President Donald Trump traveled to Pennsylvania on Monday to stand in front of Air Force One and speak to a fired-up crowd of supporters. Some of his time onstage was spent hammering 2020 election talking points, like immigration (“We don’t want people coming up here! Our country is full!”); the rest was spent rambling about whatever happened to cross his mind. The president is expected to officially launch his reelection campaign next month, for instance, and he’s been wondering about a new slogan. “Do we want Keep America Great or Make America Great Again?” he said before asking the audience to judge each option with applause. Keep America Great won. Trump agreed: “I like it because we’ll sell many, many more hats that way.”
Trump’s rallies are also where some of the president’s most dangerous impulses get fleshed out into the open, like earlier this month in Panama City Beach, Florida, when he joked about shooting migrants at the border. His appearance at the Williamsport Regional Airport on Monday was no exception, providing the latest, terrifying look into the president’s tendency toward authoritarianism, which is becoming less of a tendency and more of an full-throated embrace as he continues to bend the government to his will.
One of the hallmarks of authoritarianism is jailing one’s political enemies, an idea to which Trump is no stranger. He’s called for an investigation into Hillary Clinton for years now — especially at rallies, where he knows he can get the crowd lathered into a “Lock Her Up!” frenzy — but actually doing so seemed implausible, like something that couldn’t actually happen in America. This is no longer the case.
After Trump accused Democrats and the FBI of treason Monday night, he stepped away from the podium to bask in a “Lock Them Up!” chant. When he returned to the microphone, he reminded his supporters that Attorney General William Barr is in his pocket, and that the new, compliant head of the Justice Department is going to “give it a very fair look” to jailing of those involved in the Russia investigation for treason.
Over the past couple years there were times it felt like everyone thought people like me were crying wolf over Trump’s encroachment on DOJ. Now the wolf is at the door. https://t.co/qUNst2hy5e
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) May 21, 2019
“@SpeakerPelosi @TeamPelosi I would be pleased to speak to you as an expert on how authoritarian regimes take hold, with this as a warning sign,” tweeted Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an authoritarianism historian at New York University. “This is scary to watch,” added Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). Others, like former Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub, likened the comments to something out of Nazi Germany. “Shades of 1937,” he wrote.
Barr has come under widespread scrutiny for his efforts to protect the president in the wake of the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings, particularly those regarding obstruction of justice. Despite the Mueller report containing overwhelming evidence that the president sought to obstruct the inquiry, the attorney general took it upon himself to clear the president of any wrongdoing. On Saturday, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) became the first Republican lawmaker to call out Barr’s handling of the report, alleging that he deliberately misrepresented the special counsel’s findings. Amash also wrote that the report makes clear that Trump deserves to be impeached. On Monday, he doubled down by dismantling several popular arguments that the president did not obstruct justice.
Last week, Barr took the offensive in his ostensible role as Trump’s unofficial personal attorney, ordering a U.S. attorney in Connecticut to begin investigating the origins of the Russia investigation. In other words, the “very fair look” is already underway.
Another hallmark of authoritarianism is refusing to give up power. Again, Trump is no stranger to entertaining the idea of hanging around the White House for longer than the Constitution stipulates. He has on several occasions “joked” about staying in office for more than two terms. This, too, seems like something that could never actually happen in America. As with jailing one’s political enemies, that’s only true until it isn’t.
“We’re going to have a second [term], and then we’re going to have another one,” Trump said Monday night. “We’ll drive them crazy. And maybe if we really like it a lot, and if things keep going like they are going, we’ll go and we’ll do what we have to do, and a three [terms] and a four, and a five.”
He’s not joking though https://t.co/vLX4Yf26R2
— Jessica Mason Pieklo (@Hegemommy) May 21, 2019
Though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has yet to come around to the idea of impeaching the president, she has expressed concern that he will not voluntarily give up power. This is why, she has said, she doesn’t want to get bogged down with impeachment proceedings, instead preferring to focus on winning 2020 by such a large margin that Trump won’t be able to contest the results. “We have to inoculate against that, we have to be prepared for that,” she told the New York Times earlier this month, speaking of the prospect that Trump will refuse to cede power should he lose. “He would poison the public mind,” she added of her thinking prior to the 2018 midterm election. “He would challenge each of the races; he would say you can’t seat these people. We had to win. Imagine if we hadn’t won — oh, don’t even imagine. So, as we go forward, we have to have the same approach.”
Two days after the Times ran Pelosi’s comments, Trump retweeted a frightening idea from Jerry Falwell, Jr., his most prominent supporter in the evangelical community. “I now support reparations,” he wrote. “Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.”
It sounds like a joke. Don’t be fooled.