Guest columnist Mark Karpel: A home-grown apprentice dictator

  • In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a rally protesting the electoral college certification of Joe Biden as President in Washington.  AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI

Published: 11/15/2021 12:30:57 PM

Donald Trump came to fame on a reality television show called “The Apprentice.” He played an all-powerful boss who dishes out insults, pits his minions against each other, and indulges in humiliating public firings. It’s a pathetic (and prophetic) imitation of a dictator’s court, with slavish yes-men, vicious competition for The Big Man’s approval, and zero checks on his power (think Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Un).

Then, in 2016, Trump stumbled into the presidency with predictably disastrous results. Now, people wonder whether he’ll run for president a second time. But this time, Trump is the one who is eager to please and emulate a “Big Man.” Trump doesn’t want to be president. He wants to be Putin — in America. And the question for every American voter and government official is whether we want to live in that America.

Trump makes no effort to hide his fan-like admiration for Putin. He refused to hold Putin accountable for invading Ukraine, spreading disinformation during the 2016 election and assassinating dissidents. Trump famously remarked, “I think our country does plenty of killing also,” and readily took Putin’s word over America’s own intelligence services at Helsinki and beyond.

Fiona Hill, an expert on Putin’s Russia who literally had a ringside seat when Trump and Putin met in Helsinki, suggests that Trump admires Putin for his wealth, power and fame and sees him as “the ultimate badass.” Trump shares Putin’s Pharaonic indifference to the welfare of his subjects (not citizens; subjects), most obvious in his disregard for thousands of COVID deaths, even and especially among his own followers.

The “tells” of Trump’s wannabe-dictator longings are obvious, plentiful and largely unprecedented in U.S. presidential history:

■Cabinet meetings where minions outdo one another with obsequious praise;

■Firing inspectors general (five in 2021 alone);

■Firing whistleblowers and threatening them with prosecution;

■Welcoming media outlets that approach personal propaganda networks;

■Mocking and threatening political opponents (“Lock her up!”);

■Enriching and protecting cronies (pardoning Steve Bannon, indicted for trying to fleece Trump supporters with a “Build the Wall” scam);

■Continuing a lifelong pattern of self-aggrandizing, lies and distortions to gain personal advantage;

■Election cheating in various forms and efforts to subvert the electoral process itself;

■Repeatedly trying to order troops to beat peaceful protestors (according to Michael Bender, Trump encouraged law enforcement and military officials to “crack their skulls” and “shoot them in the legs.”);

■Demonizing the press (e.g., “human scum”) and encouraging violence against them;

■Twisting government bodies into hollowed-out, rubber-stamping enablers;

■And on Jan. 6, 2021, like Mao unleashing the Red Guards, instigating his followers to attack the government itself.

Putin would be proud.

One of the most ominous developments has been Trump’s encouraging intimidation and violence to enforce his will. Dictators often rely on groups of supporters to intimidate, beat or even kill those who oppose The Leader — the Brown Shirts in Hitler’s Germany; the Tontons Macoute in Duvalier’s Haiti; or the baltagiya in Egypt, seen riding horses and camels and whipping demonstrators against Hosni Mubarak.

Here, it started with Trump exhorting crowds at his rallies to rough up demonstrators and the press. It progressed to his supporters stalking and screaming at Republicans officials at airports and on planes and to armed militias surrounding or forcing their way into state capitols (Michigan, Kentucky).

Now, we see crowds vilifying and threatening a range of local, state and national public officials whose policies Trump opposes. This occurs on social media and, in person, at their offices and homes. Just this week, a Republican city commissioner shared threats he’d received that “your three children will be fatally shot” and “cops can’t help you, heads on spikes,” while Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state described armed protesters outside her home and threats to her children. It culminated at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when any doubt about the lengths to which Trump would go to impose his will evaporated in a treasonous attempt to overthrow the U.S. government itself.

And, appallingly, it’s working. More Americans are silencing themselves, as legislators, election, health and even school officials, are quitting, unwilling to continue being subjected to the stalking, screaming and threats — and justifiably concerned that it may get much worse. These strong-arm tactics foreshadowed Hitler’s rise to absolute power, after one failed coup attempt and through the electoral process.

Combine this with the parade of legislators and public officials (Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan, Mo Brooks, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson, among others) unwilling to hold Trump accountable and we can see that, as Timothy Snyder recently said, it’s already begun here. So, what comes next?

The most consistent pattern in Trump’s life has been his readiness (compulsion?) to break the rules, to go beyond what is normal or acceptable. (Predictions that he would “pivot” after the 2016 election soon vanished as he became even more emboldened and extreme.) Does anyone doubt he would push for even more dictatorial power if elected a second time — or that, now, suddenly, Republicans would stop him?

In March, 2018, after Xi Jinping abolished term limits for the Chinese presidency, Trump said, “He’s now president for life. … I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”

To prevent that, in 2022 and 2024, vote out the liars who deny the 2020 election results and, like Holocaust deniers, whitewash the Capitol coup attempt, and, if Trump tries for the presidency again, vote to tell this home-grown apprentice dictator, “Hey, you’re still fired!”

Mark Karpel is a psychologist and writer who lives in Northampton.


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