Category Archives: Book Reviews – Politics

Review of Aaron James’ “Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump”

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

If you are interested in knowing about assholes, Aaron James is your man. In the rather new and thin study of asshology, James has emerged as the leading voice. His Assholes: A Theory was a New York Times bestseller in 2012Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump is his more recent sequel …

The book does not aim to convince people that Trump is an asshole. James is rightfully confident that we can accept that as a starting point. His goal in this book is merely to describe what kind of an asshole Trump is and to consider whether an asshole like Trump should be disqualified from the office of the presidency. The book does a fair job of fulfilling those two goals. However, the main fault of the book is that it only tacitly — not clearly and consciously—recognizes that asshology alone does not provide adequate tools for analyzing the unfittness of Trump to be the president. More on that later.

In addition, however, even if one just wants to consider how far the tools of asshology can get us in political analysis of Trump or Trumpism, it fails to clearly enough consider a whole host of important questions related to the election and support of such an asshole. For example, what were the cultural and structural conditions that lead not only to Trump emerging as an asshole but also to the citizens of the United States deciding that it was OK to vote this asshole into office? What might we do not only about the asshole President but also about the assholes who support him? In fact, while James mentions that some cultures might be more likely to produce assholes than others, he largely leaves aside the analysis of what in the United States has led to the support for an asshole of major proportions—a kind of Ueber-asshole or super-asshole like Trump.

James begins with a characterization of the asshole: “The asshole is the guy (they are mainly men) who systematically allows himself advantages in social relationships out of an entrenched (and mistaken) sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people” (p. 4). The asshole differs from a jerk because he has a greater sense of entitlement. His rudeness is more deeply entrenched. He is more insidious than an ass-clown, who acts more from a sense of pleasing or gaining the approval of the crowd.

Though assholes can also be ass-clowns, not all ass clowns are assholes. The ass-clown per ass-clown lacks the greater seriousness of the asshole. That is not to say that some ass-clowns cannot also be assholes. Donald Trump is in James’ view, a case in point. His ass clownness allows him to appeal to many, to benefit from the media spectacle. But he is clearly more than an ass-clown, even if his assholeness is combined with ass clownery more than we find with many well-known straightforward assholes like Ted Cruz, Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich, perhaps the father of assholes in contemporary U.S. politics. We, of course, know such assholes when we see them—and miss in them the entertainment quality we find in an asshole like Trump who is also an ass clown. James differentiates such assholes—and ass clowns—from psychopathic autocrats like Stalin or Hitler.

Though James notes Trump is an ass-clown and asshole, he eventually suggests that the problem with Trump is that he is not merely an asshole. The greater concern with him is that he has autocratic tendencies. James is surely right about that. The problem is that he does not acknowledge it squarely enough. His analysis at one point simply moves beyond his said topic. It’s at this point that he should have clearly acknowledged the relative impotency of any analysis of Trump from the perspective of asshology. Trump is an asshole—sure. But to know why he is unsuitable to be president, we have to move on to another kind of analysis.

It is not the fact that Donald Trump is an asshole or even any particular kind of asshole that makes him unsuitable for Presidency. It’s that he is so much more than an asshole, even if he is not (yet) the kind of autocrat of a Stalin or Hitler. In fact, assholes, even people who are assholes in a way somewhat similar to Trump, can be pretty good presidents. Bill Clinton was an asshole, who cheated on his wife regularly, lied to her and the nation on numerous matters, but was a pretty good president. He still had some sense of what the job required, had self-control in important ways, and had a commitment to some ideals beyond himself.

Trump isn’t unsuitable for being the president because he’s an asshole. He’s unsuitable to be the president, as James’ analysis itself goes on to suggest, because he undermines democratic principles and constitutional norms, because he cares too little about the well-being of many Americans and focuses on what is advantageous for a very small number of Americans, because he is neither curious about the world around him, nor informed about it. A study of asshology does not provide the resources for handling any of these issues well enough.

In the book, James argues that Trump is not only a particular kind of asshole but that he is a particular kind of bullshitter. But I believe his analysis of Trump as a bullshitter also misses the mark. Trump is not a liar or a conman, he argues, because a liar and conman knows that he is lying (p. 38). A bullshitter, by contrast, just doesn’t care about the truth (p. 31). Yet, what is missing from this is that a bullshitter also is often just shooting the shit. He isn’t really doing what he’s doing to gain a lot of concrete results in the world or in politics. As Harry Frankfurt says when describing one such bullshitting orator, he “intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself” (qtd. p. 32). It’s not that Trump does not do this, and does not disregard the truth. It’s just that he does so much more. Through what he is doing, he isn’t just shooting the shit and getting people to view him a certain way. He is ultimately aiming at lowering taxes, eliminating environmental policy, appointing certain supreme court justices. Bullshitters are not folks who pick your pocket after gaining your trust. Conmen are. Just as asshology fails to supply the right tools for an analysis of Trump, so does bullshitology. It’s not that Trump isn’t a bullshitter. It’s just that he’s so much more than a bullshitter that labeling him a bullshitter obfuscates more than it clarifies.

James does go on to evaluate Trump’s inadequacy for the presidency by highlighting some of these issues that move beyond asshology or bullshitology. But he does so without a clarity of purpose. He does so without clearly enough noticing that he is doing it.

