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Maybe we’re too busy laughing to see it. Perhaps it’s the jokes and memes that Donald Trump generates in abundance, the gift that keeps on giving, that blinds us to a chilling fact that we’d rather not face. Put simply, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation is behaving like an authoritarian dictator, one who threatens democracy in his own country and far beyond.
Here’s the latest example of how the comedy can distract. On Thursday Donald Trump marked the Fourth of July by praising the US military, invoking the heroism of an army that defeated the British in the 18th century in part because “it took over the airports”. Lol: behold, the ignoramus president. Cue more chuckles as Trump delivered that speech during a downpour, the Almighty himself apparently deciding to rain on Trump’s parade.
But all those giggles served to obscure the more pressing fact: that in a departure from all precedent, Trump had used Independence Day to stage a military display, in which M1A2 tanks and Bradley armoured vehicles rolled into Washington, while fighter jets and helicopters filled the sky. The generals, mindful of the need to separate military and political power, had long opposed this extravaganza and, tellingly, most of the joint chiefs contrived to stay away. They understood that such a pageant is the stuff of despots, not democrats.
Another image framed this split-screen 4 July: that of the children, separated from their parents, who are caged in detention camps on America’s southern border. Accounts by lawyers and doctors who were allowed brief visits to these hellish places are almost unbearable to read: children deprived of sleep, denied access to blankets or mattresses, not allowed to wash their hands or brush their teeth; toddlers left alone on cold, hard floors, so traumatised they sit in stunned, tearless silence. I’m especially haunted by the report of “a suicidal four-year-old whose face was covered in bloody, self-inflicted scratches”.
This too is what dictators do: demonising a group – in this case, migrants – as an alien threat, an army of invaders, so intensely and for so long that eventually any fate, no matter how brutal or inhumane, seems deserved, even when it is inflicted on that group’s youngest and most vulnerable members. Breaking up families, caging children in hot, fetid, disease-ridden camps – this is what dictators do.