Trump and the Creep (Promise) of Authoritarian Rule


Donald Trump doesn’t have to win the presidency in November to undermine democracy at home or erode U.S. credibility abroad.

His MAGA caucus in Congress is already doing that.

Small in number but unshakably devoted to pleasing their leader, Trump’s pro-Kremlin fifth column in the U.S. House of Representatives has sabotaged aid to Ukraine at the instruction of the former president who prefers to deliver victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

House Speaker Mike Johnson has refused for weeks to call a vote on the Senate-negotiated national security aid package, including $60 billion to shore up Ukrainians’ defense of their sovereignty. Johnson knows it would pass with bipartisan support — and anger the Trump devotees favoring gridlock and dysfunction.

Johnson pays lip service to needing to take care of America’s problems first, in particular the broken immigration system that has created chaos at the southern border.

But, wait, the Senate did that a month ago. The most significant immigration reforms in decades were negotiated over four months by a Democrat-Republican-Independent triad, only to be declared by Johnson “dead on arrival” in the House. The speaker is under pressure from his MAGA contingent to derail any success that might be attributed to President Joe Biden.

Even Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, the Republican in the protracted search for common ground on immigration, blamed his party’s right wing for tanking progress on one of the most intractable issues besetting the United States.

“This is a problem that needs to be solved,” Lankford said amid threats from fellow Republicans for cutting a deal with Democrats in this election year. “Today, we get to decide if we’re going to do that or not — if we’re going to do nothing or do something.”

When his congressional colleagues decided to do nothing on immigration or the Ukraine aid attached to it, the staunch conservative told reporters he felt like he’d been run over by a bus.

Republicans untethered to Trump and his MAGA movement, like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, expressed disgust with a missed opportunity to craft genuine improvements to the asylum process for fear it would deprive Trump of a hot-button issue to exploit on the campaign trail.

“The American people are suffering as a result of what’s happening at the border,” Romney said. “And someone running for president ought to try and get the problem solved, as opposed to saying, ‘Hey, save that problem! Don’t solve it! Let me take credit for solving it later.’”

In the month since both houses of Congress abandoned the foreign aid and border measures, European Union allies have stepped forward with $50 billion more in economic and humanitarian aid for embattled Ukrainians. That brings total EU aid to Ukraine to $150 billion in the two years since the invasion, double the $75 billion provided by the United States so far. EU aid doesn’t include the sophisticated air defenses only the U.S. can provide to intercept Kremlin missiles fired on civilian communities far from the front lines.

De facto U.S. capitulation to Putin has alarmed and perplexed allies. Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told his country’s main broadcaster last week that he’d witnessed Trump’s “creepy” submission to Putin at international gatherings.

“When you see Trump with Putin, as I have on a few occasions, he’s like the 12-year-old boy” in the presence of a sports hero. “It’s really creepy,” Turnbull said to Australia’s ABC. “Are we going to find ourselves not dealing just with two autocracies in Russia and China, but whatever Trump’s America going to look like?”

That is a question American voters should keep front of mind. While Trump envies Putin for his unbridled power to eliminate political enemies and disregard international law, his enraptured followers don’t seem to heed what kind of country the Kremlin leader has created in his two dozen years in office. Russia under Putin has become an international pariah after brief dabbling in market and democratic reforms during the decade after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Political pluralism has been wiped out and critics and challengers have been ruthlessly eliminated through imprisonment, exile and assassination. Is Putin’s blueprint for a Greater Russia what U.S. voters want from Trump’s plan to Make America Great Again?

International outrage over the Feb. 16 death of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has galvanized Western resolve — except in the MAGA world — to halt Putin’s aggression in Ukraine before he can move on to attack NATO-member countries. An attack on the territory of any one of those endangered allies—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, to name a few —would oblige the United States to send troops to fight an all-out war with Russia. That is a war Putin wants, but one Trump, blinded by adulation for the Kremlin strongman, cannot envision.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said Monday that the best way to punish Putin for having “slowly tortured and killed” Navalny would be to pass the military aid bill and give Ukraine the Kremlin’s frozen foreign currency deposits.

“Speaker Johnson has a tremendous opportunity to take those assets and give them to Ukraine.

He has only a few months as speaker, only a few days if he puts the Ukraine aid bill on the floor for a vote,” McFaul said, alluding to the likelihood Johnson would lose the speaker’s gavel if he defies Trump and allows passage of Ukraine aid.

“If he has only a few months left, Speaker Johnson, use it to do the right thing,” McFaul urged during the online discussion hosted by the Washington Post. “If (Johnson) continues to block this aid, he will be remembered as the man who let Russia win.”

Since Navalny’s death and the defiant turnout of grieving supporters at his funeral, calls have intensified for seizing some or all of $300 billion in Russian hard-currency deposits in Western banks. Among the U.S. proponents of converting Russian assets to reparations for Kyiv are Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, former World Bank director and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers and Harvard Law Professor Emeritus Laurence Tribe.

