Category Archives: Politics – Tyranny

The USA Overthrows Democracies Abroad, Will They Overthrow Their Own?

Augusto Pinochet foto oficial.jpg

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage—torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians—which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.
~ George Orwell

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 15, 2017.)

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1915 – 2006), pictured above, was President of Chile between 1973 and 1990 and Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army from 1973 to 1998. His rule of Chile was a dictatorship.[3][4] Pinochet assumed power in Chile following a United States-backed coup d’état on 11 September 1973 that overthrew the democratically elected socialist Unidad Popular government of President Salvador Allende and ended civilian rule. Several academics have stated that the support of the United States was crucial to the coup and the consolidation of power afterward.[5][6][7] During the period of Pinochet’s rule, various investigations have identified the murder of 1,200 to 3,200 people with up to 80,000 people forcibly interned and as many as 30,000 tortured.[11][12][13]

Of course it is no secret that the USA has attempted to suppress democracy many times around the world since the end of WWII, and they have been successful in: Syria in 1949, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, the Congo in 1960, Greece in 1961, Brazil in 1964, The Dominican Republic in 1965, Italy in 1970, Chile in 1973, and others. In fact, the involvement of the USA in regime change around the world since the mid 19th century—both successful and unsuccessful involvement against all kinds of governments—forms a list too long to detail here.

Now here’s my question. If the military and covert forces of the USA are willing to overthrow (especially) democratic/populist governments around the world, is it much of a stretch to think that authoritarian forces won’t continue to use any means possible to suppress democracy in their own country? Voter suppression, gerrymandering, misinformation, propaganda, and all the rest may just be the beginning. It is but a short step from the above to using anything, including violence, to get your way. Especially when you are fanatical ideologues, power seeking plutocrats, or profit obsessed corporatists. And the job is made even easier with the cooperation of the coercive organizations of governmental agencies like the CIA, FBI, and the Justice department.

I fear for the Republic.

Douthat’s “How Populism Stumbles” and Frum’s “How To Build An Autocracy”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 13, 2017.)

If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality. ~ Hannah Arendt

In today’s New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat penned, “How Populism Stumbles.” Douthat argues that movements like Trump’s fail because of bigotry, extremism and, especially, hubris. With this in mind Douthat dismisses my worries about authoritarianism:

The great fear among Trump-fearers is that he will deal with this elite opposition by effectively crushing it—purging the deep state, taming the media, remaking the judiciary as his pawn, and routing or co-opting the Democrats. This is the scenario where a surging populism, its progress balked through normal channels, turns authoritarian and dictatorial …

Douthat tries to assuage our fears of autocracy noting that “nothing about Trumpian populism to date suggests that it has either the political skill or the popularity required to grind its opposition down.” This theme echoes those of another conservative New York Times columnist, David Brooks. In “The Internal Invasion,” he says, “Some on the left worry that we are seeing the rise of fascism, a new authoritarian age. That gets things exactly backward. The real fear in the Trump era should be that everything will become disorganized, chaotic, degenerate, clownish and incompetent.”

I hope that Douthat and Brooks are right—that we should worry more about incompetence than autocracy, although I have argued the opposite in multiple essays. I’m no expert on the competence necessary for the successful implementation of autocratic rule, but I doubt that it takes much. With power, and compliant, fearful subordinates, descent into all manners of fascism and violence is plausible—history books and nightly television provide ample evidence for this claim. Moreover, incompetence and authoritarian rule aren’t mutually exclusive. 

Now, in the latest issue of The Atlantic, former President George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum describes a dark future in his essay, “How To Build An Autocracy.” Frum, a conservative, writes one of the most perceptive pieces I’ve read about our frightening times. He points out, among other things, that constitutional government “is founded upon the shared belief that the most fundamental commitment of the political system is to the rules.” That’s why Clinton conceded despite winning millions more votes, and California accepts the outcome despite rejecting Trump “by an almost two-to-one margin.”

Frum asks conservative ideologues, who are tempted to disregard the rule of the law in order to pursue their self-interest, to temper their enthusiasm for their newfound power. In a powerful paragraph that distills the essence of the situation that Republicans find themselves in, he tries to awaken their conscience:

Perhaps the words of a founding father of modern conservatism, Barry Goldwater, offer guidance. “If I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ ” Goldwater wrote in, The Conscience of a Conservative, “I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.” These words should be kept in mind by those conservatives who think a tax cut or health-care reform a sufficient reward for enabling the slow rot of constitutional government.