In those sections of the book, he notes Trump’s authoritarian tendencies (pp. 48 ff.). He notes “Being an asshole, per se, might not even be [Trump’s] worst flaw. Trump’s worst flaw could lie in his sexism, his racism, his naked self–servingness, or his destructive potential” (p. 53).

In fact, an analysis of what makes Trump unsuitable for the presidency — insofar as it focuses on character issues at all — needs to be rooted in psychoanalysis more than the reflections of asshology offer. We do better to turn to studies of Eric Fromm and Theodor Adorno on the authoritarian personality and to reflections by Hannah Arendt on how propaganda works in authoritarian cultures.

More importantly, we need to look too broader social movements. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt about how lies are increasingly consciously manufactured with the funding of big business and distributed in our media ecosystems provides an important starting point. More recent analysis of dark money in politics productively builds on this. Furthermore, recent studies by Timothy Snyder (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Centuryand Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat (How Democracies Die) that try to draw lessons from the erosion of constitutional norms in various countries of Eastern Europe and South America are very useful.

For all that the theory of assholes cannot do in helping us to analyze Trump, perhaps it does have some little part to play that can be helpful. Besides that, Trump isn’t the only asshole out there. We are surrounded by assholes. James notes strategies for self-preservation in our everyday environments with assholes.

I number here the coping strategies he notes, otherwise using his language verbatim:

  1. avoid the asshole if you can;
  2. accept that he probably won’t listen or change;
  3. affirm your worth by calling a wrong a wrong;
  4. hope for his best;
  5. laugh as much as possible;
  6. go easy on yourself;
  7. cooperate on your own terms;
  8. make small improvements, in order to increase your sense of efficacy;
  9. politely request to be treated as you prefer (because he might do it);
  10. mildly retaliate;
  11. take a public stand to uphold your or other people’s rights (e.g., refuse to shake his hand);
  12. and by all means, be understanding of different coping styles to better cooperate in holding the guy accountable.

Besides that, James notes strategies for decreasing the suitableness of our political and cultural environment for the proliferation of further assholes. For that, he suggests supporting “moral and civic education,” encouraging students to pursue life’s of service rather than just profit maximization, a general countering of the “greed is good,” capitalist system. The final two chapters of the book use general tools of political theory to argue that we need a renewed commitment to social life based on mutual respect—the kind of respect that assholes deny others. He affirms the need for the type of Republicanism for which Philip Pettit argues, one in which the development of a common reason is facilitated and the constitutional and respectful norms of communication and recognition are affirmed.

I wholeheartedly support James’ focus on these issues here. In doing these things, he seems to me, however, to be moving far beyond the analysis of asshology. He thus perhaps here does more than he intends or claims to do.

The analysis of Trump and Trumpisism with the tools of asshology is perhaps cathartic. It sheds some light. But the tools are just not strong enough. Trump is an asshole of course. But he’s so much more than that, that to criticize him from that perspective alone is an insult to assholes everywhere.

Review of Richard J. Bernstein’s, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Freedom—as Hannah Arendt understands it—is only possible in a participatory political life. Such a form of life, which cultivates individuality and spontaneity, can be contrasted with totalitarianism, which ultimately aims at the total domination of the individual. Our responsibility is to ensure our own freedom—that is, to ensure collective, participatory forms of political life under which such freedom is possible.

Richard J. Bernstein explores these and other of Arendt’s ideas with clarity and brevity in Why Read Hannah Arendt Now? His focus is on central themes in her work that are relevant to issues we are facing today (8). Though he mentions international issues of importance, with the exception of the question of Israel, his contemporary focus is on life in America under the Trump administration. The topics he covers in Arendt include her views on refugees, states and statelessness, Israeli politics, race, the banality of evil, truth and lying in politics, the American revolution, and personal and political responsibility.

Arendt’s view of politics is normative. When she describes politics, as well as key concepts like “power” and “freedom” she does not merely describe the way politics is understood to work in the real world or offer views of “power” or “freedom” that are generally accepted. She makes distinctions necessary to understand a political realm that we might strive for, freedom that we might hope to achieve and power the way it would be justly wielded. Her discussions of these issues—the premise of Bernstein’s book—are worth serious consideration in our present context, as they provide intellectual tools for countering tendencies toward authoritarianism that we can see emerging in various places throughout the world.

While humans have free-will, [according to Arendt] Arendt does not identify this with freedom. Human freedom, which she characterizes as “public freedom,” is a social and political achievement. It requires the development of human freedom of thought and individuality. An expression of human free will is the ability to form one’s own judgments and develop one’s own opinions and perspectives.

It is the making up one’s own minds in the public sphere that characterizes public freedom that she thinks we are to strive for. Arendt’s focus in her discussion of the public sphere is on how perspectives are formed under conditions of dialogue and exchange. While this was part of life in the ancient Athenian polis, it was also an emphasis and achievement of the eighteenth-century philosophes, who exchanged views in salons. It is in the give and take with others that individuals achieve better judgment. Judgment, she emphasizes in a text that sounds more than a bit like Habermas’ later thought, “rests on potential agreement with others…and the thinking process…finds itself always and primarily, even when I am quite alone in making up my mind, in an anticipated communication with others with whom I know I must finally come to agreement.” (101-02).

