It sounds like the plot of a horror movie, the tropical paradise transforming into an island mortuary. In Puerto Rico, starving and disease-ridden U.S. citizens eat plants and drink water from toxic waste sites. The President of the United States, who pelted them with paper towels a week before, denies them adequate food, water, and medicine and complains about the aid he grudgingly provides.
But that is the reality of Trump’s America, a burgeoning autocracy moving into an accelerated phase of repression; a regime with seemingly no coherent geopolitical strategy beyond a callous and cavalier attitude toward human life. From the near abandonment of Puerto Rico to brash flirtations with nuclear war to the zombie-like revivals of healthcare bills that may lead to thousands or millions of preventable illnesses or even deaths, the reality TV president’s term is feeling more and more like Survivor, with the American public wondering who will be targeted next.
Indeed, the presidency of Donald Trump has prompted many questions with which the American public has never before contended. “To which country does the president’s greatest loyalty lie?” is one, as Trump ignores his Russian sanctions bill and a federal inquiry into his Russian ties rolls on. “Is the president dangerously mentally unstable?” is another, one that 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts ponder in a damning and unprecedented evaluation.
But the main question Americans would do well to ask is “How many different ways can this president put our lives in danger? And why is no one stopping him?”
When San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz accused President Trump of risking a genocide of Puerto Ricans, she was chastised for hysteria and exaggeration–but given the dire situation in the U.S. territory and Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for rescuing the Puerto Rican people, this outcome is not an unreasonable fear. The waiver of the Jones Act–which allowed faster delivery of emergency supplies–has expired, and President Trump has tweeted that FEMA cannot indefinitely extend their stay in Puerto Rico (they actually can) while implying that the territory doesn’t deserve aid because of its debt crisis, ignoring that the current humanitarian disaster was caused by Hurricane Maria. Today he went so far as to whine that the military shouldn’t have to distribute food to famished people–even as Puerto Rican morgues overflow and experts fear that the poor sanitation conditions on the island will soon lead to serious health epidemics.
Trump and his GOP backers seem determined to keep us citizens as uninformed of such crises as possible. From its first days, the administration of “alternative facts” has been hindering scientists from releasing research and storing data. Now it is blocking accurate information about the conditions in Puerto Rico from reaching the public, about how many people have electricity or food, and perhaps even the death toll. More than 1.2 million people are stranded on the island without drinkable water. Tens of thousands have been able to flee Puerto Rico, a great many with no clear plan for returning to their homeland. According to the U.S. government dozens are dead, with many more people still unaccounted for. But according to journalists, that number may be much higher.
As the U.S. suffers record natural disasters that will surely only worsen thanks to our warming planet, research on climate change is being censored by the government, a move which prompted the Centre for Biological Diversity to sue to get it released. And as white supremacist movements and xenophobia rise nationwide and initiatives like DACA come under threat, the Trump administration is withholding data on its crackdown on undocumented immigrants and the fate of those rounded up.
This denial of vital information is typical of authoritarian regimes, and several recent actions of the Trump administration follow the autocratic playbook. Never a friend of the First Amendment, Trump has grown increasingly aggressive in his attacks on the free press, calling for outlets he dislikes to be stripped of their licenses (not that Americans are required to obtain licenses in order to perform journalism) and targeting reporters who criticize him, like ESPN’s Jemele Hill.
Meanwhile, congressional underfunding is delaying the economic census, an important tool for both small and large companies. But there’s no sign that Trump, the self-proclaimed great champion of business, is concerned. From my perspective, why should he be? Poor public data has historically helped dictators dodge accountability and shape policies around invented facts. It is not surprising that the general 2020 population census is under threat as well.
Since January, the U.S. has been at the crossroads of a damaged democracy and a burgeoning autocracy. It is now moving more quickly toward the latter, buoyed by the boldness of Trump’s proclamations, the chaos caused by multiple climate emergencies, and, most of all, the inaction of Congress. He can be stopped: There are multiple articles of impeachment on the table, ranging from violating emoluments to high crimes and misdemeanors. There is also the specter of the 25th amendment, in which high-ranking officials can rule that the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
There are ways out–ways that may avert World War III and lessen the suffering of millions of Americans coping with inadequate healthcare, natural disasters, or assaults on their civil rights. But the first step to even keeping those options on the table is preserving our ability to talk about them, and making those conversations as transparent as possible.
We need more public hearings, not secret bills, as we had with the TrumpCare fiasco. The content of any bill should be shared with the American public and shared and debated with potential partisan opponents of the bill, as has traditionally been government practice and which has stopped under an increasingly secretive GOP.
We need candid assessments from Congress on Trump’s capacity to lead–like the blunt assessment of Senator Bob Corker–not weasel words that will prove irrelevant if the mushroom cloud hits. We need unified support around members of the press who are attacked, and protection of data that is being censored. We need to treat Trump as a public servant, not a king, and never accept his inhumanity as normal. There is a difference between expecting autocracy and accepting it. The former will help protect you, the latter is a preemptive surrender of freedom for which we can and must still fight.
America is in decline, and in order to reverse that decline, it must be documented and discussed. One cannot solve a crisis without confronting it–but one cannot confront a crisis if proof of its existence is censored or warnings of its severity are waved away. That is what the Trump administration wants, and it is in the interest of all Americans to make sure they do not get it.
Sarah Kendzior is a journalist and scholar of authoritarian states.