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

Photo of Hannah Arendt in 1975

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.

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