Tag Archives: Authoritarianism

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. 

It’s Getting Worse, But A Few Republicans Could Make a Big Difference

The Washington Post reported last night that the President and his henchmen have been discussing his authority to grant pardons for members of his administration, his associates, his family members and even for himself, should any of them be at risk of criminal prosecution for a Federal crime. They are also discussing ways to interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation into the President’s Russian connection. The President is especially concerned that Mueller is reportedly examining DT’s tangled finances.

In a bizarre interview with The New York Times, the President left open the possibility that he might fire the special counsel if Mueller’s investigation goes too far, even though Mueller is authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump”, as well as other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation” (remember how an investigation into an Arkansas land deal led to questions about sex in the Oval Office?). 

Two observers drew the same scary conclusion from these reports. Brian Beutler of The New Republic writes:

The loud hum of chaos and spectacle engulfing the Trump administration is drowning out a creeping reality: We are on the brink of an authoritarian crisis that will make the firing of FBI Director James Comey seem quaint in hindsight.

In a more rule-bound environment, Mueller’s interest in opening Trump’s books would probably be checkmate for the president. Quite apart from the question of whether his campaign conspired with Russian intelligence to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it is widely suspected that a peek under the hood of the Trump organization will reveal serious financial crimes. Assuming that informed speculation is correct, and assuming our system of checks hasn’t broken down, Mueller would uncover the wrongdoing and bring down a president, or Trump would fire Mueller and Congress would step in to edge Trump out.

But at the moment there are no reliable sources of accountability. None.

Republicans have given every indication over the course of the past several months that no malfeasance, no matter how naked and severe, will impel them to rein in Trump or impeach him….

Should Trump fire Mueller, with the tacit assent of Republicans in Congress and the [Department of Justice] leadership, there will be little recourse. It is feasible (though difficult) to imagine a [Republican] House and Senate passing an independent counsel statute to restore Mueller to his job; it is nearly impossible to imagine them doing so by veto-proof margins. And should Trump pardon himself and his inner circle, it is dispiritingly easy to imagine Republicans reprising their familiar refrain: The president’s power to pardon is beyond question.

If this crisis unfolds as depicted here, the country’s final hope for avoiding a terminal slide into authoritarianism would be the midterm election, contesting control of a historically gerrymandered House of Representatives. That election is 16 months away. Between now and then, Trump’s DOJ and his sham election-integrity commission will seek to disenfranchise as many Democratic voters as possible, while the president himself beseeches further foreign interference aimed at Democratic candidates. Absent the necessary sweep, everything Trump will have done to degrade our system for his own enrichment and protection will have been ratified, and a point of no return will have been crossed.

Prof. Ruth Ben-Ghiat of New York University writes for CNN that:

Just before Donald Trump took office, I argued that our new President would likely follow the “authoritarian playbook,” an approach toward governance that privileges executive power and makes the leader’s personal goals and needs the focus of his public office. Now, six months later, those predictions have come true….

warned that President Trump would escalate his attacks on the media, disregard political customs and democratic norms, and single out judges or other government employees who might challenge the legality or ethics of his actions.

He is on his way to accomplishing the most important things an authoritarian leader must do to survive over the long term. The strategies that he’s already used effectively will also guide his next phase of rule….

The most important item of the authoritarian’s playbook is this: He is in office not to serve the nation but to protect his own position of power, often enriching himself along the way….

Studies show that once political elites [such as Congressional Republicans] have concluded their deals with authoritarians and signed on publicly, they usually stick with those leaders to the bitter end.

The inauguration was six months ago today. Since then, the issue of creeping authoritarianism hasn’t been talked about much – there have been other, more immediate problems to worry about. In addition, seeing the President in action for six months has confirmed that he’s too stupid, ignorant and lazy to “seize power” in a truly authoritarian way. It seems more likely that the Trump administration will keep reversing progress and generating pain for the next 3 1/2 years, without achieving iron rule. 

But the failure of Congressional Republicans to hold the President accountable in any way is still shocking. There’s polling evidence that the Democrats could take back the House of Representatives in next year’s election, and maybe the Senate, but after reading these articles last night, I began to wonder if there could be a quicker solution. 

In fact, there is. If three Republican senators were to switch parties or declare themselves independents and vote with the Democrats, they could replace the odious Senator Turtle Face (aka Mitchell McConnell), who rules the Senate with a semi-iron hand, with a sensible Democrat. Likewise, although less likely, if 24 Republican members of the House (one-tenth of their total of 240) were to do the same, they could replace the dead-eyed granny-starver, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, with a Democratic colleague.

