America should have its foot so far up Russia’s behind right now that whenever Vladimir Putin smiles, all you should see is Uncle Sam’s toenails. Yet, the political establishment has made only anemic attempts to hold Russia accountable for election meddling. It has also failed entirely in holding the Trump team accountable, not only for its litany of deceits but also its corrupt and potentially illegal practices (see any tweet by Richard Painter if you want details). Meanwhile, the Toddler President acts like a colicky tyrant and coddles a blooming neo-fascist movement here in America – on full view in Charlottesville.
For a moment, it’s worth reviewing the scale of Russia’s despotic posture toward the rest of the world, sowing chaos and undermining institutions of democratic self-governance, while advancing the cause of kleptocracy over free-market capitalism. (Bombing civilians in Syria in support of tyrant Assad; invading Georgia; annexing Crimea; instigating civil unrest in Ukraine; launching cyber attacks on elections in the U.S., France, Bulgaria, Austria, Germany, Norway and the UK; operating the Russian government as a protection racket for organized crime; to name a few of Putin’s recent hobbies.)
A terrific new documentary on Netflix called Icarus, shows how far Putin will go just to win a few gold medals at the Olympics and then hide the illegal operation (hint: it includes assassinating one of the heads of the Russian state-run doping program).
How does the party of Ronald Reagan let this slide? How does more than a third of the electorate let this slide? The answer(s) do not bode well for America, as democracy struggles against four forces pulling on it like anchor chains, setting the stage for potentially more dark times to come:
1) A budding autocrat in the Oval Office.
“The Leader” as we shall call him, places himself at the center of the universe as the sole arbiter of truth, above the law, demanding absolute loyalty, thriving on the fawning praise of lackeys (e.g., flattery briefings twice a day), and rallying his base every day against enemies who are everywhere. These traits we normally see in tin-pot dictators. Yet here, the most powerful man in the world screams his victim status multiple times a day over Twitter, while lying about his supposed successes. He undermines legitimate sources of facts (e.g., the CBO is “partisan” and the employment numbers from the BLS are “phony,” until they’re not) while putting government offices to work manufacturing evidence to support his lies (e.g., the Commission on Voting Integrity.)
(And has anyone noticed how bigly his signature has gotten as he has become more embattled, yet more assertive? Below is one photo from February on a statement supporting HBCUs, and the other is from June 16 when he signed a memo on Cuba policy. His signature has grown by 50 percent!)
Yet this con man has power, real power, to turn his hordes loose on anyone who opposes him. The horde is immune to facts and rational debate. They are his personal army. He wasn’t kidding when he said he could shoot someone dead in the middle of the street and not lose a vote.
2) A “Grand Old Politburo” (GOP) without a spine.
The GOP is so close to a multi-generational Soviet-style lock on national power that they can taste it: both houses of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships (approximately). They are trying to lock in their advantage by any means necessary: restricting voting rights, restricting and attacking the press (even physically), hijacking the judicial nomination process. In many states they are even trying to make it legal for motorists to run down protestors.
Giddy with power and fearing their own ultra-orthodox primary voter base, the GOP has consistently refused to act as a “check and balance” on the executive. Rather, they are so hungry to implement their agenda that they are willing to tolerate a budding autocrat, and act like autocrats themselves, in the hope that they can gut the liberal state and still have time to clean up Trump’s neo-fascist mess before it blows back all over them.
3) A growing swath of state propaganda “press” invested in protecting The Leader—some of it operated by The Leader himself and his associates.
Yes, there was always FOX news, but we have entered a new phase of tabloid toadyism with websites like InfoWars, Daily Caller and Breitbart, as well as right wing religious press and real tabloids like the National Enquirer, all explicitly doing the bidding of The Leader. Not to mention the propaganda-fest on Facebook with Trump’s daughter-in-law shilling “real news” about the Administration (a lot of it misinformation or outright falsehood). And now, with the Trump administration pushing Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune media, the rabidly right-wing Sinclair will have a potential reach into 72 percent of American homes on the local news every night.
How is Sinclair using its power? Forcing local news programs to air nine weekly political commentary segments from Boris Epshteyn, a former campaign “messaging” advisor to The Leader. (This is the same station that used its local news anchor for a “push poll” against Martin O’Malley in Maryland. And the same group that forced its local TV stations to kill the program Nightline on the night that Ted Koppel read the names of service members who died in Iraq—because that show was motivated by a “political agenda” according to Sinclair.)
