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As Dems Focus on Impeachment, Trump Heads to “Imperial Governance”

October 10, 2019

The Trump administration is undermining our nation from immigration to the environment, while his tweets and impeachment distract us. Add it all up, says our guest, we can see how he threatens what remains of U.S. democracy.

The Trump administration is undermining our nation from immigration to the environment, while his tweets and impeachment distract us. Add it all up, says our guest, we can see how he threatens what remains of U.S. democracy.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

The wars around impeachment are escalating. Trump has refused to allow the State Department and other federal employees to testify in congressional committees. Just today, the headlines blared that he and his administration will not cooperate because all Democrats want to do is to overturn the 2016 election. The public is slowly turning against him. But is our democracy in danger? While all this is happening, as our guest writes, he is restructuring our country, instituting Draconian measures against immigrants, opening our lands and waters to oil exploration, aggressively trying to end a woman’s right to choose, and that’s just the beginning, all the while impeachment is capturing the headlines. And then there are his tweets. The ravings of a mad man or something more sinister? How do you resist, build a political movement with impeachment hiding the fundamental changes Trump and his minions are wreaking on our nation and our future?

We are joined by Sasha Abramsky, who is a Journalist and Author, Creator of the Abramsky Report, Writer for The Nation, whose article I read yesterday, in part inspired this conversation. It was called “As We Focus on Impeachment, Trump Is Restructuring the Country.” His latest book is Jumping at the Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. And Sasha, welcome. Good to have you with us.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Marc, good to be on the show.

MARC STEINER: Buddy, it’s good to talk to you. So let’s just begin with the latest we’ve seen with Trump and his headlines about not cooperating with the investigations and saying his people won’t have to cooperate because this is a witch hunt. I remember, I lived through Nixon in 1972, and that impeachment process, also what happened in Clinton’s impeachment process–or most of us did if we were around. And there was this absolute defiance, saying that, “I can do whatever I want to.” I mean, you write a bit about that, and you’ve tweeted a lot about that. Let’s start there. I mean, what this portends, what the potential dangers are we’re facing here.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Well, the dangers are immense. And it’s a mistake to think they just started now with the impeachment hearing. Trump’s been president for nearly three years. And throughout that three-year period, he’s made it absolutely clear and his Justice Department has made it absolutely clear that by their ruling philosophy, the law does not apply to the president. They say it time and again, that the president cannot be convicted of crimes, that the president is in many ways above the law, and that the president can essentially disregard inconvenient constitutional truths if it suits him, without consequence. And what you’re seeing is the gradual building of a legal doctrine which essentially gives the president imperial powers.

Now, that’s deeply disturbing. It doesn’t matter if the president is an extremely philosophical, deep thinker, which Trump most certainly is not, any president, if they claim for themselves unlimited imperial powers, is going down a path toward tyranny, dictatorship, imperial governance, whatever you want to call it. When Trump does it, what he’s essentially doing is putting in an American context the Nazi Führerprinzip, this idea that the state and the individual who rules at that moment in time are absolutely overlapped, that there just is no difference between the will or the whim of the leader and the power and the authority of the state. And to me, when I look at what’s happening around impeachment, when I look at the flagrant disregard of constitutional process, of congressional authority, and so on, this is Trump laying out a roadmap to imperial governance. And what I tweeted yesterday is we’re now at a crossroads. And as far as I’m concerned, either Trump’s presidency survives, or constitutional government survives. But I don’t see how the two of them go hand in hand anymore.

MARC STEINER: I read that tweet before we went on the air, when I was looking at your Twitter feed. And for just a couple minutes, let’s wrestle with that for a second. I mean, when you look at history, we think that it can’t happen here. And when you look at the history of our own country, the United States, that we’re broadcasting from, when you look at any kind of Western democracy, and when you look at any nation on the planet, it can change. And it does change on a dime. You mentioned Hitler, 1932, with a small minority of the votes, 32% of the votes, he became the ruler and the fuhrer. I mean, these things can happen. And I always look at this like, when I think about 1877 and Rutherford B. Hayes becoming president of the United States with a minority of the vote but was able to destroy Reconstruction and start 90 years of terror against black people in the South of the United States. And we think that can’t happen again. Maybe not those exact things, but we need to stop and think about what history tells us about the moment we’re facing right now.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Yeah. I mean, history never repeats itself exactly. And I’ve been writing a lot for the last three, four years now about the menace that I think that Trump represents. And it’s not necessarily because I don’t like him as an individual, though I think he’s both a buffoon and also a sadist, but it’s because he pushes policies again and again and again that are designed to instill fear and designed to instill terror in ever larger groups of the population, whether it’s immigrants, whether it’s refugees, whether it’s asylum seekers, whether it’s women whose rights are being constricted, or gay Americans whose rights are being constricted. Whenever you look at Trump’s policies, there’s a bullying, intimidating, increasingly violent undertone, and in some cases overtone, to Trump’s methodology.

