WASHINGTON ― If Donald Trump was willing to have Americans gassed and beaten so he could stage a photo opportunity, what will he be willing to do to retain the presidency come election time?
Authoritarianism experts who worried about Trump’s tendencies during his campaign and his first years in office are now sounding fresh alarms following the clearing of a park adjacent to the White House on Monday using gas, flash-bang grenades, pepper pellets and other aggressive tactics ― all so he could stand in front of a church he does not attend and be photographed holding a Bible.
“It was everything that an autocrat is,” said Gail Helt, who watched for signs of democratic decay in Asian countries during her dozen years as a CIA analyst. “Trying to show off the reins of power. That image of him holding the Bible. … I don’t know what that was, but it was disturbing.”
Neither the White House nor the Trump campaign responded to HuffPost queries regarding Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and whether they might worsen the closer we get to an Election Day that may force him from office.
In recent months, Trump has begun aggressively attacking mail voting, a process that is standard in some states now and which many others are expanding because of concerns that in-person voting could spread the coronavirus. Trump has repeatedly claimed that expanding voting by mail will let Democrats cheat, even though he, his press secretary and a top adviser have all voted by mail in recent elections.
“MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE,” he claimed in a statement he posted to Twitter last week.
Trump critics, both Democrats and Republicans, believe that he is laying the groundwork to challenge the election results should he lose and that he could try to remain in office by invoking emergency powers.
Trump has shown at best a hazy grasp of his actual powers during his presidency and instead has made broad statements about his authority under the Constitution. “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” he told supporters last summer.
He does not appear to have any authority to undo an election loss, but his critics warn that the outcome of such assertions on his part could largely be determined by his Cabinet members and Republicans in Congress. And that has Republicans who oppose him worried.
“The question is not what Trump is willing to do; it’s what the people around him are willing to enable him to do. We already know what Trump is capable of,” said Tom Nichols, a Naval War College professor and prominent Trump critic.
“Trump is a thug surrounded by weak men and women desperate to be near power. Trump has no sense of right and wrong and will do anything,” said Stuart Stevens, a GOP consultant who worked on the campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. “The burden is on the Republican Party. In our system, parties should serve a circuit breaker role. Republicans have proven that most will not, and it creates a very dangerous situation.”
Trump has long spoken admiringly of dictators and of violence as a tool for social control.
In 1990, following the brutal crackdown of protests in Beijing, Trump said: “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
Running for president in 2015, Trump repeatedly praised Russian leader Vladimir Putin, even calling him a better leader than President Barack Obama. In 2016, Trump professed respect for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for murdering his uncle and others as a way to consolidate power. “It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one,” he said.
In 2018, he spoke wistfully about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ability to change the constitution and scrap limits on the number of terms he could serve. And today he is trying to get Russia reinstated into the Group of 7, the organization of large democratic economies, even as Putin seeks to extend his presidential term until 2036 and still retains control of a portion of Ukraine, the reason Russia was expelled from what had been the G8 in the first place.
Trump has also in his years in the White House frequently praised the use of violence. He told police officers in 2017 that they shouldn’t worry about hitting suspects’ heads as they place them in patrol cars. And on a conference call with governors on Monday, he berated them for not “dominating” the streets of their cities.
“If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run all over you. You’ll look like a bunch of jerks,” he told them.
“I am your president of law and order,” he declared hours later from the White House Rose Garden as police and troops were clearing a park of protesters so he could walk through to take his Bible photo.
“Trump is a menace. It’s almost pointless to try and guess what new atrocious thing Trump will come up with, but he has certainly made it clear that there is no line, moral, legal or otherwise, that he won’t cross if he thinks it could help him retain power,” said Daniela Martins, press secretary of the Priorities USA super PAC.
“It was everything that an autocrat is. Trying to show off the reins of power. That image of him holding the Bible. … I don’t know what that was, but it was disturbing.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an authoritarianism expert at New York University, said Trump’s clearing of Lafayette Square on Monday was a textbook case.
“This was an authoritarian spectacle, backed up by the real force of sending military into the streets,” she said. “A cocktail of all the elements authoritarians have used in history: a lawless ruler attacking protesters, using religion as a prop and declaring war on his own people.”
She said what made it even more worrisome was the presence and support of Attorney General William Barr and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
“They are his willing tools now,” Ben-Ghiat said. “He will do whatever he needs to to be reelected, starting with the military interventions he’s started with the aim of ending the protests.”
Helt, who now runs the Securities and Intelligence Studies program at King University in Bristol, Tennessee, said she saw democracy fall apart in Malaysia starting in 2011 following anti-government protests. She said she never dreamed it could happen here.
“To watch the president be the most pressing danger that we have is really unnerving,” she said.