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By Thom Hartmann —

The most amazing thing about Donald Trump’s current criminal trial is that it is happening at all. He has told us that if he becomes president he’s going to change our country in a way that such a trial could never be possible again.

There will be absolute immunity for Trump and his cronies, as he will argue before the Suprem Court on April 25. No person aligned with him will ever be prosecuted again. Just like in Hungary, Russia, Iran, Turkey, or China.

Those countries are all run by strongman, the men Trump openly admires and aspires to be. As does Netanyahu.

The irony about strongman leaders is that they’re generally not strong people. They use violence and the rhetoric of violence to mask their own fear and weakness, but, like the guy spinning plates on sticks, they know they’re always just one slip-up away from the whole thing crashing down around them.

I first saw the consequences of strongman rule when I went into Uganda with a German international relief agency just a few months after Idi Amin had fled to Saudi Arabia, where that dictatorship had given him a mansion for himself and his 30 or so wives and concubines.

We brought in food and medicine to deal with the famine in the Karamoja region that his policies and the Tanzanian war of liberation had brought, all while trying to avoid being killed by the partisans he’d left behind.

This is what authoritarian leaders always do: while pillaging their countries for their own benefit, they elevate their crooked oligarch buddies and build alliances of mutual dependence with the most powerful people in the political and business classes.

Like Trump getting funding from Russians and putting corrupt billionaires in his cabinet whose colleagues are now, in turn, funding his campaign; or Ivanka getting millions in patents from China; or Jared Kushner sucking up to a murderous Saudi prince and walking away with $2 billion months later.

The strongman oligarch Vladimir Putin has extracted tens of billions from his own country on behalf of himself and his cronies. When Russian oligarchs get out of line, they fall out of windows or flee to Israel, the most common destination for corrupt Russian billionaires.

Along those lines, Benjamin Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust for allegedly exchanging billions in regulatory relief for an Israeli media billionaire who, in turn, showered him with favorable coverage.

And now, after meeting with envoys from the United Kingdom and Germany, and hearing President Biden ask him to “take the win,” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu says, essentially, that he is reserving the option to violently respond to Iran’s most recent provocation. War only strengthens his hand domestically.

In Iran, that country’s Mullahs have made themselves and their families into billionaires as they turned their country into a police state. They hang onto power, like Putin, with a reign of terror against their own people.

Here, Donald Trump put the White House and regulatory relief up for sale, then brought allegedly corrupt billionaires and multimillionaires like Wilbur RossElaine Chao, and Betsy DeVos into his cabinet where they were able to leverage their newfound political power to advance their own pet interests.

He promises, if re-elected, to turn America into a police state on day one by declaring a national emergency and giving himself dictatorial powers.

Putin is now trying to steal the resources of Ukraine, the largest democracy in Europe; Trump wants to finish the job he started of turning America into what Fareed Zacharia (and Viktor Orbán) call an “illiberal democracy.” Iran’s Mullahs and Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu are engaged in symbiotic high-stakes mutual violations of international law to hang onto power.

This sort of thing has been going on for centuries, and doesn’t always lead to war, although in every case a strongman government will steal everything they can and leave the nation’s people impoverished.

For example, I was in Manilla for that same international relief agency and got bumped off my Philippines Airlines flight home five days in a row because Ferdi Marcos, his family, and his cronies had commandeered every plane to Hawaii or Los Angeles for almost a week as they fled that island nation after stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down. Their morbidly rich son now runs the country.

Marcos was desperate to hang onto power; he had one of his main political opponents assassinated as he was returning to the country, a la Alexei Navalny. But, unlike Putin, Netanyahu, and the Iranian Mullahs, Marcos didn’t have a big enough military or a convenient “enemy” to crank up a war to stay in power.

Strongman leaders are notorious for starting unnecessary wars to solidify their own power when it appears to be softening.

I also saw this dynamic when I worked in South Sudan on the Darfur border as Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was facing domestic economic and political problems. To distract his people, he let loose the Janjaweed on unarmed Darfurians. Today the wreckage of al-Bashir’s rule is shocking the world as an estimated 18 million Sudanese are facing famine.

This is often also true of wannabee strongmen: witness Margaret Thatcher’s 1982 war over the Falklands, which inspired Reagan to do the same with Grenada 13 months before his 1984 re-election contest against Walter Mondale.

Even George W. Bush got into the act. In 1999, he told his biographer, Mickey Herskowitz, that he was going to start a war with Iraq if he became president because it would increase his chances of having a “successful presidency.” Presumably he meant that to include his re-election in 2004, and he was right, although America paid for it with $8 trillion in treasure and over 7,000 American lives.

Which brings us to today’s conflict with Iran and Israel, the most recent iteration of which started when Netanyahu broke international law (and failed to inform the US) by bombing the Iranian sovereign territory of their consulate in Syria.

Iran retaliated last weekend with a missile and drone attack that Israel and allies (including the US) easily shot out of the air.

President Biden is reported to have concerns that Netanyahu wants to draw America into a larger conflict between Israel and Iran; as Mairav Zonszein, senior Israel analyst with the International Crisis Group, noted for Foreign Policy in an article titled Why Israel-Iran War Is a Lifeline for Netanyahu:

“[T]he strike and Iranian retaliation have had a clear upside for Israel, reducing its growing diplomatic isolation—at least from Western capitals—and offering a lifeline to Netanyahu specifically.”

As is so often the case when corrupt strongman leaders — in this case the Iranian Mullahs and Netanyahu — find themselves weakened they turn to war to rally their nations around them. The fallout of that, though, is that thousands or even millions of innocent lives are lost in the process.

The Biden administration has now informed Netanyahu — presumably to prevent him from pursuing the same sort of all-out-war policy against Iran that he just inflicted on Gaza — that the US won’t back direct retaliatory attacks on Iran.

(Yes, Israel was attacked by Iran-backed Hamas first; as President Biden has pointed out, that does not justify slaughtering civilians with indiscriminate 2000 pound “dumb bombs.”)

Nonetheless, until the autocratic leaders of both nations are replaced with less corrupt small-d democrats, the danger of regional war that could drag America and other countries in the region into a larger conflagration continues to exist.

Without exception, when authoritarian leaders come to power — whether it be by election or violent overthrow — the “little people” suffer, be it from theft, corruption, war or all three. This was the great lesson of the 1930s that, as history rhymes, the world is learning anew.

Hopefully, Israel will soon return to its democratic roots with new elections, Ukraine will get the aid it needs to repel Putin’s army, and America will turn away from Trump’s authoritarian siren’s song. If not, the world is in for a period of pain like we haven’t seen in four generations.

Source: The Hartmann Report


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.