Guest Blog Post: A Different Dictator


David James has generously allowed WC to post his thoughtful comments over on Facebook here at Wickersham’s Conscience. James and WC don’t agree on everything, but this is insightful. WC rarely surrenders the soapbox. But will just this once.

A Different Dictator, by David James

One of the major reasons I could not vote for Donald Trump was national security, something I take very seriously. I could not see a man so temperamental and impulsive being placed in charge of our military, and I had deep fears over how he would deal with a major crisis. I’m not the only one who felt this way. Virtually the entire Republican Party national security brain trust opposed Trump. These are people who know very intimately what the world is about, and they could not see entrusting its safety and security to such a madman.

The first 110 days or so of the Trump presidency have only deepened my fears for this country’s safety. Thus far all of the crises Trump has faced have been entirely self-inflicted, and he has bumbled every one of them. The level of gross incompetence he has demonstrated in dealing with even minor things has been astounding. The careless disregard he has shown for security protocol is terrifying (making decisions by cell phone at dinner at Mar-a-Lago for instance, or allowing Russian photographers to observe a closed door diplomatic meeting). Put simply, the man does not have any conception of what national security is, much less what even the most basic steps that a president must take in this regard are.

But with the Comey firing I have an even deeper concern. This is the third time in barely more than three months that Trump has spontaneously fired someone who displeased him (contrast this to the lengthy period it took for him to fire someone he was warned by multiple knowledgeable sources was a very real threat to national security, the one person who actually deserved to be fired). This raises the question of how he would behave in a war or major global crisis situation. We know he doesn’t handle crises well, and we know he will fire anyone who doesn’t tell him what he wants to hear. We also know Trump considers himself the smartest guy in the room regardless of what company he is keeping. So what will he do when a general contradicts him? What happens when a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tells him his chosen path of action will lead to inevitable disaster? As president, he can summarily fire these individuals. Will he? This is a very important question. We can’t answer it for certain, but all available evidence supports the belief that he will.

Those who are familiar with Soviet history will recall that after Germany invaded Russia, Josef Stalin blamed his military brass for every loss and setback. His response was to fire generals right and left (and in true Soviet fashion, have bullets fired at them as well). He destroyed the knowledge pool he needed to figure out a way to counter the Nazi advance, and as a result the Nazis plunged far deeper into Russian territory than they ever should have given Russia’s military might. Millions died. Only when Stalin’s inner circle managed to wrest control of the military out of his hands and allow the generals to do their jobs did the tide turn. Even then it took longer than it should have because the remaining generals were understandably fearful for their jobs and their lives. By targeting his military, Stalin made it afraid to act. Arguably the Nazis could have been defeated far sooner than they were if not for Stalin’s incompetence and ego.

A lot of people have compared Trump to Hitler, but from the start of his campaign I’ve seen more of Stalin in him than anyone else. Hitler had an ideology that he was at the center of designing. He was the mind behind Nazism. Stalin was a thug who took advantage of an existing political party, adopted such elements of its ideology as he could use to his advantage, vanquished those on both his left and his right who could challenge his power, then created a personality cult around himself. His party fell in line. Those who fell from favor were quickly removed. Also, he relentlessly claimed that things that were demonstrably false were in fact true. His party and his followers complied. Sound familiar?

Each situation is unique, of course, and as of yet Trump lacks the power to start executing people at random (may he never gain it, for he would unquestionably use it to its fullest extent without remorse). He does have a similar leadership style to Stalin’s, however. Authoritarian, firmly of the belief that loyalty to the leader is the sole job of those in government, brazenly dishonest (as in big lies, not just the everyday lies of all politicians), and ready to purge people from their positions in a heartbeat. We also know that when the bombing he ordered early in his presidency went somewhat awry, he lashed out at and blamed the generals. He did not take any responsibility (he never takes responsibility). This does not bode well for our country should we find ourselves in a crisis.

We read history in part to understand the mistakes of the past in order that we do not repeat them in future. Unfortunately history has fallen from favor with most Americans. Most Americans don’t even know our own country’s history, much less the world’s. Those of us who do know what has happened before, however, are hearing alarm bells ringing nonstop day and night.

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One thought on “Guest Blog Post: A Different Dictator

  1. Thanks WC.

    I would like to post a thoughtful response I received from an old friend of mine who is now a political science professor on the East Coast after I posted the same commentary to a group last night. A somewhat different take and deserving of being heard.

    His comment:

    Foreign policy is definitely where Trump could do the most damage. I think the comparison to Stalin works well enough to highlight the potential problems.

    My counter: in the social sciences generally and foreign policy practice specifically, it’s deceptively easy and dangerous to choose ‘false positive’ case comparisons. Differences in cases that appear small turn out to be large in practice. Alexander George has a great book on [this] called Deterrence and Coercive Diplomacy. This concept is the foundation of my *relative* optimism. There are no good cases to compare. Being an established advanced democracy must count for something in terms of resilience.

    But this firing is really worrisome. Because I think left his own devices, you’re right. Trump would stop at pretty much nothing to get his way. And he is mercurial and vindictive. And, unlike Stalin, really freaking dumb, which means he’ll almost never land on the right or wise decision in one of his fits.

    A lot is riding on McMaster’s ability to maintain influence without getting fired. And the ability to persuade just three R senators on any given decision to do the right thing.

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