The notorious head of the Russian mafia in Brooklyn in the 1980s, Evsei Agron, used to walk around holding an electric cattle prod. The Leningrad-born Jewish refugee used it occasionally to maim or kill a rival, and as a deterrent symbol of his boundless cruelty. Acquaintances said Agron had no other outstanding characteristics, but his sadistic brutality was enough to allow him to rule his criminal surroundings and to earn him the unofficial title of the “first Russian godfather in America.”
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Cruelty is also the preferred instrument of Mexican drug gangs. Last month a court in San Antonio convicted Marciano Milan Vasquez, 34, of 29 brutal murders, including that of a 6-year-old girl he hacked to death in front of her parents. Vasquez was an assassin for the dreaded Los Zetas gang, which used him and the terror he spread to cow rivals and opponents and to seize control of northern Mexico.
Organized crime, of course, doesn’t have a monopoly on cruelty. In Chapter 17 of “The Prince,” Niccolo Machiavelli recommends it to rulers as well. Given a binary choice, he wrote, “it is much safer to be feared than loved,” but only if the ruler doesn’t get carried away. He should take care not to be hated, Machiavelli noted, which in 16th century Florence meant that he should stay away from his citizens’ property and wives. “Men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony,” Machiavelli noted.
Donald Trump has never shied away from getting his hands on other men’s real estate or, if you recall the famous audio recording that was made public in October 2016, their wives. As far as we know, however, he has refrained from crossing Machiavelli’s two red lines since he entered the White House six months ago. Nonetheless, his cruelty was on full display this week and it could very well bring the hatred that many Americans feel toward him to a critical mass. What’s worse, from his perspective, the public’s disapproval of the president could soon engulf at least some of the Republican lawmakers in Congress as well as the outer limits of his hitherto loyal base.
Trump’s most egregious offense, in the jaundiced eyes of his GOP colleagues, is his assault on U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who gave up his job as a U.S. senator from Alabama in order to serve in Trump’s cabinet. The president’s daily barrage of demeaning tweets this week about his beleaguered attorney general being too weak to prosecute Hillary Clinton and about his ill-advised recusal preventing him from defusing the investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia finally sparked a mini-intifada by conservative lawmakers who either criticized Trump in public or begged the White House in private to get him to desist. Unfortunately, most of them the legislators were less rattled by Trump’s public complaint that his top law officer hadn’t “protected the president” by shutting down former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s investigation of his ties to Russia than they were by the possibility that Sessions would be removed before he could stop illegal immigrants or curtail minority rights. All were genuinely appalled, however, by Trump’s cruel and unusual disregard for his most loyal soldier, who stood by his side when no one else thought he had any chance of winning.
Their shock, by the way, is shocking in and of itself. For some reason, they apparently believed that President Trump would abandon the taunt-and-slur strategy that had done wonders for Candidate Trump. Perhaps they deluded themselves that Trump would refrain from biting the conservative hand that had fed him. They inexplicably assumed that Sessions’ loyalty would spare him the trials and tribulations suffered by Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Disgusting John Kasich, Little Marco Rubio, Stupid Rick Perry, Low-Energy Jeb Bush, Ugly Carly Fiorina, Child Molester Ben Carson, Crazy Rand Paul, Idiot Lindsey Graham and so on and so forth, but a small sample of the mud Trump slung at his own party’s faces, much less his Democratic rivals.
American public opinion was no less taken aback by Trump’s unexpected announcement that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve in the U.S. military. It seems that some Republican lawmakers had made their support for Trump’s famous wall — the one Mexico was supposed to pay for — conditional on the withdrawal of federal funding for medical care required by transgender service members. Trump, for some reason, decided to make a mountain out of this molehill and to bar future military service by transgender people altogether. It came as such a surprise to the Pentagon and the military that they made clear on Thursday that they were not privy to the decision and that for now, nothing will change.
