At the House Formerly Known as White

I’ve avoided the news for a day and a half (sleeping helps) but someone shared this thread from former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. It’s a nice summary of last week’s authoritarian festivities at the White, sorry, at the Txxxx House:

For those of us who study autocracies, including elections in autocracies, there were a lot of familiar messages, symbols, and methods on display . . .  at the #RNCConvention.

1. Cult of the Personality. This show was all about Txxxx. ( 3 years after the death of Stalin, Khrushchev’s gave his secret speech in 1956, titled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences.” I wonder if a future GOP leader will give a similar speech someday?)

2. Administrative resources. Autocrats and semi-autocrats frequently use government resources for personal electoral gain. We have #HatchAct to prevent such behavior in the U.S. It’s obviously not working.

3. Blatant disregard for the law. That Txxxx’s team dared anyone to charge them with violating the #HatchAct is exactly what Putin and others autocrats do all the time. Laws don’t apply to the king & his court, only to the subjects.

4. Blatant disregard for facts. As U.S. ambassador to Russia, I found this Putin regime trait most frustrating. We – the U.S. government- were constrained by facts. They were not. Txxxx obviously was not constrained by facts last night. He usually isn’t . . . 

5. Us versus Them populism. “Elites” versus “the people” nationalism. Autocratic populists use polarizing identity politics to divide societies all the time. Many populist leaders actually have little in common with the “masses.” (Putin is very rich.)

6. The opposition is the “enemy of the people.” Putin & other autocratic populists cast their opponents as radicals & revolutionaries. They don’t focus on their own records – often there is little to celebrate – but the horrors that will happen if they lose power. Sound familiar?

6b. There is one difference between Putin and Txxxx so far. Putin also claims falsely that his political opponents are supported by foreign enemies, the U.S. & the West. Txxxx has not gone there full-throated yet. But my guess it’s coming. “Beijing Biden” is a hint.

7. Law and Order. Autocratic populists all shout about it, even when the opposite is happening on their watch.

8. The good tsar versus the bad boyars. Kings and tsars always blamed bad provincial leaders for national ills. Putin blames the governors all the time… just like Txxxx.

9. Individual acts of royal kindness. Putin, like the tsars he emulates, does this all the time. Txxxx offering a pardon or “granting” citizenship (which of course he didn’t & doesn’t have the power to do) are typical, faux gestures of royal kindness toward his subjects.

10. Homage and fealty. Vassals must signal their complete loyalty and absolute devotion to kings and autocrats. Those that don’t are banished from the royal court or the party. (Where were the Bushes last night?)

11. The royal family. In this dimension, Txxxx acts more like a monarch than even Putin. (but watch Lukashenko and his gun-toting teenage son in Belarus) The many Txxxx family members who performed this week – even a girlfriend got a slot – went beyond even what Putin does.

12. There’s still one big difference. . . .  

Successful autocrats are re-elected, but voting still matters here (if we all vote).

Who Gets to Rule a Nation? The Rise of the One-Party State

A government in which one person has unlimited power is an autocracy. A government in which a small group has a great deal of power is an oligarchy. Unlike an autocracy, there is no requirement that oligarchs have unlimited power. Here in the United States, we still have a representative democracy, although lately it’s been veering toward oligarchy. We also have a president who would prefer America as autocracy with himself as the autocrat.

Anne Applebaum has written a long article for The Atlantic that explains the form of government that’s on the rise around the world. Her article is labeled this way:

Polarization. Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.

Whether such governments are autocracies or oligarchies isn’t clear-cut. She suggests “single-party” or “one-party state”. The paragraphs below explain how they work and how their adherents justify them. Reading the article helped me understand the current crisis.

[Who gets to rule a nation?] For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled—but why should they ever be?

Monarchy,tyranny, oligarchy, democracy—thesewere all familiar to Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago. But the illiberal one-party state, now found all over the world—think of China, Venezuela, Zimbabwe—was first developed by Lenin, in Russia, starting in 1917. In the political-science textbooks of the future, the Soviet Union’s founder will surely be remembered not for his Marxist beliefs, but as the inventor of this enduring form of political organization. It is the model that many of the world’s budding autocrats use today.

Unlike Marxism, the Leninist one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power. It works because it clearly defines who gets to be the elite—the political elite, the cultural elite, the financial elite. In monarchies such as pre-revolutionary France and Russia, the right to rule was granted to the aristocracy, which defined itself by rigid codes of breeding and etiquette. In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by different forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests that determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets. Old-fashioned social hierarchies are usually part of the mix, but in modern Britain, America, Germany, France, and until recently Poland, we have assumed that competition is the most just and efficient way to distribute power. The best-run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule. The contests between them should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair outcome.

Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anti-competitive and anti-meritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership. Though those rules were different at different times, they were consistent in certain ways. They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups. They favored the children of the working class. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

Lenin’s one-party system also reflected his disdain for the idea of a neutral state, of apolitical civil servants and an objective media… In the Bolshevik imagination, the press could be free, and public institutions could be fair, only once they were controlled by the working class—via the party.

This mockery of the competitive institutions of “bourgeois democracy” and capitalism has long had a right-wing version, too. Hitler’s Germany is the example usually given. But there are many others. Apartheid South Africa was a de facto one-party state that corrupted its press and its judiciary to eliminate blacks from political life and promote the interests of Afrikaners, white South Africans descended mainly from Dutch settlers, who were not succeeding in the capitalist economy created by the British empire.In Europe, two such illiberal parties are now in power: Law and Justice, in Poland, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in Hungary. Others, in Austria and Italy, are part of government coalitions or enjoy wide support. These parties tolerate the existence of political opponents. But they use every means possible, legal and illegal, to reduce their opponents’ ability to function and to curtail competition in politics and economics. They dislike foreign investment and criticize privatization, unless it is designed to benefit their supporters. They undermine meritocracy. Like Donald Trump, they mock the notions of neutrality and professionalism, whether in journalists or civil servants. They discourage businesses from advertising in “opposition”—by which they mean illegitimate—media.

Notably, one of the Law and Justice government’s first acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. The Polish foreign service also wants to drop its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet. The government fired heads of Polish state companies. Previously, the people in these roles had had at least some government or business experience. Now these jobs are largely filled by Law and Justice Party members, as well as their friends and relatives….

You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, then what’s wrong with it?

If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are … a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?

Forewarned is forearmed. Please vote for Democrats up and down the ballot in November’s mid-term election. And convince your reasonable friends to vote if any of them still need convincing.

Against Autocracy and Apathy

David Frum, who wrote speeches for George W. Bush, is one of the few right-wingers who haven’t swallowed Drump’s Kool-Aid. He now writes for The Atlantic, where he published an excellent article in January called “How To Build An Autocracy”. Its subtitle was “The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald [Drump] could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism”.

It’s a full-length magazine article that takes a while to load because of all the advertisements (unless your ad blocker is working), but it was very well-received and is still worth reading. Frum begins by imagining Drump being sworn in for his second term. America hasn’t gone completely over the edge but it’s not healthy either. The article concludes:

Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.

I was reminded of the article because Mr. Frum generated what’s called a “tweetstorm” on Twitter today. Up until a few months ago, I thought Twitter was basically a joke. I didn’t realize how interesting it is as a source of political news and commentary. So I created an account and now follow a small number of journalists, politicians and people with common interests (and a few comedians). Some of the journalists, including David Frum, offer what’s almost a running commentary on the day’s events. Here’s what he wrote today in 21 segments:

  1. [The Attorney General] Sessions story today is a sinister confirmation of central thesis of my autocracy article:
  2. Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous president because he harbors so many guilty secrets (or maybe 1 big guilty secret).
  3. In order to protect himself, Trump must attack American norms and institutions – otherwise he faces fathomless legal risk
  4. In turn, in order to protect their legally vulnerable leader, Republicans in Congress must join the attack on norms & institutions
  5. Otherwise, they put at risk party hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake US government in ways not very popular with voters
  6. American institutions are built to withstand an attack from the president alone. But …
  7. … they are not so well-built as to withstand an attack from a conscienceless president enabled by a hyper-partisan Congress
  8. The peculiar grim irony in this case is that somewhere near the center of Trump’s story is the murky secret of Trump’s Russia connection
  9. Meaning that Trump is rendering his party also complicit in what could well prove …
  10. … the biggest espionage scandal since the Rosenberg group stole the secret of the atomic bomb.
  11. And possibly even bigger. We won’t know if we don’t look
  12. Despite patriotic statements from individual GOPers, as of now it seems that Speaker Ryan & Leader McConnell agree: no looking.
  13. So many in DC serenely promise that “checks and balances” will save us. But right now: there is no check and no balance.
  14. Only brave individuals in national security roles sharing truth with news organizations.
  15. But those individuals can be found & silenced. What then? We take it too much for granted that the president must lose this struggle
  16. The “oh he’s normal now” relief of so many to Trump’s Feb 28 speech revealed how ready DC is to succumb to deal making as usual.
  17. As DC goes numb, citizen apathy accumulates …
  18. GOP members of Congress decide they have more to fear from enforcing law against the president than from ignoring law with the president
  19. And those of us who care disappear down rabbit holes debating whether Sessions’ false testimony amounts to perjury or not
  20. Meanwhile job market strong, stock market is up, immigration enforcement is popular.
  21. I’m not counseling despair here. I don’t feel despair. Only: nobody else will save the country if you don’t act yourself.

