United States President-elect Donald Trump’s affinity for Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the oddities of the presidential campaign. He praised Putin for being a strong leader and contrasted him with outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama. Well, the affinity has not abetted since he was elected.
From Trump’s continued pronouncements about Putin and his overall combativeness, it is evident that he aspires to become the kind of despotic democrat that Putin has been. It may well be that he intends to go further than that. It would be entirely in character if he jettisons the title of president and declares himself the Czar of America.
The czars, who ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917, varied in attributes from Peter the Great to Ivan the Terrible. One thing they had in common was that they were not known for their democratic disposition.
The last of them, Czar Nicholas II, was pressured into creating the Duma (parliament), but when the representatives made decisions he didn’t like, he abolished the institution. He was forced to abdicate in 1917 at the onset of the communist revolution. Russia turned communist thereafter and remained so for more than 70 years.
The ending of communism in the early 1990s culminated in the emergence of President Vladimir Putin, who in his tight grip on power is a throwback to the czars. Given Putin’s considerable popularity among Russians, I suspect that he could declare himself a czar and make it stick. But he has wisely chosen not to. But his admirer across the globe just might adopt the title for himself.
If the prospect sounds far-fetched, one needs only consider Trump’s cabinet nominees. He is assembling a government of oligarchs and retired generals, just what a czar would need to assert his czar-ness.
The nominee for Secretary of State (Foreign Minister) is Rex Tillerson, the CEO ofExxon Mobil, who is himself Putin’s business chum. For Treasury, it is Wall Street investor and former Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin. For Commerce Department, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross. For Labour Department, fast food company executive Andrew Puzder. And for the Education Department, it is wealthy political activist Betsy DeVos.
Of retired generals, Trump has picked U.S. Marine’s James Mattis for Defence Department, another Marine John Kelly for Homeland Security, and the Army’s Michael Flynn for National Security Advisor. Despite the titles, these are not necessarily military positions. Condoleezza Rice, for example, served as National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush. And, to preserve civilian oversight on the military, there is a law forbidding retired generals from becoming defence secretary until seven years after their retirement. The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to waive that law to enable Mattis’s confirmation. That would be consistent with czarist governance, in which laws have to bend to the czar’s will. That was until Czar Nicholas II ran out of luck.
Beyond the evident preference for oligarchs and retired generals, Trump’s nominations also show another pattern: the choice of people who want to abolish or defang the departments. A prime example is his choice of Rick Perry to head the Energy Department. As a candidate for the presidency, Perry said he would eliminate three departments if elected. But his candidacy took a dive after he experienced a campaign block and couldn’t name the third department on his chopping list. Yes, it was the Energy Department.
That Trump has nominated Perry to head the department can signify only one of two things: Either Trump wants Perry to dismantle the department he heads or Trump believes that Perry still doesn’t remember the third department on his chopping list.
Now back to the matter of czar power, there are some notable distinctions between Trump’s and the czars’. Unlike the czars, Trump can’t peremptorily have people executed or incarcerated, but he has a power the czars never had: the power to zap with Tweets.
When a Boeing Company executive implicitly criticised Trump’s trade policies, the czar tweeted that the U.S. would cancel a contract with Boeing for new Air Force 1 jets, the fleet that takes the president around. The company’s stock immediately plummeted.
When the CIA issued a report that implicated Russia for hacking into U.S. sites with the goal of influencing the election in Trump’s favour, the Czar of America furiously blasted the country’s premier intelligence agency. These are the same people who claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, he said. It was a low blow that could only have sent the CIA crouching.
Trump doesn’t take kindly even to being spoofed on entertainment programmes. To his chagrin, however, they seem immune to his tweeting zaps. One such programme, “Saturday Night Live” has retained an esteemed actor specifically for spoofing Trump, and he has had a field day doing just that.
I used to think that it can’t be funny spoofing Trump because one just can’t outdo the real thing. But “Saturday Night Live” and other comedy programmes have proved me wrong. I realise now that a spoof of a seeming spoof can still be funny, very funny. And that quite badly gets under Trump’s thin skin. He has tried to zap the programme with his tweets, but that only draws more attention to the already popular program. Trump must rue the limits on an American czar.
Talking of ruing something, those who still have nightmares about the pending Trump presidency still have a glimmer of hope that it will not come to be. It is a very faint glimmer, though. You see, technically, Trump has not been elected yet. The Electoral College, which will formally elect a president will meet tomorrow, Dec. 19, to make a choice. And there is no legal obligation that those chosen to vote for Trump must vote for him.
In fact, some members of the Electoral College — mostly Democrats — have asked for CIA briefing on the agency’s report on Russian influence on the electoral outcome. In the unlikely event that enough Republican electors switch their votes from Trump after the briefing, it might mean that the Czar of America’s reign will end before it begins. But don’t hold your breath for that.