Donald Trump as Tinpot Strongman

Perfection, of a kind, he was after
And the poetry he wrote was easy to understand;

-Auden, “Epitath on a Tyrant”

prague-tour-clementis-balcony

The man is gone, but the hat remains. Image from nakedtourguideprague.com

It’s doubtful that Donald Trump would know who Emomali Rahmon was. To be fair, very few Americans do. I was only vaguely aware of him. He’s the President of Tajikistan, a landlocked country in Central Asia that doesn’t come up very much. It’s not considered one of the world’s happiest places. With borders that touch Afghanistan and the rebellious Xinjiang region of China, not to mention its abutting of Jammu and Kashmir, it is in a fairly rough place in the world, and has never enjoyed much stability in the post-Soviet era. That’s about to change, albeit in a way that makes most people uncomfortable.

Rahmon, the President, successfully passed a ballot referendum that scrapped term limits, as well as lowered the age one could stand for President to 30, which by a great coincidence gives his son the ability to run. It’s instituting a President-for-Life plan, and it worked. A low-information campaign (which mostly talked about vague “changes to the constitution”), coupled with a population weary about politics, helped make the referendum a landslide. With 94.4% of the votes, Rustam, the fresh-faced whelping, now has a clear path to 40 years of power. It’s hard to say democracy died in Tajikistan, as it was never fully born. But it’s easy to see that this is how authoritarians act. They tell you not to worry you weary hearts. They tell you it’ll all be better if you just let them take care of it. They tell you that all you have to do is give them power, and things will be fine.

Donald Trump may never have heard of Emomali Rahmon, but both he and his gruesome campaign head, Paul Manafort, know that playbook by heart. They’ve taken the lessons of him and every other tinpot tyrant that has stumpled across history, and brought them to America.

There are a lot of different ways to be an authoritarian, but the one thread that runs through them all is to remove the idea of objective truth from your own personal ontology. After all, objective truth is whatever you say it is, even if that is different than what you said not 20 minutes before.

That was the big takeaway from Trump’s lunatic press conference yesterday on his fundraiser for veterans in January, which even back when it was being held was obviously “nauseatingly insincere.” A WaPo investigation revealed that half of the promised $6 million was not disbursed, which included Trump’s own promise of $1 million. Now, following that flap, all of it (or at least $5.6, which is close) has been distributed. That of course was following the revelation that it hadn’t. It was basic damage control.

Any politican would say something like they had always intended to do so, it just took a while, etc. Normal stuff. But at Trump’s snarling and rabid presser yesterday, he took it a giant step further. Labeling reporters “sleaze” and “a real beauty” and more, he clearly believed that the press was not just wrong, but that they were an absolute enemy to the reality he was entitled to create. The role of the press should be to agree with what he says, because what he says is the truth. Even when he says that he hadn’t said anything about the money raised in his televised fundraiser or even given all the times he has brought it up, that should be believed.

This is of a different scope than we’ve seen before. All politicians hate the press, and they should, if the press is doing its job. No one likes being picked at. The difference is most people hate the press for either being shallow or for digging too deep. Trump hates them because they refuse to comport to his reality. His threat to expand libel laws shouldn’t be seen as just trying to quiet the press. It should be seen as revenge against people who don’t fit his reality.

Because reality is what any authoritarian fears and hates the most. That’s why Paul Manafort, who has done great work with petty tyrants in the past, is the perfect campaign manager (or whatever his actual role is in the chaos that is Team Trump). Manafort knows that leaders never make mistakes, and everything that happens is according to plan. Even blatant contradictions are not actually that. They are all a smarter scheme than you can even imagine.

In his famous interview with the Huffington Post from last week, Manafort seemed to many people to give away the game, and reveal Trump as shallowed and unprincipled. People thought he was talking too much insider baseball, sort of like when Romney advisor Eric Fehnstrom said that moving from the primary to the general was like shaking an etch-a-sketch.

It wasn’t though. Take this line on the ban on Muslims.

“He’s already started moderating on that,” Manafort said. “He operates by starting the conversation at the outer edges and then brings it back towards the middle. Within his comfort zone, he’ll soften it some more.”

“He’ll still end up outside of the norm, but in line with what the American people are thinking.”

This isn’t insider baseball when it comes to Trump. This is the whole ballgame. It’s the idea that no matter what he says, it’s what he meant to say. There is no evolution, no shift. It’s the idea that black, by insistence, becomes white. It’s what is driving his whole campaign. In acting like this, in being the authoritarian personality, he has created a tribal love among his most ardent supporters. It’s why, despite being, as Chait said “the most anti-POW candidate in history”, he can be embraced by a pro-POW rally. Because he not only bends objective reality his way, but he allows people with an already skewered-reality (think white people who believe they are the real victims of racism (instead of being the joint victims of a cruel economic system) or those who believe that Hillary Clinton is the embodiment of the counterculture that ruined America) to be folded into his. He says “I am the new reality, and you are the ones who can see it.” He gives people power over the grey-skied reality of their own lives. It’s intoxicating. It’s why his lies aren’t normal politics. They are an introduction to American authoritarianism.

Chait also has a great piece on Trump’s lies, and what they reveal on his strongman tendencies, but in quoting Orwell on the memory hole, I think he uses the wrong piece. That’s systemic. Trump is more boozy and blustery, the red-faced borscht-plumped tinpot shouting from a balcony that he will set you free. I think the more accurate literary reference would be from Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Gottwald, the first head of Communist Czechoslovakia, was giving his introductory speech on a cold day, and his aide, Clementis, lent him his furry hat. A famous picture was taken of that speech. A few years later, Clementis was charged with treason, and erased from all books, and even photos. But his hat remained. His hat was stubborn, a fact which the clumsy hands of dictators couldn’t erase. That’s more Trump: a small-fisted attempt to change how we see reality. It doesn’t rely on not allowing you to believe it, like the memory hole at MinTruth. It relies on commanding you not to see the hat. That is has worked so well, so far, makes this one of the scariest moments in our short and violent history.

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