By Douglas Bloomfield
The warning was sounded early by an unlikely squad of messengers: an evangelical Christian, a former Soviet Jewish refugee, a former PR man for Vladimir Putin, the president’s former lawyer, a notorious dirty trickster and a highly respected Jewish leader who said Donald Trump “threatens American democracy.”
Their message, intentional for some, inadvertent for others, was clear: American democracy is under assault and the course of the nation’s history will be decided in the next several weeks. The would-be autocrat is Donald Trump, and some of his closest allies are sounding the loudest warnings, albeit unintentionally.
Affinity For Autocrats
Trump has shown a consistent disdain for leaders of longtime democratic allies abroad, as well as the rule of law at home, but an uncanny affinity for brutal dictators and autocrats like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (he called it “love),” Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, China’s Xi Jinping, and most of all, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
His own secretary of state echoed a warning about authoritarians elsewhere, but the words resounded in our own roiling political climate.
“Beware the authoritarians,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Their first priority is not public health, but the protection of their own power. They refuse to answer hard questions. They sow disinformation, scapegoat vulnerable groups, expand mass surveillance, and suspend the rule of law.”
He wasn’t talking about his boss, who he hopes to succeed and whose approval he cravenly seeks, but his words could apply just as well to President Trump.
“People suffer when their leaders are accountable only to themselves,” Pompeo added. “Individuals in democratic nations demand access to information so that they can protect themselves.” That echoed criticism from Congress about an administration that regards the media as traitorous and the free flow of information as a threat to its power.
Pompeo’s barbs were not directed at his boss; but those of Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council aide who was forced to leave his career as an Army infantry officer, the victim of what his lawyer called “a campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation” led by the president himself were aimed straight at the Oval Office.
In interview with Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg (whose recent article exposed Trump’s contempt for soldiers killed or captured in battle as “losers” and “suckers”), Vindman, who came to America in 1979 as small child fleeing the Soviet Union, said his “visceral reaction” to Trump’s “perfect” call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was that it was “repulsive,” “wrong” and probably “criminal.” He was called to testify in Trump’s impeachment “I had to choose between the president and the Constitution” and “I chose the Constitution.”
Many foreign policy, defense and intelligence officials share Vindman’s suspicion that Trump has been compromised by Russia. “President Trump should be considered to be a useful idiot and a fellow traveler, which makes him an unwitting agent of Putin,” Vindman told Goldberg. He has aspirations to be the kind of leader that Putin is, and so he admires him. He likes authoritarian strongmen who act with impunity, without checks and balances. So, he’ll try to please Putin.”
Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, agrees. He writes in his memoir, Disloyal, that the American president has an abiding admiration for the Russian strongman, who the former reality TV performer considered the richest man in the world. He believes Putin runs his country like a business, just as Trump ran his own business, with no board of directors or Congress or parliament telling him what he could or couldn’t do. His word is law. And he can keep the job as long as he likes.
Trump has indicated he believes the only way he can lose this election is if it rigged, raising worries that regardless the outcome, he may refuse to leave office (Interestingly, if he does refuse to accept the outcome and the electoral college does not convene and vote, he is automatically out at noon, Jan. 20, 2021, and the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, becomes president.).
Feeding Trump’s paranoia are two longstanding loyalists who have called on him to declare martial law if necessary to hold on to his office — a former PR advisor to Putin and a convicted felon and political dirty trickster. They feed and reflect Trump’s autocratic instincts.
Trump saved Roger Stone from jail after conviction for witness tampering and for lying to Congress about his role in the dissemination by WikiLeaks of Democrats’ e-mails hacked by the Russians.
Stone is now urging Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and arrest political adversaries like the Clintons, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook any anyone else he suspects of standing in the way of his re-election. Speaking on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars, Stone called for Trump to dispatch federal marshals, nationalize state police and send in GOP lawyers to polling places to seize ballots and prevent “criminal activity,” which presumably means voting for Biden.
If this sounds far-fetched and the rantings of a sick mind, you may be right, but it is not very different from some things Trump himself has been saying lately, suggesting he will reject any outcome other than victory.
Michael Caputo, who has been a political consultant to Putin and Ukrainian politicians, was sent to the Department of Health and Human Services with zero qualifications but with one mission: to make sure anything the department said about the coronavirus reflected Trump’s thinking and message and make him look good.
His Facebook rant said that scientists were enemies from the “deep state” bent on making sure Americans don’t “get well, not until after Joe Biden is president.” They want “to allow people to die so that you can replace” Trump. He predicted armed insurrection by left wing “squads” if Trump refuses to stand down.
“If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get,” he advised. He said his life was in danger from the “resistance unit,” apparently inside the CDC.
Even after Caputo admitted in his rant that his “mental health has definitely failed,” an HHS spokesman called him “a critical, integral part of the president’s coronavirus response.” He subsequently apologized to HHS staff and will take a leave of absence.
Foxman Pens Op Ed
Abe Foxman, the ADL’s highly regarded director emeritus, broke his longtime silence on politics to say Trump’s re-election would “endanger” American democracy and the Jewish community. This president “is a demagogue and his presidency threatens American democracy,” he wrote in an op ed in the Times of Israel.
“When our democracy is weakened, and when nativism is stoked, the rights of Jews and other minorities will be diminished too,” he said. “His leadership endangers our democracy, and therefore our community.”
His presidency “has given succor to bigots, supremacists, and those seeking to divide our society.” “He and his administration dehumanize immigrants, demonize the most vulnerable, and undermine the civility and enlightened political culture that have allowed Jews to achieve what no Diaspora community outside Israel can claim in two millennia.”
Trump, in his view, has “weaponized” Jews and Israel for his own “narrow political interests.” It is what demagogues and autocrats have done throughout history in their lust for power.