He also points out that Trump wants to subvert precisely those institutions that “protect the electorate from its momentary impulses toward arbitrary action: the courts, the professional officer corps of the armed forces, the civil service, the Federal Reserve—and undergirding it all, the guarantees of the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights.” To implement their plans, Trump and his team count on public indifference. (That’s why, for example, they believe they can get away with not releasing Trump’s tax returns.) This means that what happens in the coming years will depend on whether Trump is right about political apathy. Yet, if people care enough, “they can restrain him.” Given our situation Frum exhorts us to:

Press your senators to ensure that prosecutors and judges are chosen for their independence—and that their independence is protected. Support laws to require the Treasury to release presidential tax returns if the president fails to do so voluntarily. Urge new laws to clarify that the Emoluments Clause applies to the president’s immediate family, and that it refers not merely to direct gifts from governments but to payments from government-affiliated enterprises as well. Demand an independent investigation by qualified professionals of the role of foreign intelligence services in the 2016 election—and the contacts, if any, between those services and American citizens. Express your support and sympathy for journalists attacked by social-media trolls, especially women in journalism, so often the preferred targets. Honor civil servants who are fired or forced to resign because they defied improper orders. Keep close watch for signs of the rise of a culture of official impunity, in which friends and supporters of power-holders are allowed to flout rules that bind everyone else.

So Frum sees that the threat of totalitarianism is real, as do I. Perhaps conservatives like Brooks and Douthat dismiss the danger because it’s hard for them to admit that the side with which they’re partly allied has brought about such frightening results. Then, to maintain cognitive equilibrium, they tell themselves that things won’t really get that bad because of the incompetence of Trump and his minions. Surely it couldn’t be that the reactionary forces against modernity are the problem? Surely it couldn’t be that, independent of competence, the seeds are being sown for our future destruction? Surely it couldn’t be that Brooks and Douthat have been allied with the wrong side all along?

Of course, in Douthat’s and Brook’s defense, they have been ardent critics of Trump. For that they are to be praised. Still they are associated with a political party that is on the wrong side of history. (As is Frum, a conservative himself.) The way forward doesn’t demand the in-group loyalty and out-group hostility embedded in reptilian brains, nor does it necessitate a retreat to medieval institutions, social values, discredited economic theories, and a rejection of science. I’m not saying that Brooks and Douthat would disagree with what I’ve just said, but they often write as if they are enemies of the future.

Moreover, while the future is unknown, the vast majority of thinkers who have studied the issue agree with myself and Frum, the threat to the American republic is greater now than at any other time in our history, with the possible exception of the period leading up to and including the American civil war.

Frum concludes his essay with a keen description, a dire warning, and a call to action. We should consider his thoughts carefully, and then act appropriately:

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 would like to thank David Frum for his sagacious essay.

Yes, America Is Descending Into Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt, stamp, Germany 2006

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 8, 2016, and in “syndax vuzz.”)

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie … The totalitarian … leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that … one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism. Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

For weeks now, I have been reading and blogging about dozens of articles from respected intellectuals from both the right and left who worry about the increasing authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist trends in America. Interestingly, when I tried to escape my scholarly bubble by looking for voices arguing that we are NOT heading in this direction, I came up empty. I found partisans or apparatchiks who maintain that all is good, but I couldn’t find hardly any well-informed persons arguing that we have nothing to worry about. I know there must be such people, but if there are they must be a tiny minority.

Now I did find informed voices saying that, in the long run, things will be fine. That the arc of justice moves slowly forward, that we take 1 step back but then take 2 steps forward. Now thinking about things from a larger perspective resonates with me. I write about big history and believe there may be directionality to cosmic evolution. I’ve argued that the universe is becoming self-conscious through the emergence of conscious beings, and I’ve even hypothesized that humans may become post-humans by utilizing future technologies. So I can’t be accused of ignoring the big picture.

