I lived my childhood under Stalinism and Nazism, two despotic dictatorships. Now, as I view the current-day political squabbles in the perspective shaped by my experience, I get a queasy feeling in the pit of my gut.
Stalin and Hitler had absolute control of both the media and law enforcement. Such controls are still out of reach of our current administration. But the current president’s insidious hunger for such power is revealed by his persistent war of words with FBI and with the news media. The goal of his tactics is to discredit and weaken the institutions, and then execute a takeover.
Gaining control of law enforcement is sinister. But it may become feasible when agencies like the FBI are discredited and weakened. For more than a year the President criticized the FBI for not investigating Hillary Clinton’s criminality. On May 9, 2017, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and slandered him, calling his performance unsatisfactory. On March 17, 2018, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was fired for some alleged impropriety. The timing of Mr. McCabe’s firing, two days before his retirement with full benefits, and President Trump’s uncomplimentary tweets hint of an underlying malicious grudge.
Frequent changes of directors is a re-staffing of the FBI. The danger in this is that sycophants replace fired administrators, who, in effect, would deliver control of law enforcement to one individual. Such results change the balance between freedom and restraint. It makes it possible to indict and try the legislators of the minority party on “Trumped-up charges” of treason for not smiling during the State of the Union Address.
President Trump’s control over the Justice and Immigration departments is evident. Thousands of undocumented immigrants with minor law infractions were deported in the past year, as fulfillment of a campaign promise.
Starting with the 2016 campaign, President Trump has also attempted to discredit the news media. Habitually, he called news coverage “fake news” and branded the media as “enemies of the people.” Stalin used that same phrase to eliminate his opposition. As a 7-year-old, I heard about trials in Moscow that sent hundreds to the gulag. Under Russian occupation of Lithuania, my parents and I lived in horror of an impending deportation.
Control of news media still eludes President Trump, but it is not out of his reach. The news industry is too vast for an easy takeover. But information management is possible. “Fake news” of a discredited media would likely necessitate “correction.” Selective information management would be instituted as a fix. “Revised rules and standards” to classify information would start a transition to censorship.
Many published articles imply that democracy is an organized chaos. Its proceedings are not smooth. Differences of opinions and positions create friction.
But President Trump’s capricious behaviors are goal-oriented tactics. Attempts to muzzle our news media, use deportations to fulfill campaign promises, fuel distrust of our law enforcement, and fill administrative cabinet positions with sycophants is an erosion of democratic processes.
It is a step toward totalitarian control, and it alarms me. Having lived my childhood under Russian and German occupation, I can attest that life under tyranny is not sweet.
Fred Natkevi is a longtime Oak Park resident.