Make no mistake, Donald Trump and company aren’t simply bent on repealing the ACA, they seek to repeal the Obama presidency. But that’s an executional detail. The real story – and worry – is that our democracy and its institutions are under attack. The assailant sits in the Oval Office, our most sacred seat of power. In an effort to inflate his own mandate, he’s challenged the veracity of (and thus undermined) the ballot box. He has attacked the credibility of the press, the integrity of the judiciary and has alleged extralegal over reach by the executive. Is the legislative branch and process next? We’re seeing the first signs. In an effort to thwart questioning the Republican devised ACA “repeal and replace” that he supports, the White House is trying to preemptively attack the widely respected and independent Congressional Budget Office.
Trump’s bizarre charge that President Obama ordered him wiretapped conforms to a pattern, one that also employs outright lies and intentional misinformation. Put together, his actions and words thus far echo the ways of autocrats. Equally disturbing, and again part of the same playbook, his campaign tactics riled up supporters who continue to have blind faith in him. If history is any lesson, these are people – a kind of private army – who might take to the streets, perhaps violently so, should his presidency seem threatened. And such a threat is not inconceivable as law enforcement or Congressional investigators dig into the Russia connection and, at some point in the future, his obvious conflicts of interest. Alan Greenspan famously described what he saw as an out of control stock market as the product of irrational exuberance. What we’ve seen from the new president are irrational tweets, the kind that might get us into deep trouble at home or abroad. If I thought before that all of his seemingly undisciplined behavior was calculated, I am only more convinced of it now. Whether the calculation originates with Trump himself or his alt-right strategist Steve Bannon makes for interesting speculation but ultimately is beside the point. It’s the result that counts.
There is no way to put a positive spin on this new administration. As he himself might put it, Trump scares the hell out of me. I’m often asked what my late father, who saw the coming danger early on and as a Berlin rabbi vocally opposed the Hitler regime in the 1930s, would think of our current situation. While it is always risky and often misleading to speculate on what past leaders might make of the present, answering this question is a no-brainer. He would have found Trump’s world and actions familiar ground, a bright red flag to be taken seriously and whose potential for ill dare not be underestimated. For eight years, I have been getting regular emails from the White House. I loved being kept in touch. As an Obama contributor, I made the list. You likely are on it as well. I still get White House emails – guess they forgot to remove my name – and it’s always a bit of a shock to see that they are alerting me to some news or action of Donald Trump. The Office, for which I have great respect, just isn’t the same with its encamped crew of “alts” led by the unpredictable.
Add to that the administration is already under a cloud. I watched Deputy Attorney General Nominee Rod Rosenstein’s Judiciary Committee hearing. It was unusual to say the least because, just weeks in, the Attorney General has had to recuse himself from an inquiry where he will undoubtedly be a person of interest. If confirmed, it would fall to Rosenstein to take charge of the investigation. Appointed as an US Attorney by George W. Bush, he went onto serve under Obama for the last eight years. Supported now by his state’s two Democratic senators, he appears to be a public servant of great integrity. No one on the committee seems to have doubts about that or about his apolitical reputation. That said, Democratic members believe the inquiry into Russian influence on the November election, and the role played in it by the Trump campaign, demand an independent special counsel. They also want Jeff Sessions, who may have committed intentional perjury during his confirmation hearing, to resign. At the very least, he should return for a round of follow up public questioning.
This is not the first administration to fall under congressional investigation, nor is the current Attorney General the first to be under a cloud. (If they think the Nixon administration is good company, so be it.) But I don’t know of a case where it has happened so early. That’s both troubling and encouraging. Troubling for obvious reasons, but encouraging because perhaps, despite the systematic attacks, checks and balances are neither dead or intimidated. Trump may be the master of distraction, and may be as calculating as I contend, but he is also inexperienced in the ways of government in general and Washington in particular. Why anyone would take on the press, security services and judiciary and not expect substantive consequences is a real mystery. Moreover, in demanding that Justice add Obama’s alleged bugging into its enquiry only adds fuel to the incipient flame. Investigations, by their nature, take on a life of their own, one that will be out of Trump’s control. Tweets may inflame, but they won’t determine the end point.
That end point remains unknown. Echoes of authoritarianism may not turn into the real thing. But with so-called populism led by rightists on the rise, we have good reason to be concerned. Historian Holly Case doesn’t name Trump in her current thoughtful Aeon Magazine The New Authoritarians article discussion of Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan, and Hungary’s Orbáns, but it’s not a stretch imagining him in that company. Remember how he characterized the former KGBer’s’ leadership in contrast to Obama’s during the 2016 campaign. Perhaps deep down I don’t believe it can’t happen here, but we can’t take that for granted. So far, Trump has said and done a lot of things that I thought impossible, certainly unlikely. He’s being described as unconventional. I think that’s a dangerously benign description. His attacks on our essential institutions are too serious and those attacks are ultimately on all of us.