Destroyed By Madness?

Tom Sullivan of the Hullabaloo blog summarizes. Quote:

… The trend lines were there — from the Birchers and Goldwater to Nixon and the Southern Strategy, from the parallel rise of the Christian right and movement conservatism, to Reagan, to “Rush Rooms” and the Gingrich revolution, and from birtherism to climate denialism to Trumpish authoritarianism.

It is quaint to think George W. Bush’s tax cuts, malapropisms, and war cabinet once seemed the apotheosis of the conservative project. The momentum of that project would carry the right’s explosive-laden artillery shell beyond its intended liberal targets. Plutocrats would get their tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks, but at risk of bringing the shining city on the hill’s walls down around them and us…

The movement conservative leaders thought they had built upon a philosophy of lower taxes and small government was simply a facade. Their own internal polling told them their voters had no interest in it. The culture wars the party fueled as a useful tool in advancing their donors’ objectives was their base voters’ true philosophy:

This would seem to confirm the conclusions that liberals have long harbored. The Republican Party’s political elite is obsessed with cutting taxes for the wealthy, but it recognizes the lack of popular support for its objectives and is forced to divert attention away from its main agenda by emphasizing cultural-war themes. The disconnect between the Republican Party’s plutocratic agenda and the desires of the electorate is a tension it has never been able to resolve, and as it has moved steadily rightward, it has been evolving into an authoritarian party.

The party’s embrace of Trump is a natural, if not inevitable, step in this evolution. This is why the conservatives who presented Trump as an enemy of conservative-movement ideals have so badly misdiagnosed the party’s response to Trump. The most fervently ideological conservatives in the party have also been the most sycophantic: Ryan, Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, Mick Mulvaney, the entire House Freedom Caucus. They embraced Trump because Trumpism is their avenue to carry out their unpopular agenda.

… As dead as irony is in the Age of Trump, the irony remaining is how a movement in reaction to the social transformations of the 1960s now mirrors, and in many ways exceeds, the worst excesses of which it accused civil rights “communists” and long-haired hippies with their drugs and godless “moral relativism.”

Now it is the Republican base addicted to drugs, looking for an angry fix, and making obeisance to a false prophet as the party’s elite grovel for a seat at his right hand. What conservatives need now is not pundits or preachers, but poets.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …”

End quote. 

Or psychiatrists. Anyway, he’s being poetic. He knows they weren’t the best minds to begin with.

It Isn’t Unbelievable. It’s Happening.

I mean, it’s unbelievable. I think members of the Republican Party are in a coma right now, is what I think. And at some point they’ll wake up and say, What’s happened? [Laughs] And then we’re going to tell them, and they’re going to go, Really?

The interviewer: Is it a coma because of their allegiance to President Trump? 

There’s a tribal instinct, and a willingness to only absorb that that supports what you currently think. Anything that is dissonant information should be rejected. And I think it’s true for both political parties, to be honest with you.

That’s John Kasich, former congressman and governor of Ohio, being interviewed in The Washington Post. He’s one of the few well-known Republican politicians willing to criticize the Abominable President.

To be honest, Kasich isn’t being honest at all.

We know that today’s Republicans are wide awake. They know they’re supporting a would-be dictator, because the evidence is so obvious. From Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian:

Put simply, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation is behaving like an authoritarian dictator, one who threatens democracy in his own country and far beyond.

Mr. Freedland admits that the president’s buffoonish behavior is a major distraction, but goes on to cite his demonization of a vulnerable minority, which has led to “breaking up families [and] caging children in hot, fetid, disease-ridden camps”; his blatant profiteering from the presidency; his desire to create “a hereditary dynasty” (as if his daughter truly belongs among the world’s leaders); his fawning over murderous, overseas “strongmen”; his obstruction of justice; his stunning dishonesty…. The list goes on and on and on. Yet professional journalists continue to treat him with respect.

I have no doubt that most Republicans would fall in line behind a competent would-be dictator, as long as they believed he would guarantee their hold on power and they wouldn’t face retribution if democracy were restored. They are quite comfortable with authoritarianism.

Secondly, it simply isn’t true that “both sides” are the same. Kasich’s knee-jerk “both sides do it” recklessly minimizes how extreme the Republican Party has become. It’s been shown that people on the left get their news from a wider variety of sources, including what is now called the “mainstream” or “reality-based” media. We are also less likely to follow a leader. In fact, one recent study places the Republican Party (the red circle) at the extreme right among the world’s political parties. The Democrats (the blue circle) are much closer to the middle.

