Trump Part III – The Use of Security Crises

angry_trumpI can’t predict the future, but we know every US President is tested by security crises – whether domestic or foreign. President Trump’s four years will be no different.

[While I’m not predicting the future, in previous posts on Trump I am having nightmares of a potential future, and reviewing the past rise of authoritarians.]

We don’t know if the biggest threat will come from domestic disturbances or jihadists at home. We don’t know whether the crisis will be abroad, like a foreign military threat. We do know there will be heightened moments during and after a security crisis when we as civilians are especially frightened for our safety.

Those are the times when society turns eagerly to the institutions with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force – institutions like the police, the FBI, spy agencies, the National Guard, and the Army.

It’s precisely at that time that we are most vulnerable to leaders’ worst instincts. It’s then that we willingly vote in – with few Congressional dissenters – the Patriot Act, to give up our protections from domestic surveillance. When we are under direct attack we (many of us) seem willing to condone the creation of Japanese internment camps.

It’s then that we applaud extrajudicial interrogation techniques – like waterboarding – that authoritarians seek.

japanese_internmentThe Turkish premier Erdogan is right now using the crisis opportunity of the failed coup in Turkey to jail or fire independent voices from the universities, the press, the military, the judiciary, and the civil service.

Former Congressman, Obama White House Chief of Staff, and now mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel famously counseled, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” [1]

In the authoritarian’s hands, what use can he make of that inevitable security crisis? What opportunity will he take to do the things he could not do before?

When the next lone-wolf jihadist shoots up a movie theater, will that be the pretext that Trump needs to register all Muslims for a government database as Trump says he wants to do? When the next dead-ender pledges allegiance to ISIS on Facebook just before shooting up a mall, does that mean Homeland Security shuts down all immigration from majority Muslim countries as Trump says he wants to do? When Russian irregulars in civilian clothes in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania ask for Russian military intervention to protect their rights, and Putin responds with another opportunistic strike, how does NATO, and our country, respond?

homeland_securityTrump does not have to enact a false flag attack – As Putin’s FSB seems to have done – in order to take advantage of a security crisis to enact his plans. We will have incidents around which he and his national security team can build a case for breaking with constitutional norms.

Trump has told us over and over how he yearns to bully perceived enemies. He has demonstrated a vengeful character throughout his campaign.

We know that vengeful instinct because we’ve even felt it ourselves, when we feel attacked. What will we give up, that we can’t get back again, when we’re most fearful?

In January Trump will control the awesome power of the US national security apparatus. He will wield more power to threaten, detain, injure, and kill people than anyone else on the planet. This is part of why I can’t sleep.


Please see related posts:

Trump Part I – Fever Dreams

Trump Part II – Review of Recent Elected Authoritarians

Trump Part IV – The Use of Economic Crises

Trump Part V – The Constitutional Crisis

Trump Part VI – Principled Republican Leadership


And related posts:

Candidates Clinton and Trump: Economic Policies

Candidate Trump on US Sovereign Debt


[1] Winston Churchill also gets credit for this one. Because Churchill said every clever thing that’s ever been said, like, ever.

Post read (303) times.

Trump Part II – Rise of Authoritarians

Trump_handsThis is part 2 of probably 6 posts on Trump, of which the first one is here. These are not predictions of the future per se, but just a recording of what I worry might happen, and why I can’t sleep at night.

A slow unfolding

It takes a long time, sometimes years, for the authoritarian to tip the system in his favor, to undermine enough counterbalancing institutions that he can no longer be opposed.

A leader willing to do whatever it takes to keep and increase power can – over time – chip away at resistance. After a few years, there might be very little left standing in his way.


I remember well the day after the election of Chavez in Venezuela in 1998, as I worked on Goldman’s Latin American bond desk. We hardly knew Chavez’ name and background, but our economist who covered the Andean countries warned us that this would certainly be a catastrophic regime for Venezuela. He was right, although it took some time to play out that way.

chavez_angryFirst Chavez had to replace governors and mayors with loyalists. He needed to delegitimize the opposition parties and the opposition newspapers. He needed to overturn the system.

Like many authoritarians, Chavez initially sought the legitimacy of constitutionality. He called a constitutional convention in 1999, and had it 95 percent packed with Chevez loyalists. These conventioneers in turn set about abolishing the existing legislature and courts.

