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  • Victor C. Bolles

Warning Signs

Donald J. Trump ‏‪@realDonaldTrump Feb 5

Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!


How does a country slide from freedom into authoritarianism? What are the telltale signs? History gives us numerous examples.

The rise of Hitler to power is instructive. Hitler in 1930 had previously attempted a violent overthrow of the Weimar government (the “Putsch”) and served time in jail during which he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle). Extreme factions on the right and left beset the German parliament (Reichstag) in 1930 and the minority centrist government was unable to deal with the impact of the Great Depression or other problems. Hitler ran against Hindenburg for the office of President and he lost although, with the help of his hard-core supporters, he came in second with a vote of over 35%. With a government unable to address pressing problems, prominent Germans urged Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor, which he did. Hitler was able to maneuver the Reichstag to pass a law to grant him the ability to rule by decree. He quickly took over the labor unions and other democratic institutions and, when Hindenburg died in 1934, took full power as Fuhrer (leader). Elections continued to be held but with only Nazi candidates.

The rise of Hugo Chavez was eerily similar. Like Hitler, Chavez led an abortive attempt to overthrow the democratic government of Venezuela in 1992. In an attempt to calm rising tensions in the country, a weak centrist government liberated him after only a few years in prison. Chavez immediately set out campaigning for the next presidential election, which he was able to win handily. Riding a wave of popularity he rewrote the Venezuelan Constitution that increased the number of Supreme Court justices, allowed the president to rule by decree, extended the presidential term and allowed reelection, and granted additional executive powers while eviscerating the legislature. He used state media to promote his personality cult, started his own newspapers and TV channel and drove independent media out of business. He continued to have elections but the Chavez government tightened its grip on the media and arrested opposition candidates. Only death could end his grip on power.

From these two examples of populist authoritarianism (one from the left and one from the right) we can begin to discern patterns (although I am sure there are many other examples out there).

In order to get into power:

  1. ?Take advantage of a weak and/or ineffective centrist government

  2. Increase the radicalization of the right and left wings

  3. Use , but do not believe in, democracy

  4. Election by massive voting by a block of supporters

  5. Intimidation of opponents (by Brown Shirts in Germany and by colectivos in Venezuela)

Once in power in order to assure continuance in power:

  1. Rule by decree

  2. Change constitution or pass enabling legislation

  3. Control and/or politicize Supreme Court

  4. Communicate directly with the people though state media

  5. Undermine and eliminate independent media

  6. Take over independent trade unions

  7. continue sham elections

  8. Demonize minorities

  9. Ramp up fear of attack in order to justify emergency war powers

In the twenty-first century we have seen similar kinds of patterns beginning to take shape in the United States. Both the Republican and Democratic Parties are held in thrall by their far-out extremist elements. Compromise is now considered treason and worthy of expulsion from the party. The net result has been a weak and indecisive government that can’t even pass a budget bill let alone major reform legislation. The 2016 elections were acrimonious and fraught with accusations of manipulation and abuse. We are inundated with fake news and alternative facts.

Only a few weeks in office, President Trump has been impugning the courts and the media of malfeasance and dishonesty. He has been lashing out on Twitter against those opposed to his policies while alienating long-time US allies with threats of altering or backing out of long-standing treaties. How different is America First from Deutschland uber alles?

In the above Tweet, President Trump is basically saying that the courts will be responsible for the next terror attack because they oppose his ban on immigration from seven state sponsors of terror. While it looks likely that he will prevail eventually (the law is pretty clear) he is undermining and weakening one of the three branches of government. The Founders created these three branches of government as a check on state power. Weakening, politicizing and controlling the courts is one of the first actions that emerging dictators undertake. Of course, it was Franklin Roosevelt that first tried packing the court in order to assure that his New Deal legislation wouldn’t be found unconstitutional (but he was blocked by Congress).

President Trump hasn’t made any overt moves in this direction but we must remain on alert. His tweets show the disdain in which he holds his opponents. We do not know what course he might attempt to make if one of his major policy initiatives is held up or blocked by the courts or the legislature. Combining his attacks on the court system along with his vicious attacks on so-called mainstream media (now called just MSM) we see unnerving similarities to the strategies of authoritarian populists of both the left and the right.

Right now it seems he is just venting his spleen. His treatment of district judges is equivalent to the tongue lashing Nordstrom received from dropping his daughter’s clothing line. We do not know if these are the ravings of a vain insecure person or the devious machinations of a person with a lust for power. But they are warnings signs. We must not gloss over these tendencies or our freedom will be in peril.

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