Let’s be honest. No one likes to lose. And for those possessing a healthy ego, defeat is an especially unbearable prospect.
Former President Richard Nixon espoused this point of view better than most. In a dated quote published by The New York Times, Nixon warned “You must never be satisfied with losing. You must get angry, terribly angry, about losing.” Suffice it to say, President Donald Trump has embraced the finer points of Nixonian philosophy.
On Nov. 7, a day removed from the Republican’s midterm defeat, Trump held a combative press conference that challenged the norms of presidential decorum. After a tense and vicious exchange between Trump and CNN reporter Jim Acosta, White House personnel attempted to silence the veteran journalist by physically removing his microphone. The optics associated with this overt display of censorship was ugly. But remember that Trump had just lost. And he was angry.
Hours after the incident, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders announced Acosta’s press privileges had been suspended. In an effort to circumvent criticism, Sanders issued a patently false narrative via Twitter. “President Trump believes in a free press and expects and welcomes tough questions of him and his Administration. We will, however, never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern.”
To validate her claims, Sanders released a video of the incident which featured an altered depiction of Acosta’s actions. Clearly, the footage was doctored to create the illusion of impropriety. But we now live in an era of relativism. As the Washington Post’s Molly Roberts noted, “No one agrees on what the truth is anymore, and that’s exactly what Sanders was counting on.”
What mechanism supports the advent of Trump’s bullish agenda? History suggests a disturbing parallel between Trump’s tactics and those of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. During his rise to power, Mussolini exemplified the same authoritarian traits which now define Trump’s presidency.
In an article published by The Atlantic, journalist Ruth Ben-Ghiat generalized demagogues as charismatic leaders who test “the limits of what the public, press, and political class will tolerate.” She argued their behavior “is accomplished through controversial actions and threatening or humiliating remarks toward groups or individuals. It’s designed to gauge the collective appetite and permission for verbal and physical violence and the use of extralegal methods in policing. The way elites and the press respond to each example of boundary-pushing sets the tone for the leader’s future behavior — and that of his followers.”
Upon reflection, I wholeheartedly agree with Ben-Ghiat’s assessment. The symbiotic relationship which exists between authoritarians and their followers is inherently co-dependent. Successful authoritarians prey upon vulnerable portions of the populace. They placate the insecure by manipulating feelings and causing divisions amongst factions. During this process, followers willingly dispense all pretenses of impartiality and pledge blind support for their leaders. When this occurs, we are reminded of the world’s oldest truism; ignorance is bliss.