The second they admit that the Kraken was all made up, they are exposed as authoritarians trying to subvert the constitution.
John W. Dean served as White House counsel for President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973. During the Watergate scandal, his Senate testimony helped lead to Nixon’s resignation. Dean has written about Watergate in his New York Times bestsellers Blind Ambition and The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It. Among his other books are the national bestsellers Worse Than Watergate and Conservatives Without Conscience. A retired investment banker, Dean is now a columnist, commentator, and teacher in a continuing legal education program for attorneys, the Watergate CLE. He is a regular political and legal commentator on CNN News.
The Science of the Authoritarian personality
- submissive followers
- “double high” followers: domineering and opportunistically submissive
His strongman threats are scary. But don’t forget that he’s weak.
Living under a president who daily defiles his office and glories in transgressing the norms holding democracy together is numbing and enervating. It’s not emotionally or physiologically possible to maintain appropriate levels of shock and fury indefinitely; eventually exhaustion and cynical despair kick in.
But every once in a while Donald Trump outpaces the baseline of corruption, disloyalty and sadism we’ve been forced to get used to. Outrage builds and the weary political world stirs. Sometimes even a few Republican officeholders feel the need to distance themselves from things the president says or does.
Child separation caused this kind of clarifying horror. There was a moment of it when Trump tweeted that four congresswomen of color should go back to the “totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” And now, thanks to Trump’s latest attack on democracy, we’re seeing it again.
At a Wednesday evening news conference, Trump was asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the November election. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” said the president. He then complained about “the ballots,” apparently meaning mail-in ballots, which he’s been trying to discredit: “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”
His words — the demand to discard ballots, the dismissal of a possible transfer — were a naked declaration of autocratic intent. Looking at the BBC’s website, where a blaring headline said, “Trump Won’t Commit to Peaceful Transfer of Power,” you could see America being covered like a failing state.
Trump’s words were all the scarier for coming on the same day as Barton Gellman’s blockbuster Atlantic article about how Trump could subvert the election. The chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party told Gellman, on the record, that he’d spoken to the campaign about bypassing a messy vote count and having the Republican-controlled legislature appoint its own slate of electors. A legal adviser to the Trump campaign said, “There will be a count on election night, that count will shift over time, and the results when the final count is given will be challenged as being inaccurate, fraudulent — pick your word.”
As terrifying as all this is, it’s important to remember that Trump and his campaign are trying to undermine the election because right now they appear to be losing it.
Trump is down in most swing state polls, tied in Georgia and barely ahead in Texas. His most sycophantic enabler, Lindsey Graham, is neck-and-neck in South Carolina. The president is counting on his new Supreme Court nominee to save his presidency, and she may, if the vote count gets to the Supreme Court. But a rushed confirmation is unlikely to help Trump electorally, because in polls a majority of Americans say the winner of the election should make the appointment.
Trump may be behaving like a strongman, but he is weaker than he’d like us all to believe. Autocrats who actually have the power to fix elections don’t announce their plans to do it; they just pretend to have gotten 99 percent of the vote. It’s crucial that Trump’s opponents emphasize this, because unlike rage, excessive fear can be demobilizing. There’s a reason TV villains like to say, “Resistance is futile.”
“We cannot allow Trump’s constant threats to undermine voters’ confidence that their ballots will be counted or discredit the outcome in advance,” Michael Podhorzer of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. recently wrote in a memo to allies. Podhorzer said that the organization’s polling suggests that “this close to the election, we do Trump’s work for him when we respond to his threats rather than remind voters that they will decide who the next president will be if they vote.”
This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be alarmed. I’m alarmed every minute of every day. Trump is an aspiring fascist who would burn democracy to the ground to salve his diseased ego. His willingness to break the rules that bind others gives him power out of proportion to his dismal approval ratings. He blithely incites violence by his supporters, some of whom have already tried to intimidate voters in Virginia.
Yet part of the reason he won in 2016 is that so few of his opponents thought it possible. That is no longer a problem. Since then, when voters have had the chance to render a verdict on Trump and his allies, they’ve often rejected them overwhelmingly. Under Trump, Democrats have made inroads into Texas, Arizona, even Oklahoma. They won a Senate seat in Alabama. (Granted, the Republican was accused of being a child molester.) Much attention is paid to Trump’s fanatical supporters, but far more people hate him than love him.
