Trump and Dictatorship

Trump and Dictatorship

Matthew Lenoe

Associate Professor of History

University of Rochester


As a historian of modern dictatorships I am deeply alarmed by the rhetoric of Donald Trump and many of his supporters.  My own specialty is Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union, but I am familiar with the histories of Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Fascist regime in Italy, Spain under strong man Francisco Franco, and other authoritarian regimes.  Trump has endorsed the principles of collective responsibility (all members of a group are responsible for the actions of individual members) by advocating punishment of family members of suspected terrorists and deportation of all Muslims. He has fomented religious and ethnic bigotry – if you want to understand just how disturbing his anti-Muslim and anti-Hispanic rhetoric is, try substituting the word “Jew” for “Muslim” or “Mexican” in his statements.   Along with commentators like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, he has pressed the idea that political opposition is illegal and that if elected he will arrest and prosecute Hillary Clinton.  He has repeatedly advocated measures that would violate the Constitution, such as restricting free speech through tightened libel laws, closing all mosques, and declaring judges unfit to judge cases based on their ethnic background.  Nor will he pledge to accept a peaceful transition of power should he lose the election

These are all based on principles common to most dictatorships – political opposition is tantamount to treason, speech opposed to the rulers must be restricted, and particular groups, ethnic, religious or otherwise, are responsible for all of society’s ills.

Even more disturbing is extremist Trump supporters’ thuggish attempts to threaten their candidate’s political opponents.  They regularly send vitriolic messages, including death threats to these men and women (Republicans and Democrats alike).  Some have also taken to standing outside Democratic Party headquarters with weapons on display. This kind of intimidation is characteristic of Communist and Fascist regimes.

Many of Trump’s supporters state that they are voting for him because Hillary Clinton is worse.  I want to focus on this claim, because just like Stalin’s insistence that his political enemies were guilty of a vast plot against the social order, it is based on false conspiracy theories.  These have been circulated by extreme right-wing commentators such as Bill O’Reilly, Hannity and Limbaugh for years.  The most decisive refutation of these theories is that none of these men’s dire predictions of repression under Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency have come true.  Moreover, in policy terms both Obama and Hillary Clinton are Eisenhower Republicans, not the wild-eyed terrorist sympathizing, election-stealing Communist international criminals depicted by the extreme Right.

It is worth delving further into these conspiracy theories.  First, fringe right-wing commentators have for years pushed the idea that vote fraud is epidemic in the United States, particularly in African-American and Hispanic areas.  Yet multiple independent studies have found that voter impersonation is very rare.  Commentators at the conservative Wall Street Journal have concurred. And Republican officials and consultants have repeatedly admitted that voter ID laws are targeted at Democratic and minority voters. Creating the false impression that an election is “rigged” delegitimizes democratic processes. It is a common tactic of anti-democratic political movements.

Second, there is the notion that Hillary Clinton is guilty of high crimes against the American people and government.  Trump supporters often call for her imprisonment and execution on this basis.  Yet the House of Representative’s Republican led investigation of the attack on US government facilities in Benghazi, Libya found no evidence of dereliction of duty by Clinton or State Department officials.  The FBI investigation of Clinton’s emails while she was Secretary of State found no evidence of wrongdoing or illegal activity.  The recent FBI statement with regard to emails on former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer indicated that these emails have not even been thoroughly read yet, much less that there is probable cause to reopen the investigation of Clinton.

Some would argue that Clinton’s (and by extension all liberals’) conspiracy to undermine American society is so vast and top secret that no evidence of that conspiracy will be discovered.  This is a classic argument deployed in Stalin’s kangaroo courts.  There are two problems with it.  First it cannot be falsified. Lack of evidence for a conspiracy becomes evidence of a conspiracy.  Secondly, vast conspiracies inevitably come to light, because there are so many participants.

Donald Trump and his more extreme followers are a dire threat to the American republic.  There are many reasons to oppose Hillary Clinton and her proposed policies, but she is not such a threat.  America needs conservatives and liberals both, but it does not need Donald Trump.


BBC Correspondents Skeptical of Ukrainian Reports of Fighting in E. Ukraine

BBC correspondents on the scene in Mariupol and Slaviansk are skeptical of Ukrainian accounts of serious fighting in Artemovsk and Slaviansk, and Ukrainian government recapture of city soviet building in Mariupol’.  See comments of Steven Rosenberg and Natalia Antelava at the link below.


Fighting in E. Ukraine

The Ukrainian press (,,, the local Mariupol’ paper) is reporting a good deal more about escalating violence in E. Ukraine and the Ukrainian offensive against the Russian “terrorists” (“activists,” “demonstrators”), than the Western press is.  According to these sources five pro-Russian militia were killed in a Ukrainian special forces attack on a “block post” on one of the roads into Slaviansk, held by the pro-Russians.  The Ukrainians suffered one man wounded.

Overnight pro-Russian forces attacked a Ukrainian arms depot in Artemovsk, but fled when the Ukrainian guards resisted.

