Trump does Poor imitation of Tin-Pot Dictator at “Press Conference”

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In his first news conference in months, president-elect Donald J. Trump engaged in a series of petulant tirades. For anyone like myself, who has lived under dictators in the global South, his performance was unpleasantly reminiscent of their authoritarian publicity techniques.

Instead of letting a wide range of reporters attend, he limited their spots so that he could pack the hall with his own supporters. Those supporters were the ones applauding, and since the cameras were not turned on the audience, television viewers may have thought the cheers came from reporters. This effect was intended. There are some allegations that some of the Trump supporters in attendance were actually part of a rent-a-crowd, a common technique among Middle Eastern dictators. And then there was the typical technique of painting dissidents and critics as themselves authoritarian. Innocent Japanese were interned during WWII on unsupported charges that they were imperialists. Members and former members of the 50,000-strong Communist Party in the US were accused of trying to take over the US government. Trump on Wednesday characterized the leak of the intelligence report as “Nazism,” as though he were a victim of an authoritarian genocide being perpetrated by a web news site. The charge is ironic, as Rula Jebreal pointed out:

1. Disagreement is treason. Trump’s spokesman slammed Buzzfeed for publishing the annex to the US intelligence report on Russian hacking of the US election, complaining that it was false and not verified by the intelligence agencies. I said yesterday that I found the dossier unconvincing. But Buzzfeed’s conviction that the document was of public interest and the at the public should be able to see and judge it for themselves can be argued about. Buzzfeed did not certify it as true. Trump essentially put them on trial for treason. As for inaccuracy, Trump and his people want a monopoly on it. Let’s remember that Trump denied for years that President Obama was born in the United States, that he keeps saying that the murder rate in the US has risen (it has fallen dramatically since the 1990s), that he denies that humans burning hydrocarbons causes climate change, that he says that unemployment is 42%, and that there are 30 million undocumented workers in the US (it is about 11 million and has fallen). His campaign allies at the Neo-Nazi Breitbart rag accused Hillary Clinton (edited by Steve Bannon) of practicing voodoo and/or of being part of a pedophilia ring run from a Washington, DC pizzeria. At least the report on Trump’s having been compromised by Russian intelligence on his escapades in Russia actually exists.

2. Divide and rule. Trump tried to single out Buzzfeed for publishing the document and CNN for reporting that it was part of the intelligence community’s report by denouncing them as “fake news” and refusing them the opportunity to question him. He instead allowed the white supremacist Breitbart (a chief producer of fake news from its inception) to toss him a softball. Creating disfavored and favored news outlets is a typical authoritarian move. Trump is punishing CNN to create an incentive for other news outlets to treat him with kid gloves, and he is hoping the other reporters will climb over the prostrate bodies of the Buzzfeed and CNN journalists on their way up to White House access. The reporters and news organizations will have to stick together to overcome this tactic. Trump is also trying to legitimize his buddy Steve Bannon’s Neofascist monstrosity, Breitbart, by favoring it over CNN in public. (The Breitbart reporter suggested that Trump crack down on all those mainstream ‘fake news’ outlets, which is sort of like a wine-seller arguing for prohibition). Incidentally, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed CNN’s story later in the day. CNN did not publish the two pages of salacious material and were treated completely unjustly by Trump.

3. The Big Lie. Trump contradicted the US intelligence community, which maintained that Russian hackers also broke into the servers of the Republican National Committee but declined to leak those documents– in contrast to the way they treated the Hillary Clinton campaign. Trump said, “had they broken into the Republican National Committee, I think they would’ve released it just like they did about Hillary . . .” But they did and they didn’t. Trump continues to manufacture his own reality, in his own interests. (If the Russians treated their hacked information differently, some would argue, that his how they threw the election to Trump. He wants to deny that he had any help and so denies the facts of the case.)

