President Donald J. Trump is turning the United States into a thug-ocracy, a dictatorship where those who run afoul of dear leader and his mob are shamed, threatened, intimidated and brutalized. That's true inside the government and out.
As evidence of his corruption piles up, Trump has lashed out against the whistleblower whose revelations were the catalyst for impeachment proceedings. Though federal whistleblowers have enjoyed protections for generations, the president and his cronies have unleashed a campaign of intimidation against the unnamed national intelligence employee who was so troubled by Trump's telephone call to the Ukrainian president. That runs afoul of laws put in place to protect a whistleblower's identity from the wrongdoers who might wish to retaliate.
Trump takes his cues not from the long traditions of American democracy, but from murderous autocrats such as Russia's Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Trump has no use for the rule of law or the other constitutional imperatives on which this republic was founded. His personal lawyers have argued that Trump is above the law, free to commit murder on Fifth Avenue if he chooses.
And Republican lawmakers seem to agree. As is true in every tin-pot dictatorship, from Venezuela to Cameroon, those who wish to remain close to the center of power cater to the despot, stroking his fragile ego, denouncing his critics and defending his every deranged impulse. That may require members of the claque to renounce their records and abandon their previous positions, but most seem quite willing to do so. Their principles are nothing if not flexible.
The whistleblower at the center of the impeachment proceedings has received death threats, according to his attorneys. He and his lawyers fear for their physical safety -- all because the president of the United States uses his bully pulpit as a mafia don would, threatening those who don't do as he wishes.
That thuggishness extends beyond the Beltway. Since his 2016 campaign, Trump has used a coarse and vulgar rhetoric to slander people of color, denigrating Mexicans as criminals, Muslims as terrorists and African Americans as coddled inhabitants of crime-infested urban areas. His supporters have gotten the message.
Just this week, a Milwaukee man, Clifton Blackwell, was arrested for allegedly throwing acid on a Latino whom he insisted should "Go back!" The victim, 42-year-old Mahud Villalaz, was born in Peru but is a naturalized American citizen. Villalaz said Blackwell approached him to complain he had parked too close to a bus stop but then unleashed a tirade of xenophobic slurs and accusations: "Why did you invade my country? Why don't you respect my laws?"
That sort of gratuitous violence has become so commonplace that it doesn't grab headlines. It takes a rampage of the sort that took the lives of nearly two dozen people in El Paso earlier this year to grab our attention.
Is Trump to blame for the rise in hate crimes? A group of researchers from the University of North Texas recently published a study that found that counties in which Trump held 2016 campaign rallies saw a 226 percent increase in reported hate crimes over similar counties that did not host his rallies.
"While we explicitly do not make any claim that Trump is purposefully urging the criminal targeting of minorities ... we do argue political speech which utilizes racial, ethnic and religious tropes, promotes conspiracy and excuses the use of violence represents a dangerous oratorical cocktail that emboldens group threat and encourages hate groups," they wrote.
In other words, Trump's incendiary rhetoric lights the fuse in the fevered minds of the paranoid, the professionally aggrieved, the dangerously unhinged. After all, the president himself has said that four female members of Congress, all women of color, should "go back" even though three of them were born in this country.
Even if Trump is defeated in 2020, an ugly streak of violent xenophobia has been unleashed, along with a thuggish disregard for the traditions of civic and democratic engagement. Those unfortunate tendencies will dog our democracy for quite some time.