However, at the moment, such concerns feel obtuse and esoteric. Yes, it may be true that life is getting better in many ways, as Steven Pinker recently noted. But such thoughts provide little consolation for the millions who suffer in the interim. When people lack health care and educational opportunities; when they are deported, tortured, falsely imprisoned, or killed in wars; when they live in abject poverty surrounded by gun violence, and suffer in a myriad of other ways, none of this is ameliorated by appeals to a far away future. Even if the world is better in a thousand years, that provides small consolation now.

What is almost self-evident is that America is now becoming more corrupt, and at a dangerously accelerating rate. In response we must resist becoming like those of whom Yeats said: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” So I state unequivocally that I agree with the vast majority of scholars and thinkers—recent trends reveal that the USA is becoming more authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist. The very survival of the republic is now in doubt.

Of course I could be mistaken, as it’s hard to predict the future. Moreover, I am not a scholar of Italian history, totalitarianism, or the mob psychology that enables fascist movements. But I do know that all of us share a human genome; we are more alike than different. Humans are capable of racism, sexism, xenophobia, cruelty, violence, religious fanaticism, and more. We are modified monkey—in many ways we are a nasty species. As Mark Twain said: “Such is the human race … Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”

Thus I resist the idea that fascism can happen in Germany, Italy or Russia, but not in America. It can happen here, and the signs point in an ominous direction. Furthermore, the United States was never a model of liberty or justice. The country was built on slave labor and genocide at home, and violent imperialism abroad. It is a first world outlier in terms of incarceration rates and gun violence; it is the only developed country in the world without national health and child care; it has outrageous levels of income inequality and little opportunity for social mobility; it ranks near the bottom of lists of social justice; it is one of the only countries in the world to condemn Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and it is consistently ranked as the greatest threat to world peace and the world’s most hated country.

Furthermore, signs of its dysfunction continue to grow. If authoritarian political forces don’t get their way, they shut down the government, threaten to default on the nation’s debt, fail to fill judicial vacancies, deny people health-care and family planning options, conduct congressional show trials, suppress voting, gerrymander congressional districts, support racism, xenophobia and sexism, and spread lies and propaganda. These aren’t signs of a stable society. As the late Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin put it:

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.

Now with power in the hands of an odd mix of plutocrats, corporatists, theocrats, racists, sexists, egoists, psychopaths, sycophants, anti-modernists, and the scientifically illiterate, there is no reason to think that they will surrender their power without a fight. You might think that if income inequality grows, individual liberties are further constricted, or millions of people are killed at home or abroad, that people will reject those in power. But this assumes we live in a democracy. But a compliant and misinformed public can’t think, act or vote intelligently. If you control your citizens with sophisticated propaganda and mindless entertainment, you can persuade them to support anything. With better methods of controlling and distorting information will come more control over the population. And, as long the powerful believe they benefit from an increasingly totalitarian state, they will try to maintain it. Most people like to control others; they like to win.

An outline of how we might quickly descend into madness was highlighted by David Frum, the conservative and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. 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 to massively 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 … 8) … few [IRS] commissioners serve the full 5 years; 9) The FBI seems … pre-politicized in Trump’s favor … 10) Construction of the apparatus of revenge and repression will begin opportunistically & haphazardly. It will accelerate methodically …

Let me tell a personal story to help explain the cutthroat, no holds bar political world that is rapidly evolving in America today. Years ago I played high-stakes poker. It started out innocently, a few friends having a good time playing for pocket change. Slowly the stakes became bigger, forcing me to study poker if I didn’t want to lose money. My studies paid off, and I began to win consistently. Great.

Then I start playing with strangers, assuming my superior poker skills would prevail. But soon I started losing; finding out later that I was cheated. (I was being cold decked.) It turned out that my opponents played by a different rule—their rule was that I wasn’t leaving the game with any money. Then I discovered that some people will go further, robbing you at gunpoint of the money you had won. (This actually happened to me.) Once the gentleman’s rules of poker no longer applied, nothing was off-limits. Similarly, once the agreement to play by democratic rules is violated, all bets are off. For example, you begin to ignore the other parties Supreme Court nominees, or threaten to default on the nation’s debts, or ignore obstruction of justice in order to get your way. This is a sign that we have entered the world of mobsters and rogue nations, an immoral world. The logical end of this state of affairs is violence.

