Much has been made of President Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Yet Friday’s veiled threat to former FBI Director James Comey reveals something more: The president’s “totalitarian” impulse.
No matter what doubts there are about Trump’s real motivation for sacking Comey, the president surely had the legal authority to do so. But firing him was not enough. Trump turned to Twitter to unnerve and silence him.
One of the central techniques of totalitarian rule, as it played out in mid-20th century Europe, was the effort to silence opposition by instilling fear and mistrust. Totalitarian rulers intimidated not just by brute force, though there was plenty of that. They also used innuendo and veiled warnings to spread a paranoid sensibility.
That sensibility was itself rooted in uncertainty about the exposure of the secrets. Under totalitarianism privacy was never assured. At any moment, the most intimate utterances or the details of personal conversations might be exposed in order to embarrass, humiliate, and incriminate enemies.
Writing about Stalinism, Professor Orlando Figes says, “Private life in communist Russia reduced people to a breed of whisperers — people scared to give full voice to doubts or dissidence, and whispering dark secrets behind the backs of neighbors, friends and even family.”
To reduce people to “whisperers,” Stalin did not have to keep them under constant surveillance. He merely had to sow suspicion that perhaps their conversations were being recorded. This technique of totalitarian rule was deployed with great effect to intimidate political opponents.
Uncertainty and the worry about what might be made public kept people in line, even more effectively than any known threat. Indeed, in the totalitarian arsenal, doubt was as powerful as the brutality of the police state: it led fearful people to police themselves.
Further evidence of Trump’s “totalitarian” impulse, and of his desire to sow crippling doubt in Comey, was provided when the president and Sean Spicer, his press secretary, refused to answer direct questions about whether Trump has a taping system in the White House or whether his conversations with Comey actually were recorded.
Trump contends that in those conversations the former FBI Director told him that he was not a target of the ongoing investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Comey, on the other hand, informed colleagues at the FBI that he neither gave such assurances nor pledged loyalty to Trump.
Asked whether he had recorded the conversations, Trump, eager to keep the creepy mystery alive, said “That I can’t talk about. I won’t talk about it.”
Comey is not the first person to be the target of Trump’s veiled threats and “totalitarian” instinct. In one instance, during the Republican primaries, he threatened to “spill the beans” about Senator Ted Cruz’s wife.
More recently, responding to growing criticism directed at him by “Morning Joe” co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, Trump issued the following warning on Twitter: “Some day, when things calm down, I’ll tell the real story of @JoeNBC and his very insecure long-time girlfriend, @morningmika. Two clowns!”
In his tweet about Comey, he pulled out another of his familiar tactics, the use of quotation marks. Last March, when Trump was being pressed about another of his tweets-his claim that President Obama had ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower-he insisted that his questioners should pay attention to the fact that he had put “wiretapping” “in quotes.” “That’s,” he said at the time, “a very important thing.”
On Friday, Trump again deployed quotation marks (‘tapes’) in an effort to muddy his meaning and disorient his target about what, if anything, Trump has on him. The quotation marks raised the possibility that it might not be the president, but, someone else, who had brought up the idea of tapes in the first place. They also hint that what the president tweeted might even be a joke.
But Trump’s acts of intimidation and innuendo are no joking matter. While America may be a long way from totalitarianism, we need to be vigilant and ready to call out its emergent traces even if, in May of 2017, we can only do so by putting “totalitarian” in quotation marks.