Trump Week 55: Authoritarianism Watch

Some highlights from the week, as Trump’s behavior is as unsettling to the state of our democracy as ever.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Donald TrumpFBI

In an essay published around Inauguration Day last year, I observed that Donald Trump “is all text, sometimes in all caps…When he lies, it is not usually or primarily to conceal his true self.” Many aspects of his presidency pose interpretive challenges (see, for instance, James Fallows on the question of how to label this era), but the President himself is unusually, sometimes shockingly, transparent. So, as another installment in a very occasional series on The Week In Trump, let’s review some of the highlights of the last few days.

Last Friday, Republicans in the House of Representatives released a misleading memo designed to protect the President from the Russia investigation by alleging pervasive anti-Trump bias at the FBI. It’s been suggested that there’s something odd or even hypocritical about Democrats leaping to the FBI’s defense, but there’s no reason why believing in legitimate scrutiny of national security and law enforcement agencies requires liberals to go along with a Fox News-fueled witch hunt designed to shield Trump and his inner circle. As if determined to confirm that this is, in fact, the GOP’s plan, Paul Ryan explained to Fox News before the memo’s release that there is a need to “cleanse” the FBI.

Then, on Monday, in case anyone had forgotten the language of “cleansing” over the weekend, the President tweeted the following:

It’s a battle against exhausted resignation to keep pointing this sort of thing out, but the President of the United States has (once again) publicly accused senior governmental figures of illegal actions designed to undermine his presidency. That would be shocking even if his message had not concluded with the words “Must be stopped!” In this context, from this person, that vague exhortation can easily be interpreted as advocating, even if thoughtlessly, forcible removal or possibly violence against a member of Congress.

With this early-morning tantrum complete, there was still plenty of time left in the day for the President to hold a rally in Cincinnati and make some typically free-associative remarks on the amount of adulation he’s been receiving lately (hint: never enough). Speaking on the unremarkable practice of the opposing party to remain mostly seated during the State of the Union, Trump whined: “It got to a point where I didn’t even really want to look too much during the speech over to that side…They were like death. And un-American. Un-American. Somebody said ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess. Why not? … Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

To cap off this brilliant start to the week, the Times reported that Trump’s lawyers have “advised him against sitting down for a wide-ranging interview” with Robert Mueller, because they “are concerned that the president, who has a history of making false statements and contradicting himself, could be charged with lying to investigators.” Translated from the typically polite language of Times reporters, this means that even Trump’s own lawyers think he is either so stupid, or such a compulsive liar, or so implicated in wrongdoing—or some dizzying combination of the three—that he cannot speak to an investigator without somehow incriminating himself. Just to reinforce this point, the article reports that they have been managing the President’s temper by repeatedly lying to him about the impending conclusion of the investigation: “Privately, people close to the president have conceded that assuring Mr. Trump that the investigation would end by a certain date was primarily aimed at keeping him from antagonizing Mr. Mueller on his Twitter feed or in interviews.”

Monday’s events left the distinct impression that the much-discussed State of the Union “reset” had, unsurprisingly, not occurred. Instead, the news was dominated by stories about Trump’s expectation that the country’s institutions will bend in loyalty to him, that he is owed more adoration from his opponents, and that he sees failure to praise him as un-American and potentially treasonous. That was just on Friday and Monday. On Tuesday, the Post reported that “President Trump’s vision of soldiers marching and tanks rolling down the boulevards of Washington is moving closer to reality in the Pentagon and White House, where officials say they have begun to plan a grand military parade later this year showcasing the might of America’s armed forces.” We can argue about what term accurately describes this series of events, but we cannot ignore the events themselves. The President has not changed. He will not change. He is telling you who he is. Listen to him.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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