Recognizing The Autocrat

5 min readNov 25, 2018


Last Wednesday, the New York Times had a front page that highlighted how Trump’s continual abuses have become normalized and each new outrage seemingly makes us more and more inured to prior ones. At the same time, it also illustrated how we conveniently ignore calling out dysfunctions in our own country that we would quickly condemn in others.

The paper had two stories at the top right of the front page reporting on Trump’s refusal to accept the determination of the intelligence community that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder had been ordered by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Below those two stories and to the left was the story that Trump had ordered the prosecution of both Hillary Clinton and James Comey.

The subheading for one of the Saudi stories was “A Cynical Blueprint For Autocrats”, describing how Trump’s attitude toward the Saudis sent a signal to all foreign leaders that killing domestic opponents and committing human rights crimes would be tolerated as long as they pursue a mercantilist foreign policy toward the United States.

Of course, the Times article makes no mention of it, but there is certainly evidence that the mercantilist approach has an even better chance of success if it is directed toward the President, his family, and his businesses. That certainly seems to be the case when it comes to Trump’s appeasement of Russian and Putin.

There is certainly evidence that this is also the case with Saudi Arabia. Trump received Saudi money when his businesses were struggling in the 1990s. His hotel in New York was set to lose money last quarter until a large, seemingly unnecessary, booking from MbS helped push it into the black. There are indications Trump was pursuing a Trump-branded hotel or hotels in Saudi Arabia as recently as 2016.

Furthermore, MbS has bragged that he has Jared Kushner “in his pocket”. It is unclear why he might think that. One possibility is that MbS was instrumental in getting Qatar to bail Kushner out of his disastrous investment in 666 Fifth Avenue. Another possibility is that Kushner was deeply involved with the unusual Saudi, Emirati, and Israeli alliance to help Trump in 2016 in return for isolating and weakening Iran. That theory was lent more credence when it was reported that Mueller was investigating John Hannah, Dick Cheney’s former national security aide, for his involvement with George Nader, who is apparently cooperating with Mueller’s team.

Considering Trump’s fanciful and false claims that the Saudis are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in the US economy and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, it certainly seems as though feeding the Trump family racketeering scheme is the real blueprint for foreign autocrats. one that many foreign leaders easily recognize.

But that story is yet another Trump diversion from the real outrage of the day, namely that the President ordered the prosecution of Clinton and Comey. The fact that then White House Counsel Don McGahn managed to persuade Trump not to take such action hardly minimizes its egregiousness. Moreover, we have no idea whether Trump did not follow through on his intention because the arguments McGahn presented were persuasive or because of Trump’s well-known lack of focus, best illustrated by Gary Cohn’s story about preventing the President from exiting NAFTA and the South Korean trade agreement.

The fact that McGahn was able to thwart Trump at the time should give us no comfort. Trump has continued to press that issue and one of the reasons Matt Whitaker was appointed acting Attorney General was precisely because he promoted the same idea. Meanwhile, the right-wing media and Trump’s sycophants in the House continue to press the same issue.

One day after these stories appeared, Politico detailed how Trump overcame the objections of his chief of staff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and legal officials in the White House and authorized the troops previously deployed in a brazen political ploy to be able to use lethal force. Some constitutional scholars questioned whether the order violated the Posse Comitatus Act that prohibits federal troops from acting as law enforcement on American soil.

There are plenty of other problems with this order beyond its potential violation of Posse Comitatus. First, the order was signed by John Kelly under instructions from Trump and is described by the administration as a “Cabinet order”. There is no such beast as a “Cabinet order” and that, as well as the fact that it is signed by Kelly who is not in the military chain of command, gives the order no constitutional weight.

This could be interpreted in numerous ways. It could be that Kelly and Nielsen, with Mattis as a willing co-conspirator, are accomplishing the same thing that Cohn did, namely subverting Trump’s attempt to implement a disastrous and potentially illegal policy. A darker interpretation is that no legal authority in the White House would sign off on the plan and this is yet another brazen attempt by Trump to circumvent the law of the land.

One other critical point is that, according to current US law, the so-called border extends 25 miles inland, an area that encompasses many of the major cities of the US. It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to envision Trump using this “order” to instruct the military to employ lethal force in support of CBP and ICE in a broad sweep for undocumented immigrants in so-called sanctuary cities.

All of this, the personal corruption driving policy, ordering the prosecution of political opponents, and employing the military in a brazen political ploy, including authorizing the use of military force potentially against American citizens on American soil, indicates we have entered banana republic territory and highlights Trump’s autocratic proclivities. These are clearly not features of a well-functioning democracy.

My point in highlighting the Times’ front page is not so much to criticize the paper for the articles involved. It is that what we clearly recognize as autocratic behavior in other foreign leaders seems to be difficult for some in the media to confront in Trump. Much of that is due to the fact that the media has been unable to effectively deal with the continual barrage of Trump’s outrages and abuses which is designed to provide focus on individual scandals, real or imagined, such as EMAILS!!

Of course, no one is equating Trump’s autocratic tendencies with MbS murdering his own citizens. But that low threshold is something we should all hope we never cross. At the same time, others say that Trump is all bluster and never follows through on his most egregious plans. They note that, so far, Clinton and Comey are not being prosecuted because of McGahn’s actions. But that is like saying the nuclear safeguards worked because a Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov, ignored military protocol and relied on his “gut instinct”, thereby averting nuclear war.

On the other hand, the safeguards clearly did not work when it came to lethal force at the border. Clearly, both Kelly and Nielsen, as well as the legal authorities in the White House, believed the order was problematic at best. And yet, all of those who opposed the policy either eventually caved to the President or allowed it to go forward as long as they were not involved.

Again, some may say that Mattis, despite having the authority to order lethal force be used, has opted not to fully arm the troops at the border, proving once again that Trump is all talk but little implementation. This argument also ignores the power of precedent in our current system. Presidential power once claimed without challenge becomes the basis for future actions.

Trump may be an ineffective autocrat, either by design or incompetence, but he is surely laying the groundwork if a truly effective one comes along.

Originally published at on November 25, 2018.




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