Arendt’s writing on the American revolution drives home her view of the importance of the public sphere. The American, as opposed to the French, Revolution delivered not just on “liberty” (as Arendt defines this, the ending of their own domination by a political authority). The American Revolution also delivered on “freedom”—and for Arendt this entails “constitution-making.” The context of the American revolution, where the colonies had already been much involved in the daily tasks of self-government created conditions for a successful revolution: “the fight for independence … was the condition for freedom, and the constitution of the new states” (qtd. 106).

But the independence was not enough to guarantee freedom. In the constitution, the Founding Fathers, set up conditions for continued self-government that makes freedom possible. Among the important conditions for this were, of course, the balance of powers, states rights, and limited government. But also key was the creation of public spaces for public discussion, for opinion formation (107). Jefferson, she highlights, had even set up local wards or “elementary republics” for self-government. His fear was that without them, in Bernstein’s words, “public freedom would wither away” (109).

In various of Arendt’s work, she emphasizes the importance of such local wards—in contexts as varying as the American Revolution and modern political uprisings. In writing on the Budapest uprising of 1956, she noted their emergence, even in a short period: “The neighborhood councils emerged from sheer living together and grew into country and other territorial councils, evolutionary councils grew out of fighting together; councils of writers and artists, one is tempted to thinker, were born in cafes, students’ and youths’ councils at the university, military councils in the army, councils of civil servants in ministries, workers’ councils in factories, and so on. The formation of a council in each disparate group turned a merely haphazard togetherness into a political institution” (qtd. 113-4).

In Arendt’s view such community building impulses, while again and again being forgotten, can re-emerge. They provide one of the best hopes against the totalitarian temptations, which also remain present in modern societies. In Bernstein’s words: “Arendt expresses what was always fundamental to her and should be fundamental for us—the desire of people to have their voices heard in public, to become genuine participants in shaping their political life” (115).

One of Arendt’s most famous works, The Origins of Totalitarianism, offers a penetrating analysis of the emergence of political forms that run antithetical to the participatory forms that Arendt thinks provide our opportunity for realizing human freedom. Totalitarian regimes move to destroy freedom and institute “total domination.”  “The logic of total domination” characteristic of such totalitarian regimes involves three steps.

First, totalitarians eliminate judicial protections of the person, stripping people of their legal rights. Second, they move to impinge even on moral acts of conscience. This can happen, for example, when individuals are forced to choose between various morally objectionable choices. As Arendt noted “When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his friends or sending his wife and children…to their death…The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder” (qtd. 30). Third, they move toward the destruction of individuality. In Arendt’s words “For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environment and events” (31). Arendt views the final aim of such totalitarian regimes as the transformation of human being into “living corpses” (31). Individual no longer express their own lives and make decisions for themselves. They are totally dominated.

In Arendt’s discussion of totalitarianism and in other work, she also makes important points about refugees and the denial even of “the right to have rights.”  Arendt is perhaps most famous for her comments on the banality of evil in her evaluation of the Eichmann case. Her main point, whatever one’s assessment of how appropriate her analysis was for Eichmann himself, is that the great evils of the Third Reich, monstrous as they were, did not generally occur because the people carrying out these deeds were monstrous. Though we may want to think of evil in mythological terms, Arendt suggests that we rethink this. As she noted in a later assessment of the Eichmann trial: “However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think” (qtd. 63). The evil of totalitarianism in the Third Reich occurred as people moved on with their normal everyday lives, following orders and climbing career ladders with a lack of much concern for those around them.

Some of Arendt’s deepest insights concern truth, lying, manipulation and self-deception in totalitarian regimes. Though there may be new elements to our “post-truth” culture, totalitarian regimes had long ago mastered propaganda that played on a willingness of people to suspend disbelief. In Between Past and Future Arendt had noted: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and truth defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearing in the real world—and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed” (qtd. 75).

In other work, she notes similarly important points about the erosion of truth in totalitarian societies: “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part” (qtd. 77). In Bernstein’s prescient discussion of her views: “People who feel that they have been neglected and forgotten yearn for a narrative that will make sense of the anxiety and the misery they are experiencing — one that promises redemption from their troubles. In such a situation, an authoritarian leader can exploit the anxieties that people are experiencing and successfully blur the distinction between lies and reality. Argument and appeal to facts are not really important for such propaganda. An appealing fictional story can be foolproof against factual truth, reality, or argument.” (77)

The use of appealing fiction for purposes of manipulation occurs in what Arendt calls “image making.” In image making, facts are dismissed that do not line up with the cultivated image of a political movement. As Bernstein notes, “the image becomes a substitute for reality” (77). Clearly, those with despotic tendencies can play on that, encouraging individuals to dismiss as “fake news” or as a conspiracy from elites anything that conflicts with a cultivated political image. Arendt’s words on this are still pertinent. “Contemporary history,” she notes, “is full of instance in which tellers of factual truth were felt to be more dangerous, and even more hostile than the real opponents” (qtd. 79). On the same topic, she notes “Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing than reason, than reality, because the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear” (qtd. 80).

Such incredibly insightful observations on truth and lies in politics are just some of the many ideas of relevance to us today that Bernstein highlights. Bernstein succinctly presents Arendt’s views on these varying issues. And he makes appropriate bridges to present policies and dynamics in U.S. and international relations. If the book has a flaw it is that the various ideas are not presented systemically. Some might also regret what the book doesn’t do. It doesn’t speak of Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger, for example. But none of that is precisely the point of this publication. In the main, the book does very well what it sets out to do, which is to describe why we should read Hannah Arendt now.

