Timothy Snyder’s new book On Tyranny is about the tyrannical regimes of the previous century, written for us today. He writes, “We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex.” He goes on by saying, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century.” Subtitled ‘Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century’, Snyder’s book was written after, and evidently in response to, the American presidential election. He writes of the horrors of the century before this one, and his twenty lessons are for us– all of us- to learn from in order to recognise, respond to, and stop the return of tyranny.
Since taking office, Donald Trump has not adhered to the norms or rules of the office he holds. This is not just his conversational style, his no-nonsense approach, or his tendency to tweet unverified claims. He has not released his tax returns. His excuse for not doing so (an ongoing IRS audit) is not a credible one. Rules concerning conflict-of-interest do not seem to apply to Trump. David Cole writing in The New York Review of Books says: “[Trump] mixed together personal business and official diplomacy during several meetings and conversations with foreign officials during the transition.” He has not put his assets into a blind trust. He has handed the operations of the Trump Organization to his sons.
Many argue that Trump is in violation of the Constitution. Specifically, groups such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington claim that the president is in violation of the “emoluments” clause against conflict-of-interest that was included to prevent corruption from a president. It reads:
No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.
The accusations relate to his mixing of business and official duties of the office with foreign officials. However, this is just one example of Trump prioritising self-interest before the requirements of the Constitution he swore to protect and defend. This does not make Trump a tyrant. However, any leader who acts as though rules do not apply to them by virtue of them being in power is a dangerous leader, and one of whose actions and deeds citizens need be aware.
This is not true of just Trump, but those within his administration. Top names in the Trump White House have overreached their authority in ways some believe to be unconstitutional. From Salon:
“…White House chief strategist Steve Bannon overruled a Department of Homeland Security finding about how President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban would impact green card holders… White House chief of staff Reince Priebus asked the FBI to discredit reports about the Trump campaign’s alleged contacts with Russian officials.”
These so-called “assistants to the President” are considered just White House employees and do not require Senate confirmation. However, as the above quote indicates, today they wield considerable power that some argue goes beyond that granted to them by the constitution.
To quote Snyder: “The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.” It is hard to think of a leader who actively likes his or her investigators, but ones who are openly hostile to or manipulative of their critics (be it the press or other branches of government) present signs of a leader we all, regardless of party-political persuasion, should acknowledge and regard as a dangerous, prior to finding out what such investigations conclude.
Entering office with historically low approval ratings that have only gone downhill since, the prospect of looking back on a successful Trump White House seems unlikely. Whilst the Freedom Caucus’ recent derailing of the Republican healthcare bill clearly shows resistance, current GOP lawmakers seem to be doing themselves their ultimate disservice in not taking a stand against the president. Republicans who stood by him during the election, supported his ill-thought out agenda or did not take a stance against unethical practices that should have been checked (or, indeed, all three of these) will be giving future Democratic opponents their ultimate asset for competitive election campaigns in the phrase “(S)he supported Trump.” (Whether the electoral system will be further gerrymandered or amended under the dubious cover of countering ‘voter fraud’ to make this a significant threat remains to be seen.).
Donald Trump is not a dictator. His recent failing at passing a long-awaited healthcare bill and in executing the so-called ‘Muslim ban’ at the height of his political capital shows that he is subject to the checks and balances of the other branches of government. He is not a tyrant. But that should not matter. His dangerous behaviour both in the campaign and currently in office echoes that of previous tyrants in generations past. However, he is acting in a volatile and unstable contemporary setting. His belief that the norms, rules and laws of governing do not apply to him should shake every patriot to his or her core. A Congress siding with their party over these values would be even worse.
Since Trump’s inauguration, citizens have taken inspiring steps in resisting: from protesting in the street to contacting their representatives more and more. In times like these, it is vital that the public remain vigilant and protective of objective truths and fundamental values. Largely, the GOP Congress is failing to do so. Now that truth is being denied, language manipulated, and rules circumvented, it is up to the ordinary citizen to engage in politics between elections. Given the barbarity of the recent past, it is tempting to think we are living in a sterilised present. Such thinking is wrong. We are all of us living in history. And thus we share responsibility. It is worth considering Synder’s words once more:
“Fascism rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people. They put a face on globalization, arguing that its complex challenges were the result of a conspiracy against the nation… We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex… We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.”