A new single house of Congress replaced the old Congress, and handed legislative authority over to Chavez. The Presidential terms was extended to six years, with the chance for reelection, which of course Chavez got.

The Supreme Tribunal of Justice – established at the constitutional convention of 1999 – has recently been rated the most corrupt court in the world by Transparency International.

As fragile as Venezuela’s political system had been at the time of Chavez’ election, it started with important political checks in the form of two parties that had alternated power for decades, a free press, and strong banks. Dismantling them took time, consistent pressure, and some populist violence. Fomenting a constant state of semi-war against Colombia, plus the perceived threat of the United States, helped consolidate Chavez’ power.


Putin’s rise from semi-obscure Yeltsin-appointee to seeming lifetime Tsar of Russia was not pre-ordained. Many steps along the way helped him eliminate rivals and seize complete power over the Russian state.

putin_angryPutin has only slowly dismantled an independent domestic press through intimidation, “tax investigations,” violence, and the murder of journalists. He coopted business oligarchs with whom he could do a deal, and jailed or exiled those who would not cooperate. Regional Governors are hand-picked by the President in Russia.

All along, Putin has been careful to cloak his actions in constitutional forms. The legislative Duma is dominated by Putin’s party – along with some acquiescent minority parties like Communists – with the veneer of regular elections to signal legitimacy.

Putin rise is a sort of blended electoral victory and seizure of power in the face of corruption and chaos. He became acting president following the resignation of the ailing Boris Yeltsin, and then won election in 2000 by a 53% to 30% margin. Putin, like Chavez before him, has insisted on holding regular elections and even respecting the letter of the law regarding Presidential term limits, even while few believe he ever took his hands off the levers of power during Dmitri Medvedev’s Presidential inter-regnum, 2008 to 2012.

Putin’s accession and consolidation of power was greatly aided in September 1999, however, by a series of apartment building bombs blamed on Chechen rebels but believed by many to be the result of a ‘false flag’ operation by Russian security forces, known as the FSB.

Putin’s rise may be the most relevant example to watch with Trump. Dangerous authoritarians may arrive via the ballot and constitutional legitimacy, only to set to work to undermine that same constitutional structure. I think that’s what I’m most worried about with Trump.

The first few months

Gaius Marius: The Beginning of the End for Rome

History does not afford us counterfactuals with which to test the following claim, but it seems the first few months and the first two years in particular are when brave patriots have to stand up and take risks in the face of encroaching authoritarianism.

If the authoritarian finds little resistance to eroding institutional checks on his power, the regime can move much more quickly. I am worried about where the checks and balances on Trump’s power will come from in his first few months in office.

Gaius_MariusI’m desperately reading Plutarch’s Fall of The Roman Republic right now, looking for signs of the end of our republic. Plutarch describes Senators bowing before the Roman strongman Gaius Marius[1], who demanded a humiliating oath. One of Marius earliest mentors Metallus remains an honorable Senator to the end, saying:

“It is certainly sordid to do the wrong thing, and anyone can do the right thing when there is no danger attached; what distinguishes the good man from others is that when danger is involved he still does right.”

Where is the principled institutional opposition to Trump? Are there enough good men and women?

I assume the Democratic opposition – such as it is in 2016 and 2017 – will try its best. I expect newspapers and legitimate news organizations will continue to claim that the rise of Trump is “Not Normal” in terms of the threat to constitutional government in the United States.

NYTimes on Hitler, in 1922: He probably doesn’t literally mean that Anti-Semitism, does he?

What will the courts do? Will a Republican Congress stand up to him? How will governors and mayors respond? Will good people in the FBI, the military, the police, and the NSA do what’s right, rather than what he may ask them to do? All of these people and institutions will be tested.


Please see related posts on Trump:

Trump Part I – Fever Dreams

Trump Part III – The Uses of A Security Crisis

Trump Part IV – The Uses of an Economic Crisis

Trump Part V – The Constitutional Crisis

Trump VI – Principled Republican Leadership

Also, previously:

Trump as Candidate – Sovereign Debt Genius

Clinton and Trump as Candidates – Economic Policies Compared


[1] Marius was born 57 years before Caesar and ruled Rome approximately 50 years before him. His authoritarian descent into murderous rule – followed by similar strongmen like Sulla – is one of the precipitating events leading to the fall of the Roman Republic and the conversion of the Republic to an Empire under the Caesars.

Post read (397) times.