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Donald Trump Jacob Heilbrunn Politics US Politics

America’s slide into authoritarian habits

Trump doesn’t want ‘this “bomb stuff’ to get in the way of his caravan midterms narrative

October 26, 2018

3:48 PM

26 October 2018

3:48 PM

‘This “bomb” stuff,’ as Donald Trump referred to it this morning on Twitter, took a new turn with the arrest of Cesar Sayoc, a Floridian who is suspected of trying to spread something other than sunshine across the US. He stands accused of mailing pipe bombs to a variety of leading Democratic politicians as well as CNN. Trump, always attentive to his own needs and wants, had been lamenting the fact that attempted bombings had stolen media attention from what he referred to as the GOP’s ‘momentum’ for the midterm elections. By the afternoon he was venting in the East Room of the White House. The attendees yelled out the name ‘Soros,’ referring to the billionaire George Soros who has become the bête noire of the right, and demanded, ‘lock him up.’ Trump found this amusing. ‘Lock him up,’ he responded.

Trump’s hope, in his flagitious way, had been that this was a ‘false flag’ operation. ‘Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,’ said Rush Limbaugh. Instead, the media is splashing out pictures of Sayoc’s white van, which is festooned with all kinds of decals mocking liberals and hailing Trump. But even this may not deter the most hardened ‘Pizzagate’ or QAnon types, probably one and the same, who will surely conclude that the latest events are another instance of fake news, concocted by a liberal media intent on undermining Trump. Trump, whose natural habitat is the world of conspiracy theories, will doubtless incline in this direction as well, prompting his critics to castigate him for being unpresidential or whatever epithet they direct toward him.

Trump is converting the presidency into an extended experiment in an alternative reality. Even as he tried to pooh-pooh the pipe bombs, he was elevating the dangers posed by a caravan of young mothers and small children that has apparently shrunk from 7,000 to 3,000 people. Kirstjen Nielsen declared that the administration wasn’t considering shooting at the caravan ‘right now.’ Whether this will energise his base, as the saying has it, or prove enervating for Republican political prospects is an open question.

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post is calling it Trump’s Reichstag fire moment, an opportunity for him to brand Democrats as inherently criminals who are seeking to provide aid and comfort to enemy aliens streaming toward the southern border. In his view, ‘Trump is preventing imagery of a real event to create a false narrative about what is happening and why; to justify his chosen response to it; and to manipulate public opinion toward other ends.’ But as Sargent notes, the episode is a signal instance of Trump’s own policy failure to address the immigration problem, not to mention Congress, which has gone AWOL on the issue.

Invoking the Reichstagsbrand is, of course, rather strong language. What is occurring in America is not a sudden lurch into tyranny, but a slide into authoritarian habits of mind and behaviour. If the GOP is able to hold the House as well as the Senate this fall, then Trump’s adversaries will only amplify their warning as he seeks to consolidate his hold on power. Meanwhile, liberals, who have just succeeded in helping to push for the ouster of Megyn Kelly from NBC, will seek to continue to console themselves that they at least hold the moral high ground. Come to think of it, if they lose the midterms, then they may be holding on for dear life.


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