WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump may have toned down his style for his joint address to Congress this week, but Democrats aren’t any less worried about what they think he may do to the United States.
Indeed, their mantra could be boiled down to the famous line in the movie “The Fly” about the horrible transformation of Seth Brundle: “Be afraid - be very afraid.”
It’s not the same sort of fear that they see Trump stoking, though. They are not worried about what the president keeps telling people to fear. His claims that crime is at record highs, that terrorists are infiltrating America among refugees, or that undocumented immigrants are dangerous criminals are not true and they’re not supported by any data.
What scares them is Trump himself, what the president’s use of fear-mongering claims suggest he wants to do to the country and what his vision of a newly “great America” would mean for anyone who disagrees with him.
Trump’s more reasonable sounding tone Tuesday did little to reassure them. Asked before and after his speech what things about Trump scared them, Democrats had a hard time choosing among the grim possibilities.
“There are a great many,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Most Democrats brought up the president’s Russia ties and the continuing revelations associated with the ongoing probe of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s operatives to sway the U.S. election on behalf of Trump.
That particular fear was punctuated this week by reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador, prompting him to recuse himself from the ongoing probe. The news only added to the number of Trump advisers who can be linked to Russia.
“We have to see what is involved with Russia right now,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) said it was “very concerning, very concerning,” pointing to Trump’s repeated overtures to Putin’s government even ― as the Russian president has been sanctioned for invading Ukraine and the U.S. intelligence community accused him of interfering in American politics.
But perhaps the greatest fear is not just that president is OK with Russia undermining American democracy as long as it benefits Trump, but that he will undermine it himself.
Anyone who tries to destroy the press and the judiciary is setting the stage for a much more authoritarian situation, and is very dangerous.
Trump has castigated judges throughout his campaign when they disagreed with him, and denounced as a “so-called judge,” the jurist who knocked down his recent refugee travel ban. He’s long called reporters the most dishonest people, and recently ratcheted up his rhetoric.
“He made the astounding statement that the press was the enemy of the people,” Schiff said. “He was basically saying that any news organization that prints something unflattering to me is an enemy of the people. That is not something we’ve ever heard an American president say. I don’t think even Richard Nixon went that far.”
Schiff was referring to a tweet of Trump’s to that effect, as well as the president’s subsequent repetition of the line.
When the president is going with such attacks is especially worrisome for Democrats.
“If you want to form an authoritarian country, the first thing you do is bash the press and try to destroy the legitimacy of the judiciary,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee who is leading a push to get the Department of Justice to share its information on Trump.
“Anyone who tries to destroy the press and the judiciary is setting the stage for a much more authoritarian situation, and is very dangerous,” Nadler added.
Should Trump push the country in that direction, they see the rise of a more nationalistic state that attempts to exclude people who are not part of Trump’s America, and sets the stage for more war.
“Nationalism is about creating a hierarchical society, and then syncing everybody’s individuality into militarism, and then going to war against other people, and stereotyping and vilifying foreigners,” said freshman Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who is a constitutional law professor.
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) already sees the signs of some Americans embracing Trump’s vision.
“We see the rise of anti-semitism. We see the rise of hate speech around the country focused at the people of the Jewish faith, of the Muslim faith, of ethnic and racial minorities,” Crowley said. “That scares me. That worries me tremendously.”
It especially worries the Democrats because some of Trump’s top advisers — White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller in particular — are self-professed nationalists. Bannon is the former editor of Breitbart News, which has trafficked heavily in white nationalist thought in recent years.
“You can see precisely where Steve Bannon wants to go,” Raskin said, noting that the president’s brand of populism lends itself to an authoritarian bent. “The authoritarian populism pushed to its limits just becomes fascism,” Raskin said.
“What scares me overall are the people behind Trump — Bannon, Miller and others who are true believers in the ‘alt-right,’ and this economic nationalism and nationalism overall,” added Crowley.
He pointed to the White House putting out a Holocaust remembrance resolution that he said “purposefully does not mention Jewish people and their suffering during the Holocaust.”
Not all observers are convinced that Trump’s visions and goals are that organized or concrete. But when Democrats consider those people who are advising Trump, they are not at all reassured.
“I think Donald Trump is dangerous for our country, and I said that during the campaign — dangerous to the extent that he tends to make decisions not necessarily based on fact, but on his own intuition if you will, or his own thinking of what’s a good thing to say at this time,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, (D-Md.), the Democratic whip.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) described Trump’s behavior as “erratic,” “discordant” and “incoherent.” “He’s shown ... an incapability of assembling a team that actually knows what it’s doing, and to me that’s extremely frightening,” he said.
Perhaps the ultimate fear is that someone like Trump could land the United States in a cataclysmic war ― even without meaning to.
“What scares me about him is, number one, his ignorance,” said Nadler. “I’m afraid of his getting us into a war or something.”
Buckle up, America.