These are the words of a would-be despot: “I can tell you this, you can’t talk that way about our country, not when I’m the president,” said Donald Trump last Friday. In Trump’s America, criticism in not acceptable, and the four congresswomen — the target of his racist tweets for more than a week — “can’t get away with” speaking freely.
The U.S. Constitution and the laws of the United States protect the members of “The Squad” — as they are known — in their exercise of free speech, at least so far. Trump has to resort to bullying and threatening the Democratic representatives — Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — into silence. The president uses racism and the threat of the mob — as witnessed in last week’s chants of “Send her back” at a Trump rally in North Carolina — to intimidate American citizens.
It is the conjunction of a nascent authoritarian streak with racism that makes Trump so dangerous and the coming election so important. The 2020 presidential election may be the most consequential in the nation’s history since 1860, when the election of Abraham Lincoln as president sparked Southern secession and the Civil War. If Trump were to win reelection next year, all restraints upon his tyrannical tendencies would be removed. And, if Republicans also were to regain control of Congress, a supine GOP might abet the nation’s descent into authoritarianism.
A putative dictator cannot establish an autocracy alone. He or she needs enablers to aid in the tearing down of democratic structures and a target to focus the rage of his supporters — who, in their rage, will agree to overturning traditions and rights protecting all citizens. In Trump’s case, the enablers are the Republican Party and the mob chanting “Send her back.” The targets are, in this particular case, the four congresswomen of color, proxies for all people different from Trump and his base.
Trump may not be clever enough to have thought this through carefully. But, he has stumbled onto the potential demise of a democratic America and a way for him to maintain control. (Never forget that Trump may well need to win reelection in 2020 to prevent his indictment as soon as he leaves the White House.) Trump knows using racial tropes is effective, a point recognized by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, who said, “I think the president is onto something.”
“Send her back” — the mindless chant of the mob — sent chills down my spine when I saw the tape of the North Carolina rally. Make no mistake about it, the American Mussolini loved all 13 seconds as he stood silently and listened to the crowd. He may have half-heartedly walked his approval back the next day (and then whole-heartedly walked back his walk back the day after), but the tape shows Trump with the smug, self-satisfied look he exhibits whenever he is basking in a give-and-take with his base.
Trump uses racism because it works — at least with his core supporters. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Monday and Tuesday of last week — after the initial tweet storm telling the congresswomen to leave but before the North Carolina rally — Trump’s net approval rating among Republicans rose five percentage points compared to a poll taken the week before. His approval rating dropped among Democrats and independents, but Trump has always focused his reelection strategy on solidifying his base and not adding to his support. There is precedent for this: The Nazis came to power — and destroyed the democratic Weimar Republic — based on winning only a minority of the popular vote in the last free elections in Germany before the Hitler came to power.
“I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” Trump tweeted recently. It is, like much of what Trump tweets and says, beside the point. What Trump believes in his heart about people of color is immaterial. What matters is that the amoral man in the Oval Office is happy to use racism, as history shows, to further his goals. Government investigators accused Trump of refusing to rent to black tenants in the 1970s. He never recanted his erroneous accusation against the five African American and Hispanic teenagers falsely accused of raping a jogger in New York City’s Central Park. He considered pitting an all-white team against an all-black team to bolster ratings of “The Apprentice,” even though friends and colleagues warned him against the racist implications of such a matchup. And, of course, he sharpened his political chops on the racist “birther” nonsense that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, then began his 2016 campaign maligning Mexicans. In the White House, he has referred to “shithole countries” and complained that Nigerian visitors would never “go back to their huts.” Finally, he equated “both sides” in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Yes, as McConnell noted, “The president is onto something.” Trump is willing to exploit the fear among many whites of losing status in an increasingly diverse nation. The president did not create that fear, but he is happy to use it for his own purposes. “Send her back” serves his purposes well, because it is a barb aimed at a hijab-wearing Muslim woman of color who — so the chanters believe — does not belong in their vision of America. “She’s lucky to be where she is, let me tell you,” Trump said of Representative Omar, and most of the crowd in North Carolina probably agreed.
With the mob — a substantial minority of Americans — backing him, Trump will continue to bully his opponents and use racial taunts as a tool to chip away at individual rights and democratic protections as the nation slides into tyranny. That is why the 2020 election is so important — if it is not already too late. The United States may have gone so far down the road to despotism under Trump that the next would-be dictator may well have a solid base upon which to build.
Posted July 23, 2019