Sanders warns of authoritarianism

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Sanders warns of authoritarianism

Fri, 06/23/2017 - 1:33pm -- tim

Vermont Business Magazine Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) deliver the following remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Thursday morning: It is a pleasure for me to be here today at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As you all know, Carnegie is a truly international institution with centers in five major cities across three continents, working to advance the cause of peace, democracy and the rule of law through engagement with all sectors of society in multiple countries.

As we approach Independence Day, it is a moment to reflect upon our history, what makes this country so special, and what an enormous obligation we as citizens have to protect American freedom and democracy.

Let me begin by saying this. There are enormous policy disagreements in Congress today and it should come as no surprise that I would disagree with the policies put forward by a Republican president who, in my view, is pushing a very anti-working class agenda and is stridently anti-environment.

I am unalterably opposed to the Trump-Republican healthcare plans that have been passed in the House and introduced in the Senate, and will do everything I can to defeat them. In fact, I support a Medicare for all, single payer health plan. I would not expect a Republican president to do the same.

I believe that climate change is one of the most immediate and pressing concerns facing the entire planet. It is unfortunate, but at this point I do not expect that President Trump or many of my Republican colleagues will hold the same view.

I believe that, at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, we should not be giving huge tax breaks to the rich and large profitable corporations, as Republicans and the President want, but that in fact we need to ask the people on top to start paying their fair share of taxes. Virtually all of my Republican colleagues disagree.

And on and on it goes. Whether it is education, criminal justice, immigration, gender equality, infrastructure or other major issues, there should be no great surprise that there are strong policy disagreements between Democrats, Republicans, Independents, conservatives, moderates or progressives. That's what American democracy is about. We fight for what we believe in.

But there is one very fundamental issue that we should not be disagreeing about. And that is, no matter what our political view – progressive, conservative or moderate – we must do everything that we can to preserve American democracy and oppose the current drift toward authoritarianism that I believe President Trump represents.

And that is why I am here today. Let me give you some very specific examples of what I mean. 

It is no secret that public officials and politicians try to make the very best case they can for their point of view, and try to explain why their position is better than their opponents’. It also no great secret that politicians sometimes stretch the facts to make their best case. But there is no politician that I know, and certainly no president in the history of this country, who has told as many outrageous and blatant lies as Donald Trump has. 

Donald Trump told the American people that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally in the last election. His administration officials have repeated this claim. But let’s be clear: It is a lie. There is no evidence whatsoever for it. Republican election administrators from Mississippi to Nevada have stated their confidence that the 2016 election was not tainted by fraudulent voting.

In fact the bipartisan National Association of Secretaries of State cast doubt on Trump’s lie stating, “In the lead up to the November 2016 election, secretaries of state expressed their confidence in the systemic integrity of our election process as a bipartisan group, and they stand behind that statement today.”

This lie about our elections is also not simply the ravings of a sore winner. It is repeated with the intent of delegitimizing our electoral system. It sends a message to every Republican governor in the country to accelerate efforts to suppress the vote, to make it harder for people of color, poor people, old people, and young people, to participate in the political process. To stop people from voting who might vote against Republicans. Trump is trying to lower voter turnout based on a lie. Our job is to increase voter turnout. 

He also is attempting to preemptively cast doubt on the results of any future election that he might lose. His rhetoric has the effect of casting grave doubts over the electoral process in our country, and delegitimizing any president who might follow him, just as he tried to delegitimize the president who came before him, Barack Obama, through his leadership of the so-called “birther” movement. 

As you’ll remember, Trump’s path to the presidency began with his becoming the principal spokesman for the vicious and racist lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and therefore was not constitutionally eligible to be president.

Just a few weeks ago, Trump told another outrageous lie, taking completely out of context a statement by the Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in the wake of the terrorist attack in that city. 

Mayor Khan’s message was: “Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. There's no reason to be alarmed.” Trump blatantly mischaracterized this as if Khan was ignoring the threat and suggesting that people should not be alarmed by terrorism, and then used this lie to promote his divisive Muslim ban.

What does it mean for our democracy if we have a president who lies all of the time? For a start, at a time of “fake news,” when websites spread fabrications every single day – the other day it was reported all across the internet that Clint Eastwood had died – it cheapens and lowers respect for truth, and advances the ideology of “alternative facts.” 

If the President of the United States, our leader, can consistently tell blatant lies, it makes it acceptable and easier for everybody else in public life to do the same. And when we have a discourse which is not based on facts, that is extraordinarily dangerous for democracy and the future of our country. 

And not unrelated to this pathological lying is Trump’s unprecedented and vicious attacks on the media. 

Now let me be clear, like every politician I have expressed criticism of media. In fact, the last chapter in my recent book expresses deep concerns about the nature of media coverage in this country – about what mainstream media considers to be important or not important. And like every public official I have been critical of this or that type of media coverage. Nothing new there.

