Printed: 2017-02-21

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Articles About American Authoritarianism

John G. Messerly


Reason and Meaning


http://reasonandmeaning.com/2016/12/23/american-authoritarianism/

January 03, 2017

“Is ours a government of the people, by the people, for the people, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?” ~ James Russell Lowell

For the past few weeks, I have been reviewing articles about the trend toward authoritarianism in the USA. Unfortunately, articles appear faster than I can read and review them, so I’ll have to stop and move on soon. With this in mind, I list a few of the pieces I won’t get to, followed by excerpts from some other good ones.

Paul Krugman – “How Republics End,” The New York Times.
Charles Blow – “This Is Not Normal,” The New York Times.
Henry A. Giroux  – “The Authoritarian Politics of Resentment in Trump’s …,” Truthout.
Ben Fountain – “Welcome to the Reign of King Trump,” The Guardian.
Steve Denning – “Trump And Authoritarian Propaganda,” Forbes
Jonathan Chait – “The GOP’s Age of Authoritarianism Has … Begun,” New York Magazine.
Adam Liptak – “Donald Trump Could Threaten U.S. Rule of Law …,” The New York Times.
Robert Creamer – “Can Fascism Triumph in America?” The Huffington Post.

1) "Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” (The New York Times, December 16, 2016 by
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University.)

Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? With the possible exception of the Civil War, American democracy has never collapsed … Yet past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival …

The clearest warning sign is the ascent of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics … indicators include a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments.

Mr. Trump tests positive. In the campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters; pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton; threatened legal action against unfriendly media; and suggested that he might not accept the election results …

Many Americans are not overly concerned about Mr. Trump’s authoritarian inclinations because they trust our system of constitutional checks and balances to constrain him. Yet the institutional safeguards protecting our democracy may be less effective than we think …

Democratic institutions must be reinforced by strong informal norms … Among the unwritten rules that have sustained American democracy are partisan self-restraint and fair play … Such practices helped to avoid a descent into the kind of partisan fight to the death that destroyed many European democracies in the 1930s.

Yet norms of partisan restraint have eroded in recent decades … Norms of presidential restraint are also at risk … Although executive power has expanded in recent decades, it has ultimately been reined in by the prudence and self-restraint of our presidents.

Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump is a serial norm-breaker. There are signs that Mr. Trump seeks to diminish the news media’s traditional role by using Twitter, video messages and public rallies to circumvent the White House press corps and communicate directly with voters — taking a page out of the playbook of populist leaders …

An even more basic norm under threat today is the idea of legitimate opposition. In a democracy, partisan rivals must fully accept one another’s right to exist, to compete and to govern … Governments throughout history have used the claim that their opponents are disloyal or criminal or a threat to the nation’s way of life to justify acts of authoritarianism.

The idea of legitimate opposition has been entrenched in the United States since the early 19th century, disrupted only by the Civil War. That may now be changing … as right-wing extremists increasingly question the legitimacy of their liberal rivals …

Such extremism, once confined to the political fringes, has now moved into the mainstream … leading Republicans — including the president-elect — endorsed the view that the Democratic candidate was not a legitimate rival.

The risk we face, then, is not merely a president with illiberal proclivities — it is the election of such a president when the guardrails protecting American democracy are no longer as secure … We must be vigilant. The warning signs are real.

2) “David Frum Predicts the Dark Course of Trump’s Impending Authoritarianism,” (PoliticsUSA, November 9, 2016, by Sara Jones.) Bear in mind that Frum is a conservative, and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, a president accused of expanding and abusing executive power. Frum envisions the following scenario which is, I believe, as prescient as it is chilling:

1) …  I don’t imagine that Donald Trump will immediately set out to build an authoritarian state; 2) … his first priority will be to use the presidency massively to enrich himself; 3) That program of massive self-enrichment … will trigger media investigations and criticism by congressional Democrats; 4) ….Trump cannot tolerate criticism. He … always retaliating against perceived enemies, by means fair or foul; 5) … Trump’s advisers and aides share this belief [they] … live by gangster morality; 6) So the abuses will start as payback. With a compliant Gop majority in Congress, Trump admin can rewrite laws to enable payback; 7) The courts may be an obstacle. But w/ a compliant Senate, a president can change the courts—as happened in Poland & Hungary; 8) … few [IRS] commissioners serve the full 5 years; 9) The FBI seems already to have been pre-politicized in Trump’s favor … 10) Construction of the apparatus of revenge and repression will begin opportunistically & haphazardly. It will accelerate methodically. END

3)  “An American Authoritarian: The Republican presidential candidate is not a Fascist, but his campaign bears notable similarities to the reign of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini,” (The Atlantic, August 16, 2016, by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Professor of History and Italian studies at New York University. Professor Ben-Ghiat.)

