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Mao Or Erdogan? Defining Trump's Brand Of Authoritarianism

Trump returns this week to the White House in Marine One helicopter
Trump returns this week to the White House in Marine One helicopter


WASHINGTON — On Nov. 8, 2016, Erik Hagerman was struck by a bolt. Donald Trump was victorious, the last thing he wanted to hear. So on that very day, the 53-year-old former Nike corporate executive swore that he would avoid everything that happened in, and to, America after election day. He did not want to see Trump step into the White House and did not want to hear anything related to politics.

Hagerman thought that his extreme experiment would last a week or two, but then he got used to a feeling that he hadn't experienced in a long time. "I am bored," he told Sam Dolnick, of The New York Times, "but it's not bugging me."

In his search for isolation, Hagerman was helped by the fact that he lives alone on a pig farm he owns in Ohio, far from daily chatter. His experiment of political isolation grew into a project, and he named it The Blockade, a carefully selected set of rigid rules, a fortress to protect him. He trained his friends not to engage in politics around him; he does not read the papers or watch the news. "Tiny little boats of information can be dangerous," he said to Dolnick, who visited him on his farm.

In year two of Trump's reign, the fortress Hagerman has created around himself still holds. "He knows none of James Comey. Russia. Robert Mueller. Las Vegas. The travel ban. "Alternative facts." Pussy hats. Scaramucci. Parkland. Big nuclear buttons. Roy Moore" writes Dolnick. He does not know Rex Tillerson was fired either, that H.R. McMaster was replaced by former U.S. ambassador John Bolton, who is a known warmonger.

We will have to acknowledge that our chance of turning into dust before our due time will increase substantially.

And yet, the former executive who moved to the countryside three years ago doesn't live the life of a modern savage. He is in contact with his accountant, who manages his investments; he watches some of his favorite sports on television; he keeps contact with the small community in the village near his farm, though he goes into town early to make sure he doesn't overhear the chatter.

Hagerman, who claims to be happy with his present life and more healthy than ever, still remembers vividly the moment he decided to unplug himself. "Decision was draconian and complete. It's not like I wanted just to steer away from Trump or shift the conversation. It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust," he said. It was about the self-preservation.

Considering the latest changes in the White House, Hagerman's intuition was right. Compared to his replacement, the demoted three-star General McMaster was a knowledgeable and politically-balanced personality, while Trump's new national security adviser, John Bolton, is instead known as an uber-hawk, who prefers bombing to negotiating. According to this scary scenario and some other hints, Bolton, once installed, will immediately try to block the announced meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, and pull the U.S. out of the joint agreement with Iran. The only reason to do this, say, pundits, is to fulfill his hawkish instincts, to bomb Iran and North Korea. This may well happen, and we all, not only Hagerman, will have to acknowledge that our chance of turning into dust before our due time will increase substantially.

Trump — Photo: Gage Skidmore

Perhaps Hagerman is merely an eccentric, a rich weirdo who prefers talking to pigs than to humans. He is not alone in his escapism, however, and it looks as if it is becoming more than a new national sport, but a feature of the American identity. A series of similar experiments started a year ago, with the Farhad Manjoo story. In an unusual essay, Manjoo describes his one week Trump news abstinence-only to discover that the new president has already occupied every outlet of any kind, political or not. He was no longer just the message; he had become the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow, Manjoo wrote:

On most days, Mr. Trump is 90% of the news on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and probably yours, too. But he's not 90% of what's important in the world.

During my break from Trump news, I found rich coverage veins that aren't getting social play. ISIS is retreating across Iraq and Syria. Brazil seems on the verge of chaos. A large ice shelf in Antarctica is close to fully breaking apart. Scientists may have discovered a new continent submerged under the ocean near Australia.

There's a reason you aren't seeing these stories splashed across the news. Unlike old-school media, today's media works according to social feedback loops. Every story that shows any signs of life on Facebook or Twitter is copied endlessly by every outlet, becoming unavoidable.

