Ghitis: Trump wants to rule, not govern

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Trump's media attacks are taken from the populist authoritarian playbook
  • Discrediting critics, fostering division, targeting the media -- all undercut democracy

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)Americans, along with the rest of the world, are trying to figure out what's behind President Donald Trump's grotesque barrage of attacks on the media, ironically revved up just in time for the Fourth of July.

Some wonder if they reflect a thin skin and lack of impulse control -- perhaps a sign of immaturity or even mental distress -- or if the behavior is part of a strategy; a calculated effort to obtain specific political results.
Frida Ghitis
But whether by design or by impulse, Trump is in practice following the authoritarian playbook. He displays the instincts of a populist autocrat. He didn't need to read books about Mussolini, study Hugo Chavez's maneuvers, or become schooled in the tactics of Vladimir Putin. He has shown these things are in his blood.
    Indeed, he appears not to want to govern so much as rule.
    We discern this in his lack understanding or respect for the foundational and sacrosanct principles of the United States -- among them a free press and the right to criticize the president -- but also from his apparent desire to accumulate power by manipulating public opinion, dividing the country, eroding freedoms, and weakening institutions that are not in his control.
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    Autocrats of the past tended to grab power in one overpowering charge. That won't do in an age in which democracy is all-but universally accepted as the only legitimate form of government. The process now requires incrementalism. You boil the frog slowly.
    Let me be clear: I do not think Trump intends to become America's dictator -- although he might not mind that. But I do think his instincts and tactics aim to undercut America's democracy to increase his power.
    Discrediting journalists (except those who idolize him) is an indispensable element. We have seen it since before he took office. From stoking hatred against the press during campaign rallies, to declaring members of the media "the enemy of the American people," to his most recent Twitter spectacle, insulting television personalities and posting a video of himself pummeling a CNN stand-in, the approach serves multiple goals.
    First, it allows him to create his own reality. By discrediting the media, he can claim that any bit of news that he doesn't like is simply untrue.
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    But there's more. Trump is promoting divisions and creating enemies, not just for him but for his supporters.
    Authoritarian leaders do best in such tense environments, with rifts and hatred taking the place of common goals and reasoned debate.
    Take a step back and think about the issues Americans should be discussing. In theory, everyone wants a better health care system, a well-functioning immigration structure, a thriving economy. Instead, Trump has fueled the flames of partisanship, and what should be a discussion about the best way to achieve shared goals has become bitter hostility. The two sides have become enemies.
    His deranged Twitter stream is not aimed at persuading anyone, but riling his base. It's an emotional blowtorch.
    The tweet where Trump violently slams a man wearing a CNN face was reportedly first circulated days earlier by one of his supporters, who has a track record of posting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and insulting Muslims, gays and women. It is this material Trump chooses to promote. It is material he could be either personally seeking out or perhaps instructing his aides to find for him.
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    The effect is to further divide America, to hurt not only its international standing but its democracy; turning its citizens into each other's enemies.
    It is five months into his presidency, and an ever-more riven nation is celebrating America's first Independence Day since Trump took office -- a new President whose governing motto might well read E pluribus pluribus: from many, many.