In fact, the Speaker of the House doesn’t even have to be a member of Congress. They could elect Joe Biden! Or The Rock! Or you! Or me! There’s no need to wait for another national election, since the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House can be replaced at any time by a simple majority vote in their respective houses of Congress.

Just to show I’m not completely off the wall, respected journalist James Fallows posted “Everything Now Hinges on Three Republicans in the Senate” this morning:

By midnight on July 20, 2017, it seemed increasingly likely that Donald Trump will fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Mueller embodies what is admirable in U.S. public service … Donald Trump embodies the reverse.

Yet for now Trump has the legal power, directly or indirectly, to dismiss Mueller, if the investigation gets too close to Trump’s obviously sensitive financial concerns. And Trump himself, unaware of history and oblivious to rules, norms, and constraints, has given every indication that this will be his next step.

What happens then? [Fallows then refers to Brian Beutler’s scary article above.]

There are 52 Americans who have it within their power to prove that dark assessment wrong. Really, it would take a subset of just three of those 52. With the 52-48 current party lineup in the U.S. Senate, a switch of three votes of conscience is all it would take to have this branch of government fulfill its checks-and-balances function.

With three votes, a Senate majority could issue subpoenas and compel sworn testimony from Administration officials. It could empower its own thorough investigation, even re-hiring Robert Mueller to lead it. It could compel Donald Trump to release the tax returns about which he is so evidently nervous. It could act as if America in fact possessed a system of rule-of-law, rather than whim-of-one-man.

[Fallows then lists several Republican senators who might do the right thing, since, for example, some of them won’t run for reelection again.]

It would take only three. Some—Grassley? Heller? McCain if he is able to vote?—might think: What do they have to lose? They might as well wind up with dignity. Others … are so far away from re-election that a lot will happen in the meantime. And all of them are senators, part of a body self-consciously proud of its independence, its individual judgment, its role in defending the long-term principles of governance.

A country of 300-plus million people, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, should not rely for its orderly stability on the decisions-of-conscience of just three people. But the United States may soon be in that situation. These names will go down in history, depending on the choices they make.  

I Did the Reading, So Now I’m Sharing

I read too many articles on the internet about politics. Instead of having one subscription to a high-quality newspaper that used to land on our driveway every morning, I now subscribe to three quality newspapers that I read online. I also visit a number of websites that offer interesting political news and commentary. All you need to give them is your time (although that, of course, is more precious than your money).

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t spend so much time reading about politics, but I want to understand what the hell is going on, i.e., why America is so screwed up. And after I read something, I sometimes feel the need to share. This reading and sharing might be a big waste of time, but it feels like something I should do.  

This explains why I read three long-ish articles in the past few days that I’m now going to mention and very briefly describe. Then I’m going to share a funny video. And then I’m going to share a little good news for a change.

The first article I read was “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology”. The title isn’t quite accurate, because epistemology is the philosophical theory or study of knowledge. The title should really be something like “Trump and the Rise of Right-Wing Propaganda as a Source of Supposed News for Millions of Americans and the Ill Effects Thereof”. Another title might be “Here’s Why Our Country Is So Screwed Up: Many Americans Don’t Trust the Only Institutions We Have That Do a Fairly Decent Job of Describing Reality, and Is There Anything We Can Do About It?”. I recommend reading the whole thing, which isn’t really seven million words long, despite what the author says.

A link in that article led me to a 2016, pre-election article called “The Rise of American Authoritarianism”. It’s about people with authoritarian personalities, and how they aren’t necessarily bigots or stupid, but how they tend to be afraid of strangers and change, and when they’re especially afraid, they look for “strong” leaders who will protect them by building walls, putting people in jail and blowing things up. There are more of these authoritarians than you might expect and they’re the strongest supporters of the current President, for obvious reasons (“I alone can fix it”).

An interesting point is that the social scientists cited in the article don’t identify people with authoritarian tendencies by asking them about politics. They ask them about child-rearing, posing questions like these:

  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Authoritarians tend to answer these questions differently than the rest of us. Furthermore, they supposedly tell the truth when asked about raising children, which they might not do if asked about politics.

Another point made in the article is that many people have authoritarian tendencies, but those tendencies only come into play when these potential authoritarians are sufficiently scared, and sufficiently scared by people whom they think are dangerous in some way, either dangerous to their physical persons or to their preferred way of life. 

