Don’t get it twisted: America has always been split. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something. Since we first declared war on King George, in 1775, this nation has been separated by massive ideological chasms. The only people pretending that Donald Trump created our divisions are those who’ve enjoyed enough privilege to ignore our divisions.
Ask a Native American person how long our country has been divided and they’ll go back to the founding fathers. The same goes for just about every other person who isn’t a straight, white male.
In fact, if Donald Trump understands any one thing, it’s exactly how divided America is. It’s why he dances around condemning white nationalism, refuses to overtly reject support from Nazis, and baits the rural poor with language that’s rooted in separatism. But he also has the potential to unite us, by pushing us past a tipping point and going “beyond the pale.” By taking things so far that even his base rejects him en masse.
It could be the eventual result of the ever-widening empathy gap created by Trump’s presidency. But it’ll come much quicker from Trump’s most alienating quality. A trait which might finally drive away the rural white farmers, ranchers, and laborers who made him president in 2016: Authoritarianism.
The tweet above is tempting to treat as completely null and void, due to its source. Bernie Sanders couldn’t be positioned on a further outpost across the ideological divide from Trump, and creating fear around a political enemy’s agenda is pretty standard operating procedure for 2018. But Sanders also seems to understand that calling the president an “authoritarian” is like asking your best friend to drop a shitty partner — you can do it once, but only once. He was in the House of Representatives post 9/11 — when presidential power was rapidly and aggressively expanded under George W. Bush in order to fast track the Iraq war. The loosening of interrogation standards by the president clearly subverted the Geneva Conventions, almost unapologetically. And yet it’s Donald Trump that Bernie Sanders called an authoritarian. Consider that, for a moment.
The Sanders condemnation over Trump’s meddling in the Florida vote recount (which Cornell professor and expert on authoritarian regimes, Tom Pepinsky, called, “incalculably bad for American democracy”) pales in comparison to a far bigger bombshell that dropped this week. Fox News — oft accused by the left of being Trump’s private propaganda network — not only filed a Friend of the Court brief to support rivals CNN and Jim Acosta in their battle against the president over the revocation of Acosta’s White House Hard Pass, they took it to the mattresses. Fox News President Jay Wallace issued this statement:
Fox News supports CNN in its legal effort to regain its White House reporter’s press credential. We intend to file an amicus brief with the U.S. District Court. Secret Service passes for working White House journalists should never be weaponized. While we don’t condone the growing antagonistic tone by both the president and the press at recent media avails, we do support a free press, access and open exchanges for the American people.
This is the news organization that Trump quotes often, cites constantly, and (reportedly) demands others in his circle rely on for information. And their leader just went in on the president. That’s a seismic shift and a miscalculation that Trump and his team didn’t seem to have accounted for. He’s gotten away with truly harmful boorishness, dangerous fear-mongering, and an absolutely startling inability to achieve his promised agenda items. But this was a bridge too far.
The message is clear: In America (even Fox New’s America) — where freedom is emblazoned on our currency and written into our anthem — authoritarianism will not ride. And so today, when judge Timothy J Allen, a Trump appointee, rules on CNN’s suit, he will see that it’s been cosigned by CNN’s fiercest rival. That’s a big deal.
The tweet above refers to yet another moment that underscored Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. He unceremoniously fired Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from an investigation into the president’s 2016 campaign. Then he immediately subverted the constitution to appoint a tough-guy interim AG in Sessions’ place. The man he chose, Matthew Whitaker, is so ensnarled in controversy that its virtually impossible he’d ever be approved via the official confirmation process required of such a post.
This highlights the trickiest part of calling Trump’s autocratic tendencies out: You have to be specific. The president’s lust for power and reckless, rambling overreach is almost dizzying to keep up with. Even the rundown of authoritarian behavior over the past week, detailed above, fails to include the fact that — whether proven intentional or not — the White House shared what appears to be a doctored video of Acosta’s brief mic-wrestling bout with an Oval Office intern.
Pile all of this on top of Trump’s established love of dictators, embarrassing and illegal nepotism, proclivity for pardoning political allies while getting downright giddy over chants of “Lock her up!” about his enemies, and so much blatant corruption that the New York Times writes list-pieces about it, as if they’re running down the best pizza joints in Lower Manhattan, and it’s hard not to be deeply troubled. Or it would be if Trump wasn’t throwing spaghetti at the wall so fast that it’s nearly impossible to tell if anything sticks.
The upshot to all this is that Trump’s authoritarian bluster is being vehemently opposed and steadily challenged by the free press (Fox News now included), the newly flipped House seems eager to challenge him at every turn, and, though his philosophies sound autocratic, he’s utterly ineffective in getting anything done.
Still, other bumbling leaders have turned into despots and wreaked absolute havoc. The last line of defense is and always will be we, the people. Will we manage to let go of our own political divisions to push back on the president? Will we call out his leadership even if he’s a member of our preferred party?
Up until now, that was literally unfathomable. But as Trump careens ever more wildly against the societal guardrails created by the founding fathers, his challenges against the autonomy of the citizenry just might have the power to bring people together. If he keeps it up, the land of the free might have to remind the president that a government is only successful when its constituents are willing. That’s the American way.