Trump … has created a one-man-led political movement that does not map onto traditional U.S. party structures or behave in traditional ways. This is how Fascism began as well …

The authoritarian playbook is defined by the particular relationship such individuals have with their followers. It’s an attachment based on submission to the authority of one individual who stands above the party, even in a regime.

Mussolini’s rise to power also exemplifies another authoritarian trait America has seen during this campaign: The charismatic leader who tests the limits of what the public, press, and political class will tolerate. This exploration … is accomplished through controversial actions and threatening or humiliating remarks toward groups or individuals.

… Actions many see as irrational make chilling sense when considered under this framework: the many racist tweets or retweets … His early declaration that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and not lose any supporters. His extended humiliation of powerful politicians … His attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the American electoral process. His intimation that “the Second-Amendment people” might be able to solve the potential problem of Hillary Clinton …

… Authoritarians usually communicate their intentions clearly. Mussolini certainly did. Trump has been frank about his agenda and the groups he’ll target if he’s elected. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored,” Trump said in accepting the Republican presidential nomination …

4) “Donald Trump’s “inverted totalitarianism”: Too bad we didn’t heed Sheldon Wolin’s warnings” (Salon, November 23, 2016, by Chauncey Devega.)

In his 2008 book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, the late Princeton University political theorist Sheldon Wolin explained how the United States would fully devolve into authoritarianism.

The elements are in place [for a quasi-fascist takeover]: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.

Wolin offered further warnings about American democracy in a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers:

…  I don’t think the idea of democracy and the ideal of a strong state … that those are compatible notions. I think that democracy does imply involvement, shared power, dispersed power and, above all, a significant equality. And I think state power means the opposite of those things. And similarly, I think the democracy clearly is at odds with corporate structures and the power of corporate structures.

Wolin also described the source of much populist outrage:

… I see casualties of all kinds. I see cities that are—many of them are unlivable, as we’ve known for 20 years—and in which the cultural life is on the edge of extinction, in which there is a great deal of class conflict and … distinctions of rich and poor which are beginning to become mind-boggling. I guess one of the things that’s so crucial … is that this innovative society we’re committed to has clearly developed a surplus, superfluous population … A population for whom, if there is work, it isn’t terribly meaningful, and it doesn’t have much of a future to it. And that we as a society don’t really know what to do with that surplus population.

5) “Autocratic for the people: As Donald Trump’s populist wave recedes, an authoritarian regime in the making is revealed,” (Salon, November 20, 2016, by Bob Cesca.)

This is all to say, yes, your fears about an autocratic strongman Trump presidency are entirely reasonable. Making matters worse, we can expect Trump supporters to vigorously defend him every step of the way, no matter how far he goes …

So what do we look for? NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel noted that autocrats have several tells. Engel said we should look for attacks on religious minorities and immigrants; scapegoating the media; attacks against “un-American” behavior; use of the words “traitor” and “cancer” to characterize dissenters; and then large-scale rallies by Trump loyalists, followed by populist “referendums” to circumvent Congress, and so forth.

Whatever you might be thinking to the contrary, it can absolutely happen here …

Anyone expecting business as usual from the Trump White House is begging to be shocked when it doesn’t happen that way. We’ve fallen well outside the mainstream with this election. The timeline is skewed, and what follows won’t be easy to contain or to roll back. Expect the worst, hope for the best, and pray for the timeline to correct itself soon.

6) “The slow-motion decline: Resisting the gradual erosion of democratic institutions under President Trump,” (Salon, November 27, 2016, by Simon Maloy.)