The importance of the fear factor leads to the third article, “How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics”. I confess I didn’t read the whole thing, because it was too depressing. It was written two years ago by a former Republican and is mostly historical. It describes the undoing of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, the rise of right-wing talk radio and the amazing success of Fox News, the result being that your authoritarian cousin and your potentially authoritarian plumber are convinced that liberals, scientists, the “mainstream media” and other lowlifes are out to destroy America. That makes your cousin and your plumber very angry and/or very, very afraid. 

So here’s the funny video: Randy Rainbow singing “Covfefe: The Broadway Medley”! If nothing else, watching it will mean that, for four glorious minutes, you won’t be reading about politics on the internet. 

I’ve watched this video many times, because, aside from the pleasure of watching and listening to Mr. Rainbow, and hearing those wonderful melodies again, if you do anything for four minutes, over and over again, it does add up. 

Lastly, the good news:  “Nevada Is Considering a Revolutionary Healthcare Experiment”. The Nevada legislature has passed a bill that would allow anyone in the state who doesn’t have health insurance to buy in to the state’s Medicaid program. Details need to be worked out and the Governor might not sign the bill, but it’s an encouraging sign that America might turn the corner one day.

“Covfefe, I just met a girl named Covfefe…”

A Message Like His Will Always Appeal to Some People

Depending on how we define “fascism”, Trump probably isn’t a fascist. He’s more of a fascist-in-training.

But he sure is an authoritarian. He boasts that he will do this, that and the other thing as President, as if his word will be law. That is the authoritarian ideal: the Great Leader who can make things happen without worrying about the niceties of constitutional government.

Authoritarianism, obviously, is anti-democratic. Once they’ve got the power, Great Leaders aren’t bound by elections. They do not go quietly. They talk loudly and carry big sticks.

If you want to read a short article on the danger Trump poses, I recommend “This Is How Fascism Comes to America”. The author is Robert Kagan, an historian and foreign policy specialist who was a Republican until a few months ago. A few words from Mr. Kagan:

What [Trump] offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger….

This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.

If you want to read a long article about Trump’s message and what his success says about millions of Americans, I recommend “Welcome to the Age of Trump” by Jonathan Freedland, a British journalist. Some selections:

He’s clearly not fettered by the restraints that hold back [other] politicians. On this logic, Trump is the fearless truth-teller. Which may seem an odd accolade to give a man who has been caught out as a serial liar and perhaps the most provenly dishonest candidate to seek, let alone win, the nomination of a major US party. But that is to forget that Trump’s core supporters believe it is the establishment – the media and political elites – that have lied to them for at least two decades. So when those same elites brand Trump a liar, his supporters either don’t believe it, or else they don’t care….

One reason why Trump seems sinister rather than simply clownish is the hint that he is hostile not just to the current two-party system in the US, but to the very norms that underpin liberal democracy…This is more than a rejection of the current Democrat-Republican gridlock. This is a contempt for the very notion of constitutional democracy. And if Trump is pushing it, it may be because he knows there is a ready audience for just such a message.

The World Values Survey of 2011 included a stunning figure. It found that 34% of Americans approved of “having a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections”, the figure rising to 42% among those with no education beyond high school. It’s worth reading that again, to let it sink in. It means that one in three US voters would prefer a dictator to democracy. Those Americans are not repudiating this or that government, but abandoning the very idea of democracy itself.

Among the evidence Mr. Freedland cites is a video from Vox that examines Trump’s popularity from a political science perspective. It’s called “The Rise of American Authoritarianism, Explained in Six Minutes” and is worth watching. It helps explain why someone like Trump will always appeal to certain voters. In fact, their authoritarian psychology may be the most defining characteristic of the people who actually believe Trump should win, not their racism, fear of Muslims, worries about immigration or their economic complaints.

That’s why we need to do everything we can to defeat Trump by the largest possible margin in November. If the election is close at all, it will encourage more fascists-in-training to seek high office, one of whom might be a much better salesman than Trump.

Explaining You Know Who

Some phenomena cry out for explanations. I bet you can think of one such phenomenon right now. Here are a few attempts to explain it.

