US Politics

Dear Leader Donald Demands Your Obedience

This is a classic authoritarian cult-of-personality dictatorship power grab tactic, and it is not at all clear that America's legal, political and civil institutions will be able to survive it.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 24, 2017

According to the official biography of Kim Jong-Il, Dear and Supreme Leader of North Korea from 1994 to 2011 and Lodestar of the 21st Century, his greatness was foretold when he was born under a double rainbow and a new star appeared in the sky.

He was a precocious child, wrote an astonishing number of books, helped produce great movies, and was a preternaturally gifted golfer. He was also able to change the weather with his mind.

Dear Leader Trump

United States President Donald J. Trump may have some of the same magic. This past Saturday, he visited the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and gave a speech in which he shared some remarkable feats of his own. For example, Trump told the assembled agents that as he was about to give his Inaugural speech on Friday:

God looked down and He said, "We're not going to let it rain on your speech." In fact, when I first started, I said, oh, no. The first line, I got hit by a couple of drops. And I said, oh, this is too bad, but we'll go right through it. But the truth is that it stopped immediately. It was amazing. And then it became really sunny.

Of course, it did not stop raining during Trump's speech. The sun certainly did not come out. But like all cult-of-personality strongmen, Trump does not let mere objective truth get in the way of a good devotion.

Nor does he leave the reception of his extraordinary claims up to chance. It turns out Trump packed the front rows of his CIA address with his own supporters, who cheered and applauded his lines in order to prime viewers into thinking that what he was saying was normal and acceptable.

Trump went on to tell the CIA audience - and the live studio audience he brought along - that it looked like "a million and a half people" came to his inauguration.

Easily-Disproven Lies

Of course, the "dishonest media" insisted on trying to spoil the occasion by posting side-by-side photos of Trump's inauguration and the Obama inauguration in 2009.

2009 Obama Inauguration vs 2017 Trump Inauguration (Image Credit: New York Times)
2009 Obama Inauguration vs 2017 Trump Inauguration (Image Credit: New York Times)

Also on Saturday, Sean Spicer, Trump's White House Press Secretary, repeated and extended Trump's lie, buttressing it with even more ridiculous and easily-disproven lies about nearly every aspect of the inaugural attendance.

And Spicer didn't just state his lies, either. He angrily denounced the media for being "negative" and "demoralizing" in their attacks on the new President.

On Sunday, Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway offered this clarification: "You're saying it's a falsehood. And they're giving - Sean Spicer, our press secretary - gave alternative facts to that."

Conway went on, "Your job is not to call things ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our president. That's not your job." No, the job of the news media under Dear Leader Trump is to support Dear Leader and help him unify the country under his version of the truth.

Obedience Tests

There is a reason Donald Trump and his press flacks are lying about how many people came to his inauguration, whether God saw fit to rain on his speech, and so on, and it's not just because Trump is a narcissist or because he and his cabinet hold the public in contempt.

They're subjecting Americans to an escalating series of obedience tests.

People and organizations that obey, i.e. accept the lies as truths and propagate them compliantly, are granted validation, approval and access. Fox News and Breitbart have nothing to worry about.

But people and organizations that disobey, i.e. report lies as lies, are identified to be discredited and de-legitimized. They will be refused questions at media conferences ("I'm not going to give you a question, you're fake news."), frozen out of the press pool, denied access, attacked, threatened, intimidated, bullied and ultimately disrupted.

In time, the Trump administration may even harness the apparatus of the state to go after the dissident media more formally. Politically motivated arrests of journalists and editors may seem inconceivable today, but these things happen through a "combover effect" of creeping incrementalism.

The obedience tests gradually increase in outrageousness, each one just a tiny bit more outrageous than the last, until it no longer seems a big stretch to accuse a journalist of treason or sedition or terrorism for refusing to support the administration's agenda. (Republican lawmakers in several states are already proposing to criminalize nonviolent protest.)

