Talk of Trump’s dictatorship is weighing on the American political debate

When the historian wrote an essay warned the other day that the election of former President Donald J. Trump next year could lead to a dictatorship, one of Trump’s allies quickly responded by calling for the historian to be sent to prison.

It almost sounds like a parody: the answer to concerns about dictatorship is to prosecute the authors. However, Mr Trump and his allies are going out of their way to appease those worried about what the new term will bring by firmly rejecting the charge of dictatorship. If anything, they seem to be banking on it.

If Mr. If Trump is reinstated, people close to him have vowed to “haunt” the media, open criminal investigations into former aides who broke with the former president, and purge the government of government officials deemed disloyal. When critics said Trump’s language about ridding Washington of “pests” echoed that of Adolf Hitler, a spokesman for the former president said the critics’ “sad, miserable existence will be crushed” under the new Trump administration.

Mr. Trump himself did little to reassure Americans when his friend Sean Hannity tried to help him on Fox News last week. During the town hall-style meeting, Mr. Hannity threw what appeared to be a softball by asking Mr. Trump to reaffirm that, of course, he had no intention of abusing his power and using the government to punish enemies. Instead of simply agreeing, Mr Trump said he would only be a dictator on the first day of his new term.

“Through all his actions and rhetoric, Trump has made it clear that he admires leaders who wield authoritarian forms of power, from Putin to Orban to Xi, and that he wants to exercise that kind of power at home,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the author. of the book Strongman: Mussolini to the Present, referring to Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Xi Jinping of China. “History shows that autocrats always tell you who they are and what they are going to do,” she added. “We just don’t listen until it’s too late.”

Talk of the possible authoritarian quality of the new Trump presidency has suffocated the political conversation in the nation’s capital in recent days. A series of reports in The New York Times laid out various plans developed by Trump’s allies to assert enormous power in the new term and detailed how he would be less constrained by constitutional fences. The Atlantic published a special issue with 24 contributors anticipating another Trump presidency many of them would appear to depict an autocratic regime.

Liz Cheney, a former Republican congresswoman from Wyoming who served as vice chairwoman of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, has published a new book warning that Mr. Trump is a clear and present danger to American democracy. And of course, it was an essay by a historianRobert Kagan, in The Washington Post prompting Sen. JD Vance, Republican of Ohio and a Trump ally, to pressure the Justice Department to investigate.

Of course, American presidents have expanded their power and have been called dictators since the early days of the republic. John Adams, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, among others, were accused of despotism. Richard M. Nixon has been said to have consolidated power in an “imperial presidency”. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both have been compared to Hitler.

But there is something different about the debate now, more than overheated rhetoric or legitimate disagreements over the limits of executive power, something that suggests a fundamental moment of decision in the American experiment. Perhaps it is a manifestation of popular disillusionment with American institutions; only 10 percent of Americans think democracy works very well, according to a June poll Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the extremism and demagoguery that have become increasingly prevalent in politics in many places around the world. And perhaps it stems from a former president who wants to regain his old office and who shows such a bewildering affinity for autocrats and even envy of them.

For once, Mr. Trump expressed no regrets about a quote he shared on social media came from Mussolini and adopted Stalin’s language when he called journalists “enemies of the people”. He told this to his chief of staff “Hitler did many good things” and later he said wished American generals were like Hitler’s generals.

Last December, shortly after opening his comeback campaign, Mr. Trump called for a “suspension” of the Constitution so that Mr. Biden would be immediately removed and reinstalled in the White House without waiting for another election.

Defenders of the former president dismiss fears about Mr. Trump’s autocratic instincts as whining by liberals who don’t like him or his policies and are disingenuously trying to scare voters. They argue that President Biden is the real dictator because his Justice Department is prosecuting his most likely opponent next year for various alleged crimes, even though there is no evidence that Mr. Biden was personally involved in those decisions, and even some former Trump advisers to call the indictments legitimate.

“Dictator talk by Kagan and his fellow liberal writers is an attempt to scare Americans not only to distract them from the failures and weaknesses of the Biden administration, but from something they fear even more: that another Trump administration will be far more successful in implementing its agenda and undoing progressive policies and programs from the first,” Fred Fleitz, who served briefly in Mr. Trump’s White House, wrote about American greatness website on Friday.

Mr. Kagan, a widely respected Brookings Institution scholar and author of numerous history books, has a long record of supporting a muscular foreign policy that hardly strikes many on the left as liberal. But he has been a strong and outspoken critic of Trump for years. In May 2016, when other Republicans were coming to terms with Mr. Trump’s first presidential nomination, Mr. Kagan warned that “this is how fascism comes to America.”

His essay of November 30 again raised the alarm. Mr. Trump may have been prevented from implementing some of his more radical ideas by more conventional Republican advisers and military officers in his first term, Mr. Kagan argued, but he will no longer surround himself with such figures and will face fewer of the checks and balances that held him back last time. .

Among other things, Mr. Kagan cited Mr. Trump’s effort to overturn the election he lost, disregarding the will of the voters. And he noticed the open discussion of Mr. Trump on prosecuting opponents and sending the military into the streets to quell protests. “In just a few years, we have gone from being relatively secure in our democracy to being a few short steps, and a few months, away from the possibility of a dictatorship,” Mr. Kagan wrote.

Mr. Vance, the freshman senator who sought Mr. Trump’s endorsement and was who was listed as a possible vice presidential candidate by Axios last week next year, resentful on behalf of the former president. He sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland suggesting that Mr. Kagan be prosecuted for inciting “open sedition,” using a point in Mr. Kagan’s essay that suggested Democratic states could defy President Trump.

Mr. Vance wrote that “according to Robert Kagan, the prospect of a second Donald Trump presidency is dire enough to warrant open rebellion against the United States, along with the political violence that will inevitably follow.”

Kagan’s article did not actually advocate rebellion, but simply predicted the possibility that Democratic governors would oppose Mr. Trump “through a form of nullification” of federal authority. Indeed, he went on to suggest that Republican governors might do the same to Mr. Biden, something he did not advocate.

But Mr. Vance sought to draw a parallel between Mr. Kagan’s essay and Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. According to the Justice Department’s logic in prosecuting Mr. Trump, the senator wrote, Kagan’s article could be interpreted as “a call for an ‘insurrection,’ a manifestation of a criminal ‘conspiracy,’ or an attempt to provoke civil war.” To be clear, he insisted on answers by January 6.

Mr. Kagan, who followed his essay with another one on Thursday on how to stop the slide towards dictatorship that he sees, he said that the senator’s intervention confirmed his thesis. “It’s revealing that their first instinct when a reporter attacks them is to suggest they be locked up,” Mr. Kagan said in an interview.

Aides to Mr. Trump and Mr. Vance did not respond to requests for comment. David Shipley, The Post’s opinion editor, defended Mr. Kagan. “We are proud to publish Robert Kagan’s thoughtful essays and encourage audiences to read his Nov. 30 and Dec. 7 pieces together — and draw their own conclusions,” he said. “These essays are part of Kagan’s long tradition of starting important conversations.”

It’s a conversation that has been going on for months with an uncertain ending. Meanwhile, no one expects Mr. Garland to take Mr. Vance seriously, including almost certainly Mr. Vance himself. His letter was a political statement. But it says something about the era that proposing the prosecution of critics would be considered a political victory.

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