Could this full-cheeked tennis player bring about the end of our democracy?

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It could happen here although maybe not in my lifetime (I’m 87) if we do nothing to stop it.

Brian K Klaas has written a book he calls, The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy.

He calls this book a “hotbook.” The impetus behind Hot Books (2015) being to “expose the dark operations of power, and light the way forward.” For example, Chris Hedges’ “Unspeakable,” recounts the disastrous policies of the liberal elite, that led to Donald Trump.

David Talbot, (1917) writes in his Foreword to the book, “We’re engaged in a war of ideas, a war for the hearts and minds of the American people. For too long, this war has been dominated by Fox News, right-wing talk radio and the bestsellers that they manufacture. [But also} by the corporate-sponsored discourse of the liberal media — including the New York Times and NPR-blessed authors and pundits who keep their social commentary within acceptable boundaries. It’s time to go beyond this packaged news and propaganda.”


I take all the quotes below from Klaas’ book, The Despot’s Apprentice. Now tennis players, and golf players are those whom we would not ordinarily think of as setting about to destroy our democracy. But the evidence is accumulating that they are.


Statkevich looked me straight in the eye and said: “You don’t know how lucky you are. Never take your democracy for granted. You won’t realize what it’s worth until it’s too late.”

Mikalai Statkevich, was a presidential candidate in Belarus—a country often called the “last dictatorship in Europe.” For having spoken out in favor of democracy and having organized a peaceful protest against the dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, Statkevich was abducted, beaten and tortured ending up passing 5 years in prison.

Although not yet a despot, Trump is acting like a despot’s apprentice—an understudy in authoritarian tactics—who threatens to corrupt democracy beyond repair.

Despots are driven by narcissism, an unquenchable ego that yearns for fame, public adoration, and stardom. For many authoritarian leaders throughout history, their greatest fear was that they would be nobodies—once gone, soon forgotten. Despots dread being, as Trump often says a nobody.

Donald Trump has authoritarian instincts and reckless autocratic impulses that have already been boosted since he acquired presidential power…. Democracy in the United States will not fade easily. But it could still fade, ebbing away day after bleak day, until it’s too late. Well-established democracies like the United States don’t usually die with a bang. If authoritarianism is going to establish a beachhead on America’s shores, it will creep up on us, and democracy will go out with a whimper.

Trump is the most serious threat to American democracy in modern history. Most of the main pillars upon which democracy stands firm—the press, rule of law, ethics guidelines, voting rights, election integrity, respect for independent institutions, and even a shared sense of what is true and what is false—are under attack. Trump is the one behind these attacks,…

Americans are some of the luckiest people on Earth. We are born into a society of riches and freedoms. There’s poverty and inequality and injustice, but we are blessed with democratic avenues to redress those grievances. People can protest openly. We have a meaningful say in decisions made about our lives. When we speak out, we are protected, not tortured. Sadly, though, what we take for granted can be taken away.

The Founding Fathers of the United States anticipated that this moment would arrive. They designed a system built to withstand a divisive demagogue. They put checks and balances in place. They carved out a separation of powers that makes it difficult to consolidate power in a single person. But their enduring genius is being tested in ways they could not have anticipated. Americans are split, and despots are most likely to emerge when the political or economic system—or both—fractures…..

The combination of these factors—tribal partisanship, media polarization, uncompetitive elections, the death of bipartisan compromise, political disengagement, economic decline, rising inequality, and demographic change—has created a perfect storm. As it swirls around American politics, authoritarianism finally has a chance to make landfall too…. over time, millions of Americans have gravitated toward authoritarian attitudes. When the problems are this bad, they feel, screw checks and balances if they are a roadblock to the solutions….

In 2016, political scientists began studying what caused people to back Trump’s surprising candidacy. Sure enough, they found that authoritarian personalities—most of whom were in the authoritarian populist wing of the Republican Party—were overwhelmingly drawn to Trump.

