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).

Will Republicans Dump Him Now?

Resignation would be good. Impeachment would take too long.

From The New York Times:

Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says

The Txxxx administration has been deliberating for months about what to do about a stunning intelligence assessment.

Deliberating or hoping nobody would find out? Wow.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Our President

Putin is a thug who has his opponents and critics jailed and murdered. He annexed Crimea. He interferes in elections, contributes to war crimes and has stolen millions, probably billions, from the Russian people. This is him arriving at a ceremony in France attended by our president and foreign leaders.

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Meanwhile, the global, man-made phenomenon that our president says is a hoax gets worse every year. Among the results: California has never had such terrible fires.

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Avoiding Individual-1 for the Most Part

I’ve mostly blogged about politics since the beginning of the crisis (you know, the crisis known as “Individual-1”). Other topics haven’t seemed worth writing about.

But, even though Individual-1 is still happening, I haven’t posted anything lately. That’s because, two months ago, I took a break from American politics. At the end of June, I stopped reading the digital front pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times and the U.S. edition of The Guardian. I also stopped looking at New York Magazine‘s “Daily Intelligencer” and Twitter. I was sick of my mind being polluted by the latest Individual-1 “news”. 

Instead, I began looking at international or “world” news. (Even in the U.S., we’re part of the world, right?) I’m told my mood improved, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, even though some American news made it through. For instance, The Guardian puts selected American stories on their international page. And any other contact, direct or indirect, with the rest of humanity meant that I might be exposed to the latest turmoil and trouble.

Helped along by last week’s positive legal developments, I started looking at U.S. news again. I didn’t immerse myself in it as much as before, but this wasn’t a great idea. Even limited exposure has been depressing. This means I probably won’t be writing much until the November election — an event on which hope for America’s redemption rests.

Before going, however, I’ll mention a few articles I’ve come across that are worth reading.

First, philosophy professor Bryan Van Norden explains why people have a right to speak, but not necessarily to be heard. He argues that some people aren’t entitled to an audience:

Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole. There is a clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas. 

In other words, outlawing speech is a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean all opinions are equal or deserve equal time in the “marketplace of ideas”. Otherwise, (quoting the philosopher Herbert Marcuse) “the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood”. And it becomes far easier to produce a political crisis like Individual-1.

On a related topic, a former Prime Minister of Australia writes about “the cancer eating the heart of Australian democracy”. The cancer he’s referring to is Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire “operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view”. Murdoch and his outlets like Fox News are one big reason why politics is so screwed up in the U.S. (Individual-1), the United Kingdom (Brexit) and Australia (five prime ministers in five years). Contrast that with politics in two other English-speaking nations, Canada and New Zealand. Their politics is a much more rational affair. Is it a coincidence that Murdoch doesn’t propagandize in either of those countries?

This week, James Fallows pointed out that it would only take one or two Republican senators to “serve as a check on [Individual-1’s] excesses”. As of now, the Republicans have a mere one-vote margin in the Senate. They will be ahead 51 to 49 after the late Senator McCain is replaced. As Fallows says:

Every [Republican] swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, not simply their own careerist comfort. And not a one of them, yet, has been willing to risk comfort, career, or fund-raising to defend the constitutional check-and-balance prerogatives of their legislative branch.

On a related topic, Brian Beutler explains why there is a natural alliance between Individual-1 and Vladimir Putin (who, of course, is no longer a Communist):

For the white nationalists in [the Republican] coalition [including the president himself], Putin seeks a global alliance of white nationalist parties, and is meddling in elections world wide to help those parties gain political power. But … even more garden variety conservatives see their interests and Putin’s coming into alignment. Putin is deeply hostile to LGBT people, and frames his hostility in religious terms. The Russian economy is built on a broken foundation of fossil fuel extraction. American conservatives aren’t killing journalists and … opposition leaders, but they are hostile to journalism and democracy, and increasingly comfortable with both propaganda and exercising power through minority rule…. Russia’s political identity is shaped by its aggrievement over the crumbling of its once-vast empire. The American right is similarly revanchist—not over lost territory, but lost demographic dominance and privilege.

For now, the GOP’s congressional leaders remain nominally committed to the western alliance, and to treating Russia as an adversary. But they will not check [the president] as he advances the opposite view. Elite conservative opinion is already shifting on the Russia question, and should Trump ever convince a majority of Republican voters that he’s right about Russia, the congressional leadership will follow suit. Putin seems to grasp that, too. What we’re seeing, across several different plot lines, is that in many ways Moscow understood Republicans better than Republicans understand themselves. 

But let’s conclude with some good news. In an interview with The Atlantic, Senator Elizabeth Warren discusses “two aggressive proposals for overhauling American business”, i.e. making capitalism work the way it’s supposed to:

One [of her proposals] is the Accountable Capitalism Act, which would require the largest corporations to allow workers to choose 40 percent of their board seats. [This] is meant to provide an antidote to short-term thinking in the biggest businesses—and to short-circuit the ease with which CEOs make decisions that enrich themselves at the expense of workers and the underlying health of their firm. A similar system exists in Germany, and it goes by the name “codetermination.”

A second set of proposals is what Warren calls the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act. Warren has called for a frontal assault on lobbying, including a lifetime prohibition that would prevent federal officeholders (including the president, members of Congress, and Cabinet secretaries) from ever becoming paid influence peddlers. Her argument is that lobbying undermines the functioning of markets, by permitting corporations to exert outsize control over the regulatory state and use government to squash competitors.

It’s also good news that there are only sixty-nine days until the midterm election. On November 6th, we can quicken the demise of the Republican Party. We should make the most of the opportunity.