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Congressional Republicans — and everyone else — should take Trump’s authoritarianism seriously

Donald Trump Meets With Congressional GOP Leaders In Washington DC Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Asked by Republican members of Congress if he could be counted on to uphold Article I of the Constitution — that’s the one outlining the powers and prerogatives of Congress — Donald Trump said, "I want to protect Article I, Article II, Article XII."

As Rep. Mark Sanford recounted to Philip Rucker and Sean Sullivan of the Washington Post, one problem here is that there is no Article XII of the Constitution.

It’s a bit of a gaffe, of course. The real problem, however, isn’t in the comical misstatement. It’s in the fact that Trump didn’t even take the question seriously. He was sitting in a room with a group of influential men and women, many of whom he knows are skeptical of his candidacy but who also face strong incentives to get on board with it. The Article I question was a free invitation to say or do something reassuring to an audience of people who wanted reassurance.

But Trump didn’t do it. He didn’t respect congressional Republicans’ doubts and worries, and he wouldn’t pretend to take them seriously, even though right now would be a really good time for him to at least pretend. Hillary Clinton is out with a new ad raising questions about Trump’s affection for dictators and its implications for his commitment to constitutional democracy.

The natural thing for committed Republican partisans to do is rally around their man. But Republicans who care about the constitutional order ought to think over his refusal to reassure House Republicans, and then think about the implications for how Trump will behave when he’s much more powerful and has much less objective incentive to try to act reassuring.

Trump repeatedly expresses admiration for authoritarian political systems

Viewed in isolation, Donald Trump’s recent expression of admiration for Saddam Hussein’s antiterrorism credentials could be understood as essentially a realpolitik critique of the Iraq War:

He was a bad guy — really bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights. They didn't talk. They were terrorists. Over.

That’s a cringeworthy thing to say. But to be generous about it, Trump is making a point that many opponents of the 2003 invasion of Iraq made in the mid-aughts: that rather than focus on fighting terrorists, George W. Bush’s administration (with a minor assist from Hillary Clinton’s Senate vote — which she now says she regrets) overthrew a regime that was objectively aligned against al-Qaeda and eventually turned it into a haven for Islamist terrorists.

But Trump has specifically cited Saddam’s disregard for due process as praiseworthy in the past: "A one day trial and shoot him … and the one-day trial usually lasted five minutes, right? There was no terrorism then."

Trump even defended Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels, mocking the idea that war crimes are a big deal: "Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy, 'oh he's using gas!'"

  • Trump also praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un: "Even though it is a culture and it's a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, and he's the boss. It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn't play games."
  • And Vladimir Putin: "He's running his country and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country."
  • And the Tiananmen Square crackdown: "When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength."

Donald Trump maybe keeps a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bed

Here’s a weird thing Marie Brenner reported for Vanity Fair way back in 1990:

Donald Trump appears to take aspects of his German background seriously. John Walter works for the Trump Organization, and when he visits Donald in his office, Ivana told a friend, he clicks his heels and says, "Heil Hitler," possibly as a family joke.

Last April, perhaps in a surge of Czech nationalism, Ivana Trump told her lawyer Michael Kennedy that from time to time her husband reads a book of Hitler’s collected speeches, My New Order, which he keeps in a cabinet by his bed. Kennedy now guards a copy of My New Order in a closet at his office, as if it were a grenade. Hitler’s speeches, from his earliest days up through the Phony War of 1939, reveal his extraordinary ability as a master propagandist.

"Did your cousin John give you the Hitler speeches?" I asked Trump.

Trump hesitated. "Who told you that?"

"I don’t remember," I said.

"Actually, it was my friend Marty Davis from Paramount who gave me a copy of Mein Kampf, and he’s a Jew." ("I did give him a book about Hitler," Marty Davis said. "But it was My New Order, Hitler’s speeches, not Mein Kampf. I thought he would find it interesting. I am his friend, but I’m not Jewish.")

Later, Trump returned to this subject. "If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them."

There was also the time Trump was so taken with a Benito Mussolini quote that he retweeted it in the middle of a presidential campaign. And his efforts to recruit Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi as an investor.

Trump has no regard for constitutional rights

Trump does not have an extensive record of engagement with public policy issues, but contempt for the rule of law and due process is a major throughline in his thinking.

Perhaps his first major political intervention was a 1989 newspaper ad campaign urging hasty executions of five young African Americans accused — falsely, as it turns out — of raping a jogger in Central Park.

Trump’s view was that "criminals must be told that THEIR CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS" and that, therefore, the young men should be put to death.

This is, essentially, what Trump found so praiseworthy about the Iraqi Baath Party’s approach to criminal justice issues. On a conventional account, however, one major reason for granting civil liberties to accused criminals is that not everyone accused of a crime is, in fact, a criminal. In the particular case of the Central Park Five, for example, the men he was so eager to kill were innocent.

Beyond that:

  • Trump has vowed to: "sign a strong, strong statement that will go out to the country, out to the world, that anybody caught killing a policeman, policewoman, police officer, anybody killing a police officer: death penalty.  It’s gonna happen. OK?" This is fine except for the Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence (see Woodson v. North Carolina) the separation of powers (you need Congress to change the law) and federalism (these are state issues), but at least it’s bloodthirsty.
  • Trump has promised to "open up" libel laws to make it easier for rich individuals or powerful government officials to shield themselves from media scrutiny.
  • He has promised to retaliate against Amazon’s business interests as revenge for negative coverage in the Washington Post, since the Post is owned by Amazon’s CEO.
  • He praised FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans.
  • He called for shutting down portions of the internet and mocked freedom concerns: "Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ Those are foolish people."
  • He has promised to ignore the 14th Amendment and deport US citizens whose parents immigrated to the United States illegally.
  • He has repeatedly called for more use of torture by the American government.

People should take these threats seriously

Trump is probably not going to win the election. And if he does win the election, he probably won’t set about creating a lawless regime modeled on Baathist Iraq or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that features widespread use of summary executions as its key policy tool.

But it’s really not that far-fetched to imagine him setting up a populist authoritarian regime modeled on Putin’s Russia or contemporary Turkey.

The kind of place where ordinary citizens who mind their own business and don’t talk about politics won’t have many problems with the law, but where anti-regime activists may find themselves beaten by pro-regime activists who enjoy de facto legal impunity and where critical media outlets face coordinated campaigns of legal and regulatory harassment. The kind of regime that attacks the character of judges who rule against its leader rather than following the law, and that seeks to limit voting rights to regime loyalists.

You may find this somewhat far-fetched, and it is, indeed, somewhat far-fetched.

But here’s where Trump’s comments about the mythical Article XII matter. Right now Trump is famous but essentially powerless. He holds no office, his campaign has harmed the financial interests of his businesses, and he is facing likely electoral defeat in November. If ever there were a time for Trump to be on his best behavior and reassure people that he is 100 percent committed to the rule of law and constitutional government, now would be it.

But he can’t do it. Not in speeches he delivers to rallies, and not in closed-door meetings with congressional Republicans.

Republican Party elected officials, in particular, need to think about this. If they’re nervous about Trump’s commitment to constitutional government — and they should be — and he won’t reassure them or restrain himself now, then when is it going to happen? When he’s already in the White House? When he has all the power and doesn’t need supportive words from random backbench House members?

That doesn’t make sense. If you’re genuinely 100 percent confident that a Trump administration won’t lead to the collapse of American democracy, then fair enough. But Republican leaders who find themselves seeking reassurance on this score and not receiving it ought to take their own doubts seriously. If Trump’s authoritarian vision is going to be stopped, the time to stop it is before he takes power, not hoping for the best afterward.


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