Editor’s Note: Nayyera Haq is a former White House Senior Director and State Department spokesperson in the Obama administration, Nayyera is a regular commentator on politics and current affairs. She supports Hillary Clinton. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Nayyera Haq: Donald Trump has made his authoritarian intentions clear well before having the chance to be sworn in
I hope electorate will see warning signs, and vote to preserve a democratic tradition, she says
The last time someone used the Oval Office to execute a personal vendetta, it was dubbed the Saturday Night Massacre.
No one actually died in the scandal over Richard Nixon’s firing of the special prosecutor looking into the Watergate recordings, but the blow to our concept of American democracy was devastating. Nixon’s behavior challenged our sense of self as a nation committed to the rule of law, shook our belief in political leaders, and tarnished the global image of the United States as a model democracy.
If we thought Nixon was bad for America and our standing in the world, we should beware of setting up an even bigger disaster, because Donald Trump has already made his intentions clear.
In Sunday night’s debate, Trump proudly threatened to use Presidential authority to help put his political opponent in jail, casting aside the idea of due process or this nation’s system of checks and balances. But his comments should come as no surprise. Trump’s blunt statement was merely the logical next step in a months-long effort to build support for strongman tactics that started with painting opponents as crooked, preventing journalists or media outlets he personally disagreed with from joining his events, and targeting minorities.
This should disturb the American public because it is part of a playbook used by leaders elsewhere in the world to undermine democracy. Indeed, using the power of the presidency to push personal vendettas is something all too common in places the United States does not wants to emulate – think Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Turkey.
Also in the strongman playbook? Scapegoating minorities and religious tests. Sadly, Trump has checked all these boxes even before being elected. And we only need to cast our eyes overseas to see the enormous damage that other leaders have wrought to see the risks of actually handing Trump the keys to the White House.
Let’s start with the man Trump seems to most admire for being a strong leader.
Vladimir Putin – You may picture the Russian president the way he looks in some of those viral images – riding horses or hugging a polar bear. But Russians have a less wry view. To them he is the leader who has overseen the arrest of opposition party members and prevented the opposition leader from running in the next election, who has taken over the country’s largest television networks, whose government has stopped international humanitarian organizations from working in Russia and stoked anti-LGBT sentiment. Under Putin, Russia also invaded Ukraine, keeping Crimea for itself.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan – Turkey’s president was once the hope of the Middle East, the democratically elected leader of a secular Muslim country that straddles the border of Europe and Asia. But that was a decade ago, when he was still prime minister. Since then, Erdogan has used force to crush a peaceful protest about preserving a green park. Foreign journalists have been deported and banned and Turkish media prevented from reporting on certain political events. In response to an attempted coup in July, 80,000 people were forced out of their jobs or suspended, 35,000 civilians were arrested without charges, television and radio stations were shut down, and arrest warrants were issued for almost 100 journalists.
Robert Mugabe – The longest serving of the group, Zimbabwe’s president won his election based largely on the narrative that only he could unite the country’s various factions. However, shortly after taking office, Mugabe quickly consolidated power and established a North Korean trained security force to deal with internal dissidents, leading to the killing of an estimated 20,000 civilians of the ethnic Ndebele minority.
Putin, Erdogan, and Mugabe all have something in common: They were extremely popular and rode waves of nationalistic pride to win elections. But the United States has seen condemning each of these leaders as part of its responsibility in trying to uphold democratic values around the world and has sanctioned them for their human rights violations.
Promoting and defending democracy has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and the reality is that the United States would condemn an attempt in any other country to threaten candidates or limit access to the media. We must hold ourselves to the same standard we expect of other countries.
For generations, immigrants have left other nations for the US specifically because of its promise of the rule of law and freedom of speech. But while it is easier to deny the evidence that exists before us than admit that the leader of one of our own political parties is headed down a dictatorial path, we cannot ignore what is right in front of us.
And this isn’t just an argument of Chicken Little liberals. No less a conservative than Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, tweeted: “Winning candidates don’t threaten to put opponents in jail. Presidents don’t threaten prosecution of individuals. Trump is wrong on this.”
I hope that enough of the electorate will agree with him. I hope they will see the warning signs, and vote to preserve a democratic tradition that we are rightly so proud of.