In the run-up to the 2018 election, many people had the same fears they have now. Analyzing its survey results, Pew found that “voters approached the 2018 midterm elections with some trepidation about the voting process and many had concerns that U.S. election systems may be hacked.” After 2016 it was hard to believe polls showing Democrats with a lead of more than eight points. But the polls were right.
Certainly, things are different now than they were even two years ago. A pandemic is disrupting normal campaigning and changing the way a lot of people vote. Trump has much more at stake. Investigations in New York mean that if he’s not re-elected, he could be arrested.
It’s also true that by floating the idea of refusing to concede, Trump begins to normalize the notion. The nationwide uproar over family separation has worn off, even though family separations continue. A House resolution condemned Trump’s initial racist attack on Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. Now he says similar things at his rallies and it barely makes news.
One of the most oft-used metaphors for the Trump years has been that of the slowly boiling frog. (The frog, in this case, being democracy.) By threatening what is essentially a coup, Trump may have turned the heat up too quickly, forcing some elected Republicans to implicitly rebuke him by restating their fealty to a constitutional transfer of power.
But if history is any guide, those Republicans will adjust to the temperature. The next time Trump says something equally outrageous, expect them to make excuses for him, or play some insulting game of whataboutism by likening Biden’s determination to count ballots past Nov. 3 to Trump’s refusal to recognize the possibility of defeat.
Still, Trump can be defeated, along with the rotten and squalid party that is enabling him. Doing so will require being cleareyed about the danger Trump poses, but also hopeful about the fact that we could soon be rid of him.
Trump would like to turn America into a dictatorship, but he hasn’t yet. For over four years he has waged a sort of psychological warfare on the populace, colonizing our consciousness so thoroughly that it can be hard to imagine him gone. That’s part of the reason he says he won’t leave if he’s beaten in November, or even after 2024. It’s to make us forget that it’s not up to him.
Shortly after Trump was elected, the Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen published an important essay called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” Gessen laid out six such rules, each incredibly prescient. The one I most often hear repeated is the first, “Believe the autocrat,” which said, “Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.”
Right now, though, I find myself thinking about the last of Gessen’s rules: “Remember the future.” There is a world after Trump. A plurality of Americans, if not an outright majority, want that world to start in January. And whatever he says, if enough of us stand up to him, it can.
Georgia had an early surge of the virus, and now cases are spiking again. Brian Kemp has refused to learn a thing.
America has botched its coronavirus response in so, so many ways since the pandemic began. Even in a country that stands apart from the world for its horrific failures, there have been as many leadership bungles as there are states: Some failed to heed early warnings. Others refused to learn the lessons of outbreaks that came before theirs. Still others played politics instead of following science. And then there’s Georgia.
Georgia’s response to the pandemic has not been going well. It was bad from the beginning: Back in early April, weeks after other states took initial precautions, Georgia dawdled toward a shutdown while its coronavirus cases surged. Still, less than a month later, the state chose to be among the first in the nation to reopen, bringing back businesses known to accelerate the virus’s spread, such as restaurants and gyms, even though new infections had never made a significant or sustained decline. In June, the state welcomed back bars. What happened next was predictable, and was predicted: Case counts came roaring back. More people got sick and died. Many of these deaths were preventable. The state now has the sixth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States, behind five states with significantly larger populations.
Lots of states—such as Florida, California, and New York—have mishandled the pandemic since it hit in March. But when you look closely at Georgia, you see a state with a leader unique among his peers. First-term Republican Governor Brian Kemp presided over a late shutdown so short that his reopening drew a public rebuke from President Donald Trump, who has frequently opposed shutdowns altogether. Kemp’s administration has repeatedly been accused of manipulating data to downplay the severity of the outbreak. He has sparred publicly with the state’s mayors and sued to stop them from implementing safety restrictions or even speaking to the press.
To understand the course that Georgia has plotted through the pandemic, you have to understand Kemp’s failures. Those same failures, and the trajectory of the state governed by them, also represent a microcosm of America under Trump. The governor has demonstrated a willingness to defer to the president instead of his own constituents, sacrifice Georgians’ safety to snipe at his political foes, and shore up his own power at the expense of democracy. In short, Kemp is a wannabe authoritarian, and millions of Georgians have suffered as a result, with no end in sight
trajectory of the state governed by them, also represent a microcosm of America under Trump. The governor has demonstrated a willingness to defer to the president instead of his own constituents, sacrifice Georgians’ safety to snipe at his political foes, and shore up his own power at the expense of democracy. In short, Kemp is a wannabe authoritarian, and millions of Georgians have suffered as a result, with no end in sight.