We will benefit indeed from taking earnestly Arendt’s warning that “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up wherever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social and economic misery in a manner worth of man.” (qtd. 34).

Faced with a world in which such temptations are attractive to many, our best antidote may be to cultivate the forms of participatory democratic form that Arendt argues can allow the development of greater human freedom. Arendt—skeptical as she was of narratives of inevitable progress or inevitable decline—would emphasize that our freedom is key, as is our understanding of responsibility.

Review of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: “How Democracies Die”

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

We all know of democratic institutions that have ended by revolution or coup. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two professors of government at Harvard University, highlight another way that they increasingly end — through a slow erosion of institutions by those who were democratically elected to oversee them.

In How Democracies Die the authors apply their knowledge of the collapse of democratic institutions from Europe and Latin America to analyze the erosion of democratic norms in the United States. While the constitutional system and the norms in the United States under Trump are still preserving democracy, the erosion of norms is alarming. Trump has the tendencies of the European and Latin American demagogues that Levitsky and Ziblatt have spent their lives studying; and he is doing much that demagogues elsewhere have done to undermine democratic institutions. So far, the Republican Congress has also adopted a policy of appeasement very much like what we find where demagogues have assumed power. They have largely failed to play the needed gatekeeping role.

At the outset of the book Levitsky and Ziblatt outline how “fateful alliances” in many countries have allowed demagogues to assume power. In many cases, those who undermine democracies come into their leadership as political outsiders. To gain respectability, they are dependent on political insiders opening doors and pursuing their agendas. As the authors note: “A sort of devil’s bargain often mutates to the benefit of the insurgent” (15). Many times the political outsiders display authoritarian behavior, but the insiders think they can keep them under control, so support them for reasons of political expediency. Rather than blocking would-be dictators, the “fateful alliances” help usher the insurgents into power. “The abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders often marks a nation’s first step toward authoritarianism” (19).

In many cases, the demagogues come to power because of a lack of good mechanisms for gatekeeping. In the U.S. authoritarian figures have emerged again and again throughout history. Henry Ford is one such extremist. He railed against Jews, bankers, communists, and was impressive enough to Adolf Hitler to receive his praise in Mein Kampf (43ff.). Ford at one time had political aspirations. He nearly won a Senate seat in 1918 and was in discussions for a presidential run in 1924. However, the party establishment of the time was able to successfully block him. Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin are two well-known autocratic figures from the 1930s. Joseph McCarthy is perhaps the most famous example from the 1950s. Like Trump, these leaders played to populism. Unlike Trump, they were successfully blocked from ascendancy to the presidency.

Levitsky and Ziblatt think there are two main reasons that account for Trump’s success: 1) the Citizen’s United decision, which made it much easier to have nearly unlimited funding of elections; and 2) the emergence of new media. The latter includes both Fox News and various right-wing radio and TV personalities, which David Frum has called the “conservative entertainment complex” (see 56) as well as social media. Trump was a great beneficiary of both. Despite the NeverTrump movement and warnings from a few Republican Party insiders, public opinion during the election was able to hold strong, in no small part because of the aid of commentators like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, as well as the increasingly important Breitbart news.

There are four main indicators of authoritarian behavior that the authors highlight: 1) the rejection of democratic institutions, or at least a weak commitment to them; 2) the denial of the legitimacy of political opponents; 3) the toleration or encouragement of violence; and 4) the desire or willingness to reduce civil liberties (see 23ff., 61ff.). Even before his election, Trump displayed all four in ways by now familiar. The Republicans abdicated their responsibility to democracy, failing to take a principled stance against him. Often for reasons of expediency, they supported him despite his unfitness for office and of the clear danger even to the constitutional order that many of them indicated he presented.

They did this for reasons that are common in such circumstances. 1) They thought they might control him. (There was much talk that he would be different once he assumed office). 2) There was “ideological collusion.” While even on the eve of the election, 78 Republicans came out supporting Clinton in a piece in the Washington Post, only one of them was an elected official (69). Those in office chose political expediency. Like others who have made fateful alliances, they thought they could control him, or that given that he would push along their agenda of tax cuts and court picks, the risk was worth it.

Once in power demagogues set about to subvert democracy. As Levitsky and Ziblatt note: “The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.” Though there is no exact blueprint, certain steps are very common. One is the attempt to “capture the referees” (78). Independent checks and balances are a hindrance to power, so insurgents will typically try to win them to their side, or failing that attack them as they work to undermine their independence. “Contemporary autocrats tend to hide their repression behind a veneer of legality” (83).

So the demagogue works within the system to capture independent checks and to eliminate independent voices. Some things prove easier to do: One can fire civil servants and non-partisans and replace them with loyalists (79). If the courts or intelligence community is independent, then it is typical to undermine them. The long game is to gain them to one’s side though since this is a way to create a ruse of legitimacy. If one succeeds in capturing them, then they can be used as a weapon to investigate or prosecute one’s enemies and to protect oneself and one’s allies (78ff.).

Other independent voices in civil society also need to be quieted. If one has an independent press, then one can attempt to intimidate them into self-censorship. Trump’s threats to open up libel laws for bias in the press is one of his attempts to do this. Failing this, he, like various authoritarian leaders, undermines their legitimacy. His well-known accusations that they are “enemies of the people” and produce “fake news” are clear and repeated attempts to undermine the significance of their independence.

