The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s ‘authoritarian’ streak stirs backlash at home and abroad

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President Trump did not seem to have a happy Presidents’ Day weekend. On Friday, in the White House Rose Garden, he declared a national emergency to appropriate billions of dollars for the building of his long-sought wall on the Mexican border. The move — seen as a face-saving measure after months of political jockeying in Washington — prompted a heated reaction from both opponents and even some wary members of his own Republican Party. Legal challenges are already underway. Constitutional scholars warned of dangerous presidential overreach, while comedians on late-night shows mocked the rambling speech Trump delivered Friday to announce the emergency.

Critics argue that this national emergency is an unnecessary vanity project that will waste government funds on a manufactured crisis. While such powers have been exercised by Trump’s predecessors, no emergency has been as contested as Trump’s rationale for the wall. Even those in the president’s camp are concerned about the implications of what he has unleashed.

“Frustrated with Washington, President Trump believes he has no choice but to take this action today,” Kay Coles James, president of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, said in a statement Friday. “While it is strictly constitutional . . . this creates a dangerous precedent for future administrations.”

The declaration “sets a precedent that a president can, without regard to an actual existence of an emergency, use this tool to evade the normal democratic process and fund projects on his own,” William Banks, a law professor at Syracuse University, said to the New York Times.

Trump, for his part, characteristically spent the weekend venting his spleen on Twitter. He brought up “retribution” against “Saturday Night Live” and TV networks that he believed were unfairly ridiculing his administration. And he inveighed against the “RIGGED” and “CORRUPT” media, whom he yet again branded as the “ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”

As familiar as the script may be at this point, analysts are no less concerned. Now that Trump has taken the extraordinary step of seeking emergency powers for politically controversial ends, he joins a long, dark history of would-be and actual authoritarians doing the same.

William Rempel, a veteran Los Angeles Times journalist, found parallels in how Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines — another leader who bemoaned “false news” and “self-righteous” journalists — ultimately installed his dictatorship.

“The messianic Marcos, who claimed in his diary to be doing God’s bidding, took things a lot further than Trump has threatened to do,” noted Rempel. But he added that Marcos’s “devastating emergency action — installing himself as dictator to fend off an invented insurgency threat — came from the same well of self-serving motivations and ego-driven politics that feeds Trump’s less menacing wall tantrums today.”

President Trump declared a national emergency to build a border wall on Feb. 15. Here's what you missed. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

Across the pond, Trump’s various tantrums have already left a profound mark. At a major international security forum in Germany over the weekend, Trump’s politics — from his attempts to cultivate Europe’s far right to his embrace of protectionism — cast a cloud over proceedings. The introductory report to this year’s Munich Security Conference had already singled out Trump’s “irritating enthusiasm” for illiberal strongmen and warned over China and Russia exploiting new vulnerabilities in the transatlantic alliance.

The sense of a widening rift between the United States and its traditional allies was only exacerbated by a speech from Vice President Pence that critics deemed tone-deaf. In perhaps the most memorable moment from the event, Pence relayed Trump’s greetings and then paused, expecting some form of applause. But he was met only by a stony, awkward silence.

“Pence delivered a speech calibrated more for a Trump campaign rally in middle America than a room full of trans-Atlanticists,” wrote Amanda Sloat of the Brookings Institution.

“He articulated a vision of U.S. leadership that requires Europeans to do America’s bidding, exemplified by his call — repeated from the much-maligned Warsaw Summit on Iran earlier in the week — for Germany, France and the United Kingdom to abandon the Iran nuclear deal,” she added.

In contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel received a standing ovation after concluding her remarks, which, as my colleagues put it, amounted to “a stinging, point-by-point takedown of the administration’s tendency to treat its allies as adversaries.” Merkel drew laughter and applause when she upbraided Trump for deeming German automobiles a “national security” threat. But if she offered any catharsis for those wedded to the transatlantic project, it was overwhelmed by a wider sense of unease.

If the first two years of Trump’s presidency had been marked by uncertainty over the unity of the West, Europeans are now bitterly contemplating a more lonely future. “For many attendees, the collapse of the liberal world order as built and sustained by the United States for the past seven decades was taken as a given,” noted my colleagues Griff Witte and Michael Birnbaum. “The only question is, as the title of the conference’s flagship report framed it, ‘Who will pick up the pieces?’ ”

The answer was certainly not Washington, at least for now. “It’s no longer worth pretending that Trump is not in the authoritarian camp,” wrote New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. “The shock has passed. Europeans have internalized the shift. The best they can offer as liberty’s beacon in America’s stead is Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and Merkel.” The former, Cohen noted, is weighed under by domestic unrest; the latter is in the twilight of her career.

Former vice president Joe Biden, part of a sizable American contingent in Munich, sought to reassure his European counterparts. “This too shall pass,” he said. “We will be back.” But other onlookers weren’t so sure.

Trump may leave office in two or six years’ time, but the anti-immigration agenda that underlies his grandstanding over the border — and the societal polarization that drives him to pander to a narrow base — will linger. A similar set of forces is reshaping Europe, as well, and has already brought the Trump administration into a tacit alliance with illiberal factions on the continent. Leaders such as Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — accused by critics of pursuing a demagogic, even authoritarian brand of politics — have made no secret of their desire to break Europe’s prevailing liberal order.

“We fool ourselves if we think Trump is just an aberration,” a senior German official told my colleagues. “Trump is a symptom more than a cause.”

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