Democracy, a recent invention, has been proven frail and fragile, susceptible to being hijacked by totalitarian forces. Lest we forget, Hitler’s rise to power was the result of the 1932 elections with the Nazi party dominating the Reichstag with 196 seats. Autocratic power and the Holocaust were but a hop, skip and jump away. Democracy died with a whimper while the masses praised and worshiped a dictator.
Remember, Mussolini came to power with the 1924 Italian general election giving him two-thirds of the seats of Parliament and control of all the levers of government. The fasches of power were bestowed upon him by voters until 1925 when he declared himself “Il Duce” and became a dictator. As for Portugal, Antonio Salazar was Prime Minister under a succession of elected presidents for an unsurpassed 36 years – 1932 to 1968, maintaining power by despotic means.
Presently democracy is at a mutation stage – cancerous change – that can bring on a swift demise. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved that country from a struggling democracy to an autocratic state with the rule of law abolished. The imperial presidency is ascendant in Ankara. In Budapest, the far right has just won unexpected political power in the last election. Victor Orban, the Prime Minister has instituted a “soft autocracy combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture” making Hungary a “democracy in sharp, worrisome decline”. Poland is in a similar state of political gestation.
What is worrisome is that these political changes mirror the words and actions of the current resident of the White House, Donald J. Trump. I won’t repeat the litany of Trump’s political sins except that they mirror those of Hitler, Mussolini, Salazar, Erdogan and Orban. But Donald Trump is not the only one to blame. The Office of the President has been slowly evolving from that of a modest public servant to a that of a pampered, cossetted autocrat with unlimited power unchecked by the legislative branch and only occasionally by the judiciary – the rule of law, decency and accepted norms do not apply.
I have had a personal ringside view of the changing nature of the Office of President as it morphed from austere public service with little pomp and circumstance to its exalted present omnipotent, unchecked position of power.
My first brush with the American Presidency was in 1951 when my father dragged me in attending an anti-communist political rally at the old Madison Square Garden in New York City. My dad and I travelled by subway to Time Square and then walked several blocks to 49th Street and 8th Avenue. We were standing on the sidewalk waiting to get in when a couple of New York City motorcycle cops with flashing lights wheeled up to the front entrance followed by a green, black and white squad car. Then came a black Buick Roadmaster and a utilitarian Chevy sedan. Bouncing out of that Roadmaster came none other than a smiling old Harry S. Truman.
I was within spitting distance of the President of the United States and had I known better I could have gone and shaken his hand as others did, glad handing and patting him on the arm with a couple of Secret Service types close by. Remember, this was just a year after the assassination attempt on his life at Blair House by Puerto Rican nationalists.
In 1990 I started using a local liquor store around the corner. It was an old line establishment in business since the 1930’s featuring a photograph prominently displayed on one of the walls, a black and white photo of the intersection of 96th & Madison with a small number of people waving at an open touring car. Look closely and you see that it is a smiling Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt driving by. A patrician President yet still one of the common folk accessible to his constituency.
President Richard Nixon, a plebe with pretentions of grandeur, signaled the decadence of democracy by personally designing the White House’s “Palace Guard” uniform – “double-breasted white tunics, starred epaulets, gold piping, draped braid, and high plastic hats decorated with a large White House crest” – truly a uniform to “épater les bourgeois”.
“Times They Are A-Changin”. In the building next door lives a very rich man who has no political compass except one he uses to how to make him even richer. He has hosted campaign fund raisers for both Presidents Bush and Obama and several for Biden, the wannabe president. When he hosted George W, they closed the down 95th Street but by the time Barack’s and Joe’s came to troll for campaign contributions the perimeter was expanded – 96th Street as well as Madison and Fifth Avenues were closed down for a time and a white tent erected to protect the President and Vice President from public view as they exited the bullet proof limousines with only the Praetorian Guard in full uniform missing.
Donald Trump’s Presidency has turned exclusivity up a notch. Adjacent to Trump Tower, 56th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenue has been permanently closed to the public. Should the Donald decide to travel to his Bedminster Gold Club by car Fifth Avenue, a major midtown artery is shut down and the Lincoln Tunnel, both inbound and outbound, is reserved for his exclusive use – damn the public, full speed ahead.
Follow these autocratic trends and our Western democracies will soon be just like Putin’s Russian Federation complete with a resplendent Kremlin Honor Guard.
Deyan Ranko Brashich is a contributor writing from New York. He is the author of Letters from America, Contrary Views and Dispatches. His contact and blog “Contrary Views” is at www.deyanbrashich.com