Until now. Trump is careening through the soft guardrails of American democracy, shattering them without a second thought. They aren’t constraining him. Instead, Trump is corrupting political norms, as Americans gradually come to accept previously unacceptable behavior. The Republican Party was complicit in this corrupting of American politics by allowing Trump to get so far without being denounced, and the Republican-controlled Congress is complicit today for allowing Trump’s authoritarian behavior to continue without consequences. Republicans seem to have a pre-ordained rotation of words that they use to respond to Trump. Some are “disappointed.” Others are “concerned.” And when things really get out of hand, they’re “troubled.” But for most in the party, their actions end with words. As a result, Trump keeps at it. In the process, authoritarian behavior is entering the political mainstream and becoming normalized.

Think about the first time you heard the term “fake news,” the first time you can remember Trump recommending that his election opponent be locked up, or the last time you read about Trump continuing to spread a lie even after being corrected. All of it was once, recently, shocking. Now it’s routine. After all, many people say, “that’s just Trump being Trump.” As crazy behavior becomes routine, it makes it easier for politicians to get away with previously out-of-bounds actions. Citizens become numb to the violation. It shatters longstanding political standards and the mores that hold our political system together….

Such gradualism is why creeping authoritarianism poses the greatest threat to democracy in the United States. If someone tried a blatant power grab, as with a military coup d’état, it would be repelled immediately. And if someone who was obviously a dictator tried to become an American despot, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would grow a spine. They would block such a power grab, because it would be obvious. But with creeping authoritarianism, things aren’t so clear-cut. For political leaders and citizens alike, the change occurs so incrementally that it’s harder to stand up to it—particularly while Trump’s showmanship dazzles and distracts….

Trump has blurred the line between fact and falsehood, subverting the truth for his own opportunistic ends. He has attacked the press relentlessly, demonizing journalists who form a key pillar of democratic government. He has politicized the rule of law, calling for his defeated election opponent to be locked up while pardoning political allies who have been convicted of crimes. He has acted as Vladimir Putin’s apologist-in-chief after his campaign sought to collude with the Russian government to win the election. He is seeking to distort future elections by suppressing votes. His administration has flooded “the swamp” with ethics violations rather than draining it of them. He has politicized nonpartisan institutions, labeling them as part of a sinister deep state plot against him. And he has engaged in nepotism, putting his unqualified daughter and son-in-law at the highest echelons of the federal government. He even hired his son’s wedding planner to oversee federal housing in New York and New Jersey—cronyism at its worst…..

As I see it there are four plausible scenarios, ranging in order from the optimistic to the cataclysmic. First, the Trump Vaccine. If the backlash against Trump is robust enough, he could end up acting like a vaccine for American democracy. Perhaps he will galvanize enough opposition that more political norms are enshrined into law and civic engagement becomes resurgent. In this hopeful scenario, citizens deploy to the ramparts and defend democracy. Second, Democratic Decay. This is the most likely scenario. America’s democratic sand castle doesn’t get washed away, but it is severely damaged as wave after wave hits its walls. The damage will be gradual, but it will add up. Even if Trump’s presidency is a failure, he can still poison the minds of millions of people to hold authoritarian views. That damage will take decades to repair—if it is possible at all.

Third, the Forerunner. In this scenario, Trump paves the way for an even more dangerous successor. This person, a Trump 2.0, will have the authoritarian instincts of Donald Trump but the polished smoothness of Barack Obama and the people skills of Ronald Reagan. With Trump normalizing authoritarian behavior, Trump 2.0 can do even more damage.

Finally, there is the prospect of American Authoritarianism. If a person like Donald Trump is in office in the aftermath of a mass casualty terror attack, a widespread war, or a nuclear nightmare, it is plausible that American democracy could die with a bang. This is, thankfully, the least likely scenario. But it is not impossible. Democracy is worth defending. It’s time we all heed the words of Mikalai Statkevich: “You don’t know how lucky you are. Never take your democracy for granted. You won’t realize what it’s worth until it’s too late.”


Klaas, Brian. The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy . Hot Books. Kindle Edition.


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