Trump critics raise alarm over fears of authoritarianism

Anybody who doubts that American democracy could fall if President Trump wins reelection should take it from someone who knows, John Dean says. He believes a budding dictator occupies the White House.

“I worked for the last authoritarian president, and he was dangerous enough,” said Dean, the Watergate cover-up co-conspirator who served as chief White House counsel to Richard Nixon and testified against him during Senate hearings. “Trump makes Nixon look like a choirboy.”

“If we get four more years of him,” Dean said, “then our democracy will be gone.”

The notion of a U.S. president bringing about the nation’s downfall could be easily dismissed as breathless hyperbole, business as usual in America’s super-heated political climate.

But Dean and other critics of the Trump administration — former government officials, historians who’ve tracked the rise of dictatorships in other countries — see an increasingly bleak future for America if voters don’t come to terms with Trump’s recent behavior.

The president has encouraged voters in both North Carolina and Pennsylvania to cast ballots twice, floated the idea of delaying the election — something he has no legal authority to do — and when Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked whether he’d accept the results if he loses, Trump answered, “I have to see.” He’s spread baseless theories about voter fraud and threatened to withhold aid to the U.S. Postal Service during an election year when tens of millions of voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail due to a deadly pandemic.

Even with so many signs that Trump is operating out of bounds, Republican leaders and rank-and-file members often seem unwilling to stand up to him.

“It can be easy to view some of this as science fiction, doomsday stuff, but there is really something extraordinary and extraordinarily worrying going on,” said Michael Waldman, president of the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “The checks and balances, the legal constraints, the unwritten norms — they’re all under enormous pressure.”

The Trump campaign says the real danger to the nation’s core principles is Democrats and their nominee, the longtime moderate and former vice president.

In a statement that offered no evidence for its claims, spokeswoman Thea McDonald said, “The only threats to America’s Democratic principles are Joe Biden with his socialist manifesto and the Democrat party with their endless attempts to throw our election system into chaos and trample our ‘one person, one vote’ foundation with their ballot harvesting schemes.”

Trump’s attempts to sow distrust in the most basic functions of a democratic society — in particular voting — should give all Americans pause, Waldman said.

“That’s what a dictator does,” he said. “It’s utterly foreign to the entire 244year history of the country. There’s been ugliness. There’s been racism. But to have a leader try to undermine the vote, as a part of his core strategy, is something that’s never happened.”

“That is a sign of a shaky democracy.”

Trump hasn’t just undermined the election process. He’s portrayed protesters against police brutality as “thugs” and “domestic terrorists” while defending armed supporters who demonstrated inside the Michigan statehouse over pandemic lockdown measures and those who went to Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis., during civil unrest.

Militarized federal agents deployed by the president to Portland, Ore., in July fired tear gas against protesters.

Militarized federal agents deployed by President Trump to Portland, Ore., in July fire tear gas against protesters.

(Dave Killen / Associated Press)

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general, said he was especially stunned at Trump’s threats to use the military to quell unrest, which have so far been rebuffed.

Speaking by phone recently, Hayden said he could hardly stomach the sight of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley, the nation’s top military officer, standing with the president during Trump’s Bible-holding photo op near the White House in June, moments after federal officers forcibly cleared the streets of peaceful anti-racism demonstrators.

Hayden witnessed authoritarianism firsthand when he worked inside the Soviet Union. Now, he said, it’s the possibility that Trump will be reelected that gives him chills.

“I’m going to be gone sooner or later,” said the 75-year-old Hayden, who recently suffered a stroke. “But I thought America would be OK … I’m a little bit scared now.”

The same week that Trump accepted his party’s nomination for reelection, Hayden voiced his concern to a panel of experts on democracy. If the president wins a second term, he told them, “I don’t know what will happen to the American republic.”

Grave warnings such as Dean’s and Hayden’s are notable because they don’t just emanate from Trump’s detractors on the left but in many cases from within…

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