Untitled

John Kasich is sometimes asked about running for president in order to give Republicans an alternative to the incumbent. It’s unlikely he’ll do so because he doesn’t think he would win. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi thinks the president should be in jail, but won’t start an impeachment inquiry because she doesn’t think the Republican Senate would convict him. Digby Parton of the Hullabaloo blog sums it up:

Our history is replete with ugliness. Progress has been made in fits and starts. But we are going backwards at warp speed at the moment. People with the worst impulses of the American psyche are in power and they are out of control.

We are quickly becoming a global pariah. And for good reason.

She then tells about a lawyer born in Iran who has lived in Germany for 40 years and is a German citizen, who was denied a visa to attend the funeral of his son, a student who died in a car crash in America, where his mother lives. The German lawyer was approved for a 10-year long visa when Obama was president. This month he was denied entry by U.S. officials, who decided, based on no evidence, that he was using his son’s death to immigrate to America. She continues:

Meanwhile, we are putting little children in cages and leaving them in dirty diapers without enough to eat. 

The president says they should decide not to come to America and then this wouldn’t happen to them. Basically, he’s punishing babies and children for the actions of their parents. 

And his followers — tens of millions of our fellow Americans — are applauding that sadistic policy. 

Yet the leaders of the opposition appear to be completely impotent…. They’re coasting — while the country hurtles backwards. 

Congress’s main phone number is (202) 224-3121.

How Much Respect Do Authoritarians Deserve?

Someone recommended an article called “Authoritarianism Is Not a Momentary Madness, But an Eternal Dynamic Within Liberal Democracies”. It was written by two psychologists, Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt, and appears in a collection of essays called Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America, edited by Cass Sunstein. I read it. .

The thesis of the article comes in two parts. The first is that roughly one-third of Americans have an “authoritarian” personality. By this, they mean that a certain percentage of human beings consider values like uniformity and obedience to be extremely important.

Authoritarianism inclines one toward attitudes and behaviors … concerned with structuring society and social interactions in ways that enhance sameness and minimize diversity of people, beliefs and behaviors. It tends to produce a characteristic array of … stances, all of which have the effect of glorifying, encouraging and rewarding uniformity and disparaging, suppressing and punishing difference. Since enhancing uniformity and minimizing diversity [affects other people] and requires some control over their behaviors, ultimately these stances involve actual coercion of others (as in driving a black family from the neighborhood) and, more often, demands for the use of group authority (i.e., coercion by the state).

… Authoritarianism is far more than a personal distaste for difference. It becomes a normative worldview about the social value of obedience and conformity (versus freedom and difference), the prudent and just balance between group authority and individual autonomy. This worldview induces bias against different others (racial and ethnic outgroups, immigrants and refugees, radicals and dissidents, moral “deviants”), as well as political demands for authoritative constraints on their behavior. The latter will typically include legal discrimination against minorities and restrictions on immigration, limits on free speech and association, and the regulation of moral behavior (e.g., policies regarding abortion and homosexuality, and their punitive reinforcement) [184-185].

Personally, I don’t think this is an acceptable outlook on life. It sounds misguided, stupid, even immoral.

The authors don’t see it that way. They view the existence of a substantial subset of human beings with this personality type as a fact of life. It’s just the way some people are. One of the authors, Linda Stenner, puts it this way in the first sentence of her book, The Authoritarian Dynamic: “Some people will never live comfortably in a liberal democracy”. By “liberal democracy”, she means a nation like ours, a “nation of immigrants”, in which we, the majority at least, celebrate individual freedoms (as stated, for example in a “Bill of Rights”) and the diversity of our fellow citizens.

This brings me to the second part of the authors’ thesis. They argue that the rest of us should treat the authoritarian minority’s views with more respect.

Democratic enthusiasts and multiculturalists sometimes make the mistake of thinking we are [all] evolving [into] more perfect democratic citizens. This is why the populist “wave” strikes many observers as a momentary madness that “comes out of the blue”, and why the sentiments that seem to fuel these movements are often considered merely the products of frustration, hatred, and manipulation by irresponsible populist leaders — certainly not serious, legitimate preferences that a democracy must attend to.

When authoritarians raise concerns about, say, the rates or sources of immigration, they are not actually saying “I’m scared I might lose my job”, but in fact, “This is making me very uncomfortable and I don’t like where our country is headed”. Moreover, “Nobody will let me say so, and only [this Trump-like figure] is listening to me”. Our sense is that if Trump had not come along, a Trump-like figure would have materialized eventually….

The gleeful reactions of Trump’s supporters to his “strongman” posturing attested to their anger and bitterness regarding the “political correctness” of the “liberal elite”, and the pleasure they seemed to derive from watching someone like “us” finally sticking it to “them” [211-213].

