Some, such as the king of Thailand, are more blatant than others such as Hungary's Viktor Orban, but despotism is staging a comeback worldwide. From Egypt's el-Sisi, Turkey's Recep Erdogan, Brasil's Bolsonaro, civil and human rights are being rolled back. In many countries, the US included, liberal democracy is on the ropes.
In Thailand, saying something, anything, deemed derogatory of the monarch earns you a lengthy stay in the Greybar Hotel. Erdogan punishes his critics in a similar fashion.
Even the United States has fallen victim to an imperial presidency. Donald Trump sees no distinction between himself, qua president, and the nation itself. They are merged, the nation subsumed into the man in the Oval Office.
A dark assumption seems baked into Donald Trump’s effort to strong-arm foreign leaders into unearthing dirt on Joe Biden: that Trump’s reelection victory is in the nation’s interests, because he and the nation are one and the same.
When that is a president’s mind-set, schemes that might seem unsavory and possibly impeachable become necessary acts of national service. Legitimate investigations into his behavior become plots against the state. An impeachment inquiry isn’t so much a constitutional process for determining whether a president violated the oath of office as a coup—a crime against country.
As Trump tries to preserve his presidency, he’s talking in just these grandiose terms, erasing the distinction between country and self, and grooming his base to see things the same way. That sort of thinking could ultimately portend a crisis, if Trump’s actions in the months ahead mirror his rhetoric. If Trump thinks of himself as the state, would he leave office were the Senate to convict him in an impeachment trial, or were he to lose the 2020 election? Or would he count on an embittered electoral coalition to rise up and repudiate the verdict?
The notion that a president won’t step aside when the time comes has always been unthinkable. Now it’s a question that’s openly debated—and will take on new urgency in the year ahead.
...Perhaps the most extreme expression of Trump’s vaulting self-conception is his use of the word treason. Treason is a crime so serious that the framers took steps to ensure that it wouldn’t be misused for partisan purposes. It is a betrayal of one’s country, defined in Article III of the Constitution as levying war against the United States, or “adhering to” enemies and giving them “aid and comfort.” That’s not how Trump has sought to define it: disloyalty to a political leader or antipathy for that leader’s behavior.
...Trump’s use of the word is anachronistic in the modern era, echoing the way monarchs deployed it in centuries past. Carlton Larson, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law and an expert on treason, told me that Trump has misused the term in ways that “confuse loyalty to the country with loyalty to Trump, which is the old English idea that treason was betrayal of the king.
“I can’t think of another president who has tossed around that term so casually. In many countries, treason is used as a way to execute political opponents—and it’s because of that that we have a more limited definition.”
...Last year, Trump decried Mueller’s investigation as “an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.” In an appearance in Florida earlier this month, Trump said that CNN, whose pundits dissect his misstatements and stumbles, is “a terrible thing for our country.” So is the House impeachment inquiry into his efforts to pressure Ukraine, as he told reporters at the White House recently.To me Trump is a symptom of a new paradigm that's setting in, our collective inability to believe what is happening, the reality shifting beneath our own feet. We can handle change in small doses, gradual change. When it comes to truly seismic change - the retreat of democracy, the rise of tyrants, the ascendancy of oligarchs, the hydra of climate change impacts up to and including the prospect of a possible extinction event - we become as a deer caught in the headlights.
...It’s possible, of course, that Trump’s rhetoric is just that—rhetoric. But what’s clear is that he’s been laying the groundwork for his base to be angry whenever it is that he leaves office. By signaling to his core supporters that his ouster would be a grievous injustice they shouldn’t tolerate, Trump is upending the basic premise that the president is a temporary custodian of the office and subject to laws and oversight. In a recent tweet, he quoted one of his prominent evangelical backers in saying his removal through impeachment would create an irreconcilable split reminiscent of the Civil War. He’s said that two years of his presidency were “stolen” from him by Mueller’s Russia investigation. His ex-lawyer and onetime confidant, Michael Cohen, warned at a congressional hearing in February that he worried that if Trump were to lose the 2020 election, he wouldn’t permit a “peaceful transition of power.”
When we lose, through fear or manipulation, our ability to push back, we steadily forfeit control over our own lives, our communities and our society. We resort to Lord of the Flies tribalism, our society deeply divided as we're herded into corrals that exacerbate our divisions, our weaknesses. It is what Lincoln meant when, quoting scripture, he said that a house divided against itself cannot stand.