Of course, it will be the height of irony if Drump, after claiming that he inherited a disaster from Obama, ends up getting credit for the economy improving and ISIS being defeated, but that’s the way American politics works. At the present moment, however, what especially struck me about Frum’s comments was the idea that citizen apathy, including my own, might be growing. 

I was able to attend a town hall by our Congressman, Rep. Leonard Lance (NJ-7), two weeks ago. He the typical relatively sensible Republican who went to Washington and now almost always follows the party line. At the town hall, he avoided straight answers, repeated some ridiculous Republican talking points and made promises he won’t keep, but at least he got an extended earful from hundreds of angry constituents.

But now that the excitement of the town hall has faded, and no big demonstrations like the Women’s March on Washington in the news, I’m beginning to feel a little numb myself. That’s natural, I suppose. Intensity will come and go, even as the outrages continue. In the meantime, however, if you’d like to do something positive, there’s a special election being held in a suburban district outside Atlanta to replace the lying creep who’s now running the Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Jon Ossoff is a Democratic candidate who could pull off an upset in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District if he gets enough support and there’s enough of an anti-Drump backlash. Even if he doesn’t win, a close election will show Republicans like our Leonard Lance that their re-election isn’t assured. I made a donation today. You can too if you visit Mr. Ossoff’s campaign site.

Even if you’re not at peak emotional intensity right now, you can always spend a few dollars for an important cause. 

What To Do (Which Side Are You On?)

It’s already Day 5 of the T___ administration. Sadly, there’s no indication yet that Vice President Pence has begun following the steps in the 25th Amendment (in particular, the Let’s-Replace-A-Crazy-President clause). However, stories describing the President’s mental instability and general unfitness for his new job are appearing, and it’s been suggested that Pence’s staff may be leaking damaging information in order to lay the groundwork for just such a constitutionally-mandated transfer of power. One can hope.

Of course, there are things to do besides hoping. Except for the extremely successful, worldwide Women’s March on Saturday, the best known call to action has probably been “The Indivisible Guide: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda”. What began as an overloaded Google doc is now a website:

WHO IS THIS DOCUMENT BY AND FOR?

We: Are former progressive congressional staffers who saw the Tea Party beat back President Obama’s agenda.

We: See the enthusiasm to fight the Trump agenda and want to share insider info on how best to influence Congress to do that.

You: Want to do your part to beat back the Trump agenda and understand that will require more than calls and petitions.

You: Should use this guide, share it, amend it, make it your own, and get to work.

Here’s the summary of Chapter Two:

How your MoC [Member of Congress] thinks — reelection, reelection, reelection — and how to use that to save democracy. MoCs want their constituents to think well of them and they want good, local press. They hate surprises, wasted time, and most of all, bad press that makes them look weak, unlikable, and vulnerable. You will use these interests to make them listen and act.

Chapters Three and Four offer instructions for organizing your own anti-T___ group and doing things that will have the biggest effect (attending events, requesting meetings and making coordinated phone calls).

Another document that’s received a lot of attention was written immediately after the election by the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. It’s called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”. Having lived under Putin, she lets us know it would be a big mistake to give T__p the benefit of the doubt. For example, she wishes Hillary Clinton had said something like this that dark night in November:

We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.

Gessen’s six rules for surviving autocracy are: 

  1. Believe the autocrat (don’t assume he’s exaggerating when he promises to do something terrible)
  2. Don’t be taken in by small signs of normality
  3. Institutions won’t save you (nor will cultural norms)
  4. Be outraged
  5. Don’t compromise
  6. Remember the future (in other words, keep hope alive).

Gessen followed this up with another article, this time describing her great-grandfather’s experience in Nazi-occupied Poland and her grandmother’s as a government censor in the Soviet Union. Her conclusion is: given a choice between collaboration (possibly under the guise of being a “realist”) and resistance, choose resistance.

In December, the economist and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich cautioned against falling into one of four syndromes: (1) normalizing the situation (“he’s just another President”); (2) going numb or shutting down emotionally; (3) cynicism; or (4) helplessness. Prof. Reich, who is currently providing almost continuous political commentary on Facebook, ends with this:

If you find yourself falling into one or more of these syndromes, that’s understandable. Normalizing, numbing, becoming cynical and feeling powerless are natural human responses to the gross absurdity and genuine peril posed by T___.

But I urge you to pull yourself out. We need you in the peaceful resistance army, starting January 20.

Finally, here are some sites that offer alternative perspectives on the news. They’re good places to visit if you want an antidote to outlets like CNN, the TV networks and the front page of The New York Times (The Washington Post is better these days):

Pro Publica (Journalism in the Public Interest) 

Think Progress

Talking Points Memo

Media Matters for America

Vox

Daily Kos (a group blog about politics)

Hullabaloo (another group blog about politics)

Plus, something that might give you chills. It did me.