And he goes before these huge and enthusiastic crowds and gins up violence against journalists, against political opponents, against anybody who dares to stand up and critique him. And he uses the presidential podium, which is the single most highly visible platform on Earth, to attack individuals, to go after private citizens, to denigrate people, to humiliate people. And when you have a governance like that, it seems to me that it becomes quite easy to ram through attacks on constitutional governments. But in a very real way, our constitutional system of checks and balances work when everybody agrees to abide by the rules. And when one player in that system essentially says, “Look, I’m walking away from the rules. What are you going to do about it,” which is what Trump’s been doing, that’s when you have an absolute threat to the survival of democratic governance?

And that’s what we saw in Germany in the 1930s, or Mussolini’s Italy. It’s what we saw in the juntas of Latin America more recently in the 1970s and 80s. It’s the kind of strong-arm governance that we see in Russia today, or in Turkey, where a nationalist demagogue takes power, and they might not necessarily officially destroy the democratic structures, but they neutralize them, they bypass them, they appeal to the mob. They essentially say, “We no longer agree to abide by the rules of the game.” This idea that the world’s most powerful country, but also the country that, for 80 years, has acted as something of a stabilizing influence in global affairs, the idea that this country is going down a rogue route, that it’s got an unpredictable, unstable, violent president who, in fits of rage or of pique, can change public policy on a dime, I think that’s a huge, huge risk to our future that we’re now staring down.

MARC STEINER: And so that brings me to the point of your article that you published in The Nation yesterday online, that while we focus on impeachment, Trump is restructuring the country, is what you wrote. It was the title of your article. So let’s talk a bit about that. I mean, because it goes to the heart of what you were just saying and all the things that he is fostering at the moment and pushing, from the public charge rules, which many people don’t know about, and other issues like that, how it’s tied to the Muslim ban. I mean, just talk a bit about what we’re not seeing as we’re watching the impeachment, and how that fits in.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: The first couple years of Trump’s government, it was somewhat comforting to think, “Well, he’s got horrible views, but he’s surrounded by incompetence and he’s actually not getting very much done.” The last year or so of the government, we’ve seen a tremendous amount being done in a very destructive way. So take immigration, for example. He’s using regulatory changes to entirely restructure 50 years of immigration policy. So whether it’s the regulation that now says, “If you’re an immigrant and you use any form of public assistance, whether it’s housing or nutritional or health assistance, it will subject you to deportation,” or his newest rule, which says, “If you can’t afford private health insurance, you’re not going to get a visa to come into the country in the first place,” or his attack on the asylum process, which says that anybody who transits through Mexico en route north to claim asylum is no longer eligible for asylum in this country, these aren’t regulatory tweaks. These are absolutely fundamental restructurings of the immigration process. And they’re done with no congressional input. They’re done with no serious legal input. They’re basically being done by executive fiat.

And you get a sense of the tone of Trump’s politics at the moment. Two things particularly strike me. First is there was a report last week that said that in March, Trump got together his top security and border officials, and he said, one, “Why can’t we shoot immigrants in the legs to slow them down as they’re heading North?” Two, “Why can’t we build a wall with entailing spikes on the top so that these families will be entailed if they climb the wall?” And three, if that doesn’t work, “Why can’t we build a moat along the border and fill it with alligators to attack immigrants?” Now, this isn’t the stuff of normal politics. This is the fantasy of a Charles Manson character, or a Vlad the Impaler character. And you see this backed up by increasingly erratic tweets. Just the other day, Trump put out this tweet that, in any other time in our history, would have signaled the end of a presidency. He put out a tweet that said, “In my great and unmatched wisdom,” that’s a quote, “In my great and unmatched wisdom, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey if they do what I don’t want in Syria.” Imagine that. Imagine the most powerful human being quoting the Wizard of Oz.