Another typical course of action is to undermine influential and independent business leaders, who might pose a threat. Trump’s threats to sue Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and the Washington Post, for breaching antitrust law come to mind, as well as his threats to hinder the proposed merger of Time Warner and AT&T. Authoritarians also often do what they can to silence alternative cultural voices, such as actors, stars, athletes. From attacks on Susan Sarandon to NFL players, examples in the Trump administration are not wanting.

Another part of the long game is to ultimately change the rules of the game and even the constitution itself. Rule changes can occur in numerous areas. In voting procedures, we have seen the attempts that preceded Trump have increased, as various voter suppression tactics — from gerrymandering to voter ID laws and the purging of voter registration lists. All of these target those who tend to vote Democratic.

Very often autocrats benefit from exploiting crisis “to justify power grabs” (95). In some famous cases, such as Hitler’s Reichstag fire and Putin’s allegations of Chechen terrorist attacks, there is considerable question about whether the crises were even real or fabricated. Nonetheless, in both cases, power was able to be expanded as civil liberties were sacrificed for security purposes. Very often leaders are able to consolidate power after such crises as their popularity also soars. As rules of the game are often rewritten in such times of crisis, it’s not unusual that people hardly notice.

While Levitsky and Ziblatt think that the constitution is very important, they emphasize that it alone will not secure a democracy. Numerous countries with constitutions similar to our own have had failed democracies. Argentina and the Philippines are just two examples (100). In addition to the constitution, the authors emphasize the importance of “strong democratic norms.” These include toleration of differences among the political parties and “institutional forbearance” (see 102 ff.) The former means that one can respect one’s political opponents without viewing them as enemies. In democracies, this often means that one doesn’t make full use of some powers that may not be explicitly prohibited in the constitution, but that have emerged as unspoken rules for interaction that secure civility and the long-term functioning of the political system. As Levitsky and Ziblatt colloquially describe the thought behind this: “Think of democracy as a game that we want to keep playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow” (107).

The authors describe the breakdown in such norms in various regimes where democracy has failed and highlight the decline of such norms in the U.S. system as politicians have increasingly come to play what Mark Tushnet has called “constitutional hardball” (109). Many things not explicitly prohibited are then done even where long-standing custom dictates otherwise.

Some of the best parts of the book outline how the gatekeepers and the unwritten rules emerged and functioned in the history of American politics, and the threats to the democratic norms that the country experienced. In the history of the U.S., the gatekeeping that did emerge and the “democratic norms” were accompanied by exclusionary policy toward African-Americans and women, such that the U.S. for most of this history could not be characterized as fully democratic.

It was by no means an easy road to where we ended in the 1970s when women and African-Americans were more meaningfully included into U.S. politics. From there, though, the authors highlight the decline in the democratic norms that began in the 1980s. Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were among the first to reintroduce “constitutional hardball,” undermining nearly all efforts for cooperation with the Democrats when they were in power. Americans for Tax Freedom and various heavy donors associated with them, as well as the emergent Tea Party, all have continued to contribute to the erosion of democratic norms and unwritten rules of governance. Democrats have reacted to that, with their own incursions, but the authors leave no doubt that in recent history this problem has largely been perpetuated by the Republican Party.

All of this leads us to Trump, who the authors’ view as a unique figure in the history of U.S. politics in the ways that he undermines democratic norms. The book usefully highlights instances that display his autocratic character and his attempts to undermine checks and balances of the U.S. political system and to capture the traditional guardians of our democracy.

Though our constitutional checks have so far proved able to guard against their ongoing attack, Trump’s undermining of the norms of democracy is worrying. One reason is that his rhetoric begins to normalize both attitudes and behavior that undermine our constitutional system.

Writing of his behavior, they note: “Never has a president flouted so many unwritten rules so quickly” (195). Where there is a long-standing norm against nepotism, he breaks with it, appointing his daughter and son-in-law in key advisory posts within his administration. Where there is a norm of divesting investments, he breaks with it in ways that the governmental ethics commission has been critical. Where a civility with former rivals and outgoing presidents has prevailed, Trump has ended it, having threatened to have Hillary Clinton investigated and having falsely accused Barack Obama of having spied on him during his campaign. He has not only attacked the press in ways that we are by now familiar with, but he has also at times excluded them from major press events. He has attacked the judiciary and the intelligence community, after reportedly having asked for James Comey’s commitment of personal loyalty. His pardon of Joe Arpaio directly undermined a decision of one of the branches of government put in place to check presidential power.

So Trump has flouted typical restraint. Trump has also lied at a level truly unprecedented. According to PolitiFact, in the 2016 election, 69% of his public statements were mostly false. The New York Times showed that he made demonstrably false statements at least once a day his first forty days in office (198). None of this shows any likelihood of abating.

Through all of this, Trump is undermining American soft power abroad. As the authors note: “America is no longer a democratic model. A country whose president attacks the press threatens to lock up his rival and declares that he might not accept elections results cannot credibly defend democracy” (206). The U.S. is in “a period of democratic recession” (205).

Levitsky and Ziblatt see two main forces that are responsible for this situation: One is America’s racial and religious realignment. The other is the growth in economic inequality. The new racial and religious demographic fuels polarization, and politicians have become increasingly beholden to outside money, not controlling their parties themselves. We now need a “multi-ethnic democracy” where the politicians are not as beholden to their funders.