All right. It’s pretty clear that a third of our fellow Americans are uncomfortable living in a liberal democracy and would prefer that more of us looked and behaved like they do. In practical terms, what should the rest of us do about it?

In the case of immigration, the authors suggest that current immigration policy doesn’t take into account that millions of Americans, the authoritarians among us, would prefer less immigration or more tightly-controlled immigration.

If citizens say they’re concerned about the rate of immigration, we ought to at least consider the possibility they they’re concerned about the rate of immigration [and not racists]….Common sense and historical experience tell us that there is some rate of newcomers into any community that is too high to be sustainable… some newcomers are more difficult to integrate than others… some might, accordingly, need to be more carefully selected, or more heavily supported…. Ignoring these issues is not helpful to either the hosts or the newcomers. It is implausible to maintain that the host community can successfully integrate any kind of newcomer at any rate whatsoever, and it is unreasonable to assert that any other suggestion is racist [213-214].

One problem with this paragraph is that hardly anyone, nobody in Congress anyway, maintains that we should allow in “any kind of newcomer at any rate whatsoever”. To claim otherwise is to adopt the Republican lie that Democrats are in favor of “open borders”. The fact is that we already have lots of border security and many restrictions on who can live here. The debate concerns the amount and type of border security and the number of people who should be allowed to immigrate, from which countries, and with which restrictions, as well as what to do with immigrants who don’t have permanent resident status (“green cards”).

Another problem is that the authors suggest there is a golden mean that will be broadly acceptable to the American people, whether they have authoritarian personalities or not: “Frank consideration of these matters is the key to broad acceptance of immigration policy” [214]. It isn’t clear at all that opponents of immigration, especially immigration from the president’s “shithole countries”, would approve of immigration policy that is acceptable to the majority of the population. All authoritarians may not be racists, but a good percentage of them must be. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so uncomfortable with people who are “different”. Seriously, isn’t being uncomfortable with masses of people because they don’t look like you or speak your language a pretty good definition of “racist”. So what kind of immigration policy would be acceptable to the average authoritarian Trump supporter, racist or not, and how would it differ from current policy?

If there is one thing we could do in order to foster broader acceptance of immigration policy, it would be to make the facts about immigration clear to more people. Having a president who constantly lies about immigration and immigrants doesn’t help. Neither does having “news” channels that broadcast those lies over and over. If more people knew how legal immigration works and understood the facts regarding illegal immigration, we might achieve broader approval of immigration policy. But it will never be possible to convince large numbers of people who are made uncomfortable by “difference” that a reasonable immigration policy is a good idea. We should be able to live with that, however, as long as we have elections and our representatives do their jobs.

,

I Want to Wear a Uniform with a Big Hat Too

It’s no surprise that our president is a big fan of military parades. He loved the Bastille Day parade he attended in Paris last year and a similar parade he saw in China. Regarding the latter one, he remarked:

The hosting of the military parade this morning was magnificent, and the world was watching. I’ve already had people calling from all parts of the world. They were all watching. Nothing you can see is so beautiful.

It is now being reported that the president has directed the Pentagon to plan a military parade in Washington. November 11th (Veteran’s Day) has been mentioned as a possible date (although I bet he’ll want to stage it before Election Day, not after).

In response, Major General (Retired) Paul Eaton, an adviser to the progressive organization Vote Vets, issued the following statement:

Donald Trump has continually shown himself to have authoritarian tendencies, and this is another worrisome example.

For someone who just declared it was “treasonous” not to applaud him, and for someone who has, in the past, admired the tactics of everyone from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin, it is clear that a military parade isn’t about saluting the military — it is about making a display of the military saluting him.

The military is not Donald Trump’s to use and abuse in this way. Our military is the very best in the world — they are not to be reduced to stagecraft to prop up Donald Trump’s image. Any commander-in-chief who respects the traditions of the military would understand that.

Unfortunately, we do not have a commander-in-chief right now, as much as we have a wannabe banana republic strongman.

splash_baldwin1-thr_exclusive

It’s only a matter of time.

Things Are Not Getting Better

The news has not been good, leading various journalists to summarize the past few days the way Jamelle Bouie did for Slate:

After months of sustained public criticism from Trump, Andrew McCabe stepped down as deputy director of the FBI. The rationale behind McCabe’s decision is still not entirely known, but there’s little doubt it involves the Russia investigation. In addition to being a verbal target of Trump’s, McCabe had become a bête noire of conservative media, the subject of baroque conspiracies about a “deep state” that is allegedly conspiring against the president….