It’s bracing to read political scientists and people familiar with autocratic rule write about the parallels they see between the America that elected Donald Trump and the undemocratic regimes they study. Scholars and academics have been writing about this degradation of norms ever since it became clear that Trump was emerging as a potent political force.

The bulk of Donald Trump’s political life prior to capturing the presidency was devoted to undermining the established institutions of democracy: from the campaign to destroy Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president to his unrelenting hostility towards the press to his pernicious insistences that the election was being “rigged” against him. Now he will have all the levers of the presidency available to him to continue this crusade to erode public confidence in the very political and social institutions that are supposed to keep him in check.

… the body you’d expect to provide a necessary check on a corrupt, illiberal president would be the Congress. But the Republicans … have made clear that they’re more invested in maintaining power than in maintaining democratic institutions. The last eight years have taught Republicans that … persistent violation of governing norms can result in dramatically increased political power. With Trump’s election, the Senate GOP realized an ill-gotten payoff from its unprecedented obstruction of Barack Obama’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia … The entire party is involved in a coordinated assault on voting rights as a means of suppressing Democratic turnout and maintaining its authority by making it harder for the other side to vote.

What reason do we have to think these same Republicans would rise to the challenge of defending democratic institutions against Trump’s depredations? When it comes to the attack on voting rights … Trump presents the congressional GOP with a golden opportunity to implement its agenda, so Republican lawmakers have every reason to simply look the other way as he loots the presidency.

… There’s an understandable urge not to overreact and to maintain faith in the system … But as Columbia University political scientist N. Turkuler Isiksel wrote … this … blind faith can be incredibly damaging: “It is precisely such overconfidence in the United States’ long and illustrious tradition of liberty that could lull the American public into a false sense of security and facilitate the rapid destruction of that very tradition.”

That brings us back to the question of how best to react to the damage that has already occurred and the destruction that’s yet to come. Obviously those of us who are concerned by the slow-motion erosion of governing institutions run the risk of marginalization by living in a state of constant panic. That redounds to the benefit of the people doing the destruction, who can malign their critics as hysterical and unreasonable. But sitting back and waiting for the right moment also carries risks, as there very well might not be any sort of tipping-point event that screams “AN AUTHORITARIAN IS TAKING OVER” in bright neon lights.

7) “It can happen here: But has it? The 1933 scenario is no longer hypothetical,” (Salon, November 26, 2016, by Andrew O’Hehir. )

We have crossed the river of history into a new country … Will the presidency of Donald Trump … resemble things that have happened before? Or is it a trip to an unknown planet, where all the things we thought we understood about reality and democracy and the nature of America no longer apply?

… We don’t know whether the Trump election marks a fatal tipping point for the American experiment in popular self-government …

But history demands that we take that possibility seriously … I think we have to behave … as if our democracy has been irreparably damaged and now must be … rebuilt … because that may be the only way of preventing it from coming true.

We don’t know whether the election of Trump is an American echo of the winter of 1932-33 in Germany, when a fragile democracy collapsed into tyranny and an infamous demagogue rose to power on a promise of economic renewal and restored national pride, with an unmistakable racial subtext …

At the very least the Trump election is a moment of unprecedented national emergency and a critical symptom of how badly American political life has decayed. The whole scenario remains deeply ludicrous … A reality TV star and real estate salesman with the demeanor and intellect of a petulant child has been elected president …

… Then there’s the fact that President-elect Trump … has tapped an old-line white Southerner with clear links to Jim Crow-style racism for his attorney general (Jeff Sessions), a defrocked general given to paranoid anti-Islamic tirades as his national security adviser (Michael Flynn) and a millionaire zealot who wants to defund public schools as his secretary of education (Betsy DeVos).

Those who try to assure us that the emergency is not an emergency or to insist that the enduring institutions of democracy will surely triumph over this mass hallucination, are either cowardly or stupid or have their heads buried somewhere that isn’t the sand … At some point, clinging to your broken idols while barbarians ransack the temple just becomes pathetic.

… we should all be afraid. We have good reason to be afraid if we are Muslim, if we are gay or lesbian or trans, if we are black, if we are recent immigrants with or without papers. … We have reason to be afraid if we are Americans who do not define our nationality by looking backward to an imaginary past …

If you had to guess right now, consider who will be remembered as displaying courage and who as a disgraceful chicken shit? Outgoing Senate minority leader Harry Reid, who has excoriated Trump for his hateful and divisive campaign … Or Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia … who called Reid a disgrace to the party and the nation?