There are confused reports from Mariupol’ that unknown men attacked the pro-Russian held city soviet building during the small hours of the morning today, and retook the building.  Ukrainian military and police followed up.  However, these reports are confused and I could not discern which side presently holds the city soviet building.

Apparently the Ukrainian government has had enough of the bullying of the pro-Russian activists, and the torture and murder of a pro-Ukrainian unity politician Vladimir Rybak in Slaviansk.

BBC Has a Few “Voices from E. Ukraine”

I wish we had more of this.  BBC runs a few quotes from E. Ukrainian residents.  Clearly some area afraid of the pro-Russian demonstrators and “activists”.  While I have no brief for extremist Ukrainian nationalists, even if Maidan were a coup, and it is more complicated than that, that would be no excuse for dismembering Ukraine.  Especially given that it is unclear that the majority in E. Ukraine want unification with Russia.  If there is to be a referendum, it had better be overseen by the UN or OSCE.  The Crimean referendum run by the Russians was obviously rigged … 97% support for joining the RF is completely unrealistic.  I would guess that real support for unifying with the RF in Crimea was around 70%, no higher.

Ukrainians Claim to Identify Russian Paratroopers in E. Ukraine

The First Vice-Prime Minister of Ukraine Vitalii Iarem states that Ukrainian intelligence believes that soldiers of the 45th Guards Airborne Regiment (stationed near Moscow) are among the Russian separatists active in Slaviansk and Kramatorsk.

Not Reported in Western Press — Ukrainian Nationalists Attack Presidential Candidate

Ukrainian nationalists physically attacked Oleg Tsarev, a former Party of the Regions (representing the interests of more Russian-speaking E. Ukraine) parliamentary deputy who has declared qualified support for the Russian separatists in E. Ukraine.  The attack was made by a crowd outside a TV station where Tsarev had participated in a program.  Ukrainian nationalists charge that Tsarev is no better than a stalking horse for the Russian GRU (military intelligence) and FSB (successor to the KGB).

Proliferation of Militias, Ukrainian and Russian, in E. Ukraine

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry reports, via, that the Lugansk police are forming a volunteer unit to “maintain public order” in the city.  This would be a pro-Ukrainian unit militia aimed against the pro-Russian separatist “people’s militia” (narodnoe opolchenie) that have been seizing public buildings.  The proliferation of armed militias in the region suggests a drift towards civil war.

Fighting around Kramatorsk, Slaviansk Airports / All Sides up against a Wall

“Delo” (Kiev newspaper) —  — is reporting that Ukrainian forces have retaken the Kramatorsk airport from Russian separatists.   BBC confirms.  Delo’s reporting is more detailed … apparently the Ukrainians deployed aircraft and three helicopters (gunships?) in Kramatorsk, and eyewitness claim a firefight occurred.   In Slaviansk airport guards beat off an attack by Russian separatists.  The Ukrainians also had air support here.  If the Ukrainians are using elite units and aviation, they should have no problem cleaning up the separatists outside the government buildings.  However attacks on government buildings held by separatists will probably be accompanied by large scale civilian casualties.  Moreover, if Russian regular forces intervene, the Ukrainians will be badly wrong footed, outclassed militarily and with too many of their assets concentrated in the eastern part of the country, highly vulnerable to Russian airpower and to encirclement.

The independent research and analysis groups Stratfor and the International Institute for Strategic Studies both claim that given Russian military commitments elsewhere — opposite the Baltics, in the Caucasus, in Central Asia, on the Chinese frontier — Russia does not have the military resources to control large swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine.  This would certainly militate against military intervention.

But we are, frighteningly, well past the point of rational calculation.  Everyone is up against the wall.  Not only are Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev demanding use of force against Russian separatists in the east, but if the Ukrainian government fails to act, it risks becoming a semi-colonial dependency of Russia.  Putin, whose original goal may have been a federalized Ukraine, will find it hard not to intervene militarily if the Ukrainians embark on large-scale use of force in the east, especially given the state of Russian public opinion.  The “West” really does not have viable policy options other than increased sanctions, and I think that the situation is probably beyond the point where the threat of sanctions has much weight.  The Russian separatists in the east, having declared an independent “Don People’s Republic”, will find it hard to climb down from that position.

Although I have been playing the prediction game, and debating those predictions with my friends, historians are not actually supposed to predict — we recognize the fluidity and contingency of events.  The problem is that things are very fluid in east Ukraine right now and a lot of the probable outcome are not looking good.  Civil war, ethnic cleansing, Russian intervention with all of its consequences — all of these are becoming more likely outcomes.  At best, we may end up with a “frozen conflict” as in Trans-Dnestria or South Ossetia.

The saddest thing is that most people in east Ukraine or Ukraine do not want any of this.  They want to be left alone to live with their neighbors and go about their lives.  It is the game players — Putin and his government, perhaps the US CIA, Ukrainian oligarchs — and the fanatics among Russian and Ukrainian nationalists, who are driving things towards catastrophe.  Let us hope cooler heads prevail.