Today's situation is far from better. The misleading news junk emitted from Trump's White House, multiplied by the social media and cable networks, is not only spreading deep fog over more relevant global events, but it is also eating into the huge entertainment industry, the Los Angeles Times reports:

The polarization of the Trump administration has turned people who might not have followed the news quite as deeply or quite as long into news junkies," said former CNN President Jon Klein, who is now chief executive at online video company TAPP Media. "You can't outdo the Trump era for drama. The real world is now delivering what every screenwriter can only hope to deliver."

The addictive don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-something narrative of the Trump White House was powerful enough to pull viewers away from the general entertainment cable networks.

Most of top cable entertainment networks — including USA Network, TNT, TBS, AMC, FX, Freeform, Lifetime, Spike and SyFy — saw their audiences decline compared with last year, according to Nielsen data.

To the surprise of Howard Shimmel, chief researcher for Turner, the Time Warner division that operates TBS, TNT and CNN, we are living incredible times. "Based on the norms of every other post-election year there should have been a decline of 15% or 20%," he said. "It's no doubt that for some demographics news is almost original reality programming and its popularity is eroding other genres. We've never lived through the times that we're currently living through."

The voice of the helmsman was the only one to be heard.

One could say we are living in Orwellian times. But the history of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong is closer to the current reality. In the late sixties in China, the voice of the helmsman was the only one to be heard. His large portraits scrutinized the Chinese from every corner of the country. But Mao Zedong — not to justify his terrible mistakes, cruelties, and egocentrism — was at least a poet, an orator, a villain knowledgeable in history. None of these qualities are to be found in the simple-minded, erratic, vulgar and violent 45th president of the United States. These words are not mine. You can hear them on any (but Fox News) cable network; there is an endless list of disrespectful words about the president. I never heard such regular public insults and bad-mouthing of any leader of this world. I almost feel pity for America.

Trump's omnipresence, the dictatorship of his tweets, his endless contradictions, and constant lies, do not contribute to building his cult of personality, as he may desire. But reactions to, and discussions about, Trump is fast-evolving. If unplugging and escapism–including anti-Trump folks' overwhelming vow to pack their bags and flee to Canada, in the first month of Trump–dominate the public opinion chatter, later to turn to survival theories (including the creation of the app for Trump silencing) and numerous impeachment requests, what is America's fate?

Currently, with sweeping changes in the White House seemingly designed to allow Trump consolidated control over his small team, discussion returned to the possibility of America becoming an authoritarian state. Or, it returned to the question of whether the U.S. could turn to Fascism, as Sinclair Lewis's book "It Can't Happen Here" suggests.

Lewis's book, published in 1935, was revived in the months before the 2016 election when it became clear that Trump had a chance of winning. In the novel, Lewis's antihero is the ignorant demagogue Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, who wins the election with the support of millions of impoverished and angry voters. Journalist Doremus Jessup, who attends a Windrip rally in Madison Square Garden, reports that Windrip's rhetoric was irresistible to his thousands of admirers. Though he can't remember a word Windrip said, it doesn't matter; if Windrip contradicts himself, backtracks on policy or simply spews out a torrent of lies, he tells them what they want to hear. After Windrip wins the election, he orders the invasion of Mexico and sends his opponents to concentration camps. A flood of refugees flee across the border to Canada, wrote Lewis, alluding to the growing Nazism then threatening Germany.

In his recent book, "Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America," Cass R. Sunstein returns to Lewis's book, arguing "that American fascism cannot happen because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of," he writes. "No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called ‘the deep state." The net result is they simply can't control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction."

The wreckage after only one year is extraordinary.