How Democracies Die is an extremely informative book. But it is especially in the proposal of what to do in the final chapter on “saving democracy” that the book disappoints a bit. The main point of the authors is that democratic norms are essential to the functioning of democracy. The authors’ thus end with something of a moral plea to return to democratic norms and expand them for an inclusive society. As the note in the closing pages: “Ultimately…American democracy depends on us–the citizens of the United States. No single political leader can end a democracy; no single leader can rescue one, either. Democracy is a shared enterprise. Its fate depends on us all” (230).

That is true enough. But it also doesn’t get us very far.

Nonetheless, this book does a great service in at least clearly describing typical steps that lead to failed democracies. That will surely be useful for those trying to prevent the further erosion of ours.

Review of Douglas Kellner’s: American Nightmare. Donald Trump, Media Spectacle, and Authoritarian Populism

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Donald Trump developed skills in marketing and show business, as a savvy self-marketer and a reality TV star, able to exploit new media — to plaster his name on the side of buildings, on boxes of steaks and on a fake university. He’s something of a 21st-century version of P.T. Barnum, able to garner popular attention, but with new media unavailable to the 19th-century showman/con-artist.

Douglas Kellner’s American Nightmare: Donald Trump, Media Spectacle, and Authoritarian Populism examines Trump’s political rise against the backdrop of contemporary media but also [against] the work of Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodor Adorno.

Kellner holds a Chair in the Philosophy of Education at UCLA. He is known for early work on the Frankfurt School, Marxism, and Postmodernism, but he has done more recent work on media culture. The first part of American Nightmare provides the media theoretic and philosophic framework for the book. The latter part focuses more on specific instances during the Trump campaign and early presidency in which Trump generated media spectacle. In his final chapter, before the “provisional conclusion,” Kellner indicates that the analysis of Trump in this thin volume (109pp.) is to be continued.

“Media spectacle” is one basic concept that Kellner uses to analyze Trump’s political rise. Such spectacles are “media constructs” that “disrupt the habitual flow of information” (3). The constructs seize people’s attention and emotions and can come to dominate a short news cycle or become be of more long-term interest. Especially in our emergent new media landscape, with the rise of social media and new sources of information, such media spectacles are playing an increasingly important role in politics. Kellner had already analyzed Obama in reference to his use of media spectacle, “blending politics and performance” (4). Media spectacle thus does not originate with Trump. However, Trump has especially benefited as “a successful creator and manipulator of the spectacle” (5). Indeed, Trump rode to his election success as one “whose use of the media and celebrity star power is his most potent weapon” (6).

As the host of The Apprentice, Trump had found a popular following, and one that had an interest in a “Trumpian pedagogy of how to succeed in the cut-throat corporate capitalist business world,” where “aggressive, highly competitive, and sometimes amoral tactics are needed to win and gain success” (8). Trump’s presidency attracted many of those who admired his alleged no-nonsense business background. In any case, Trump was able to draw on a popular base through a TV audience and to exploit that media, while at the same time mastering Twitter and using it to frame issues as he wanted and to draw attention to himself and incite emotions.

The Republican primary became a media spectacle dominated by Trump. Using inflammatory remarks on TV and Twitter to generate attention, by mid-June 2015, when he announced that he was running, through mid-July, “Trump was in 46% of the news media coverage of the Republican field, based on Google news hits; he also got 60% of google news searches.” Further academic research on this is being conducted. Trump, for his part, explained the attention he was getting: “RATINGS…it’s the ratings, the people love me, they want to see me, so they watch TV when I’m on” (11). This media saturation was a key to Trump’s election success.

While Trump was happy to use the media for his purposes, he was also undermining any media sources that were critical of him. As he noted: “The media is simply a business of distortion and lies…the press writes distorted and untruthful things about me almost daily” (qtd. 16). This attack on the media has by now become a refrain of the Trump administration. A part of his “branding” is to discredit any media messages that counter his own messaging.

In the early middle chapters of the book, Kellner moves from an analysis of Trump’s use of the media spectacle to an analysis of Trump and Trumpism that relies on the work of Erich Fromm and the Frankfurt School, especially their psychological analysis of authoritarian personalities. Wanting to avoid a too strict of comparison with the particularities of Nazi Germany, Kellner labels Trump not a fascist but an “authoritarian populist” (20)

An analysis of Fromm’s Escape from Freedom nonetheless shows that certain parallels between Trump and the earlier demagogues are clear. Like Hitler, Trump has organized a mass movement outside and critical of traditional party politics. Many of Trump’s base, whipped up by anger and rage, have a similar “idolatry toward their Fuhrer” to that shown by earlier supporters of dictators (21). Like such dictators, Trump presents himself as a quasi-magical leader, the only one who can set things right and “make America great again.” Much of his base adopts what Fromm characterized as “authoritarian idolatry.” Like various dictators, Trump plays on widespread “rage, alienation, and fears” (24). As in the context of those dictators, this generates an extremist support from his base. He may have correctly understood the fanaticism of his base when he stated, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and  I wouldn’t lose voters.”

Like various dictators, Trump presents a bleak view of the present political reality that resonates with his base and points to himself as the only possible leader who can allow escape from this bleak reality. However, he lacks the typical discipline of the well-known European dictators. Much of the time Trump plays on these emotions in apparently undisciplined Tweets or media outbursts.

