Autocratic for the people: As Donald Trump's populist wave recedes, an authoritarian regime in the making is revealed

You can say this for Trump: He's been unapologetically clear about his anti-democratic aims from the get-go

Published November 20, 2016 12:00PM (EST)

 (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

It feels like we've inadvertently jumped into an alternate timeline. It's as if Biff Tannen traveled back in time with Marty McFly's Sports Almanac and, yada-yada-yada, we're suddenly faced with a crisis in which Biff is running everything rather than merely washing and waxing Marty's truck. Only this wrinkle in time is far worse than anything Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis ever conceived in any "Back to the Future" film. President-elect Donald Trump is an anomaly that should never have occurred — a disruption of time and history with which the world is unprepared to cope.

The fear and uncertainty accompanying Trump's victory has a lot to do with not really knowing exactly how Trump plans to govern; whether he'll remain confined within the strictures of the Constitution and the rule of law; whether he'll govern as a somewhat normal political leader; or whether his regime will push well beyond those boundaries and into uncharted despotic territory. What we know, however, is that Trump campaigned as a screeching populist autocrat, and so we really have no choice but to steel ourselves for him to govern accordingly. Therefore, the foolish attempt to normalize his behavior during the transition only serves to misinform voters who have a penchant for deluding themselves into believing everything will be fine. If Trump governs the way he campaigned, we're in for a long, dark era in history, and one that won't be easily mitigated.

On Monday, President Obama struggled to give Trump a chance. "It's only been six days," the president said. Sure, six days of Trump as president-elect, but we also have 17 months of Trump as a candidate and 70 years of Trump as a man, with more than enough nefarious deeds, blurts and comments to give us an idea of how he intends to exercise his newly won power. As I've been writing in Salon for more than a year: Never forget that this is Donald J. Trump, a man with zero political or military experience, and a man who knows very little about the even the most familiar rules of constitutional government. He's an erratic cartoon supervillain without any core values outside of pushing his brand and expanding his fortune.

Rachel Maddow, on her extremely compelling Friday evening telecast, delivered a brilliantly written and horrifyingly breathtaking cautionary tale of what's in store with the Trump administration. Specifically, there's a not insignificant shot that we'll see a profoundly autocratic Trump presidency in which the new chief executive will behave similarly to Turkey's current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who's been actively imprisoning dissenters, including journalists, politicians, military personnel, clerics and academics. Among other egregious deeds, Erdoğan handed down orders to censor the internet, while banning citizen access to social media. And, as Maddow outlined on Friday's show, Trump's closest military aide and National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, has professional ties to the Turkish strongman. Additionally, Flynn has said he'd like to extradite an anti-Erdoğan Turkish cleric from the U.S. back to Turkey. Essentially, Erdoğan is slowly consolidating his power in a way that's extraordinarily easy to apply to what we can expect from Trump.

Regarding those expectations, what has Trump pledged to do so far? What are the known knowns? Here are a few:

  • On numerous occasions, including during rallies and interviews, Trump has engaged in a jihad against press freedom, threatening journalists like Katy Tur and Jorge Ramos. He's discussed "opening up" unconstitutional libel laws, allowing journalists to be more easily sued for publishing unflattering news about public figures, specifically Trump himself. He's banned publications of record like The Washington Post and The New York Times from his press pool. The other day, Trump ally Sean Hannity called on Trump to ban the press entirely from the White House.
  • Trump has also discussed imprisoning his political opponents, especially Hillary Clinton. The "lock her up!" chant wasn't invented by his loyalists. It emerged after he pledged during the second debate to investigate and jail Clinton. Trump has since softened this posture, but who knows for how long. Trump is well-known to flip positions, even mid-sentence.
  • He's also talked about solving crime during week one, which can only mean some form of augmented police force or full-on martial law packaged in some other politically friendlier term.
  • He's threatened to engage in unilateral warfare to retaliate against international trespasses as mundane as obscene finger gestures.
  • He's pledged to resume the Bush administration's violation of the Geneva accords by re-instituting ineffective torture techniques like waterboarding, while perhaps even expanding those techniques. We don't know exactly what Trump's torture menu is, which leads us to...
  • He's refused to inform the public about his military plans, believing that unpredictable sneak-attacks and secretive wars are more effective. So much for transparency or rational diplomacy. Along those lines, as of this writing, it looks like former Bush administration hothead John Bolton will be our next Secretary of State, provided he's approved by Congress. By the way, why should Autocrat Trump care about congressional approval anyway? Is there any recourse, other than impeachment, to prevent Trump from simply handing Bolton the job, with or without Senate approval? Not really.
  • He's also planning, as an actual agenda item, to deport American citizens, including and especially children.
  • And how will Trump behave if he's backed into a corner, or embarrassed by a policy or personnel failure? How will he react when members of Congress or Supreme Court justices repudiate something he desperately wants? Is there anything in Trump's character, knowing what we know, that would lead anyone to believe Trump will just sit back and take it? No way.

This is all to say, yes, your fears about an autocratic strongman Trump presidency are entirely reasonable. Making matters worse, we can expect Trump supporters to vigorously defend him every step of the way, no matter how far he goes. Remember what he said about shooting someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and his poll numbers going up anyway?

In fact, creeping autocracy ought to be the default posture not for just the press, but most citizens who haven't been suckered by Trump's patriotic bromides. This is precisely why anyone who's comparing the Tea Party hysteria during the early days of the Obama administration to the protests of today isn't really paying attention. There wasn't any indication at all that Obama was planning to govern as an extra-constitutional madman. Nothing. Obama never threatened to jail dissenters or to crack down on opposition journalists. Obama was never ensconced in misogynistic, xenophobic or racist behavior and language.

You might not have agreed with his policy agenda, but it was quite clear, even to opponents, that Obama had an eye on bipartisanship and a governing style that fell well within the bounds of normalcy. Indeed, Obama appointed or retained more than a few Republican officials in his administration, and his signature achievement, Obamacare, was basically a GOP healthcare proposal, evidenced by its close cousin, known as Romneycare.

Sixteen years ago, when George W. Bush ascended to the White House after a deeply contentious election and without a popular vote victory, we gave him a chance. We rationalized his administration. How bad could it be? For the first eight months, everything seemed to be playing out in a rather lackluster, mundane way. During the "Summer of the Shark," Bush gave everyone some free cash in the form of refund checks from the budget surplus, and he got into a minor tussle with China. And then 9/11 happened. How will Trump deal with a large-scale terrorist attack? How will Trump deal with the debt ceiling? We don't know whether Trump will do the politically mandatory things, or whether he'll risk economic chaos by exercising his reckless tendencies. We have a strong sense of how Trump will behave when confronted by unfriendly news. We witnessed it in the debates and on the stump. And we need to be prepared for that version of Trump — the version that threatened Katy Tur and the version that called Hillary a "nasty woman" — even as he chokes down his worst instincts and puts on his best "humble and gracious" performance on television.

So what do we look for? NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel noted that autocrats have several tells. Engel said we should look for attacks on religious minorities and immigrants; scapegoating the media; attacks against "un-American" behavior; use of the words "traitor" and "cancer" to characterize dissenters; and then large-scale rallies by Trump loyalists, followed by populist "referendums" to circumvent Congress, and so forth.

Whatever you might be thinking to the contrary, it can absolutely happen here. Trump's election is self-evident proof.

Anyone expecting business as usual from the Trump White House is begging to be shocked when it doesn't happen that way. We've fallen well outside the mainstream with this election. The timeline is skewed, and what follows won't be easy to contain or to roll back. Expect the worst, hope for the best, and pray for the timeline to correct itself soon.


By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.