During an interview on Tuesday evening, Fox News’ Sean Hannity asked Donald Trump whether he would abuse power if he was returned to office and noted that Trump has been using the line “I am your retribution” in his campaign. Trump responded by praising Al Capone, who he called “one of the greatest of all time, if you like criminals” while failing to promise that he wouldn’t abuse power.
Hannity then tried again, asking Trump to promise the public that he wouldn’t abuse power as retribution against anybody. For a second time, Trump refused to make that promise. “Except for day one,” he replied. Trump followed this by saying, “I want to close the border and drill, drill, drill.” Trump then acknowledges that Hannity wants him to say he’s not going to be a dictator before repeating that he will be a dictator “on day one.”
Hannity tries to save this by insisting that what Trump is saying doesn’t sound like retribution and is just Trump returning to the policies of his first term. But Trump never makes the promise not to abuse power or not to violate the law to persecute those he sees as enemies.
The Biden-Harris campaign responded to Trump’s words with a brief statement.
This is not the first time Trump has made such a statement. At an earlier stop in Iowa, Trump declared that he had been “waging an all-out war on American democracy.” Though that particular phrase may have been a Freudian slip, over the last few weeks even media outlets that have been willing to sleepwalk past Trump’s comments have started to wake up to the open threats of authoritarian rule.
It was the great poet Maya Angelou who said, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.” No one may have generated more reiterations of that truth than Trump.
Trump has been telling us who he is from well before he came down the golden escalator at the start of his 2016 campaign. His pro-authoritarian leanings were visible in a 1990 interview with Playboy, where Trump expressed his admiration for how the Chinese government had crushed students at Tiananmen Square the year before. Trump called those peaceful pro-democracy protests a riot and praised the communist leaders for the “strength” they showed in killing hundreds or thousands to protect their own power.
Trump has declared himself a “big fan” of Turkish strongman Recep Erdoğan. Hungarian extremist Viktor Orban has become a regular feature of Trump’s rally speeches (even if Trump sometimes can’t remember what country Orban leads). Trump’s timid primary opponents were disturbed enough by his praise for brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to momentarily express their concerns. Trump has heaped praise on the “brilliant” Chinese dictator Xi Jinping. And Trump is always willing to express his admiration for Russian warlord and enemy of democracy Vladimir Putin.
These are the leaders Trump looks to as his role models. He believes their ability to do whatever they please makes them strong. He thinks their outsized egos and narcissism make them great. He’s not just telling us who he admires, he’s also telling us who he is.
If America goes down the road to dictatorship with Trump, there are no do-overs. Authoritarian rule is not something the nation can sample, just to see if it likes the taste. Once a dictatorship is in place, it will do whatever it takes to remain there … from day one.