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a … memo [that] accuses the FBI of abusing its surveillance powers, using partisan opposition research in order to attack Donald Trump’s campaign and undermine his presidency, and singling out officials like McCabe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and former FBI Director James Comey, all targets of Trump and his allies in the GOP and conservative media… Democrats on the committee have called the document a “misleading set of talking points”, and federal law enforcement officials had warned that releasing the memo would be “extraordinarily reckless”….

In the wake of this vote, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee also opened an inquiry into the FBI and the Justice Department… On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his support for both moves, calling for a “cleanse” of the FBI….

What began as Trump venting on Twitter has now become official administration policy, carried out with the blessing of White House aides who were at one time seen as bulwarks against such behavior. Bloomberg reported on a phone call between White House chief of staff John Kelly and senior officials in the Justice Department, where the former conveyed the president’s “displeasure” and reminded them of his expectations, albeit adding that the White House doesn’t expect them “to do anything illegal or unethical”.

To all of this, add the fact that—during this same period of time—President Trump declined to sanction Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election [after Congress voted almost unanimously for new sanctions to be imposed].

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said this about the president’s decision:

Congress voted 517-5 to impose sanctions on Russia. The President decides to ignore that law. Folks, that is a constitutional crisis. There should be outrage in every corner of this country.

There should be, but there hasn’t been. Most of us are suffering from outrage overload.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Bouie wrote about “ICE Unbound”:

[The president has unleashed] the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, giving it broad authority to act at its own discretion. The result? An empowered and authoritarian agency that operates with impunity, whose chief attribute is unapologetic cruelty.

…. The most striking aspect of ICE under this administration has been its refusal to distinguish between law-abiding immigrants, whose undocumented status obscures their integration into American life, and those with active criminal records—the “bad hombres” of the president’s rhetoric.

Erasing that distinction is how we get the arrest and detention of Lukasz Niec, a Polish immigrant and green card holder who was brought to the United States as a young child. Last week, ICE agents arrested Niec …, citing two misdemeanor convictions for offenses committed when he was a teenager… A practicing physician, Niec now sits in a county jail, awaiting possible deportation….

Bouie didn’t mention Amer Othman Adi, a 57-year-old Palestinian who had been in the U.S. since he was 19. A married man with four daughters, he helped revitalize the city of Youngstown by opening several businesses. He was deported to Jordan on Monday night.

It all makes these Twitter thoughts from author G. Willow Wilson worth thinking about:

It may be time to start thinking about how we can effectively push back against authoritarianism once the last of the checks and balances have fallen.

It’s a mistake to think a dictatorship feels intrinsically different on a day-to-day basis than a democracy does. I’ve lived in one dictatorship and visited several others–there are still movies and work and school and shopping and memes and holidays.

The difference is the steady disappearance of dissent from the public sphere. Anti-regime bloggers disappear. Dissident political parties are declared “illegal”. Certain books vanish from the libraries.

The press picks a side. The military picks a side. The judiciary picks a side. This part should already feel familiar.

The genius of a true, functioning dictatorship is the way it carefully titrates justice. Once in awhile it will allow a sound judicial decision or critical op-ed to bubble up. Rational discourse is never entirely absent. There is plausible deniability.

People still have rights, in theory. The right to vote, to serve on a jury, etc. The difference is that they begin to fear exercising those rights. Voting in an election will get your name put on “a list”.

So if you’re waiting for the grand moment when the scales tip and we are no longer a functioning democracy, you needn’t bother. It’ll be much more subtle than that. It’ll be more of the president ignoring laws passed by congress. It’ll be more demonizing of the press.

Until one day we wake up and discover the regime has decided to postpone the 2020 elections until its lawyers are finished investigating something or other. Or until it can ‘ensure’ that the voting process is ‘fair’.

A sizable proportion of the citizenry will support the postponement. Yes, absolutely, we must postpone elections. The opposition is corrupt! Our leader is just trying to protect us! A dictator is never without supporters.

And hey, if we pull ourselves back from the brink and the midterms go ahead and the 2020 election is free and transparent and on time, you are cordially invited to point at me and laugh. Honestly. No one will be happier to be wrong than me.

 

That Was the Year That Was

The title of Michelle Goldberg’s overview of the past year in The New York Times is “The Anniversary of the Apocalypse”. I thought “apocalypse” was too much, but Merriam-Webster says it means “a great disaster”. That’s fair. In what follows, I’ve removed all descriptions of particular offenses:

In the terror-struck and vertiginous days after [the] election a year ago, as I tried to make sense of America’s new reality, I called people who lived, or had lived, under authoritarianism to ask what to expect. I wasn’t looking for concrete predictions — one of the disorienting things about that moment was that no one, no matter how learned, had any idea what was happening — but for insights into how the texture of life changes when an autocratic demagogue is in charge.

