On the morning of July 23, while sitting in a little stone house we had rented for our holidays on a Croatian island in the Adriatic, I opened my computer to check the headlines and my email.
The headlines were on President Donald Trump’s insane tweet against Iran, essentially threatening the country with nuclear attack if its leaders dared to insult America again: “To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
This all-caps, faux-patriotism came from a president who the week before stood next to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and publicly trashed the United States, and the week before that went out of his way to denigrate America’s most important international allies and alliances.
The email in my inbox wasn’t much better. The day before, The Sacramento Bee had published my column on that most un-presidential of European trips. The trolls were horrified. One emailed me asking, “How is your health? Is it poor due to your diet of lemming s---t? You are such an ignorant, knee-jerk f----ing clown,” and continued with a string of homophobic and other slurs.
A few days later, another wrote, “Are you for real??? Do you just wake up everyday in Libtard-land and say to yourself, ‘I’ve got to write another whacky libtard article for the Libturd Bee?’ Liberals are the greatest threat to America not Trump or Putin. In fact, many Americans would rather hang out with the Russians than anti-American libtards like you! GO TRUMP!!!”
There were plenty more in this vein, but you get the gist. These, in turn, weren’t too different from the voicemail message I received from a mentally unstable acquaintance before I left on vacation. He had taken umbrage at the fact that, because he was phoning me and texting me repeatedly to barrage me with schoolyard-styled insults, I had stopped answering his calls. In response, he left me a message threatening to strangle me.
Frankly, it seems to me that Trump, my email trolls, and my disturbed acquaintance are unpleasant birds of a feather, all substituting hatred and threats in place of reasoned argument. Of course, my correspondents, hiding behind the anonymity the internet provides, are simply cowards. My acquaintance has mental health issues.
Trump, by contrast, is cowardly, unstable and also an arsonist, a man with near limitless powers combined with a propensity for destruction, and thus a global personage with the potential to cause infinite harm. His modus operandi is aimed at sowing such discord and chaos within Western democracies that basic governing norms break down, basic understandings of democratic political structures corrode, and autocracy is greenlighted.
That’s clearly the message in his onetime Svengali Steve Bannon setting up an anti-European Union “Movement” headquartered in Brussels, a sort of clearinghouse for Europe’s far right. Bannon has for years argued for the instigation of political chaos as a way of reshaping the West and its most basic political norms. His is a not-too-dissimilar strategy, from the right, as was Trotsky’s establishing of a roving international communist revolutionary movement from the left in the 1920s and 1930s.
It’s also the message in Trump’s surrogates, including Donald Jr., attempting in recent weeks to turn European far-right figures such as the until-recently imprisoned British fascist Tommy Robinson into folk heroes.
It’s the message in Trump repeatedly attacking the EU and its leading political figures even as he cozies up to, and coyly flatters, dictators and autocrats. It’s the message in the escalation of Trump’s tweet attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller, and his unprecedented call for the Department of Justice to shut down the investigation and end “the witch hunt.” It’s the message in his support for the jeering, cultist, mob against journalists at his recent Florida and Pennsylvania rallies.
Let me return to what I argued in my last column: Democracy, and a rights-based politics, isn’t just about access to the ballot box; after all, the nastiest experiments in 20th century totalitarianism were by and large backed up by the pretense of national elections every so often. Rather, democracy is also about engagement and about empowerment from the ground up. It’s about operating within parameters of rationality and fact-based civil discourse, allowing for disagreements to be played out within a broadly accepted political and institutional framework.
It doesn’t work when the very framework itself is either left to die on the vine or is actively compromised by powerful political figures and propagandists. It doesn’t work when threats and coarse insults, attacks on, and de facto incitements to violence against the free press, and mass intimidation, replace argument as central methods of communication.
During the weeks of my European travels, I have been reading a wonderful book, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” on the troubled, and globally destabilizing, history of the Balkans, written in the late 1930s by the British author Rebecca West. She describes the endless permutations of intrigue and betrayal that defined the various Balkan courts and leadership circles in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Of Bulgaria’s ruler, Prince Ferdinand, she curtly noted that “he watered and tended corruption as if it were a flower.” He also, she observed, played one power off against another, making one amoral or transactional covert deal after another, until all was chaos.
Of Prince Donald, too, one might say the same thing. His administration is peopled by kleptocrats; his base principle is graft. He delights in destabilization. In addition, he is contemptuous of the political system of which he is, tragically, in charge, and uncouthly dismissive of the universalist, pluralist values that America at its best has long sought to embody.
Sasha Abramsky, who teaches at UC Davis, is a Sacramento writer whose latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.