4. Weasel words. Aware of arguments being made that he is beholden to Russian financial concerns, Trump said “As a real estate developer, I have very, very little debt. I have assets that are — and now people have found out how big the company is, I have very little debt — I have very low debt. But I have no loans with Russia at all.” This assertion is disingenuous because he might have partnerships or Russian investors without categorizing that money as “loans.” In fact, Trump owes at least $300 million to creditors, and if you total up the debts held by all the companies in which he has at least a 1/3 stake, the debts may come to $1.5 billion! One of the New York City buildings he has a part ownership of carries a $950 million debt, some of which is held by the Bank of China. Trump may presently have no Russian creditors or projects (and his finances are so Byzantine that it is impossible to know), but that does not rule out his having Russian partners or investors in US or European projects. As for investments inside Russia, he certainly has tried. Contrary to what he said, he has tried on several occasions to build Trump Towers in Russia. The deals collapsed, but not for lack of trying. in 2008 he made $54 million on a sale of a Florida mansion for $95 million to a Russian billionaire. That’s a suspiciously large profit in Florida in 2008, and there have been questions about Russian or former Soviet Union businessmen laundering money through joint ventures with Trump. Trump also had a $30 million deal to put on a Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013 and wanted to invited and befriend Vladimir Putin.

5. Substituting spectacle for substance. Trump had one of his attorneys put on a dog and pony show about how he will handle his finances during his presidency, implying that he thereby put to rest the worries about his business conflicts of interest. No one who knows about the pertinent laws appears in the least convinced that Trump’s proposals resolved these issues. The attempt to use smoke and mirrors to finesse this matter is typical of authoritarian regimes, who deny their own corruption via public spectacle and the strong-arming of critics. The big piles of Manila folders were apparently empty and just for show.

Empty and just for show will be some of the words inscribed on the tombstone of Trump’s presidency.

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Related video:

PBS: “Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect”

28 Responses

  1. Is it a symptom of the political pathology of government by the pathological that you discussed a day or two ago, or is it its own phenomena, government by the insistence on a (set of) big lie(s) ?

    It’s certainly not a new phenomena in human social organizations, it was already very old when Hitler, Stalin and Mao used it to twist 20th Century history in blody and dictatorial directions.

    In a sense, every social organization over the last hundreds of thousands of years which has insisted on the wisdom of certain sets of ideas, or on the wisdom of certain sets of peoples, is a contributor to today’s problems.

    I do however, as a historian, give peoples in pre-industrial societies a break — everything was very tough just to survive,one set of rules for one set of people was necessary for survival.

    In our modern eras, when our cities are extremely environmentally fragile. and your neighbor might believe any gol-darn bloody thing under the sun, these new wars of competing truths become much more serious and potentially destructive to civic harmony (on which the economy, and mass survival, depends).

    Trump is clearly going to take it to its limits in the context of 2017, which rides on the context of the last 18months since the Orange One descended the escalator: Trump is going to insist on his truth, and it’s up to the rest of us to be wise enough, resourceful enough, and tenacious enough to ensure that our truths prevail in the contest.

  2. Saying Trump had packed his press conference with his supporters and that some how this is underhand is rather churlish of you professor. All political parties have their rallies packed with their own people and always have. At the daily White House briefings the person taking questions has on more than one occasion been rebuked because he criticized the RT reporter for daring to ask perfectly reasonable questions and he was challenge by OTHER none RT reporters. Considering the amount of flak Trump has come in for from the main stream media, it would be surprising if he didn’t try to make sure certain media organisations were kept at arms length. I see there is another secret dossier about Trump reported today from one of our own MI6 officers. no evidence of course, just here say and from “our sources” . Things must be pretty bad when the USA spooks have got to get MI6 to come out with this stuff especially as MI6 has already been found to produce dodgy dossiers in the case of the Iraq war. Frankly, Professor, the Americans are beginning to make themselves look stupid with this attempt to undermine Trump with this childish nonsense. Let Trump have his presidency and if he’s a failure let him fail himself which he probably will without any help from anyone else.

    • @john wilson
      You seem to be under the impression that the “dodgy dossier” on Trump was procured by the US services. The reports I’ve seen, don’t support this. Rather this oppo research was drawn up by a former MI6 spook who was working for a private firm hired through intermediaries by a competing US Republican presidential candidate.

    • The famous Iraq war dodgy dossier was not (as far as I know) an MI6 production. It was plagiarised by Tony Blair’s eminence grise, Alistair Campbell, largely from an article by a graduate student, the contents of which happened to suit the conspirators’ (for that is what they were) case.

    • And what if he’s a fascist success?
      Hitler = 12 years.
      Mussonlini = 22 years.
      Franco = 37 years.

    • Political rallies and press conferences are 2 different things.
      The difference should be obvious to anyone familiar with democratic government.
      To criticize Trump for being unable to survive an hour by himself with reporters is an affirmation of the freedom of the press.
      And what’s with the RT example? Do you mean the Russian government financed agency, Russia Today?

  3. It appears the liberal political order (including the officers of the various intelligence agencies) want to serve the plutocracy on their own “indispensabilist”/ gradualist terms and above all to retain the essentiality of their intermediary political position and sinecural role between the populace and the highest plutocratic powers, without having these directly invade and occupy as an outright oligarchy–with only the slightest democratic veneer (a la Mexico)–the highest positions of political power, in addition to their own dimensionally primary economic kingdoms within the U.S. As a result they simultaneously treat the oligarchic pretenders (and above all their maximal standard bearer Trump) and the “bewildered” populace as an enemy territory requiring intervention and manipulation in the literal manner in which the U.S. treated almost the entirety of the rest of the world during the post-WWII 20th century.

    The U.S. polity, if it wasn’t before, now truly has become one with the rest of the “globalized” world in its submission to the sorts of epistemic “voodoo” that has come to characterize CIA activities throughout just about every other country on earth.

    A hyper-multi-cultural, socially deconstructed, and globalized U.S. is (for this very reason) no longer a nation state but a continent-sized anomic empire of (self-)imported subservient and credulous post-proletarians: anomic denizens of a new anomic land they are themselves granularly (obviously unawarely) creating. The anomic state par excellence, vanguard of a horizonless global futurity and constellation of such states, whose very continuous reiterative deconstruction and concomitant totalizing anomie is the very matter and building block, the nucleic component, of the post-truth ontological realm/endless futurity, most especially seen in the previously “humanistic” realms of politics, culture, psychology, morality, law, economy, etc. The anomie befits the (neoliberal capitalist) ends and models the means for this new infinitely explicable (i.e. endlessly unfoldable), but never resolvable (i.e. communally fatally anomic) interlocutionary stage of post-truth “reality.”

  4. Whenever I hear “16 intelligence agencies strongly agree” I think back to the report that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. They claimed they all agreed! Why is the CIA a bastion of honesty all the sudden? Politics much?

    • Actually there was substantial dissent on Iraq biological and nuclear weapons programs within the intelligence community. State Department I&R was especially critical and I think suffered for that. There was one CIA report that even a lot of the CIA didn’t agree with, which was produced under extreme pressure and too quickly. Its author later apologized but noted, “When you want it bad, that’s how you get it.”

  5. I really doubt he’ll have a tombstone. As I’m more and more certain that he’ll get everyone on Earth killed.

    I hope I’m wrong, but…

  6. Bush was similar in treating the press like lapdogs, but I agree, this is dictatorship plain and simple. Reminds me of 80s Central America. Thanks for breaking it down.

  7. Hopefully, the Trump disaster will be the end of Clinton/Obama/Clinton “new Democrats” aka moderate Republicans, and the Democratic party will go back to being progressive and actually winning up and down the line. Americans were sick and tired of being forced to choose the lesser of two evils between right and hard right.

    • There are a lot of Americans who embrace the evil of the hard right – and they have the best guns and the most ferocious inciters of violence.

      And there are tens of millions of Americans who supported New Democrats, and the hatred between them and the Left tells me that there will never be a coalition for victory by peaceful means. So what does that leave?

  8. I believe James Comey said to the senate committee this week, and reiterated, that the Russians were only able to hack into old GOP domains that are no longer used.

  9. What the world was able to see was not a dignified soon to be President, but a petulant, vindictive, rude, crude man, who had to organize a group of supporters to applaud him, and support him. Obviously he needed a cheering squad so that this narcissistic man can perform like he is in a reality show, and there were times you wonder if he is mentally sound to lead this country. There are flashes of craziness that pops up, when he behaves like an out of control man. He could not handle a group of media people asking questions, and we already knew his press conference was going to be a disaster, props and all. The American people have lowered the standards needed to have a leader of the right temperament.

    • You are right Marianna and I agree. But I think your response is part of the larger issue. You use tentative language: “there were times you wonder if he is mentally sound to lead this country”; “flashes of craziness that pop up”; “when he behaves like an out of control man” – I’d correct to read “he IS not mentally sound to lead this country”; “flashes of craziness” I’d change to “steady stream of craziness”, and “he behaves like” to simply “is”. Language in the press is equally pulling of its punches and shouldn’t be – it’s simply too too perilous.

      Forget politics. It’s time to stand up and simply on a human level in which we all can analyze and recognize when someone is not quite right, to out and out state that he’s plum nuts. Yeah, handing over the nuclear codes to Gaius Caligula and his raving band of Maenads – that was a good plan. Of course to recognize someone as not quite right requires a certain degree of emotional intelligence that I can definitely tell you, as a denizen of it, that rural red America simply lacks. That’s not a criticism, that’s just the truth (and the problems in rural America are so bad that they are almost beyond fixing – another inconvenient fact for any concerned with progress in the US).

      • I take note of what you have said, and do agree. He IS not mentally sound to lead this country. He does NOT have the right temperament, and is a threat to the nation from within.

  10. it is very hard for me, and many i know, to read about this asshole as if we had to take him seriously. your analyses help in this regard because more than simply labeling him as neofascist, which i am content to do, you explain why. i have lived, also, for some years in africa, and i can tell you that the dictatorial practices you delineate were there in cameroon under ahidjo, and were visible, clear, and present still with people like mugabe, kabila, nkurunziza, musaveni, nguesso, etc. others, as in senegal, are decent. the contrast is with the gambia. trump plays out that role of jammah, a disgustingly stupid anti-democratic idiot. a know-nothing now in power. it is too discouraging to really think about, so i am content to let you do the thinking, and thank you again for being spot on. ken

  11. An interesting article: see “Is This How Democracy Ends?” by David Runciman in London Review of Books (referenced in Salon.com today)

  12. But Buzzfeed’s conviction that the document was of public interest and the (at the) (sic) public should be able to see and judge it for themselves can be argued about.

    Dissemination to the public is a nice theory, but let’s face facts and recognize that most people do not have the time or inclination or judgment to distinguish between fact and fiction, especially in a document of this nature.

  13. Something is going on here and I don’t know what it is. After listening to the hearings of Trump’s foreign policy picks, I have the impression that they were chosen by the Republican foreign policy establishment. And so I ask myself how someone like Trump (who is very under-educated) chose these people? One possibility could be that those two close advisors — Jared and Ivonka — who seem vastly more intelligent than D. Trump, were helpful in these choices, on the basis of recommendations of powerful foreign policy people. This is pure speculation on my part but my point is that unlike the dictators mentioned in this article and replies to it, Trump is not currently surrounded by people who will do everything he wants (does he know what he wants?) or ‘off with their heads’. And right now foreign policy seems to be the area where others are taking a leading role. Is Trump to be a ‘managed’ president in some policy areas and who will be managing him?

    • these nominees were approved by Trump; they each promised him that they would deliver on his promises.
      What I think you missed is that they are lying in their testimony. Tillerson still wants to accelerate global warming. Pompeo still wants to torture, and to invade Iran.
      They are either lying, or being circumspect.

  14. this will not end well. Trump has proceeded as I thought he would. that is scary. Once Trump’s appointees are Cabinet ministers we can look forward to a lot of things being shut down. No investigations, etc. Expect more court cases to be aimed at those who oppose Trump.

    For those who actually thought he was going to “DRAIN THE SWAMP” all he is doing is stocking it with a lot of alligators.

    As the Republicans have set in motion the repeal of the ACA, we can now expect Americans to start dying from a lack of medical care.

    enough Americans voted for Trump to get him elected. Now they will have to live with that or perhaps die because of it.

    The U.S.A. is going to turn into one of those tin pot dictatorships or something like Egypt or Turkey. Whatever it turns into people will not recognize it in 4 years as the country it is now.

    What Russia may or may not have on Trump, it is doubtful they don’t have something on him. this may be Putin’s great victory. He control Trump and thus controls the U.S.A. Not a shot fired, all real estate and banks in tact so the looting can begin.

    Thank God I live in Canada. I am starting to think a wall would be good, if only to protect our health. Turns out Trump is having one of those vaccine opponents look into whether vaccines are O.K. can hardly wait for epidemics to start. Might be a good way to reduce the population especially if the people don’t have medical coverage, well 20 million of them.

    • CBC radio interview:

      Mujanović says for observers and reporters of authoritarianism, Trump’s behaviour sounds off all kinds of alarm bells.

      “I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the most prescient analysis and critique that has come out over the last year year and a half has been from people who have studied authoritarianism, you know in the Middle East and Eastern Europe etc.”

      “I don’t want that to be interpreted as an attack on the media. I have colleagues who work in journalism. I just think that the issue is that reporters in the United States and Canada and large parts of Europe really have no first-hand experience with authoritarianism so to them this is this is entertainment. This is a circus.”

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