Or maybe it comes in the form of defamation lawsuits calculated to ratchet up the cost of legal defence until they give up and settle. Trump has already mused about changing American libel law to make it easier to sue the news media.

In either case, the intended effect is to chill the media into obedience, or at least self-censorship.

This is a classic authoritarian cult-of-personality dictatorship power grab tactic, and it is not at all clear that America's legal, political and civil institutions will be able to survive it.

Normal Partisanship vs. Authoritarianism

It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between normal partisan things we could expect any Republican president to do (like reinstating the "global gag rule" banning the U.S. government from giving international aid money to any organization that provides abortion services or even offers information about abortion) and the creeping authoritarianism that is expected from Trump.

As a possible example of the latter, Trump has already signed a presidential order to declare his inauguration day a "National Day of Patriotic Devotion". And yes, the text of the order is filled with Christian white nationalist dog whistles about "our sacred values and heritage" and "no peace where the people do not pray for it".

Meanwhile, a Republican bill proposes that the United States completely withdraw from the United Nations, nudging the world toward a new 19th century Great Powers era, in which imperialistic nation states can drop all the international law niceties and just slug it out over who gets to control the world's resources.

Of course, in the 19th century those belligerent, testosterone-fueled nation states didn't have nuclear weapons.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted January 24, 2017 at 12:47:22

the more the political and media establishments freak out, the more enjoyable this whole thing becomes

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 24, 2017 at 14:09:58 in reply to Comment 120601

Cancelling health coverage for 20 million people to give huge tax cuts for billionaires = hilarious!

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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted January 24, 2017 at 18:23:01 in reply to Comment 120602

Obamacare is a disaster. The only people who like it are the insurance companies that lobbied for it. Imagine the government mandating you must purchase a product from a private corporation or be fined. What a great deal. Come on.

At any rate, I'm glad you're taking the time to discuss a foreign president. It's keeping me distracted from the fact that the LRT committee has said that the bike lanes on Dundurn, York, and King will be removed. Of course, since I live in Ward One that doesn't affect me as much as President Trump does. Let's get to the bottom of American health care before tackling Hamilton bike lanes. Maybe CNN can cover the LRT.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted January 24, 2017 at 18:25:56 in reply to Comment 120604

At any rate, I'm glad you're taking the time to discuss a foreign president. It's keeping me distracted from the fact that the LRT committee has said that the bike lanes on Dundurn, York, and King will be removed.

Stop spreading misinformation and fake news.

The op-ed piece you linked to a while ago never said terms like "must" or "will" but rather "might" or "may be".

And yes, this site has to exclusively follow only Hamilton-centric items. Bravo, you've added a ton to the discussion.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted January 24, 2017 at 14:38:40 in reply to Comment 120602

He hasn't cancelled it yet and I doubt he will. He'll tweak a few things here and there and package it as a major change or revocation. Even Trump - or at least his advisors - knows that taking is more politically dangerous than giving.

Are we just catching on now to the 'obedience tests'? Seriously? This has been going on since McCarthy. There are so many layers of carefully scripted reality in the media now that I doubt anyone has a grasp of what is really going on.

One thing I'm really hoping for is that Trump's detractors keep a level head. Argue rationally and politely. What I've seen so far, sadly, is just as much acrimonious, childish name calling and fear-mongering coming from the 'left' as from the 'right'.

Note: Comparing Trump to Kim Jong Un is really testing the border of fear-mongering. Trump can be an ass of a person but he hasn't yet summarily executed any family members. The plight of the North Korean people is very real. We just have to deal with another Republican president.

Comment edited by ergopepsi on 2017-01-24 14:45:29

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2017 at 15:04:00 in reply to Comment 120603

Based on his first nine days, I'd say the smart money is on Trump doing everything he said he's going to do.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted January 30, 2017 at 23:14:48 in reply to Comment 120632

I agree that we will do everything he said he would do to a certain degree. As I mentioned, he'll alter the ACA and claim to have repealed it. He will also build the wall - to a fashion - as I can't see Congress approving 12 billion dollars for that. Some Mexicans will get deported, cameras rolling, and he will claim to have cleaned the criminals off the streets.