Nonetheless, with just three tweets Trump succeeded in casting fear and doubt on the entire transgender community, of which several thousand individuals are estimated to serve in the U.S. military. He enraged the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, shocked liberals and Democrats and caused even a conservative GOP senator such as Utah’s Orrin Hatch to publicly dissociate himself from Trump’s decision. Although many Trump voters may dislike transgender people, they won’t necessarily feel comfortable with Trump’s sudden decision to isolate and castigate them either.
Some analysts of Trump’s anti-transgender decision suggested that he was trying to shift attention away from the Russia investigation or from the Republicans’ ongoing failure to gain Senate approval for a law that would repeal or replace Obamacare. Others said he was throwing some raw meat to his reactionary base in order to keep it loyal. It seemed strikingly similar to a concurrent effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lurch as far to the right as possible, including calls to close the Israeli offices of Al Jazeera; the public expression of support for the execution of the terrorist who killed three Israelis in the settlement of Halamish last Friday and, reportedly, an offer to annex areas in the West Bank, all in an effort to defuse criticism of what is seen on the Israeli right as Netanyahu’s shameful capitulation over metal detectors at the Temple Mount.
Nonetheless, Trump’s declaration of intent on transgender service members stands out for its callousness and cruelty. It was based on bogus assumptions that their service hampers the military’s fighting abilities and on ridiculous assertions about the annual cost of their medical care, which is far less than what Trump has spent on playing golf since taking office. More ominously, Trump zeroed in on one of the most vulnerable groups in society, which is constantly under assault, for no apparent rhyme or reason. He threw trans people to the dogs on a whim, as if he were a caesar lusting to see some blood in the Colosseum. Just as he exploited right-wing hatred for Muslims during his election campaign, as president he is using widespread fear and suspicion of transgender individuals as a political ploy. If he can do it to Muslims and trans people, there’s no reason on earth to believe he would spare lesbians, gays, Asians, African-Americans or Jews in the future.
Even when one avoids comparisons to the Third Reich, it’s hard not to see that Trump’s behavior resembles that of an unrestrained authoritarian ruler more closely than it does a levelheaded president of the world’s greatest democracy. The chaos that surrounds him, in which no one can really know if they’re coming, staying or going, may be interpreted as a sign of weakness but it also leaves Trump as the only source of authority and power. His ability to circumvent Congress and public opinion and to shame and terrorize a group that is already persecuted will send fear into the hearts of other minorities, who could face the same fate. Trump’s impulsiveness and capriciousness provide the element of total arbitrariness that is a cornerstone of any potential totalitarian regime.
It’s true that the courts, the media and some in Congress have opposed and challenged Trump, but time is not on their side. The appointment of conservative Neil Gorsuch to the bench means the Supreme Court won’t stop Trump. The media may be flourishing, but Trump’s harangues are constantly eroding what remains of public trust in genuine journalism. And the Republican Party, even if it has stood up to him when he put one of their own in his sights, is a full partner to his plans to burn down the house altogether.
In the final analysis, there is a common denominator to the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare, even at the cost of depriving millions of Americans of health insurance, and to the unrelenting campaigns to retract rights granted in recent years to disadvantaged minorities — as witnessed in Wednesday’s statement by the Justice Department that federal law does not ban discrimination against LGBT workers — and Trump’s shameful disregard for the feelings of groups and individuals, from his closest supporters to the weakest links in American society. Whether it is a byproduct of earnestly held ideologies or of self-centered vanity that is as old as humanity itself, its name is cruelty.
The apt saying that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” is attributed, apparently erroneously, to the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke, who supported American independence from the British. No less pertinent, however, are Burke’s actual words in a 1791 letter to a member of the French National Assembly who had protested Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution. Laying down a formula by which one could judge whether a society is worthy of civil liberty, Burke wrote: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Trump certainly does not meet Burke’s criteria. His Republican colleagues might also fail the test and Netanyahu and his ministers, in their present state of mind, cannot be said to be in control of their “will and appetite.” As many Israelis say today about the late Menachem Begin and the current Likud party, Burke, considered the father of modern conservatism, would be hard put to find his place in a Republican Party that voted for Trump and, despite knowing what a danger he poses, continues to support him nonetheless.