Kemp has emulated strongmen since he entered state government. In 2018, as Georgia’s secretary of state, Kemp administered his own election by a thin, contested margin, despite calls to resign the office before running for governor. In his previous role, Kemp systematically purged more than 1 million voters from the state’s rolls, disproportionately disenfranchising Georgians of color. More than half a million of those voter registrations were voided in July 2017 alone, months into Kemp’s campaign for governor. Kemp’s office did not respond to a request for an interview, but in the past, he has repeatedly denied that these actions amounted to voter suppression.
In Georgia, and around the world, it has become clear that a novel virus doesn’t respond to the anti-scientific, expertise-shirking preferences of modern authoritarianism. When Kemp announced the closure of the state’s nonessential businesses on April 2, he said it was because he had learned something game-changing about the virus: that it is transmissible before an infected person develops symptoms. In reality, that had been a widely accepted belief for weeks, one that had helped encourage earlier lockdowns around the country. And unlike other states that were slow to shut down, Georgia already had a raging outbreak of nearly 5,000 identified cases. In southwest Georgia in late February, a funeral in the small, majority-Black town of Albany set off a chain of infection that sickened hundreds of people and left the local hospital system overburdened and overpaying for low-quality protective gear.
If a slow shutdown had been Kemp’s only major fumble, he’d be in broad and ideologically varied company both nationally and internationally. Instead, he has continued to double down on the state’s approach to the virus in ways that mirror not just Trump, but authoritarian leaders overseeing poorly controlled outbreaks all over the world, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and India’s Narendra Modi. He has also taken a more hard-line stance than most of his Republican peers. GOP governors in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas have implemented statewide mask rules in response to worsening outbreaks, and others who haven’t, such as Ron DeSantis in Florida and Doug Ducey in Arizona, have still allowed cities and counties to enforce their own local requirements. Not only has Kemp repeatedly refused to require masks in Georgia, but the state’s current pandemic emergency order was written with an explicit restriction to prevent local leaders from implementing their own mask rules.
Kemp’s administration has gone so far as to sue Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the city’s mask mandate and its plan to roll back the city’s reopening to its earliest stage, closing bars and restricting restaurants to takeout. When Bottoms fought the lawsuit, Kemp sought to stop her from speaking to the press. Other cities in the state, such as Savannah and Athens, also passed their own mandates but escaped inclusion in the lawsuit, which has pushed some to question whether the governor was trying to punish Bottoms for her support of Joe Biden. A Kemp spokesperson told The Washington Post that the lawsuit was primarily about the new restrictions on businesses in Bottoms’s order, which weren’t present in other municipalities’ mask mandates, but as the paper pointed out, masks were listed as the first issue in the complaint. “One has to ask about the political aspect of a conservative southern governor and a strong supporter of the president having a very public legal action against the Atlanta mayor, who’s been a vocal supporter of Joe Biden,” Harry Heiman, a professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, told me. Kemp backed down from the lawsuit last week, and Atlanta’s local mandate remains in effect.
None of Kemp’s actions has been popular among the state’s residents. According to findings released last week by the Atlanta-based market-research platform 1Q, 73 percent of Georgians surveyed believe that cities should be able to enforce their own mask mandates, and 70 percent disagree with Kemp’s refusal to institute a mandate statewide. In recent months, his overall approval rating has taken a hit. In May, Kemp was the only governor whose coronavirus response was less popular than the president’s among his own constituents. A recent poll pegged Kemp’s approval rating at 43 percent, down from more than 59 percent in January.
Kemp, like Trump, has recently started to encourage mask usage while still aggressively opposing any kind of enforceable mask rule. The problem with that approach, according to public-health experts, is that it sows confusion, making it more difficult for people to feel confident in their safety. The state’s own messaging has at times been misleading in other ways. On its Department of Public Health website, the state spent months backdating cases to a patient’s first symptoms, which meant that the most recent two weeks of the graph always looked as if the pandemic was in marked decline. The state has also released misleading graphics that it later insisted were honest errors in data rendering, such as a bar graph of case counts with the dates out of chronological order, again depicting a nonexistent downward slope.