Right there, you have the duplicity of our moment. You have this sort of character who is something of a hybrid between Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, this sort of caricature of what a dictator should look like, The Wizard of Oz, this creature who sort of promises all these grandiose things but actually has nothing, and then Charles Manson, somebody who fetishizes violence and sadism, and somehow has created a cult of personality around him so that a huge number of other people will glom on to these entirely maniacal visions. And this man has access to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. He could press a button and destroy the lives of billions of people in an instant. To me, it’s just unfathomable that somebody of this low caliber should have the power of life and death over the globe. But that’s the moment we’re in.

MARC STEINER: So that is the moment we’re in. So the question I have to close this very quickly is, so when you look at what’s going on with our impeachment process now, and we see all the people coming out who are coming out against Trump in those impeachment hearings that have agreed to testify, and the battle around that, you see what’s happening with the impeachment, but then you see all this stuff going on under the radar for most people, and also this real danger that we face that we’re not paying attention to, that becomes a political question. It becomes a question of how you organize against it. It becomes a question about how you organize for the future in a positive way, because of what we face. And that’s what I, when I was asking my earlier historical question, what I was alluding to in terms of the real fundamental dangers that we face, and how you respond to it.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Absolutely. Because, look, this isn’t all about whether or not Trump broke some laws when it comes to the Ukraine phone call. Much more fundamentally, this is about what Trump’s doing to the country in terms of environmental policy, with this catastrophic war on the environment that he’s waging, his rolling back of climate change initiatives, his rolling back of fuel efficiency standards. It’s to do with women’s rights and the stacking of the courts with ever more conservative judges who, by all accounts, are going to just eviscerate the right to an abortion, various other very important fundamental rights. It’s to do with the rollback of regulations around workplace safety. It’s to do with rollbacks of regulations on banks and exploitative lending practices with payday lending companies.

And all of these things that, when you have a government stocked by plutocrats, when you have a cabinet of multimillionaires and billionaires, when you have a president who doesn’t have an empathic bone in his body, really, really bad things happen to the social fabric. You see this attempt, this obsessive attempt to roll back the Affordable Care Act. Well, if the Trump administration succeeds and gets the Supreme Court somehow to declare the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, which they’re trying to do, tens of millions of Americans are either going to lose their access to healthcare or have to pay a whole bunch more to maintain their access. So these things have consequences.

And even if you got rid of Donald Trump tomorrow, even if Trump resigned tomorrow, or was somehow forced out of office by a senatorial revolt, we’d still be dealing with the Trumpian legacy for decades, because so many policies are being implemented that put us in a really bad place, a bad place pragmatically, a bad place morally, a bad place in terms of our global alliances, or lack of alliances, and a bad place in terms of the kinds of opportunities that we’re going to have for subsequent generations. Because if you put in place policies that favor the rich and hurt everybody else, if you put in place tax policies that redistribute wealth up the economic ladder, if you make it even harder for people at the bottom of the economic ladder to succeed, to gain education, to gain jobs that pay living wages, if you do all of these things, you’re locking into place and inegalitarian, hierarchical system of governance, a method of organizing society, that’s going to be with us for decades.

So you’re absolutely right that this isn’t just the story about whether we impeach Trump because of what he said with the president of Ukraine. This is a conversation about what Trump is doing to the fabric of our community, what he’s doing to this country, and what policies he’s unraveling that are going to take years and years and years to fix. This is going to be a healing process. If we find that we wake up tomorrow and Trump is no longer the president, we are going to be recovering and trying to heal from the Trumpian years, I suspect for many, many decades. It’s going to be the single greatest challenge of the next many cycles of American politics.

MARC STEINER: And that’s what our next generation faces, and we have to stand with them to make sure this is a better place, not a worse place. And Sasha Abramsky, thank you so much for your time with us today. I deeply appreciate it. And I look forward to seeing what you write next and getting you to join us again soon.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Be happy to. Thanks again, Marc.

MARC STEINER: Thank you so much. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please go to our website, let us know what you think. Take care.

DHARNA NOOR: Hey y’all, my name is Dharna Noor and I’m a climate crisis reporter here at The Real News Network. This is a crucial moment for humanity and for the planet. So if you like what we do, please, please support us by subscribing at the link below. Thank you.