This describes the current political situation. The US Congress was once characterized by comity, but is so no longer. From the period after World War II to about 1980, the political parties in the USA generally compromised for the good of the nation. The radicalization of the Republican party began in the 1980s and by the mid 1990s, with Republican control of the House of Representatives, the situation dramatically deteriorated. One side was determined to get their way and wouldn’t compromise. It was now no holds barred.

In other words, American politics has entered a situation that game-theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma. A prisoner’s dilemma is an interactive situation in which it is better for all to cooperate rather than for no one to do so, yet it is best for each not to cooperate, regardless of what the others do. For example, we would have a better country if everyone paid their share of taxes, but it is best for any individual, say Donald Trump, not to pay taxes if he can get away with it. Put differently, you do best when you cheat at poker and don’t get caught, or control the situation if you do get caught. In politics this means you try to hide your crimes, but vilify the press or whistleblowers if you are exposed.

If successful in usurping power, you win in what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the state of nature. Hobbes said that in such a state the only values are force and fraud— you win if you dominate, enslave, incarcerate, or eviscerate your opponents. But the problem with this straightforward eogism, Hobbes thought, was that people were “relative power equals.” That is, people can form alliances to fight their oppressors. So while the what Hobbes’ called the right of nature tells you to use whatever means possible to achieve power over others, the law of nature paradoxically reveals that this will lead to continual warfare—to a state of nature. The realization of this paradox should led people to give up their quest for total domination and cooperate. They do so by signing a social contract in which they agree to, and abide by, social and political rules.

But if we live in a country where people are radically unequal in their power—Democrats vs. Republicans; unions vs. corporations; secularists vs theocrats; African-Americans vs. white nationalists—then those in power won’t compromise with the less powerful. When the powerful few are imbued with the idea that they are better people with better ideas, and when they are drunk with their power, you can bet that the rest of us will suffer.

In short, it is a centuries old story. People want power. They will do almost anything to attain it. When they have it they will try to keep it, and they will try to divide those who should join together to fight them, hence they promote racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. In the end, a few seek wealth and power for themselves, others want a decent life for everyone. Right now the few are winning.

American Authoritarianism, Coming 2017

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.

Orwell’s press card portrait, 1943

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, and in The Connectivist, Jan. 5, 2017.)

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. Power is not a means; it is an end … The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power…
~ George Orwell

I’d like to provide a summary of the main ideas from the many articles I’ve reviewed over the last few weeks about the growing American authoritarianism. And in my next post I will, finally, reflect on what I’ve learned. First, we might recall our definition:

In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people. Authoritarian leaders often exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law …  Authoritarianism thus stands in fundamental contrast to democracy … ~ Encyclopedia Britannica

In short, authoritarianism describes a government with a large amount of control over the population, using coercive threats, suppression of a free press, as well as propaganda and disinformation to manage the people it rules. Totalitarianism is an extreme version of authoritarianism, and is usually associated with a charismatic leader, while fascism brings ultra-nationalism, corporatism, and racism into the mix. I will let the experts decide which definition best fits Trump and his associates, although all of them fit pretty well.

We began our discussion with the insights of the artificial intelligence and decision theory expert Eliezer Yudkowsky who described “how there’s a level of politics that’s theater and a level of politics that’s deadly serious.” This was meant as a warning for those willing to gamble on choosing unstable, unqualified leaders with authoritarian tendencies. We must remember that bad things can happen in the USA and there are no “nebulous forces” that will come to our rescue.

In “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” Amanda Taub reports on the political science research which converges on the idea that support for Donald Trump correlates almost perfectly with having an authoritarian personality. Support for authoritarian rule derives from the desire of people to be protected from dangers real or imagined.

In “America, The Disgraced Super-power: The America we have known and imagined is ended. It never will return,”  Michael Brenner argues that the USA has taken a cataclysmic turn, and it is slowly becoming a failed state.

… the America we have known and imagined is ended. It never will return …. the choice of Trump reveals most Americans as immature and prone to juvenile behavior.