But Trump’s critique of mainstream media is very different. During his campaign, Trump riled up crowds against the press calling them “scum,” “horrible,” and “lying, disgusting people.” When Trump claims that all of mainstream media is “fake news,” not to be believed, what does that say to the average American? Is there nothing that we should believe in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and other newspapers throughout the country? Is there nothing we can believe on CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, or other TV networks? Is all of it a lie, out to disparage Mr. Trump? Where does that lead us as a nation?

Back in January, when Trump was being criticized for offering “alternative facts” about the size of his inauguration crowd, Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas put it this way: “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

In other words, according to the Congressman, there is one person in this country who can tell us the truth, and that is the president. What does that suggest about the future of democracy?

There is a reason our founders enshrined the press as the one profession specifically protected in the bill of rights: A well-informed citizenry is necessary for democracy to function correctly. The power of knowledge, access to information, belonged in the hands of the people, not the government.

There should also be widespread concern not only with President Trump’s attacks on the media, but with his disregard for the separation of powers inherent in the Constitution of the United States. 

His outbursts at judges are far from random temper tantrums of a billionaire used to getting his way. On the campaign trail he attacked a federal judge’s impartiality based on his ethnic background. And as President he attacked the federal judge who blocked his immigration executive order, referring to him as a “so-called judge.” What is even more alarming was Donald Trump’s insistence that the judiciary itself did not have the power to even review his immigration orders.

These statements do not simply reveal disagreements with court rulings, which would not be unusual, but rather an effort to delegitimize a co-equal branch of government, and diminish its constitutional ability to limit and constrain his power.

All of these tendencies are even more concerning when understood in light of Trump’s consistent admiration for authoritarian leaders. Many Americans find it rather strange that the president of the United States, a nation that has led the world in promoting democracy, seems to be more comfortable with autocrats and authoritarian politicians than with leaders of democratic nations.

How does it happen that we have a president who attacks everyone – Democrats and Republicans, business leaders and beauty queens, journalists and movie stars – yet at the same time has nothing but nice things to say about Russian President Vladimir Putin, and other authoritarian leaders?

Frankly, I know that many Americans are scratching their heads and trying to figure out why Trump has such an affinity for President Putin, a man who has severely repressed democracy in his own country, spent the last number of years trying to destabilize democracy in other countries, and trying to weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance.

When questioned about Vladimir Putin’s murders of journalists, after briefly acknowledging the concern responded, “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”

Why does President Trump have such kind words for President Duterte of the Philippines who is seriously undermining civil rights and liberties in his own country? Why does he seem so comfortable with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, a hereditary monarchy which treats women as third class citizens, and which promotes Wahhabism, a radical and extreme version of Islam that has spread throughout the Muslim world? Just yesterday, Trump sent congratulations to Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Salman congratulating him on his elevation to Crown Prince. Really, Mr. President? Are we really excited that Saudi Arabia will remain an undemocratic monarchy for the foreseeable future?

But again, this is a pattern. In April we saw Trump sending congratulations to Turkish president Erdogan for his victory in a referendum that would vastly expand Erdogan’s power and further weaken Turkey’s democracy. But Trump had nothing to say in May when, just after a meeting in the White House, Erdogan’s bodyguards beat up a number of peaceful protesters right here in Washington. 

Let me also be clear that the drift toward authoritarianism is not just something we’re seeing in the United States. Around the world – in the Middle East, in Europe, and elsewhere – we have seen the resurgence of a politics of resentment and bigotry, where legitimate anger about unaccountable and ineffective governance has been exploited by leaders who seek to divide us rather than unite us. Where understandable fear about personal safety and security has been used to curtail peoples’ rights, and to surveil and control them.

What has been going on in the global economy, and why there is so much distrust and alienation from governments around the world, is beyond the theme of my remarks today, but let me just say this, in the United States over the last forty years, we have seen the middle class shrinking, and a massive of transfer of wealth to the people on top. While the average American today works longer hours for lower wages, twenty Americans now own as much wealth as the bottom half of the population. 

And this type of oligarchy is exactly what is happening in much of the world. Globally, the top one percent now owns more wealth that the bottom 99 percent of the world’s population. Even more incredible, the wealthiest eight people on earth own more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population – 3.7 billion people. 

Let me conclude as I began. Our country, the international community, and our planet face enormous problems. Our job as a people is to lay these very serious problems out on the table, bring our people together, and to have honest and serious debate as to how we can go forward. Our duty is to respect our Constitution and to strengthen our democracy, not undermine it. And in this regard I would hope that all of us – Republicans and Democrats and Independents, progressives, conservatives, moderates – can come together to protect the country we love. 

Source: WASHINGTON, June 22, 2017 – Senator Bernie Sanders