I don't think that the main idea of the current debate on new authoritarianism in the U.S. is centered around a violent overthrow of the government by some extreme-right-wing nutters. It is hard to imagine getting more right wing than the existing government. So, save for a coup, the worst has already happened, and it happened the regular way, by a legitimate vote. The question is whether the sitting government can force an even more authoritarian model that will replace the present madness and confusion. Without reading too much into the president's mind, and the intentions of his newly nominated national security adviser, I am inclined to believe that the possible future scenario is a deliberate erosion of the institution. Andrew Sullivan describes a similar process in his review of the Sunstein's book:

Erdogan — Photo: Amisom

No, Trump is not about to initiate a coup, or suspend elections or become a dictator. The more likely model for American authoritarianism is that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or the Fidesz party in Hungary. The dismemberment of a public discourse centered on objective truth is a key first step, fomented by unceasing dissemination of outright lies from the very top, metabolized by tribal social media, ever more extreme talk radio and what is essentially a state propaganda channel, Fox News. The neutering of the courts is the second step — and Trump is well on his way to (constitutionally) establishing a federal judiciary whose most important feature will be reliable assent to executive power. Congress itself has far less approval than Trump; its inability to do anything but further bankrupt the country, enrich the oligarchy and sabotage many Americans' health care leaves an aching void filled by … a president who repeatedly insists that "I am the only one who matters."

I don't think Trump has a conscious intent to vandalize liberal democracy — he doesn't even understand what it is. Rather, his twisted, compulsive insecurity requires him to use his office to attack, delegitimize and weaken every democratic institution that may occasionally operate outside his delusional narcissism. He cannot help this. His tweets are a function of spasms, not plots. But the wreckage after only one year is extraordinary. The F.B.I. is now widely discredited; the C.I.A. is held in contempt; judges, according to the president, are driven by prejudice and partisanship (when they disagree with him); the media produce fake news; Congress is useless (including both Republicans and Democrats); alliances are essentially rip-offs; the State Department — along with the whole idea of a neutral Civil Service — is unnecessary. And the possibility of reasoned deliberation at the heart of democratic life has been obliterated by the white-hot racial and cultural hatreds that Trump was able to exploit to get elected, and that he, therefore, constantly fuels.

Any other options? Yes, there are two more. While trying to clinch power, Trump and his newly purchased uber-hawk may start some endless war that he hopes will keep him in the commanding seat; American wars are getting longer and longer, and when you are at war, you never change the commander-in-chief. The other option is that the investigation of the special counsel Robert Mueller will gather some criminal evidence that will force President Trump to resign, which could happen very soon. It all depends on who will be the first to pull the trigger.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Science Of Designing A Sanctions Model That Really Hurts Moscow

On paper, the scale of sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine is unprecedented. But opinion on the impact of sanctions remains divided in the absence of a reliable scientific foundation. A new study by Bank of Canada offers a way out.

Photo of people walking past a currency exchange rate board in Moscow on July 20.

People walking past a currency exchange rate board in Moscow on July 20.

Ekaterina Mereminskaya


The world has never seen sanctions like those imposed against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. There have been targeted sanctions, of course, or sanctions against rogue countries like North Korea with wide support from the international community. But never in history has there been such a large-scale sanctions regime against one of the world’s biggest and most important economies.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Here's the thing though: these sanctions were introduced in a hurry because the West needed to respond to the war decisively. No one calculated anything, they relied on generalizations and holistic visions, they were “groping in a dark room,” as Elina Rybakova, senior researcher at the Brussels think tank Bruegel, put it.

As a result, debates around the effectiveness of sanctions and how best to use them to influence Russia continue to do the rounds.

Supporters of sanctions have a clear and unified message: we must stop Russia from being able to continue this war. We must deprive them of the goods and technologies necessary for the production of weapons and military equipment, and prevent Russians from living normal lives.

Opponents argue that the sanctions backfire. They insist that Russia is a large enough economy, highly integrated into the energy market and international supply chains, and therefore has enough resilience to withstand restrictions. Those who impose sanctions will be the ones to lose markets and suppliers. They will face increased energy prices and countless other problems. Russia will be able to replace lost relationships with new and even stronger ties with other states.

Economists at the Bank of Canada have attempted to resolve this debate and figure out who is hit hardest by sanctions. They pieced together a model featuring three parties: a country imposing sanctions, a country against which they were imposed, and a third independent country.

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