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‘American democracy is under attack’: Sanders urges vigilance against Trump’s ‘authoritarianism’

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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said the United States has been slipping toward authoritarianism under President Trump and that citizens have an “enormous obligation” to protect American freedom.

The runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination last year delivered his scathing critique of the administration in a speech Thursday morning discussing the threat of authoritarianism in both the U.S. and other countries.

“Under President Trump, our country is moving in an authoritarian direction and the very nature of American democracy is under attack,” Sanders said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Before outlining why he thinks Trump is leading the U.S. toward authoritarianism, Sanders criticized the new health care bill unveiled by Senate Republicans Thursday morning. The draft bill they plan to bring to a vote as early as next week is the latest move in Republicans’ seven-year effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and remove the taxes it imposes on high-income individuals.

“I am unalterably opposed to the Trump-Republican health care plans. The plan has passed in the House, as you know, and was just released a few minutes ago in the Senate. I’m going to do everything that I can to defeat the Trump-Ryan health care proposal, but that should not be a shock to anybody,” Sanders said.

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Sanders, who supports universal health care, acknowledged that his Republican counterparts have significant policy disagreements on these serious issues, but said there is one fundamental issue upon which there should be no debate.

“And that is, no matter what our political view — whether we are progressives, conservatives or moderates — we must do everything that we can to preserve American democracy and oppose the current drift toward authoritarianism that I believe President Trump represents.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-VT, speaks during a discussion with Sarah Chayes, senior fellow at CEIP's Democracy and Rule of Law Program on threats to democracy at The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on June 22, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mandel NganAFP/Getty Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks with Sarah Chayes, senior fellow at CEIP’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program, on threats to democracy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on June 22, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mandel NganAFP/Getty Images)

In Sanders’ assessment, no other president in U.S. history has told as many “outrageous and blatant lies” as Donald Trump has — to delegitimize the country’s electoral system.

He said there’s no evidence to back Trump’s assertion that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally in the last election, but that making this claim sent a message to Republican governors to accelerate efforts to suppress the votes of minorities, poor people, senior citizens and young people.

According to Sanders, Trump’s rhetoric also preemptively casts doubt on the results of any future election he might lose — delegitimizing any president who succeeds him. He also reminded listeners that Trump was the principal spokesman for the so-called birther movement based on the “vicious and racist lie” that former President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and therefore not eligible to be president.

Sanders took issue with Trump’s mischaracterization of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s response to a recent terrorist attack to promote his controversial travel ban and his routine vilification of journalists as “scum,” “horrible” and “lying, disgusting people.”

“When Trump claims that all of mainstream media is ‘fake news,’ not to be believed, what does that say to the average American?” Sanders said.

Back in January, when Trump’s lie about his inauguration crowd size was a major story, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said, “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

Sanders said that this mindset that only the president can be trusted for the truth suggests something very dark for the future of democracy, and that the Founding Fathers protected the press in the Bill of Rights because a “well-informed citizenry is necessary for democracy to function correctly.”

He said Trump’s outbursts at judges are not simply “temper tantrums” but a blatant disregard for the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution — attempts to delegitimize a coequal branch of government so it cannot constrain his power.

“On the campaign trail he attacked a federal judge’s impartiality because of his ethnic background. And as president he attacked the federal judge who blocked his immigration executive order, referring to him as a ‘so-called judge.’ What is even more alarming was Donald Trump’s insistence that the judiciary itself did not have the power to even review his immigration orders,” he said.

Sanders said it’s particularly strange that Trump attacks nearly everyone — from Democrats and Republicans to business leaders and beauty queens — but has nothing but kind words for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and other authoritarian leaders.

“Frankly, I know that many Americans are scratching their heads, really trying to figure out why Trump has such an affinity for President Putin, a man who has severely repressed democracy in his own country, has spent the last number of years trying to destabilize democracy in countries throughout the world and obviously in the United States in the 2016 elections,” he said.

From Sanders’ perspective, this drift toward authoritarianism and a resurgence of resentment and bigotry is not limited to the United States — it’s happening throughout the world.

“Our duty is to respect our Constitution and to strengthen our democracy, not to undermine it,” Sanders said.

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