It’s been terrifying to watch, over the past first few days of this new presidency, how accurate the “conspiracy” theories were, going into the event. Many people predicted President Trump would behave like Putin-lite, introducing into our political system tactics and tropes of authoritarianism.
Here’s how that has played out, in just three short days:
- Press secretary Sean Spicer holds a news briefing in which he berates reporters for accurately reporting the smaller crowd size of Trump’s inauguration compared with President Obama’s 2009 turnout.
- Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway then appears on Meet the Press to say Spicer was offering “alternative facts,” a euphemism too 2017 for Owell, but trust me: if Orwell had lived in the 21st century, Conway would have had to coin something different.
- The president brings paid staffers to his much-publicized meeting with the C.I.A. so they can clap & cheer for him, creating the mirage of a joyous & obsequious intelligence community.
- Reince Priebus appears with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, and plays dumb in order to defend the claim that the media created a false narrative about Trump and the intelligence community. It’s only love there, always has been! Except those pesky tweets, one in which Trump himself compared U.S. intelligence to Nazi Germany.
- Trump declared the day of his inauguration “A National Day of Patriotic Devotion.”
I’ve probably missed something, or several somethings, in that brief rundown.
And it’s made me reflect on what happened during the Republican primary, because I’ve decided something that is deeply troubling. Here is my opinion:
I’ve decided Trump is not dumb at all. I think he may in fact be a freak genius. And I think he doesn’t just admire Putin for the balmy Moscow winters and bare-chested horse rides. I think he admires him because they’re kindred spirits. That should worry everyone.
Back during those early days of 17 Republican contenders for the presidential nomination, it seemed like a solid plan for any frontrunner to take down his most urgent competition first.
Hence, the nonstop, enormously expensive negative ad campaigns against Sen. Marco Rubio. Governor Bush saw Rubio as the biggest threat to his “lane” (that god-awful media concoction to explain the “types” of Republicans in the running). Also, Sen. Cruz felt the Floridian to be his most fearsome opponent. Apparently, so did Chris Christie.
It was the kind of pile-on few could withstand. The attacks fatally weakened the so-called “Republican savior,” but not until long after Bush and Christie had suspended their campaigns out of dismal support from voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
But Trump left Rubio alone. He really didn’t say much to or about him.
Instead, his first target – maybe even before Jeb! – was Sen. Rand Paul.
“What on earth is he doing?” I thought to myself, watching Trump stand at the preferential middle podium as he started debate fights with poor Paul, dangling off on the ledge for unpopulars, barely qualifying to get on the main stage at all.
What was the point of picking out Paul, needling him, weakening him, ultimately dispatching him early? I couldn’t fathom it then.
But now, I see it. Paul was the only one on that stage who held isolationist policies like Trump; he was also the only other one who might hang out around the water cooler of trade tariffs.
Rand Paul’s father, the legendary Ron Paul, had a solid college following of Republican rebels, baby cousins of the then-emerging Bernie Sanders fanclub.
In short, Paul had the policy likeness and outsider reputation to rival Trump. So even though his polling numbers were comparatively pitiful, Trump zeroed in first on the actual threat of Paul. He saw it before anyone else.
It’s the skill of somebody who has lived for years in the realm of competitive reality TV shows – there is a science to this. Just ask anyone (ahem) who has watched over a decade of The Bachelor. There are formulas for winning. Trump knew his.
But it is also the edge of a ruthless businessman, who has learned that the power of restraint, schmooze, and a good hand feint works just as well as threats, bribes, and undercutting. The strategy depends on the situation.
Trump razed Bush to the ground – it didn’t take much, as the country wasn’t in a dynasty mood (see: election results, 2016). He then left Rubio alone, played nice for a while with Cruz. There were debates in which he said hardly anything, leaving his shovel-ready insults instead for late-night Twitter tirades.
Not until it was down to the final four did Trump even make a peep about Gov. Kasich. Better not to give the likable, forgettable guy with actual experience any free media.
Of course, his biggest target WAS the media. And again, the deliberateness of his chosen targets is telling. Trump tweets didn’t regularly feature reliably liberal outlets like MSNBC or Huffington Post or Slate. They instead honed in on CNN and The New York Times, as if Trump was insistent on delegitimizing the two biggest media entities besides Fox News and The Wall Street Journal (who are respectively falling at his worship and exercising editorial restraint to his favor).
Republicans and right-wingers in general didn’t need any diatribes about MSNBC bias. They already believed that network to be in the tank exclusively for progressives. But those same viewers might trust CNN, or the New York Times, at least nominally.
Trump out-strategized everybody.
That’s not a mistake.
And now, with his promise of military parades like the ones favored by fascist & communist monsters of yesteryear, with his cheerful & brazen gas-lighting of “facts,” with his uninterrupted defense of the Kremlin, with his “National Day of Patriotic Devotion”…
These are also not mistakes.
Trump is bringing authoritarianism to the United States, and what liberals especially need to understand is this:
He’s going to try to get you on his side.
Remember, always, that this is a man who spent his entire adult life as a Democrat. He’s not a conservative on economics – he favors big spending programs, a generous Social Security for everyone, not allowing people to “die on the streets,” bringing back factory jobs for typically union workers.
In short, he sounds one hell of a lot like Bernie Sanders.
During Reince Preibus’ Sunday interview, he told Chris Wallace, “What it’s about from day one after winning this election, and President Trump talking about bringing America together, having a unified American public around unified ideas, not Republican or Democrat, he’s ready to get to work.”
It’s not about being Republican for Trump. It’s about winning.
If that means he gets in bed with Democrats, then Trump won’t hesitate.
More importantly, it’s time Americans got real about what authoritarianism is, and what it’s not. It is not always an evil, maniacal commitment to genocide. It’s not necessarily concentration camps, or re-education programs.
But it is always about power, above all else, and at any cost.
The test for everyone will probably not be whether or not they oppose Muslim registries or the deportation of 11 million people. Neither of those things is likely.
The test may be whether or not they stand up for journalists who are targeted, for their heterodox conservative views or their unabashedly liberal ones.
The test may be whether or not they support those who oppose Trump, regardless of which party they come from.
It’s country over party for everyone, now. And it will be illuminating to see the results.