A view of the restraint of President Trump

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President Trump has held firm to his position of unilaterally holding the federal government hostage for his border wall, much to the delight of his base.

The presidency of tabloid star, game show host, and brand entrepreneur Donald J. Trump has been a rowdy one. Currently, the federal government of the United States is, like so many of Trump’s former ventures, shut down. As Trump threatens to declare a national emergency and circumvent Congress in order to build his promised southern border wall, commentators are speculating just how far Trump will go to undermine American institutions and empower himself.

Throughout his many decades of public life, Trump has been openly petty, vulgar, racist, conspiratorial, and narcissistic. The presidency hasn’t matured him an iota. As president, he’s continued to lie, flirt with dictators, enrich himself and his family, and show no compunction about stripping away benefits and even disaster relief from vulnerable people. Given how brazenly he’s gotten away with it all, though, it’s almost a marvel that he hasn’t gone even further.

According to a 2007 Congressional Research Service report on national emergency powers, in a state of national emergency, “the President may seize property, organize and control the means of production, seize commodities, assign military forces abroad, institute martial law, seize and control all transportation and communication, regulate the operation of private enterprise, restrict travel, and, in a variety of ways, control the lives of United States citizens.”

Granting Trump national emergency powers, when the only emergency on the southern border is the human rights abuses of his own administration, is as over-the-top as it gets. No matter how far Trump turns the dial, though, pundits and politicians follow along and treat his proposals seriously. Trump’s advisers and lawyers argue on national TV that, for instance, the president can pardon himself. Scholars are then invited on TV to debate the claim, and the end result is a collective, “Who knows?”

We are in uncharted waters with Trump. Nobody really seems to know the limits of his power. Regardless of what the Constitution, legal scholars, politicians, or anyone in the media says, Trump’s power is only limited by human beings who can exercise institutional authority. America has never contended with a president who demonstrates such blatant contempt for the rule of law, and it’s not at all clear that the necessary safety mechanisms to keep him from becoming a dictator are in place.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that the GOP is a political weapon for Trump to use as he sees fit.

Perhaps no body in the country has more institutional leverage over President Trump than the Senate. But Republicans still hold a majority there, and they are standing firm with Trump on the shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked two bills to reopen government from coming to a vote in the Senate. Trump would veto the bill, but if Republicans cared about reopening government, they could override him. McConnell has said overriding Trump’s veto is not an option under consideration.

Even as the shutdown takes its toll, Trump’s approval among Republicans remains as high as 88 percent. Republicans can’t afford to cross Trump and alienate a base that so enthusiastically supports him. Likewise Trump must keep the blessing of far-right media, from FOX News to Breitbart. These are some of the most important opinion makers in the Republican base, and they have held Trump to a firm position on immigration. Ann Coulter’s scathing December op-ed was apparently a significant factor in Trump’s decision to shut down the government in the first place.

For that base, Trump could never go too far. They enthusiastically support his most extreme and abusive ideas: the Muslim ban, the ban on transgender military service, family separation and child detention, prosecution of journalists, and more. From posts in comment sections all the way up to Sean Hannity, the pressure is on Trump to hold the government hostage and circumvent traditional legislative processes in order to enact the most radical and fascistic items on his agenda.

Viewed that way, it’s surprising Trump hasn’t declared a national emergency and further empowered himself. It could solve all his problems. He could end the myriad investigations into his shady business and political career, he could silence his critics with force, and he could ram through perhaps the most radically far-right agenda in history. If he tried to assume dictatorial powers, his base, parts of which already refer to him as “God-Emperor,” would love it.

Right now, the only real opposition to Trump is a slim Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a corporate media that frequently bends over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt. There are other, less visible institutional pressures to prevent more overt authoritarianism, but it’s not clear they could hold out against a full-blown coup.

Trump certainly isn’t held back from dictatorial ambitions by any personal principles. His presidency has been marked by open admiration for “strong” authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un. When Xi Jinping made himself the president-for-life of China, Trump liked it and joked, “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” As a candidate, Trump bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose any supporters. His presidency has largely born out that claim, and it’s only a small step away from, for instance, assassinating political enemies with drones.

Never in his adult life has Trump faced real accountability. He’s been sued or fined thousands of times; both his university and charity were shuttered after being exposed as scams; and he’s been the subject of numerous credible sexual assault claims. None of it’s brought him down. Just as in his business career, his acts of fraud and deceit have had no serious political ramifications.

Given how recklessly Trump has already gotten away with so much, and that he has the unwavering support of the GOP and 24-hour propaganda platforms, it’s hard to guess what’s stopping him from even bolder power moves. If the calculation ever changes for Trump and he decides to grab for more, recent history suggests he will get away with it. He has already thrown the door wide open for far-right policies and more explicitly bigoted authoritarianism. It’s up to the American people to focus on closing it before Trump or anyone else can walk through.

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Republicans plead for civility

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Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant, an incident that became a flashpoint in the culture war.

For three years, Donald Trump has dominated America’s cultural conversation. In that time, he has accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug dealers over the border, mocked a disabled reporter’s handicap, encouraged his crowds to physically assault protesters, and labeled journalists the “enemy of the people.” As President, he has done all he can to shred America’s life-saving social safety net, banned Muslims from entering America, and held migrant children hostage in cages. Now, Trump and his enablers are asking for one thing: civility. Continue reading

Trump Administration dehumanizes victims to justify border atrocities

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After being separated from their parents at the border, the children of migrants are held in chain-link pens at military bases and prisons around the southern border.

