There is a tendency in the punditocracy to dismiss President Trump's authoritarian rhetoric as nothing more than red meat for his worshipful base, passing twitter tantrums or hyperbolic salesmanship. He's been doing it from the moment he announced his run for president when he insulted Latino immigrants as rapists and continued through the campaign when he endorsed torture, summary executions and banning Muslims from the country. Needless to say, his ongoing paeans to ruthless dictators from Russia's Vladimir Putin to the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte to his recent love fest with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un show a genuine admiration and respect for the most ruthless and violent tyrants on the planet.
He truly admires them for their willingness and ability to mercilessly rule their countries with an iron fist. His most recent comment about Kim Jong Un, for instance, even betrays a little envy:
“Hey, he is the head of a country, and I mean he is the strong head. Don't let anyone think anything different. He speaks, and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”
He later said he was kidding but it really didn't seem that way. After all he had absurdly stated just a couple of days before about Kim that "his country does love him, his people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor" apparently unconcerned that the "fervor" is coerced under threat of imprisonment or death.
He plans to spend 30 million dollars to try to create some of that fervor for himself next fall:
He was said to have loved the North Korean state TV, commenting on how positive the female North Korean news anchor was about Kim Jong Un. He told former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee last week that US media criticism of his summit was "almost treasonous." That's not the first time he's said that failing to adequately praise him amounts to treason. When Democrats did not applaud his alleged achievements in the State of the Union he asked a rally crowd, "can we call that treason? Why not? They certainly didn't seem to love our country very much."
This is a man who insisted that everyone always call him "Mr Trump" when he was in business and insisted on strict formality even among his family members. As president he routinely gathers his cabinet and other members of the government to sit around the big table and robotically extol his virtues. Recall this little pageant from his first cabinet meeting:
Then there's the downright bizarre order to create a new branch of government called "The Space Force" (against the advice and opinion of every one of his military advisers) to single-handedly upending the international order with a fatuous "philosophy" that the US is some kind of protection racket and must be paid an ever increasing ransom by countries with whom we've been allied since World War Two. In these cases and many others, he's making unilateral moves without regard to any previous understandings or agreements whether informal or subject to domestic and international law.
Over the last few months Trump has cast off anyone in the White House who might have attempted to rein in his worst impulses and is making decisions entirely by the seat of his pants. His authoritarian instincts are no longer confined to the photo-ops. People around him who share those instincts are growing in influence, particularly senior adviser Stephen Miller who drafted Trump's first Executive Order banning travelers from majority Muslim countries. Recall what he told John Dickerson on Face the Nation in February of 2017 when asked whether the White House had learned anything from the experience:
Well, I think that it's been an important reminder to all Americans that we have a judiciary that has taken far too much power and become, in many cases, a supreme branch of government. One unelected judge in Seattle cannot remake laws for the entire country. I mean this is just crazy, John, the idea that you have a judge in Seattle say that a foreign national living in Libya has an effective right to enter the United States is -- is -- is beyond anything we've ever seen before.
The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.
That too was laughed off at the time. He sounded like a North Korean General and no American could possibly take that seriously, right?
But after all the drama, all the turn-over, all the sturm und drang of the past year and half, Miller is still there at the right hand of the president. He's obviously been instrumental, along with his old boss Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Chief of Staff John Kelly, in the crafting of this abominable new "zero-tolerance" border policy with all that stems from it. And he's obviously whispering sweet somethings about that unfettered presidential power in Trump's ears.
On Sunday the president tweeted this, sending shock waves though the media and the political system:
We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents...
....Our Immigration policy, laughed at all over the world, is very unfair to all of those people who have gone through the system legally and are waiting on line for years! Immigration must be based on merit - we need people who will help to Make America Great Again!
This is more thought out than it seems. Over a month ago, Trump was telling Brian Kilmeade on Fox and friends that he wanted to eliminate due process at the border:
"How do you hire thousands of people to be a judge? So it's ridiculous, we're going to change the system. We have no choice for the good of our country. Other countries have what's called security people. People who stand there and say you can't come in. We have thousands of judges and they need thousands of more judges. The whole system is corrupt. It's horrible...Whoever heard of a system where you put people through trials? Where do these judges come from?"
There is the US Constitution, of course.And laws. And international treaties. And basic human decency. But Trump does not respect of those things. He is essentially proposing to allow the Border Patrol and ICE to deport anyone since the whole reason for due process is to adjudicate the government's assertion of guilt. If there's no due process there's no way of knowing if these "people who stand there and say you can't come in" are following the law themselves. Harvard professor of constitutional law Lawrence Tribe told the New York Times:
Trump is making the tyrannical claim that he has the right to serve as prosecutor, judge and jury with respect to all those who enter our country. That is a breathtaking assertion of unbounded power — power without any plausible limit.
That's what Kim Jong Un does and Trump would like to have that too. Stephen Miller believes he already has it and that we will all soon see that "it will not be questioned." I don't think anyone should be laughing anymore. They aren't joking.