Chris Hedges is one of those overwrought leftists who see no significant difference between most Democratic and Republican politicians. That’s why he names Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as prime villains in “The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism” (where “fascism” refers to what You Know Who is selling):

College-educated elites, on behalf of corporations, carried out the savage neoliberal assault on the working poor. Now they are being made to pay. Their duplicity—embodied in politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—succeeded for decades. These elites, many from East Coast Ivy League schools, spoke the language of values—civility, inclusivity, a condemnation of overt racism and bigotry, a concern for the middle class—while thrusting a knife into the back of the underclass for their corporate masters. This game has ended.

There are tens of millions of Americans, especially lower-class whites, rightfully enraged at what has been done to them, their families and their communities. They have risen up to reject the neoliberal policies and political correctness imposed on them by college-educated elites from both political parties: Lower-class whites are embracing an American fascism.

Hedges is hoping for the day when the “underclass” unites and takes its revenge, but notice how his language changes by the end of his second paragraph. First, it’s “especially lower-class whites” who have risen up. Then it’s simply “lower-class whites” who are embracing you know who.

For a moment, however, consider whether non-white members of the lower class would identify the Clintons or Obama as their principal opponents among the ruling class. Has it been the Democratic Party that’s stood in the way of universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage, immigration reform and more government spending on infrastructure and education?

Hedges moves on to considering the roots of fascism in general:

In fascism the politically disempowered and disengaged, ignored and reviled by the establishment, discover a voice and a sense of empowerment. 

Yet we’re unlikely to see masses of disempowered and disengaged non-white Americans supporting right-wing politicians like you know who. Some registered Democrats do, however. In “Some of < … >’s Strongest Supporters Are Registered Democrats. Here’s Why“, Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel cite various surveys, concluding that there’s a simple explanation for < … >’s success: economic insecurity tends to increase racial resentment among white voters, even relatively moderate white voters.

In previous articles, McElwee and McDaniel offered data to show that racial resentment, not economic insecurity, is strongly correlated with support for the Tea Party and opposition to governmental programs (like the Affordable Care Act) that aim to reduce economic inequality. They conclude that: 

… progressives should be wary of arguments that recessions or financial crises lead to opportunities for progressive policymaking. Rather, they foster exactly the sort of divisiveness that strengthens right-wing movements, at least for whites. For all the talk of “the working class” supporting [< …>], few pundits have noted that the working class is increasingly diverse. The idea that economic peril alone creates [-< … >’s] support is belied by the fact that working-class people of color aren’t flocking to [< …>]. The reason so many liberal and moderate whites are flocking toward [< …>] is simple: racism.

Finally, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism“, by Amanda Taub, is a long but helpful article that explains the popularity of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in terms of his appeal to the authoritarians among us. Her article summarizes the work of political scientists who have identified an “authoritarian personality”:

Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force. They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians’ fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms….

Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world. Challenges to that order — diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order — are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.

… Those changes have been happening for a long time, but in recent years they have become more visible and harder to ignore. And they are coinciding with economic trends that have squeezed working-class white people.

Hence, it shouldn’t be a great surprise that so many white Americans with authoritarian leanings have responded to a pseudo-politician who promises to make America “great” (for them) again. What’s most surprising is that they’re responding so positively to such a ridiculous figure. It’s hard to believe that so many people think this character could deliver on his promises. If nothing else, recent history shows how difficult it is for our government to accomplish anything, let alone the deportation of millions of citizens or the construction of another Great Wall of China by the Mexican government. But if you’re longing for a dictator, a blowhard who plays a dictator on TV may be good enough for the time being.

Taub’s article concludes with some thoughts on the future of American politics. She believes we may already have a three-party system: Democrats on the left, the Republican establishment on the right and authoritarian Republicans on the far right. In the long run, however, she thinks the Republican establishment may move even further to the right, leading to a party “that is even more hard-line on immigration and on policing, that is more outspoken about fearing Muslims and other minority groups, but also takes a softer line on traditional party economic issues like tax cuts”.

Of course, some observers, as noted above, think there is no difference worth mentioning between the Democratic and Republican establishments today. I disagree, but it’s certainly possible that a Republican Party that moves further right will mean that more moderate Republicans (like the ones threatening to support Clinton if what’s his name is nominated) will move to the Democratic Party, bringing their money with them. That could lead to the creation of a different three-party system, featuring fed-up progressives or democratic socialists on the left, a centrist Democratic Republican party in the middle and angry Tea Party authoritarians on the right. It could even lead to a more representative four-party system. Or a people’s party vs. a capitalist’s party.

Fantasizing about the future of American politics can be a lot of fun, since the present state of our politics is so damn depressing.