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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 May 2018

Trump's military parade and attacks on cornerstone institutions are further signs of his authoritarian style

Concerns over the US president's attitude towards some trusted establishments should not be dismissed as 'Trump panic'

US soldiers wearing WWI helmets at the traditional Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, France, last year. Donald Trump is planning his own triumphal military parade / Reuters
US soldiers wearing WWI helmets at the traditional Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, France, last year. Donald Trump is planning his own triumphal military parade / Reuters

Donald Trump is planning a massive military parade in Washington. There’s no political support or good reason for such a bellicose spectacle; it is purely his whim and would only be celebrating his presidency. The last one held was after the first Gulf War in 1991.

But the thought of tanks and missile launchers lumbering down Constitution Avenue inexorably conjures, yet again, the spectre of creeping authoritarianism.

In these pages a year ago, I speculated about what an authoritarian turn by Mr Trump might look like. Because American institutions are strong and he hasn’t faced a major crisis, it remains largely hypothetical.

However, Mr. Trump is systematically laying the groundwork for the first phase of such a process, the de-institutionalisation of the American system, by undermining the legitimacy of core social and government institutions.

His rhetorical broadsides are aimed at many targets but crucially, they include the main institutions that could threaten or check his power.

Most dramatic and unprecedented is his vendetta against the FBI and his own Justice Department.

He claims that by probing the last election they have “politicised the sacred investigative process”. The FBI’s reputation, he declares, is “in tatters – the worst in history”. He says he is only condemning senior law enforcement officials, all of whom serve at his pleasure, not the rank and file. But he has shown all levels of FBI personnel can be accused of corruption or even treason and ousted.

Congressional Republicans are now hawking a preposterous imaginary conspiracy that claims the Hillary Clinton campaign "colluded with the Russians to get dirt on Mr Trump to feed to the FBI to open up an investigation".

Obviously, Mr Trump and his minions declared war on the FBI because they are afraid of what it might uncover. But now 73 per cent of Republicans believe the FBI is plotting to “delegitimise” Mr Trump and imagining a non-existent, malevolent deep state.

This follows similar condemnations of intelligence agencies like the CIA, which he compared to Nazis.

Mr Trump has denigrated courts as “disgraceful,” a “joke” and a “laughing stock” and threatened to “break up” the ninth circuit court after it ruled against him.

He has lambasted many of his own appointees and expressed deep hostility towards government employees in general, especially through his paranoid deep state rhetoric.

Mr Trump calls for the jailing of his political rivals like Mrs Clinton and her aides. He condemned Congressional Democrats who didn’t applaud him as “traitors”. He also routinely reviles Republicans who challenge him.

He dismisses reporting he dislikes, no matter how accurate, as “fake news” and labels the reputable press “the enemy of the American people”, which is fuelling a violent hatred of journalists among his supporters.

So, Mr Trump is systematically delegitimising every institution that could meaningfully check or threaten him. But is that really so dangerous?

He remains popular with Republican voters so most Republican politicians kowtow to him.

But many conservative commentators are not so much pro-Trump as opposed to strong anti-trump rhetoric, finding vehement criticism of him more objectionable than his conduct.

They dismiss concerns about incipient authoritarianism as “Trump derangement syndrome” or “Trump panic” and note that he hasn’t yet acted in an overtly autocratic manner.

True. But that assessment elides the processes through which authoritarian degradation can most readily infect democratic systems. It ignores the profound and inherent dangers of undermining public confidence in core national institutions such as the police and courts.

Anyone who believes Mr Trump’s conspiracy theories is thereby primed to dismiss any official charges of wrongdoing against him or his associates. They can also no longer trust the courts or Congress. It would all merely confirm the treasonous conspiracy.

That is the essence of the de-institutionalisation fatal to democracy. And it’s happening now.

Moreover, anti-anti-Trump arguments miss how slippery the de-institutionalisation slope is and how quickly and imperceptibly it can morph from the rhetorical and manageable to the applied and uncontainable.

They hold his broadsides are excusably defensive since Mr Trump is just retaliating, however clumsily, against those attacking him. The FBI, Justice Department, other officials and agencies and even the courts, whenever they challenge him for whatever reason, are therefore legitimate political targets. They say Mr Trump, like all elected leaders, has “a duty to fight for his political existence”.

This formula legitimises virtually anything he might do to stay in office. Worse, it fails to recognise that while Mr Trump’s campaigns against key American institutions might, for the moment, be mostly defensive and countering direct, specific and limited threats to his interests, that can change almost instantly and imperceptibly.

By the time anyone realises that he has gone beyond protecting himself and is effectively dismantling, neutralising or co-opting cornerstone democratic institutions, the process will already be well underway. But, even once everyone knows it’s started, can that process be readily stopped? Turkey, Russia, Venezuela and other contemporary examples suggest not.

Why would the public ever mourn corrupt cops, crooked judges, conspiratorial deep state spies and bureaucrats, treasonous politicians and lying reporters? Wouldn’t anyone who really believes their country faces such evils be grateful to be saved by a strongman charging to the rescue at the head of a glorious military parade?

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington