Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
First it was Vladimir Putin of Russia, then Recip Erdogan the soon to be dictator of Turkey, last week Rodrigo Duterte, the murderous President of the Philippines, and just yesterday praise for Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Let us not go into the list of draconian despots, dictators from history that the President has expressed his fondness. His favorite President is Andrew Jackson who defied a Supreme Court ruling and executed the Trail of Tears.
Honestly, if the President’s admiration, praise, and fondness for authoritarian and anti-democratic rulers remained just his opinion with no consequences it wouldn’t be such a big deal. However, it is much bigger than his personal opinions, but the nature his office of President, his words, his tweets, his opinions, become the policy of the United States, and end up staining the honor of the nation.
These actions have consequences. The first is the loss of moral authority of the nations who encourage and help dictators. Second, the loss of that moral authority makes it difficult when the chips are down to gain domestic or international support once a nation’s leaders determine that aggressive dictatorships must be stopped.
What the President and his administration are doing is amoral and it is dragging the reputation of the United States into the sewer and it will have real world consequences, as well as dangerous ramifications for our own system of Constitutional government and representative democracy.
This is not new, during the 1930s many leaders of struggling democracies caught up in the Great Depression, including the United States offered up praise for the accomplishments of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. By their encouragement, accommodation, and appeasement these leaders were complicit in some of the greatest crimes against humanity ever seen in the world. Some of these leaders, especially in France actively worked against their own democratic form of government in the hopes of overthrowing it and setting up a Fascist state. Once France was defeated by Germany the anti-democratic leaders of that country voted out the Republic and established a dictatorship at Vichy headed by Marshal Petain, the hero of the First World War.
Petain with Hitler
The Premier of France under Vichy, Pierre Laval, led the successful move to abolish the constitution of the Third Republic. He said: “Parliament must be dissolved. The Constitution must be reformed. It must align itself with the totalitarian states…” He told the Assembly: “We are going to destroy the totality of what was. We’re going to create something entirely different…. Henceforth there will be only one party, that of all the French.” He concluded “We are paying today for the fetish which chained us to democracy and led us to the worst excesses of capitalism, which all around us Europe was forging, without us, a new world.”
Another, Charles Spinasse, a Socialist who had come to believe in Fascism told the Assembly: “We must break from the past. It was full of illusions…. We believed in individual freedom, in the independence of man. It was but anticipation of the future which was beyond our grasp. We must have a new faith based on new values…. France abandoned itself. It must begin anew.”
One opponent rushed to Vichy to oppose the measures, Pierre-Etienne Flandin, told his colleagues: “Change the Constitution? But why? What need is there to change our institutions? The reproach is that we did not respect them.” However, Flandin too had no problem with giving the reigns of power to an authoritarian, Fascist regime that would cooperate with the Nazis, turn on its allies, and murder its own citizens. His words were absolutely correct, but he betrayed himself at the end.
In the end Laval won the day. He told the assembly: “Parliamentary democracy lost the war. It must give way to a new regime: audacious, authoritarian, social, and national.” In the end the vast majority of the delegates from across the political spectrum voted to end the Republic. Opponents who wished to continue to fight against Germany were condemned, jailed, and even killed. Leon Blum, a former Socialist leader who Laval despised wrote of Laval’s manner as the Republic was dissolved: “An unbelievable arrogance puffed up his small person. In a dry voice and with an irritated glance he flung out verdicts and orders… “I do… I say… I refuse… that’s the way it is…” President Trump has much the same attitude as he issues executive orders with abandon, even as others are struck down by the Courts.
Likewise when questioned about allowing opposition newspapers to publish, Laval told Blum in words that one can almost hear President Trump say if he were granted the right to restrict the freedom of the press:
“When I decide, no newspaper will appear if it shows the slightest reticence about my policies. The press must follow me absolutely, without reserve—and I will not let myself be duped.”
But just as troubling on the domestic front is the President’s stated desire to crush the parts of our Constitutional system that inconvenience him, and with his malleable GOP majorities in the House and Senate he may eventually succeed in doing if not opposed by courageous Senators and Representatives, and the Courts. He has on a number of occasions threatened the independence of the judiciary, he has expressed a desire to amend the Constitution to limit freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. He has also urged Congress to end the Filibuster which is the last resort by which a minority party can prevent bare majority of Senators or Representatives of one party to impose its will on the entire nation, even if the majority of people in the nation voted against their party. As of now GOP Senate leaders have announced their opposition to such legislation realizing that they could once again be in the minority. However, for Trump that does not matter as he has no loyalty to the Republican Party; sadly, most Republicans do not seem to understand that fact, and I wonder how firm they will stand when push comes to shove. History shows us that all too often, even the opponents of authoritarianism can easily turn from defending their Constitutional liberties to supporting nationalist, racist, and authoritarian leaders.
That my friends should frighten any American who has not lost their belief in our system of government which for all of its inefficiencies guarantees more liberty than any other system in the world. History shows that once those liberties are gone you do not get them back without the despot who has taken them away being defeated, often by military conquest.
The fact is that as Timothy Snyder wrote: “The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”
Will our epitaph be like the words of French Senator Bovin-Champeaux who said: “Is it not without sadness that we shall bid adieu to the Constitution of 1875. It made France a free country…. It died less from its imperfections than from the fault of men charged with guarding it and making it work.”