Did we just pass the tipping point toward autocracy?

President Donald Trump speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 23, 2018, en route to a day trip to New York.   Trump will hold a roundtable discussion on Long Island on illegal immigration and gang violence that the White House is calling a

President Donald Trump speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 23, 2018, en route to a day trip to New York. Trump will hold a roundtable discussion on Long Island on illegal immigration and gang violence that the White House is calling a "national call to action for legislative policy changes." (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)

Let’s stipulate that Trump is not another Hitler. Nevertheless, there’s something disturbingly resonant about this observation from a German citizen who lived through Nazism and who realized, only in hindsight, that he hadn’t noticed its slowly tightening grip: “To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it. One no more saw it developing day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing.”

That jibes with the views of Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an American history professor who studies totalitarianism. One year ago, she warned that when a so-called “strong man” gains power in a democracy, “the climate shifts little by little. A few big gestures of aggression, and then things settle down. Then the cycle repeats, until one day the tipping point is reached and you find your democracy has been transformed into an autocracy. We’re at serious risk of this happening in America.”

True that. Because early this week, while we’ve been going to work and and paying our bills and seeing our friends and binging TV and saying “how ’bout those royals” and basically living our lives, we may well have reached and passed the tipping point.

Yeah I know, we’re a lot more durable than the Weimar Republic. John Cassidy says in The New Yorker that we’re “a stoutly built ocean liner with a maniac at the helm,” potentially strong enough to survive the maniac, but now he believes, as I do, that “it feels as though an important threshold has been crossed.”

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That’s what happens, lest anyone hasn’t noticed, when a president under federal criminal investigation takes the unprecedented step of attacking the integrity of federal investigators — sowing public distrust of an independent Justice Department — and “hereby” demanding, with apparent success, that law enforcement share information about its far-flung investigation of a president’s potentially illegal links to foreign money and foreign powers.

And by outing an FBI’s confidential source, this president and his craven lickspittles in the Republican cult has made it more difficult for our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to do their jobs and keep America safe. As John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, pointed out yesterday:

“The brazen willingness of Trump to attack the institutions that protect our secrets is something new entirely … The success of U.S. intelligence, diplomatic and law enforcement efforts rests on little more than the ability of intelligence professionals to build trust with people so that they will share information … (T)he personal trust and professionalism of U.S. intelligence officers is of little value if potential sources fear that their identities could become known due the reckless and cruel political climate in Washington. How can an intelligence officer guarantee the safety of his or her sources in the present political atmosphere?”

FBI director Christopher Wray, a beleaguered Trump appointee, said it himself recently: “The day that we can’t protect human sources is the day the American people start becoming less safe.” Well, the day is here. The credibility of independent law enforcement is being trampled by an instinctive tyrant whose sole priority is to save his own skin, regardless of the collateral havoc he wreaks.

Trump’s incessant agitprop is the new normal, a daily drip that numbs many Americans and narcotizes even more. Working his thumbs this morning, he claimed that the FBI’s use of a confidential source to seek information from Trump campaign aides basically constitutes “one of the biggest political scandals in history!” He claimed that the FBI’s investigators are members of the “Criminal Deep State…caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before!”

You know how mob lawyers always complain that the feds have unfairly wiretapped their mob clients? Trump’s bluster is like that. Do you remember “Godfather II,” when Michael Corleone’s mob lawyer demanded an apology after federal investigators sought to gather evidence from Frankie Pantangeli, an informant inside the Corleone family? Trump’s bluster is like that. Except it’s worse, because this time the sliming of law enforcement is led by the nation’s top elected official, who openly opposes the FBI’s current mission to protect this nation from Russian subversion.

John Weaver, a longtime Republican strategist, tweets: “I can say the ‘president’ is unhinged, but he’s rapidly consolidating power & placing himself above rule of law with no check & balance from 1 of the other 2 branches of government. His unfitness is more obvious the more bold in his corrupt ways he becomes, while Congress cowers.” But within the GOP, Weaver is in the vocal minority.

Day by day, Trump’s wanton abuses mount until we the benumbed are no more cognizant than that German farmer who couldn’t see the corn grow. Our shops are open, our food tastes good, our ballparks are filling as the weather warms, our sidewalks are sun-splashed, our incremental lives go on. But our democratic soul is being drained, theft by theft, because that’s how it works. And as the heat on Trump intensifies this summer, his abuses will only get worse.

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote one year ago, autocrats “tell us what they are going to do before they do it, both as an intimidation and as a challenge.” The challenge is before us. We can never say we weren’t warned.

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