The most important revelation in the mushrooming Comey scandal is the report that Trump summoned the former FBI director to a White House dinner and “demanded loyalty.”
This meeting occurred a week into his presidency and on the same day Trump issued his Muslim ban that’s been blocked by the courts. By asking the head of the top law-enforcement agency to swear loyalty to him, Trump was trying to obliterate the principle that government is founded on the Constitution and turn it into his personal fiefdom.
It was an unambiguous manifestation of Trump’s dictatorial ambitions. This was a central element of his presidential campaign. He expressed admiration for strongmen, attacked an independent judiciary, and declared, “I alone can fix” America.
Since being elected, Trump has initiated what can only be termed a slow-motion coup. And while he appears to be sinking into a swamp of criminality and lies, he is pushing ahead with his plan to twist the executive branch into a mafioso-style operation that serves only him and his family.
That’s why it’s vital to not become mesmerized by the Russia scandal. The heat and noise is overshadowing one power grab after another.
Take these recent events. Trump signed an executive order establishing a “Commission on Election Integrity” headed by the architect of the “voter fraud” myth and aimed at suppressing African-American and low-income voters who tend to favor Democrats. A journalist in West Virginia was arrested for “willful disruption of state government processes” for questioning Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price about the House healthcare bill. Trump’s Justice Department notched a conviction and potential one-year prison sentence against a 61-year-old woman who laughed during Senate confirmation hearings for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The government slapped seven more felony charges on more than 200 people indiscriminately arrested by police on inauguration day in Washington, D.C. They are all staring at 75-year prison sentences. Then there is Trump’s relentless assault on the federal regulatory apparatus, most recently with the hollowing out the EPA’s scientific integrity board. This is capped off by Trump’s demands for more power, such as calling for a “good shutdown” of the government and pushing for the Senate to end the filibuster, which tends to give the minority party say in the legislative process.
Trump is using government to squash any opposition whether in the streets, at the voting booth, or in Congress and the courts. In this context his demands for personal loyalty are moves toward a dictatorship. The FBI and U.S. military explicitly warn of such a scenario, stating that officers who swear loyalty to the president instead of the Constitution could enable officials “to gain control over the military and become dictators.”
Now, some might dismiss the Trump administration as all bark. Certainly there is a nonstop torrent of bluster combined with ineptitude, whether it’s further attacks on judges or press freedoms, threats to pull out of NAFTA, or fomenting tensions with China, North Korea, and South Korea.
But Trump is winning as well. He pushed through the House bill that will cripple the healthcare system. He is turning government over to corporations, which is why the stock market has been on a tear since he was elected. He is implementing a white-nationalist vision backed by millions of his supporters.
While Trump has thus far been stymied on building the wall on the Mexico border, he has taken the “shackles off” ICE, which has recorded a 35 percent increase in arrests of undocumented immigrants over the same period last year. Refugee admissions have plummeted. In more than 100 cases, asylum seekers have illegally been turned away at the U.S. border. Forty percent of colleges report a drop in foreign applicants. Sessions has restored mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses that have devastated Black and Latino communities.
His base supports the nativism, the xenophobia, the racism, the Islamophobia. In his march to victory, Trump convinced them the dark hordes are to blame for economic decline and social ills.
Trump understands how power works better than the media, the experts, and the Democrats, all of whom he humiliated in his rise to the presidency. He retains high approval ratings from Republican voters, meaning Congress fears him. He is only concerned with his power and image, so he is indifferent to the right’s wrecking-ball policies. Wall Street has no reason to buck the trend as it controls the levers of economic policy. As long as he can keep his base whipped up with racial resentment, there are few obstacles to his power grabs. It’s mainly courts that have smacked him down when he overreached
That’s why Trump consistently attacks judges. And it’s why Trump knows the power grabs are vital to his reelection. He can only win as a minority president, as he did against Clinton. A cloud of criminality may hang over the Trump White House that dwarfs Watergate, but it remains unlikely, at least for now, to stop an American dictator in the making.