“Transferring Russia’s assets to Ukraine will strengthen the international norm against aggression and discourage countries from violating that norm in the future,” Tribe and Zoellick wrote in a commentary on the second anniversary of Putin’s invasion.

Seizing the frozen assets of an aggressor is “a legitimate response under international law to a grave violation of another country’s sovereign rights by a malevolent state actor,” Zoellick wrote, citing as example transfer of Iraqi reserves to Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s invasion in the First Gulf War.

 Washington’s failure to deliver on Ukraine aid pledges has alarmed U.S. allies around the world.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned in recent days that NATO might be compelled to put troops in Ukraine to bolster the struggling defenders. Other members of the defense alliance were quick to specify that they were talking about noncombat forces for demining and training. Putin reacted by warning that NATO soldiers in Ukraine could trigger Russian nuclear attacks.

Encouraged by the dysfunction among U.S. lawmakers, Putin shifted narratives on his expansionist ambitions during his annual state-of-the-nation address two weeks ago. No longer does he speak about Russia as victim in a battle to defend historic lands or to rescue Kyiv from supposed neo-Nazi leaders.

“This year he sounded victorious, speaking not on behalf of a geopolitical victim but as a ‘formidable and invincible force,’” writes Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “This change can be explained by the Kremlin’s growing faith in Russia’s military advantage in the war with Ukraine, and a sense of the weakness and fragmentation of the West.”

Putin made it clear he will not stop with Ukraine in rebuilding “a stronghold of the traditional values on which human civilization stands,” backed by “the majority of people in the world, including millions in Western countries.”

“It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the ambition of these words,” warned Stanovaya, a veteran analyst of post-Soviet Russia. “This is not empty propaganda, but a reflection of plans for ideological expansion, the export of ‘Putinism’ to Western countries, and active work with potential ‘friends.’”

Amid wavering U.S. support for Ukraine, Putin has stepped up attacks on civilian communities in the major cities of Kharkiv in the northeast and Odesa on the Black Sea. Russian troops last month forced surrender of exhausted Ukrainians clinging to the shattered ruins of Avdiivka in the east, the latest show of Kremlin resolve to take more territory even if they must first destroy it.

Russian intelligence hacked a German military strategy session last month, then brazenly leaked the recording of defense officials discussing potential supply of long-range Taurus missiles to Kyiv.

The edited clips aired on Russia’s RT network suggested Britain and France had already sent cruise missiles to Ukraine and personnel to operate them, a provocative message that stirred contention among the three EU allies.

“It’s about division. It’s about undermining our unity,” Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said of the dubious Russian hacking and misleading leak.

While the U.S. drift toward authoritarian leadership is alarming to many living in representative systems of government, flirtation with strongman rule is ascendent across the world’s democracies. A Pew Research Center survey published last month showed 32% of Americans agreeing “rule by a strong leader or the military would be a good way of governing their country.”

The share of American respondents indifferent to laws protecting human rights and freedoms was just one percentage point above the average of 31% among the 24 democracies surveyed. India and Indonesia showed the broadest support for strongman rule with 85% and 77% respectively, with 8% of Swedish respondents comprising the lowest share viewing authoritarian leadership as “good.”

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


  1. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I am concerned over the decision by some Democrats to vote “uncommitted” in this state’s March 10 primary. While it is important to express opposition to the assault on Palestinians, Biden has his hands full with the present Israeli leadership. What matters here is to oppose the Trump alternative. When you vote on March 10, don’t play games. You’ve got to ask yourself: “what would Putin want you to do.”

    • Hi Jean! The “uncommited” vote in MI and MN made a positive impact on the Biden administration, which is suddenly showing some backbone by openly challenging Netanyahu’s program of ethnic cleansing in Gaza. This is how democracy works, and I (for one) am delighted that Dems used state primaries to signal their discontent. The general election, of course, is a different “game.”

  2. To hear and see Americans following Putin plans to reconstitute the Russan Empire is certainly heart rendering. I can not fathom the GOP of the 1950s post war globe seeing their grandchildren following the evil that Putin has created.
    Let me place some facts in place and the infamous “what if” postulates on mondern history/ herstory. Alexander Kerensky—the Russo Japaneese War of 1905—…it seems that it takes two generations to gain enough clarity to discern what is really going on in hot spots world wide. As for me, get the ammo to our allies and keep the KremlinMaga world at bay. They seem to threaten the rest of us constantly. Perhaps this is that confluence of the historical forces of good meeting the evils of theocaracy/monarchy we are facing with each passing day of strife. Seeing the 4wd pickups with Trumph flag and long rifles racing the streets of my town was a scary couple of weeks. Not looking forward to the next half year.


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