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Trump backers laugh off, cheer ‘dictator’ comments, as scholars voice alarm

CORALVILLE, Iowa — Clyde Carson was in the audience of the Fox News town hall with Donald Trump last week when host Sean Hannity asked the former president to rule out abusing power as retribution. “Except for Day One,” Trump replied, volunteering that, “after that, I’m not a dictator.”

“A lot of us Trump people get it, but he was trying to fool with the media, he did that on purpose.” said Carson, a 53-year-old caucus captain from Davenport attending Trump’s speech here on Wednesday. “He just done that because he knew the news would go crazy with it.”

Many of Trump’s supporters here, in an area where the former president is holding a campaign event Wednesday evening, said they appreciated his comments and did not take them to be a literal declaration of an intent to govern as a dictator. Trump in recent days has returned to the “dictator” theme, on Saturday repeating his intent to “to be a dictator for one day,” to drill for oil and close down the border, while claiming two days later that he was joking.

This repetition and clarification amounts to an potential attempt to downplay or desensitize the public to what he is saying and showing he will do, some experts said. Trump has a track record of suggesting he is joking, including on matters where he was not.

Historians, Democrats, some Republicans and even former Trump administration officials are warning that a second term would be more autocratic and extreme than the first. Hannity’s question had been prompted by reporting from The Washington Post and others about the former president and his allies’ plans for a second term, including plans to use the Justice Department to investigate specific critics and to invoke the Insurrection Act on Inauguration Day.

“There is little reason to believe he is willing to allow the democratic process and democratic institutions to ‘stand in the way’ of him achieving whatever particular policies he is interested in,” said Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College who studies democracy, populism and fascism. “When democratic processes, institutions and norms present a hindrance or even blockage to his whims, will he stand down or does he intend to try to undermine them further? His past behavior and recent statements should lead anyone to believe it is the latter.”

As the clear polling leader in the Republican primary, Trump returned to Iowa on Wednesday in a dominant position less than five weeks before the first-in-the-nation GOP caucuses. The reception to his remarks here underscored the loyalty he has cemented in the party, with a familiar rhetorical strategy.

Trump often uses outrageous statements to grab attention and distract from other headlines, such as his decision to back out of testifying on Monday in a civil fraud trial against his companies in New York, according to Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton sociology professor. He also has a history of accusing his opponents of exactly what he does, as with his Dec. 2 speech accusing President Biden of being a threat to democracy, she said.

That tactic appeared to be finding some purchase with Leann Reed, who attended his speech from Washington, Iowa.

“I don’t think he meant what everybody is saying, being a dictatorship — and actually you know right now under Biden, that’s probably what we got because he does what he wants to do and he’s not really listening to the voters,” Reed, 66, said. “I think we need somebody that’s going to move forward fast to clean up everything, and I think that’s what he meant.”

She was not the only attendee to voice some interest in the idea of a dictator.

“I love it,” said a woman in her 50s from northwest Iowa who spoke on the condition that she be identified only as Sue. “My kids call me a dictator, I thought my parents were dictators … He said he was only going to do it for a day. Like if you had a home that was in disrepair and your parents came in and they were firm and they wanted to get it done, and when you got done you had this beautiful home, how could you be mad?”

“The President has laid out a bold second term agenda ever since he announced over a year ago,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said. “We have been transparent about what a second term would look like.”

Trump doubled down during a speech at the New York Young Republican Club on Saturday, criticizing a New York Times article about his initial “dictator” remark.

“I said I want to be a dictator for one day,” Trump elaborated in New York. “And you know why I wanted to be a dictator for one day? Because I want a wall, right? I want a wall and I want to drill, drill, drill.”

Trump followed up with a social media post saying he made the comment “in a joking manner and completed with ‘but only for a day, because I’m going to close the Border, and DRILL, DRILL, DRILL,’ a much different attitude and meaning!”

The repetition could be an attempt to numb people to criticism of Trump as a would-be dictator or a threat to democracy, according to Scheppele, an expert on Hungary’s slide into authoritarianism under Viktor Orban, who Trump has called an ally and model.

“If you repeat something often enough, it gets normalized,” she said. “Trump has done this repeatedly where he tells you exactly what he’s going to do, but then he’ll say, ‘just kidding,’ or, ‘look at their reaction,’ and he turns an outrageous statement into something everybody learns to live with, and then discount.”

She added: “He’s desensitizing everybody to the effect of what it would look like if he actually followed through on this, which I think he really is intent on doing. He’s turning it into a joke, which doesn’t mean he’s actually joking.”

It’s not the first time Trump or his aides have responded to criticism by claiming he was only joking — including about things he ultimately went ahead with, opened the door to, or later said he was serious about pursuing.

In 2016, Trump famously held a news conference about the release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails, inviting Russia to “find” deleted emails from Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state. His spokesman said Trump was joking, but prosecutors later found Russian hackers first tried to break into Clinton’s server that same day.

During the same campaign, Trump repeatedly called Clinton and President Barack Obama the founders of the terrorist group Islamic State, then called it “sarcastic.”

As president, Trump encouraged police to deal roughly with suspects while detaining them. A spokeswoman said he was making a joke, but he has gone on to repeatedly make similar pronouncement, and his campaign is proposing to make it harder to sue police for brutality.

Later, aides claimed that Trump was kidding when he suggested at a White House news conference that projecting high-powered light or disinfectant inside the human body could be viable treatments for covid-19. Aides also said Trump was not being serious about slowing down testing to suppress case counts, though he later clarified he did mean it.

“I don’t kid,” he told reporters.

Before trying to remain in office despite losing the 2020 election, Trump repeatedly remarked about the possibility of serving more than two terms as president, in violation of the of the 22nd Amendment.”

“Will we be president in 10 years? Only if we add a couple of terms,” he mused at a 2020 rally in Atlanta. He then gestured to the press, and mocked, “There’s your breaking news: ‘I told you he’s a dictator … he will not give up power … he intends to serve at least two more terms.’”

He added: “You can’t joke because if you joke they take it away. … They always cut it before the laugh. They cut it so that they think, ‘He’s serious.’” The crowd responded by chanting “12 more years!”

John Russell, who drove to Trump’s speech here from Aurora, Ill., said he heard the “dictator” comment the same way.

“It’s common sense. Of course he’s joking,” said Russell, who’s been to more than a dozen Trump events. “He’s not going to be no dictator. You can’t be a dictator with a constitutional republic.”

Arnsdorf reported from Washington.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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