A secular Turkish journalist told me, her voice sad and weary, that while people might at first pour into the streets to oppose [him], eventually the protests would probably die out as a sense of stunned emergency gave way to the slog of sustained opposition. The Russian dissident writer Masha Gessen warned that there’s no way, with a leader who lays siege to the fabric of reality, to fully hold on to a sense of what’s normal. “You drift, and you get warped,” she told me.

They were both right. The country has changed in the past year, and many of us have grown numb after unrelenting shocks. What now passes for ordinary would have once been inconceivable….

… this nightmare year has upended assumptions about the durability of the rules, formal and informal, governing our politics. There’s a metaphysical whiplash in how quickly alarm turns into acceptance and then into forgetfulness….

Hannah Arendt once wrote of the role vulgarity played in undermining liberalism in pre-totalitarian societies: “The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability”…. In this administration, crassness has become a weapon, annihilating social codes that once restrained political behavior, signaling that old standards no longer apply.

Lately, the pace of shocks has picked up, even if our capacity to process them has not….In another administration this [take your pick] would have been a major scandal. In this one it barely registers.

How can America ever return from this level of systematic derangement and corruption? I wish there was someone I could ask, but we know more about how countries slide into autocracy than how they might climb out of it. It’s been a year, and sometimes I’m still poleaxed by grief at the destruction of our civic inheritance.

In moments of optimism I think that this is just a hideous interregnum….

Hey, all we have to do is win more elections, like we did tonight in Virginia and New Jersey. Or we could get the opposition to develop a sense of shame. One of those should be manageable.

Authoritarian Americans Have Found Their Authoritarian

From Eric Levitz of New York Magazine:

[DT] won the GOP nomination, and then the presidency, as a different kind of Republican — one who backed radical restrictions to immigration, trade protectionism, infrastructure stimulus, universal health care, a Jacksonian foreign policy that spurned both nation-building and international law, and maintaining Social Security and Medicare at their current benefit levels. In his shambolic, improvisatory way, [he] had articulated a new vision for the American right, one that combined rabid nativism with welfare chauvinism, economic nationalism, and neo-isolationism.

Last night, [he] declared his support for prolonging America’s war in Afghanistan indefinitely. Last week, his administration’s lone proponent of a break with conservative economics was exiled from the White House. Over the last seven months, [the president*] has proven himself a loyal servant of the GOP Establishment’s agenda, as he’s pushed for draconian cuts to entitlement programs that he’d promised to protect; avoided trade wars, while dutifully prosecuting actual ones; let corporate interests dictate regulatory policy; and touted tax cuts for the rich as a panacea for all that ails the American economy….

The president may have abandoned most of his heterodox policy views, but he’s yet to back away from the true core of his political philosophy, a creed that can be summarized in two words: “Trump first.” And given the choice between the House GOP’s movement conservatism and the president’s maniacal narcissism, a lot of Republican voters are picking the latter. As Politico reports:

“Taxes, spending and even health care have taken a back seat to the most potent new litmus test in Republican primaries: allegiance to President Donald Trump.”

“… Loyalty to Trump has quickly become the most potent issue for the Republican base, according to a dozen candidates and strategists immersed in 2018 races. [Perceived disloyalty] has already put Sens. Jeff Flake and Dean Heller under pressure in their states, sparked bickering between GOP candidates in two of Republicans’ top 2018 targets, Indiana and West Virginia, and sunk one candidate running for Alabama’s open Senate seat.”

“… One Republican strategist said polling shows staunch support of Trump is the top attribute primary voters are seeking in candidates right now. At least one-third of GOP primary voters identify themselves as “Trump Republicans” (as opposed to “tea party Republicans” or “mainstream Republicans”) in state after state, according to internal polling conducted by a Republican group, with that number reaching 40 percent in some states.”

One could argue that most “Trump Republicans” root their political identity in an ideological stance — specifically, support for nativism. Immigration has always been the mogul’s signature issue, and one that genuinely divides the GOP’s “elites” from its grassroots.

But in Republican primaries this year, debates over loyalty to Trump have often been divorced from all policy questions, with candidates touting fealty to the president’s cult of personality as a defining value, in itself. 

They like him. They really like him. The minority of Americans who want a “strong leader” above all else, a President who will anger, punish or kill their perceived enemies – or at least promise to in “strong language” – have found their object of devotion. They won’t be argued out of their loyalty, even when he fails to deliver on his promises. When he fails, he will see it as the work of his enemies. That’s exactly how his devoted followers, the authoritarian minority among us, will see it too.