How far is Trump willing to go?

Let me run something by you. I was thinking about the economic implications of the US midterm election this morning when I happened across various accounts about Donald Trump’s press conference yesterday. A lot of the focus was on his interaction with CNN’s Jim Acosta, who has had his White House press credentials revoked. Conservative British columnist Andrew Gimson and Liberal American Writer Greg Sargent have good takes on what transpired. I suggest you read them here and here.

Imagine Alexander Gauland as German Chancellor

Reading through Gimson’s account, it struck me; Donald Trump could have never become UK Prime Minister the way Theresa May did. And then I thought about Germany too. It’s the same. The CDU would never let someone like Trump become its Chancellor candidate. The analogy that came to mind was one where Alexander Gauland, the right-wing leader of Germany’s AfD party became German Chancellor. His policies would be a lot different than Merkel’s. That’s for sure. Or imagine Geert Wilders as Dutch Prime Minister.

First of all, this concept that a parliamentary system wouldn’t yield a Trump as leader is nothing new. I know that. But, it bears repeating. Now, I know UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is often considered radical. And he could well be Britain’s next Prime Minister. But, I would argue that Trump is a lot more radical in discourse and in action than Corbyn would be as Prime Minister, simply because Corbyn would face a vote of no confidence were he to stray to far from his Parliament’s wishes.

The only such check on Trump is the ballot box. And, forgive me for being ignorant, but I believe Trump probably sees the midterms as validating his approach, not rebuking it. Let’s remember that the first act that Trump made was firing his attorney general, a potential prelude to shutting down the Mueller investigation. The Washington Post simply doesn’t get it.

The point is that Presidential-style democracies that give the people the opportunity to directly elect the head of government are both more democratic and more unpredictable than parliamentary systems.

Think of Trump as an American Erdoğan

This is how Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power and began to erode democracy, pretty much from the start. Now, in that context, think about Gimson’s framing for a second. His title is that “Trump has a genius for portraying the victimhood felt by his supporters“. And, of course, the implication is that this victimhood is not entirely real nor is it entirely imagined. But, much of the electorate saw in his sense of victimhood their own victimhood. And that’s what matters for a populist figure.

The attempted coup d’etat in Turkey shows you that Erdoğan’s sense of victimhood was never entirely imagined. And, after the coup, with the victimhood now firmly established, democratic norms went almost completely out the window. It was a great opportunity for Erdoğan.

And before you go and chastize the Turkish electorate for voting against their own interests because of propaganda, remember that two-thirds of German Turks voted for Erdoğan too. And that’s after he had locked up journalists, fired teachers and so on.

The equivalent act in the US would be an attempted impeachment. Yesterday, I heard Mitch McConnell reflecting on the impeachment of  Bill Clinton as a death knell for his party in the same vein. The Democrats would go down that road at their very real peril.

How far is Trump willing to go?

Trump can gain more power here. But how? Could Trump start a war against Iran alongside Israel and declare martial law, for example? It’s 100 years ago but the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act gave Woodrow Wilson a lot of power.

The Sedition Act:

forbade the use of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces or that caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt.

You can cover a lot of domestic acts under that guise. And as Wikipedia correctly notes:

Most U.S. newspapers “showed no antipathy toward the act” and “far from opposing the measure, the leading papers seemed actually to lead the movement in behalf of its speedy enactment.”

The Greg Sargent view of Trump’s treatment is enlightening for me. It shows the Acosta episode and his banishment as predicated on lies, but lies that are simply “an assertion of power”. The point is to fabricate a pretext, any pretext, to do what the White House wants, no matter how flimsy the pretext is. And from Sargent’s account, having a flimsy pretext is actually better because it demonstrates a full-throttled show of force. It tells the President’s enemies that he can basically do whatever he wants and they can’t stop him.

So that’s where this is headed. For Trump, the midterms were validation. And now he will go much further in executing his agenda. The Sessions firing and the Acosta incident show us he has asserted power and there has not been any push back.

The only question now is what Trump wants to do and how far the President will go to get it done.

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