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How Far Would Trump Go If He Could? (My Latest Challenge to the Conservatives)

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This piece is running this week in newspapers in my very red congressional district (VA-06).

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When I was growing up, we kids were admonished not to take for granted our blessings in living in a free society. This was in the wake of World War II, when a lot of people had made great sacrifices to defend our liberties against tyranny.

I don’t know how well I heeded those admonishments, but I sure don’t take those blessings for granted now. As most of the democracies of the world now recognize, the current “leader of the free world” seems to have a greater appreciation for dictators and tyrants than for the basic American values that inspired the founders of our American republic.

For example, Mr. Trump has praised Duterte, the President of the Philippines for “the unbelievable job” he has been doing on “the drug problem.” That “job” Duterte has done has involved the killing of thousands of people – by police and vigilantes Duterte has encouraged – without benefit of any legal process. No arrests, no trials, no due process. “I don’t care about human rights, believe me,” Duterte has said. And the American President tells him, “You are a good man.”

How much would Trump act like Duterte if our system would let him? Trump already has shown contempt for “due process.”

Trump also congratulated the strong man of Communist China, Xi Jinping, when Xi made himself “President for life.” “I think it’s great,” Trump said about Xi’s making his hold on power permanent. “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”

If he could overcome the barriers our system has erected against such unaccountable power, would he go for it?

Meanwhile, Trump has declared “great friendship” with the strong man of Turkey, President Erdogan. While Erdogan has been dismantling Turkey’s democracy — – subordinating the legislature and the courts to himself, jailing thousands of opponents, bringing the news media under state control – Trump has spoken favorably about the job he’s doing.

Trump has already made bold moves in some of those same directions. Would he go as far as Erdogan if he could?

Even while Trump has been insulting the heads of our traditional democratic allies, he’s also spoken appreciatively of the ruler of the world’s most totalitarian, most brutal regime – North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

In Kim’s relatively brief time on top, he’s murdered potential rivals for power, and kept hundreds of thousands of his people – whose loyalty to his regime was suspect — in terribly harsh concentration camps. While his people barely survive, he invests heavily in building military power — including nuclear weapons to threaten the United States and its friends in the region.

Yet the American President declared it an “honor” to meet Kim. Declaring that Kim “loves his country very much” and, speaking of the “fervor” of the North Korean people, Trump avers that “his country does love him.”

When Trump expressed the desire for “my people” to “sit at attention” for him like Kim’s do for him, Trump later said he was joking. But no one has ever heard an American president “joke like that.” What would Trump demand of American citizens if he had the power?

Then there’s the central exhibit of Trump’s affinity for dictators: President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

In his decade and a half in power, Putin has turned Russia’s fledgling democracy into a dictatorship with him on top, or into an oligarchy which he rules along with his gangster lieutenants. Rivals and journalists who have threatened his power have been jailed or killed. Another word for Putin’s regime is “kleptocracy” – a regime whose rulers steal the nation’s wealth. Putin and his oligarchs have made themselves multi-billionaires.

Since Putin first took power, he’s turned Russian elections into a farce, with Putin’s victory predetermined. (Even so – and despite Trump’s national security people having written in big bold letters DO NOT CONGRATULATE for a telephone call to Putin – went ahead and congratulated Putin on his success in the most recent sham elections.)

Even setting aside all the signs of a strange alignment between Trump and Putin (apparently on terms that serve Russian and hurt American interests), it would be hard not to notice Trump’s affinity for Putin’s “very strong control over his country,” and to note how strongly such an attitude runs counter to the most basic American political values.

Under Donald Trump, the United States has already taken big steps toward being more like Putin’s Russia: Trump is repeatedly calling the free press “the enemy of the people”; he’s encouraged a “Lock her up!” approach to political rivals; and – like no President before him – he’s been visibly using the presidency to enrich himself.

Turning America into Putin’s Russia isn’t so easy because we Americans have something the Russians lacked: a long-standing heritage of democratic institutions, laws, and norms. And it takes time to tear down those well-established protections.

We’re like the heirs to a great fortune who aren’t broke only because it takes some time to spend themselves into bankruptcy. But eventually, unless our heritage is protected, it can all be drained away.