By far the biggest story in national headlines this week was the Trump Administration’s policy of splitting up families crossing the southern border without authorization. Following a zero-tolerance policy enacted in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, detained parents have been sent to one facility and their children have been sent to another. Photos and videos of those children – confused, crying, and locked in cages – drew intense domestic and international condemnation. United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said, “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.” Continue reading

America’s new battle with Nazism is only beginning

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Self-described “identitarian” Peter Cvjetanovic denies being a racist. His face went viral as he marched alongside torch-bearing neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the alt-right – call them what you will, this group of angry, white men had a busy weekend. Hundreds of them descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, for a Unite the Right rally. Demonstrators began a torchlit march on Friday night and by Saturday had turned the city into a warzone, culminating in an act of right-wing terror that caused one death and injured 19 others. In response, President Trump couldn’t bring himself to denounce one side more than any other. Continue reading

Violence at Berkeley is less about free speech than it is white nationalism

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Gavin McInnes, founder of the political street gang Proud Boys, reads what would have been Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley.

On April 27, far-right polemicist Ann Coulter was scheduled to give a speech at the University of California at Berkeley. After a lot of back-and-forth, during which Coulter was disinvited, re-invited and rescheduled, the group that sponsored her ultimately backed out. Security concerns, including a near-guarantee of violence, prompted both Coulter and the Young America’s Foundation to decide that her appearance would jeopardize people’s well-being. In a statement, Coulter said, “It’s a sad day for free speech.” Continue reading

Why we can expect political violence in the Trump era

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Neo-fascist and alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer was punched in the face at Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Last week, ultra-right radio host Michael Savage was involved in a physical confrontation in a San Francisco-area restaurant. No one was charged, but Savage insists he was assaulted because of his political beliefs. He might well have been. A prominent Donald Trump supporter who interviewed the candidate several times during the campaign, Savage is infamously outspoken about three issues: borders, language and culture. Like so much of the far-right, Savage is a crypto-white nationalist.

The incident recalls President Trump’s inauguration when Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right,” was punched in the face by a protester. Later that month, riots shut down a speaking engagement by disgraced Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley. Mainstream commentators argue these incidents stifle free speech. But what’s so often left unsaid is that Savage, Spencer, Yiannopoulos and others are figureheads of American fascism, the most violent movement in the country today. Continue reading

Trump sticks to a script; media gushes with praise

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President Trump points for emphasis while Vice-President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan applaud.

On Tuesday night, President Trump went before Congress to deliver an address to the American people. It capped off a day during which Trump courted controversy by blaming the military for a botched raid in Yemen and suggesting that Jews were committing their own acts of anti-Semitism to make him look bad. But in a classic demonstration of the 24-hour news cycle’s short attention span, all was forgiven when Trump stuck to script and delivered a serviceable speech. Continue reading

How conservatives were able to normalize Trump

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to supporters through a bullhorn during a campaign stop at the Canfield County Fair in Canfield

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to supporters through a bullhorn during a campaign stop at the Canfield County Fair in Canfield, Ohio, U.S., September 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX

Even someone who doesn’t follow politics can see in Donald Trump a truly unusual president. Liberals are often astounded that conservatives don’t recognize Trump’s pathological lying and disregard for constitutional democracy as existential threats to civilization. But Republicans’ worldview has been shaped by relentless, far-right, corporate propaganda. In such a paranoid and disturbed bubble, Trump may be a bit unorthodox, but desperate times called him to office.

In many ways, the reality of Trump matches the caricature of President Obama in the conservative imagination. Conservative commentators hardly ever mentioned the former president without first rattling off a list of pejoratives. Consumers of conservative media spent years hearing Obama referred to as an arrogant, ego-driven, race-baiting, divisive, wannabe dictator. When someone like Trump came along who actually was all those things, and openly so, Republicans normalized him with relative ease. Continue reading

This is how it begins

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Arsonists set fire to a mosque in Victoria, Texas after President Trump announced a travel ban on select Muslim nations.

According to early reports from Reuters, President Trump plans to refocus a US program called Countering Violent Extremism. The CVE, which combats dangerous ideologies of all stripes, will be repurposed to solely target Islamic fascism and jihad. But as anyone who’s looked at crime data knows, the risk of Islamic terror in the US is infrequent. Trump’s decision to focus on it is not about protecting Americans, it’s about demonizing human beings based on religion and ethnicity. Continue reading

Between Bannon and Trump, press freedom looks dim

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Bannon stepped down from Breitbart to join Trump’s campaign, but the site remained a loyal propaganda arm.

We’ve now had time to digest a week’s worth of President-elect Donald J. Trump stories. Already the prospects for democracy, civil rights and the environment look very dim. Far from “draining the swamp,” Trump is staffing his entire administration with lobbyists, corporate executives, and a cadre of far-right operators. But among the most ominous developments are Trump’s continued assault on the press and his appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief strategist and senior counsel.

The appointment has become a lightning rod of criticism for the incoming Trump Administration due to Bannon’s operation of Breitbart News. With Breitbart, Bannon has been accused of – and admitted to – providing an online safe space for the alt-right, a loose assortment of far-right internet trolls, racists, porn addicts, and even white nationalists. As a clue to the audience Bannon attracts, American Nazi Party Chairman Rocky Suhayda and former KKK grand wizard David Duke applauded his hire. Continue reading