Kellner approvingly quotes Evan Osmos’s analysis from The New Yorker of Trump’s unique brand of populism: “From the pantheon of great demagogues Trump has plucked some best practices — William Jennings Bryan’s bombast, Huey Long’s wit, Father Charles Coughlin’s mastery of the airwaves — but historians are at pains to find the perfect analogue, because so much of Trump’s recipe is specific to the present” (25). In Trump, the appeal to authoritarian populism is coupled with “celebrity politics.” Many of those in his “mobocracy” also simply find Trump quite entertaining (27-8).

Kellner refers to Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness as a further part of his personality analysis of Trump. Using the Freudian terms adopted by Fromm, he sees Trump as “the Id of American politics” (29) He is “often driven by sheer aggression, narcissism, and rage” (29). “Trump, like classical fascist leaders, has an underdeveloped superego” — understood as referring to the voice of conscience and morality (29). Kellner points to Trump’s Ego, “that has fully appropriated capitalist drives for success, money, power, ambition, and domination” (29). He proudly “brags of his ruthlessness in destroying competitors and enemies” (29). Unsurprisingly, from someone who seeks continual domination, he has few long-term friends and has numerous failed relationships.

Trump has the typical characteristics of the “authoritarian character,” as described by the Frankfurt School.  He displays characteristics of a sadist, described by Fromm as “a person with an intense desire to control, hurt, humiliate, another person” (30). He deflects blame continually and is extremely vindictive to those who have been critical of him. He also has the classical characteristics of a narcissist. As Fromm describes it: “Narcissism is the essence of all severe psychic pathology. For the narcissistically involved person, there is only one reality, that of his own thought, processes, feelings and needs. The world outside is not experienced or perceived objectively, i.e., as existing in its own terms, conditions and needs” (qtd. 31).

Kellner views Fromm’s psychoanalysis of Hitler as describing ” the authoritarian leader” in a manner that is “an uncanny anticipation of Donald Trump”: “he is interested only in himself, his desires, his thoughts, his wishes; he talked endlessly about his ideas, his part, his plans; the world is interesting only as far as it is the object of his schemes and desires; other people matter only as far as they serve him or can be used; he always knows better than anyone else. This certainty in one’s own ideas and schemes is a typical characteristic of intense narcissism” (qtd. 31). Similar depictions of Trump’s narcissism in the meantime proliferate. As Christopher Lasch notes: “diagnosis of Trump” has become “a kind of professional sport” (31). Not only are his narcissism and authoritarian character clear, but so is his “malignant aggression,” evident in his “spontaneously lashing out at anyone who dares to criticize him…” (33).

Much of the second part of the book chronicles instances in which Trump has exemplified some of the characteristics described and used the media as spectacle to whip up the emotions of his base. Here, we see Trump’s disregard for the facts and for standards of law play prominent and play well enough with his base. We see this in his incitement of his base at rallies throughout his campaign, where, for example, Trump offered to pay the legal bills of anyone who might be taken to court for beating up dissenters at his events, or where the crowds would recite “Lock her up” as kind of chorus to Trump’s references to “crooked Hillary.”

On display throughout his campaign and since are such appeals to violence or force. Not only was Clinton threatened with jail, but other forms of force were hinted at in innuendo. At one rally, where Trump talked of Hillary appointing judges, he noted first that there would be nothing that his people could then do, but then added, “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.” The appeal to threats of violence clearly resonates with much of his base, again showing the tendencies not only of Trump but of his movement to authoritarian populism.

Another element shared with dictators is Trump’s desire to be taken at his word. A turn of phrase Trump continually came back to in his campaign was “Believe me!” — something Kellner sees as a “revealing sign of an authoritarian demagogue who wants his followers to [accept] his promises as binding and his Word as the Truth to which they must submit” (57).

To this is added his continual attack on the press. Like other demagogues, Trump has moved to undermine external criticism and the reliance of a narrative other than his own. Those who should believe him would better not have his messaging interrupted by the press. In line with this, Trump has not only recently brandished mainstream media as “fake news.” On his campaign, he also promised to open up libel laws, so that it would be easier to sue journalists. As Kellner notes “never before has a presidential candidate threatened to curtail freedom of the press or ban certain publications that criticize him from rallies and public events” (65).

Kellner wrote his book as the campaign had ended, with a focus on the campaign and the earliest days of Trump’s presidency. Since the publication of the book, Trump has shown little sign that he is letting up. In Charlottesville, where right-wing extremists killed a protester, Trump spoke of “some very fine people on both sides.” His attacks on the media have grown only louder, and increasingly been accompanied by attacks on the justice investigations and the court system. Trump undermines, thus, not only the fourth estate but the constitutional order itself in a way very similar to demagogues who the Frankfurt School analyzed.

As noted, much of the later part of Kellner’s book simply catalogs the instances in which Trump displayed his manipulation of the media and put his demagoguery on display. It was clear to Kellner when he finished the book that such a chronicling would need to continue. It does. The early sections of the book provide some tools to help in the analysis. At present, we are still moving down the road Kellner began to analyze and we can still conclude with him: “It is … worrisome to contemplate that Trump has developed a large following through his demagoguery and that authoritarian populism constitutes an American Nightmare and a clear and present danger to US democracy and global peace and stability.” Let’s hope the nation soon wakes up!

Review of Timothy Snyder’s, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

© Darrell Arnold– (Reprinted with Permission)

In bite-sized chunks of two to eight (short) pages Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, offers a practical guide to understanding and possibly averting tyranny. [In his new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.]

