern European backwater in terms of our politics.”