And he expands his analysis in “How Autocracy Will Come To America,”

The unpalatable truth is that authoritarian movements and ideology with fascist overtones are back … Against this historical backdrop … we … see … the attitudes, the rhetoric and the inspirations that marked Fascism’s rise 80 or 90 years ago … racist hate; scapegoating of the alien “other;” mounting feelings of insecurity … ; frustrated feelings of lost prowess; the scorning of elected democratic leaders condemned … as “weak” … and overbearing …

Brenner connects his insights with those of Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016), the Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, semiotician, and university professor. In 1995, Eco penned an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “Ur Fascism.” (Eternal fascism) Each of the 14 features of fascism that Eco described parallels the words and actions of Trump.

All this got me to thinking that we shouldn’t be surprised that forces within the USA continue to undermine democracy. After all, it is no secret that the USA has attempted to suppress democracy many times around the world. So if the military and covert forces of the USA willingly overthrow (especially) democratic/populist governments around the world, why wouldn’t they participate in undermining democracy at home? Voter suppression, gerrymandering, propaganda, and all the rest may just be the beginning. From there it is but a short step to using anything, including violence, to get your way.

Such thoughts led me to Henry Giroux’s, “Orwell, Huxley and America’s Plunge into Authoritarianism.” Giroux outlines how technology aids authoritarian regimes in tracking and distracting their citizens into accepting a totalitarian state:

The authoritarian nature of the corporate-state surveillance apparatus and security system … can only be fully understood when its ubiquitous tentacles are connected to … security-patrolled corridors of public schools, the rise in super-max prisons, the hyper-militarization of local police forces, the justification of secret prisons and state-sanctioned torture abroad, and the increasing labeling of dissent as an act of terrorism in the United States. [29] … Alongside efforts to defund public and higher education and to attack the welfare state, a wide-ranging assault is being waged across the culture on all spheres that encourage the public to hold power accountable …

To add to these concerns, Jason Stanley’s “Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality,” offers perceptive commentary on our current, frightening political situation. His key idea is that authoritarian propaganda creates a false reality in order to gain power.

… Trump is trying to convey is that there is wild disorder, because of American citizens of African-American descent, and immigrants … The chief authoritarian values are law and order. In Trump’s value system, nonwhites and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. Trump knows that reality does not call for a value-system like his; violent crime is at almost historic lows in the United States. Trump is thundering about a crime wave of historic proportions, because he is an authoritarian using his speech to define a simple reality that legitimates his value system, leading voters to adopt it …

In “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 historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat points out the similarities between Trump and Mussolini. It is a terrifying read:

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.

In his 2008 book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianismthe late Princeton University political theorist Sheldon Wolin explained how the United States would fully devolve into authoritarianism. His vision of the future was clearly bleak.

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.

Similar themes are highlighted in Bob Cesca’s, “Autocratic for the people: As Donald Trump’s populist wave recedes, an authoritarian regime in the making is revealed.

… your fears about an autocratic strongman Trump presidency are entirely reasonable … we can expect Trump supporters to vigorously defend him every step of the way, no matter how far he goes … 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 … Whatever you might be thinking … it can absolutely happen here …

Simon Maloy’s, “The slow-motion decline: Resisting the gradual erosion of democratic institutions under President Trump,” agrees that our current situation is precarious:

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.

Andrew O’Hehir also agrees with the above in, “It can happen here: But has it? The 1933 scenario is no longer hypothetical.”

… 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 … 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 …

The mathematician and blogger Doug Muder tells us what to look for in, “The Trump Administration: What I’m watching for.” Specifically, Trump and his administration: 1) Taking credit for Obama’s accomplishments; 2) Taking credit for averting dangers that never existed; 3) Profiteering; 4) Changing the electorate; 5) Winking at right-wing paramilitary groups; 6)Subverting government agencies for political advantage; and 7) Paying Putin back.

An author who predicts that most of what Muder worries about might happen is David Frum, the conservative and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, in “David Frum Predicts the Dark Course of Trump’s Impending Authoritarianism.” 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 …

Finally, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University, offer a most sober analysis of our situation in,  Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?”

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 … 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.

Finally I reiterate my debt to all the other aforementioned authors for their perceptive 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. “Intellectually elite” shouldn’t be a pejorative term.

In my next post, I will reflect on what I’ve learned about our current crisis.

Articles About American Authoritarianism

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 3, 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.
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 .)

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 .)

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 .)

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 . )

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.