At 126 pages, this small paperback is a great, quick read that offers lessons Snyder has accumulated over years of studying tyrannies around the world. His advice, accompanied by anecdotal stories from authoritarian regimes in twenty chapters, includes: Defend institutions, Remember Professional ethics, Believe in truth, Establish a private life, Be a patriot.

In Chapter 4, “Take responsibility for the face of the world,” Snyder asserts that “life is political”: “the minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote” (33). In everyday life, then, we should be attentive to our effect on the social and political world around us. In Hitler’s Germany, for example, small delinquencies in the everyday cascaded into increasingly larger ones: those who were able to be stamped as “pigs” were easier to later boycott because they were Jewish; and they were so much the easier to target more egregiously later. After first dehumanizing them in speech and with symbols, it was later possible to completely dominate them.

In Chapter five, “Remember professional ethics,” Snyder mentions both how legal and medical professionals came to the service of the Nazi regime. Professional lawyers helped twist the law to the Nazi’s perverse ends. Medical professionals proved quite willing to participate in ungodly experiments with Jews to advance medical knowledge. Collectives of professionals who are committed to the ethical codes of their professions can offer some resistance to dehumanizing practices supported by a government. As Snyder notes: “Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional” (41).

In Chapter eight, “Stand Out,” Snyder reminds us of great individuals throughout history, like Rosa Parks, who were not afraid to stand out and follow their consciences in the face of opposing political forces and who set positive examples for the struggle against domination. In various historical examples, we see it is all too easy to accommodate those who dominate. However, Winston Churchill in 1940 was another counter-example, as he entered into war to help Poland, which was largely seen by many others as a lost cause. As Snyder writes: “he himself helped the British to define themselves as a proud people who would calmly resist evil…. Churchill did what others had not done. Rather than concede in advance, he forced Hitler to change his plans” (54ff.).

Chapter 10, entitled “Believe in Truth,” begins with the prescient statement: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights” (65). Once truth is disarmed, and people simply reject it as the adjudicating criteria for belief, politics can quickly descend into spectacle. Hostility toward verification dominates. “Shamanistic incantations,” which Victor Klemperer described as “endless repetition” of some key phrases, takes over: Think of “lock her up” or “Build that wall.” Magical thinking also comes to dominate, accompanying the confused view that one particular political leader alone can solve the nation’s ills. As in the German example, people come to accept that one just needs faith in the “Fuehrer.” Our post-truth culture increases our vulnerability to this. In Snyder’s words: “Post-truth is pre-fascism” (71)

To break the spell of magical thinking and incantation, it is important to “investigate” (Chapter 11). Clearly, much of the information that we encounter every day is false. Some of it is purposefully meant to sew confusion. So it is important to learn to think critically about sources of information and to pursue a correct understanding of the world. As Vaclav Havel had written, “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living in truth” (78).

In “Practice corporal politics” and “Establish a private life” (Chapters 13 and 14), Snyder highlights the need for contact with people in one’s private life, partially in civil society (churches, clubs, organizations). Since “tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you,” he also advises “try not to have hooks.” Secure private information, for example, on your computer. But also publicly we can join groups that preserve human rights (91). This is related to Chapter 15, “Contribute to good causes”: The contribution can be in time or money, but it is a form of active engagement in shaping the world in accord with our own values and views.

In Chapter 16, “Learn from peers in other countries,” Snyder urges us to not only learn from others but to make friends with those in other countries. And in case the tyranny comes, “Make sure you and your family have passports” (95).

In “Be Calm When the Unthinkable Comes,” Chapter 18, we are urged to consider that demagogues often exploit crises to implement Martial law. In the search for safety, it is precisely in times of crisis that people are often more willing to compromise civil liberties and to allow changes in the constitutional order. Realize this, and counter it if it begins to occur. Understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism. In “Be Patriotic,” Chapter 19, Snyder encourages us to serve the ideals of our rights-based democracy, not to be victims of an authoritarian politics carried out by nationalists who are often completely out of sync with the ideals of the nation. Chapter 20 enjoins “Be as courageous as you can”: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny” (115).

Snyder finishes the book with a short epilogue contrasting two views of politics that he views as anti-historical, the “politics of inevitability” with the “politics of eternity.” Inevitability politicians work with a teleological view of history in which the course of history is maintained to be known in advance. It is anti-historical insofar as such a view presumes that there is no real freedom to escape the final end of history. Eternity politicians are anti-historical in another way. They focus on a past, but as an ideal type, not one comprised of real facts. So, eternity politicians refer to the soul of a country, pure, and often under siege by external forces. In contrast, Snyder sees what we might call a politics of freedom under which “history permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something” (125).

This typology is developed further in Snyder’s “The Road to Unfreedom.” Regardless of whether one finds the typology ultimately compelling or accepts Snyder’s apparent moderate liberalism, one may still admire Snyder’s attempt to highlight the importance of human freedom. Those attracted to Snyder’s book, which I hope will be many, are likely to agree with his appeals that we ought to “begin to make history” (126). Otherwise, various authoritarians surely will do it for us.

Since Snyder wrote his book, the possibilities of an increase in authoritarianism, unfortunately, do not appear to be abating. Rather, there increasingly appear to be very good reasons to heed Snyder’s practical suggestions for a politics of resistance.