The one I am really looking forward to is the 20% tariff on imported goods. The US imports 300 billion dollars worth of goods from Mexico annually so that's a 60 billion price tag for the American people! To import mostly their own stuff! That's how 'the Mexican's will pay'? At this point we might see the cooler heads in Congress prevail and the whole idea will be scrapped.

Still, I have to say I kind of like the fact that Trump is there. I don't like him as a leader but you can't deny he has stirred up the silt. People are actually paying attention again. Obama had this effect of lulling us all to sleep as he drifted through his last four years. While we were busy nodding off he increased the NSA's already criminal power of surveillance. And, he must have just forgotten about all those poor (presumed innocent?) folks in Guantanamo that he had promised to release eight years ago due to the awkward fact that they haven't been charged with any crime.

I read an article in the Spec that has been circulating the web about how the novel 1984 is now in great demand, far greater than it was when the US had a president with a quick wit and an easy smile. It would appear that Obama used his people skills to do some people management on a large scale. Tell a few jokes, shoot some hoops, roll up your sleeves and read to children (on camera of course or else it doesn't count). All the while your phone conversations are being recorded and deposited in a massive data bank.

The core message of 1984 is that the totalitarian goal is to completely remove the ability of the individual to understand that they are oppressed. This might sound paranoid but whenever you feel that all is right in the world is probably when you should be the most worried.

Comment edited by ergopepsi on 2017-01-30 23:20:49

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted January 24, 2017 at 20:14:49

The fear-mongering from media and political insiders stopped working 15 years ago. I added CNN to my cable package the week of the election so I could have a US-based station to watch, and promptly cancelled it a couple of days later. During the time I had the station, they spoke with tremendous fear and hyperbole about how the markets would start a massive crash within hours of the election if Trump were to win. Dow Jones has set it all-time record since the election as has the S&P 500. The next time I pay any attention to a political or media insider will be the first time.

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By Missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted January 28, 2017 at 12:55:56

I think it behooves any sensible observer of 'world events' to consistently LISTEN to opposing sides of the observed 'reality' and form their own judgments about the veracity of any claim. No two sides or views are alike, or ever equal. Fact check, dig deeper, and always challenge your own assumptions. We CAN be wrong. As much as we can be Right.

As example, I was initially upset to read that a female writer for SNL was 'suspended' for her 'tweet' about Trump's son, Barron. WHAT?? How Outrageous!!

I soon learned that she deleted the offensive tweet, apologized, and that she came to understand the hard way that going after a famous person's kid (regardless if he's the President's son) is not only cruel but unprofessional, even for a comedian. http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017... Personally, I initially thought that she should not be professionally crucified for her obvious mistake. She did correct her error and then apologized. That should be enough. Free Press and all.

However, that said, the INSTANT communication of Twitter meant that the IMPACT of her tweet generated significant response and controversy within seconds of posting it. And that's where I now have really no sympathy for the end consequence of her action. She's a 'communicator' and KNOWS how Twitter works. She kind of got the heated reaction she deserved.

This whole tempest-in-a-teapot could have been easily avoided altogether if she had THOUGHT about what she was writing before she wrote it.

So, yes Ryan, SOME self-censorship is needed if we hope to evolve towards a more civil discourse, on-line and off - especially about President Trump.

Going after his under-age kid is not 'the way'. Now or Ever. And that's my judgement call.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2017 at 09:34:07 in reply to Comment 120629

Hi Missy2013, your concern is very well-stated. However, the self-censorship I'm referring to is when journalists decline to pursue legitimate investigations about what the government is doing, out of fear that they will be punished for reporting it.

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