In mid-July, two nearly identical maps of Georgia’s coronavirus outbreak began circulating on Twitter, depicting the state’s outbreaks on July 2 and July 17, over which time cases increased significantly. Both maps show only three of the state’s 159 counties shaded in red, marking the most dire spread of the disease. As case counts exploded, the state had raised the number of cases required for a county to change color. Once local media took notice, the state redesigned its map. The public health department’s website also now allows users to sort new coronavirus cases by date of diagnosis, the method used almost exclusively in other government and media visualizations of the pandemic.
Then there is the matter of reopening schools. The state’s accelerated reopening spiked cases just in time for the South’s typically early school calendar to begin, leaving educators, parents, and students to fend for themselves as Kemp urges the resumption of in-person instruction in order to protect kids from non-coronavirus threats such as malnutrition and abuse. But if Kemp’s concerns lie with the safety of the state’s children and the importance of getting them back in the classroom, why didn’t he do more to stop the spread of the virus? Why, instead, did he prioritize sending low-wage workers back to their jobs in bars, restaurants, nail salons, and gyms?
Some of Georgia’s school districts opened this week, and already the system is buckling under the weight of infection: Yesterday, we learned that the state’s outbreak had claimed its youngest victim yet, an otherwise healthy 7-year-old boy. One Cherokee County elementary-school class has already had to be quarantined after a second grader received a positive test result on the first day of school. Earlier this week, a photo from inside North Paulding High School in exurban Atlanta showed a crowded hallway with few teenagers wearing masks. An outbreak has already sickened members of the school’s football team, and students say they fear expulsion if they don’t show up. Two students were suspended for distributing photos of the school’s lax safety measures; at least one of those students has been reinstated following a public outcry over her right to free speech.
Georgia’s public universities, which are preparing for students to come back over the next couple of weeks, provide a bleak view of how the state is managing the dangers that a return to regular life presents for Georgians. For much of this summer, the University System of Georgia refused pleas from faculty and staff to require students to wear masks to class, or to allow individual colleges to make their own mask rules, before eventually relenting and requiring masks. At the University of Georgia, freshmen will still be required to live in cramped on-campus housing, much of which assigns two students to one privacy-free room, even if their classes are remote. For students who attend instruction in person, photos have begun to circulate on social media of the safety measures that await them: a small plexiglass divider loosely affixed to the front of a teacher’s classroom desk, or every other urinal in a public bathroom marked off with painter’s tape. With the majority of students yet to return, UGA already has the third-largest campus outbreak in the country, and Athens, the town where the school is located, ran out of intensive-care beds last week.
Despite all his mistakes, it’s not too late for Kemp to wrangle the pandemic, said Heiman, the Georgia State professor. He told me that a statewide mask mandate; closing bars, gyms, and indoor dining; and clear, consistent messaging from state leadership about pandemic safety can work quickly to limit transmission of the virus, just as such measures have in New York, following that state’s catastrophic outbreak. Once transmission is low, more businesses can be safely reopened, testing supplies and personal protective equipment can be stockpiled, school buildings can be altered for better ventilation, and life can return to something closer to normalcy while Georgians wait for treatments and vaccines to come along.
In order to do that, though, Kemp would have to do something authoritarians hate: admit he was wrong, and change his mind based on evidence, the advice of experts, and the will of the people. The same is true for the country as a whole. America is a few decisions away from a much different future.
Instead, like the authoritarian he’s shown himself to be, Kemp seems intent on maintaining the disastrous course his administration has plotted so far, at the expense of the people of Georgia. “It’s truly unbelievable,” Heiman said. “It will be a case study for decades to come of what an utter collapse of political and public-health leadership looks like.”
After being released from prison to serve the balance of his sentence in home confinement, Bill Barr got word that Cohen was finishing up a book about Donald Trump. Barr’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP) gave Cohen an ultimatum: stop writing/talking/posting about the president or go back to prison. Upon seeking clarification of the conditions being proposed by the BOP, Cohen was returned to prison. Cohen filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, contending his imprisonment by Barr was illegal. Today, a federal court judge agreed, ruling that Barr/BOP retaliated against Cohen for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.