Will it be those members of the panel of New York Times editors and staffers who fell over themselves congratulating Trump for not breathing fire or eating babies after he finally deigned to meet with them? … Or will it be columnist Charles Blow, who could barely conceal his disgust at the craven conduct of his bosses?

… We all have to deal with the altered universe in which Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office as a somewhat legitimate president, even if such a universe makes that office and our entire country look like a bad joke …

It took years for American politics to deteriorate badly enough that Donald Trump could be elected dogcatcher, let alone president … So now we confront a national emergency that must not be denied and an old question out of the history textbooks that cannot be avoided: Whose side are you on?

8) “The Trump Administration: What I’m watching for,” The Weekly Sift, November 20, 2016, by Doug Muder, PhD, Mathematics.) Here are some excerpts from the piece. Muder lists the things those of us worried about authoritarianism should watch for:

Taking credit for Obama’s accomplishments. President Obama has left his successor a country in much better shape than the one he inherited from President Bush. Republicans in general and Trump in particular have refused to give Obama credit for his accomplishments, or even to recognize good news when it appeared …

Taking credit for averting dangers that never existed. This has already started. Trump is taking credit for keeping a Kentucky Ford plant from moving to Mexico, when Ford never had a plan to move it … In the conspiracy-theory swamps where many Trump supporters live, this will be incredibly easy: All they have to do is celebrate the end of things that never existed … You know those FEMA detention camps where anti-Obama dissidents were going to be sent? Trump closed them! They’re gone.

Profiteering. There will be no distance between Trump’s government and Trump’s profit-making enterprises. What this means is that there is a wide-open door for foreign governments to bribe President Trump … So if you’re competing against a Trump business, you’re competing against the Trump administration. It’s one enterprise now … All this runs afoul of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution …

Changing the electorate. …  the electorate becomes a little less white every year … if you really want to preserve the United States as a white-majority nation, you have to prevent non-whites from voting … That has been the Republican strategy for several years now. As soon as the Supreme Court opened the door, states governed by Republicans began changing election rules to make it harder to vote, especially for blacks, Hispanics, poor people, and college students …

Winking at right-wing paramilitary groups. To be honest, I’ll be relieved if we make it through the next four years with nothing worse than financial chicanery. Much darker stuff is possible … Early on, fascist violence is unofficial: Organized thugs destroy the printing press and send the editor to a hospital, not a jail. Police are not involved, but they show no interest in catching the people who are.

Right-wing violence in America was already a problem before Trump: There are groups that support firebombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors. Hate crimes against blacks, immigrants, or Muslims are usually portrayed as the work of isolated maniacs, but in fact killers like Dylann Roof and Wade Michael Page have had far stronger relationships with organized hate groups than, say, Omar Mateen had with ISIS. The Bundy gang … has openly challenged the federal government with armed resistance.

Subverting government agencies for political advantage. … I don’t expect Trump to … appoint a special prosecutor to go after the Clintons … But … FBI Director Comey’s highly unusual commentary on the Clinton email server problem … as well as the leaks from inside the FBI about some nebulous Clinton Foundation investigation, suggests that there has been considerable political corruption of the FBI already … The FBI, CIA, NSA, SEC, IRS, and other agencies all have considerable power to make Trump’s critics miserable, as well as to provide valuable information to his business interests. Will they be asked to do so, and will they give in?

Paying Putin back. Trump and Vladimir Putin both know that Trump could not have won without Putin’s help. The Russian hack of DNC and Clinton campaign emails was a major factor in the campaign. We have since found out that the Trump campaign was in regular contact with Russian officials. This should come as no surprise, since former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had previously received millions of dollars from pro-Russian organizations in Ukraine … [So] Will the Russian government continue committing crimes for Trump’s benefit? And what do they want in return?

I thank all the aforementioned authors for their insights. Unlike many of fellow citizens, I’m impressed when people actually know something, and I’m happy to benefit from their expertise. If that makes them elite, then so be it. I’m glad that we have a few elite thinkers. “Intellectually elite” shouldn’t be a pejorative term.


John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.

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