Category Archives: Politics – Authoritarianism

American Totalitarianism

Photo of Hannah Arendt in 1975

Hannah Arendt

(This article was originally published on my blog on December 29, 2016. It was also reprinted in the magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, in syndax vuzz, and Church and State. I thought it was a good time to reprint it here.)

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 increasingly 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. Such 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. 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 (in large part) built on slave labor as well as 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 few 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. And a compliant and misinformed public can’t think, act or vote intelligently. If you control your citizens with sophisticated propaganda, mindless entertainment, and a shallow consumer culture, 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 … 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 grew, 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. (Newt Gingrich is more responsible for this than anyone; he is possibly the worst American to live in this century.) 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 egoism, Hobbes thought, was that people were “relative power equals.” That is, people can form alliances to fight their oppressors. So while 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 lead 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.

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

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission) http://darrellarnold.com/2018/07/12/how-democracies-die/

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.

Authoritarianism in America

Hannah Arendt, stamp, Germany 2006

(I published this piece one year ago. Given all that’s happened in the last year I thought it was worth republishing.)

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 increasingly 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. Such 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. 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 as well as 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 few 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. And a compliant and misinformed public can’t think, act or vote intelligently. If you control your citizens with sophisticated propaganda, mindless entertainment, and a shallow consumer culture, 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 … 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 grew, 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 egoism, 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 lead 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.

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.

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.