Democracy & Government

America the Banana Republic

Thanks to Trump the tinhorn dictator and those who elected him, this country is no longer a beacon of freedom, but a laughingstock.

America the Banana Republic

President Donald Trump speaks to the media during a meeting with congressional leadership in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Nov. 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

When people call Donald Trump an authoritarian, it almost gives him more credit than he deserves.

You don’t think favorably of authoritarians; they are despicable. But you do think of them as monstrously large, grievously terrifying, as somehow taking the measure of the polity they control and drawing on its stature to puff themselves up, even as they destroy their nation’s moral core. Despots like Mussolini and Hitler epitomized evil on the grandest possible scale. To call them clowns would trivialize the unconscionable horrors they inflicted.

Trump is certainly an authoritarian, but he is more of a tinhorn dictator, a tiny, negligible man who, rather than inflating himself with the nation’s grandeur, has managed to deflate the nation with his own insipidness. Thanks to him, America is now a banana republic. It is no longer a country of soaring ideas and idealism, a beacon to the world, an example of freedom at home and a protector of freedom abroad, an anchor of sanity in a world often bouncing on the waves of madness.

Whatever her failings, America was once majestic. Now she is hopelessly diminished — a wealthier version of the corrupt nations in the developing world that we used to ridicule. And we owe it all to Donald Trump for making America small again.

The meme of America withering into a banana republic is not a new one. Some observers made the claim after the 2000 presidential election, when Republicans successfully wrested the presidency from Al Gore, just the way cabals do in those banana republics. And it was toted out again in 2008 during the great financial meltdown when the economy was revealed to be not some great dynamo but a façade hiding a giant swindle, banana republic style. Citing the inability of the congressional Republicans to do anything but dither in the face of crisis, Paul Krugman called us a “banana republic with nukes.”

In Vanity Fair, the late Christopher Hitchens was more expansive. He enumerated the many ways in which America, the last great hope of mankind, had become a banana republic — primarily the way the government was willing to bail out the oligarchs while letting the general public suffer.

Hitchens wrote:

The chief principle of banana-ism is that of kleptocracy, whereby those in positions of influence use their time in office to maximize their own gains, always ensuring that any shortfall is made up by those unfortunates whose daily life involves earning money rather than making it.

Hitchens added that there is absolutely no accountability for the thieves. This all should sound very familiar this week, as Republicans retool the entire tax system to rob from the poor and middle classes and give to corporations and the wealthy. If that isn’t a banana republic, I don’t know what is.

But Krugman and Hitchens were writing before we had a bona fide banana republic dictator to rule our kleptocracy. And while America long has had the economic and social characteristics of a banana republic, it took Trump, who has the instincts and temperament of a gangster, to finish the transformation. There is no disguising it now. We are what we are.

Tick down the list. If kleptocracy is the hallmark of a banana republic, Trump is the kleptocrat-in-chief. He not only appears to be using the presidency as his own personal ATM, now promoting a tax-cut scam by which he stands to gain tens of millions of dollars, he also has been petty enough to steer business to his hotels and hawked his “Make America Great Again” tchotchkes. Check.

Apparently not satisfied to have enriched himself at the public’s expense, Trump has brought unprecedented nepotism to the presidency in a way that only tinhorn dictators do, giving his family access to the public trough while placing his unqualified cronies in positions of power. In this administration, everyone may be on the take. Check.

Just about every Trump directive, from health care to the environment to so-called tax reform to trade policy, seems expressly designed to give benefits to a small coterie of the wealthiest Americans while the rest of the country goes to hell. There is no longer even the pretense of concealment as there was in the good old days of Republicanism. Sure sounds like a banana republic to me. Check.

Like other tinhorn dictators, Trump has no use for the essentials of democracy.

Like other tinhorn dictators, Trump has no use for the essentials of democracy. He openly attacks a free press and has a house press of his own, Fox News, and soon, quite possibly, Time Inc., the acquisition of which has been partially financed by the Koch brothers. More, there are allegations that he may using the levers of government to punish his press opponents, using the Justice Department’s antitrust suit against the proposed AT&T purchase of Time Warner to try to force the divestment of CNN.

This, too, is unprecedented in an American democracy, but not in a banana republic. Meanwhile, the Voice of America has placed on administrative leave (a reporter whose bias has leaked into his stories and who on the side has been advancing Trump’s right-wing agenda and casting racial epithets at others in the media. Check.

Trump has taken aim at the electoral process itself, not only claiming that his loss of the popular vote was a fraud, but empaneling a government commission whose sole purpose is thought to be the disenfranchisement of voters who might oppose him. This is pure banana republicanism and an affront to democracy. Check.

Banana republics are often agent states — that is, they operate at the behest of larger states. In fact the phrase “banana republic” first was coined by the writer O. Henry back in 1904, to describe the dependence of Central American countries on American businesses like United Fruit, which ran plantations in those countries and exported bananas.

Now, America itself is one of those agent states, thanks to Trump’s troubling obeisance to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Let’s not pretend otherwise just so we can save some face. There is no more face to save. American elections interfered with by Russia and a president intimidated by a Russian dictator? Check.

In banana republics, ideology is nothing, policy is nothing, ethics are nothing. Power is everything. Trump is notoriously nonideological. He has no policies or any interest in them. His sole desire is to feed his own inflated ego. In this, he stands with other banana republic potentates. Check.

Tinhorn dictators do everything they can to dismantle a system of checks and balances. Trump has done everything in his power to do the same.

Tinhorn dictators do everything they can to dismantle a system of checks and balances. Trump has done everything in his power to do the same — from dismissing FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating Trump, intimidating the Justice Department and taking over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to…. well, you name it. Untrammeled power is his goal. Check.

In a banana republic, power is concentrated in the hands of one man or a small coterie. Trump has been openly contemptuous of any delegation of authority, even calling himself the “only one that matters,” which is dictator talk, not the talk of a democratically elected chief.

What’s more, he actively has worked to damage any countervailing authorities, essentially gutting the entire diplomatic corps, to cite just one example. Check.

In a banana republic, the dictator makes his own rules and lives by his own reality. Clearly, Trump thinks he is above the law, be it legal or moral. He boasts of it. He also is above fact. The latest example of the thousands of his presidency: According to The New York Times, he privately has declared that the Access Hollywood tape was not actually him! Banana republic time. Check.

And last but not least, there is the tragi-comic state itself — a kind of laughingstock of governance. America has joined that company of buffoonish nations that keep tripping over their own feet. By one account, when Trump took his first world tour in May, other leaders were aghast at Trump’s ineptitude. One foreign expert commented on how “rapidly the American brand is depreciating over the last 20 weeks.” Check.

Donald Trump has demeaned himself, but he has also demeaned the country that was deranged enough to elect him. These characteristics speak to a corrupt and desiccated nation, one that is staggering into oblivion.

The “alt-right” insist that until Trump, America was going the way of Rome — rotting from the inside. They are wrong. It is not decadence that is destroying America, but petulance. We are going not the way of Rome but the way of Guatemala or Zimbabwe or the Philippines — the way of banana republics. Thus does this once great nation tumble.

Check and double check.

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, TIME magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.