How just how friendly is Epshteyn to facts and analysis? In an attempt to agree on some facts about the Russia election hacking, Bill Maher said to Epshteyn in an interview, “Russia meddled in our election, please just admit that.” To which Epshteyn shrugged and responded, “You’d have to ask Russia.” (Maher’s appropriate response was “Oh for f-k sake!”) This is the kind of high-quality, insightful thinking Epshteyn will force-feed TV viewers every night on the local news.
Make no mistake, the Trump propaganda machine is unlike anything the U.S. has seen before—rather than just delivering information with a slant, it is centrally and systematically programmed across multiple platforms, directed by political operatives with the objective of consolidating and maintaining power for The Leader. Sad! (and scary)
4) Citizens who welcome an authoritarian regime.
One third of our fellow citizens (the die-hard Trump supporters, about 33% to 36% in most polls, who refuse to abandon him), seem perfectly comfortable living under a potential Trump dictatorship. And not a fantasy dictatorship like the one that the right constantly complains the left wants to impose on them. But an actual Russia-style ruler with control not just over the apparatus of government, but also over information and truth. There is only state-sponsored truth, in that world.
This is a president with strong autocratic tendencies to whom “conservative” voters are giving a free pass on all manner of corrupt practices, simply because he promises to fulfill their angry wet dreams of victimizing their supposed victimizers (i.e., liberals). This contingent also includes religious “leaders” in the evangelical movement who decry immoral behavior everywhere in modern society except when perpetrated by a pussy-grabbing, thieving, lying tax cheat.
They are completely willing to swallow any “truth” offered by The Leader, no matter how nonsensical or disprovable. In a recent study, the Columbia Journalism Review found that right wing citizens are “asymmetrically” more likely to drink from a single well—conservative voters read and believe only their own media, where liberal voters tend to pull from multiple news sources, liberal as well as mainstream. From the report:
“Use of disinformation by partisan media sources is neither new nor limited to the right wing, but the insulation of the partisan right-wing media from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken president, is new and distinctive.”
For those without patience to read the rest of this piece, I’ll skip to the punch line. The danger here is not Trump. Yes, he is a danger, for sure. But the real danger is that after the nation’s Trumpian nightmare comes to a close, America will be left with a mature autocratic infrastructure ready to uplift its next hero. The events in Charlottesville over the weekend are a mere taste of what the future holds when that next hero comes along. Webmasters of the Daily Stormer declared, “We are at war,” just two days after Charlottesville, as they vowed to hold more and bigger events all across the country.
It’s tempting to think that we can return to “normal” once the Toddler President is gone from office—i.e., that the enabling behavior in Congress will stop and all the destructive anti-democratic forces on view in Charlottesville will fade. Even the mayor of Charlottesville told Chuck Todd on Meet The Press that we need to show that the alt-right, neo-fascist wave “has run its course.”
Such thinking is deeply naïve. Trump or no Trump, all these people—from disgruntled low-information voters, to alt-right ideologues, to billionaire nihilists—have gotten a taste of victory with Trump. They will continue seeking power and employ all the tools on view in 2016/2017, including the help of despots and autocrats like Putin, if that’s what it takes.
Trump has shown us that it’s absolutely possible for an honest-to-goodness, real-life autocratic ruler to gain and hold power in America, thanks to a three-legged stool of pliable legislators, propagandistic “press,” and an enabling electorate. Those three pillars of neo-fascism are not going to disappear, even if Trump does.
To date, the resilience of our democracy has been rooted in our divided government and free press, but those checks and balances—so central to the founding of the nation—are only as strong as the people charged with their safekeeping. Trump has exposed, in a way that no other president has, that when push comes to shove, many of the people charged with defending those bulwark institutions are easily swayed to choose fealty over courage.
Autocracy’s three-legged stool has actually proven quite sturdy in the past six months—even in the face of America’s supposedly stalwart democratic institutions. And to use presidential phraseology, that autocratic infrastructure is now “locked and loaded.” Not just awaiting the next catalyst, but gestating the next catalyst. When the next “Trump” comes along, and there surely will be one, we should all fear the darkness that comes after.
THE GOP OWNS THIS
Does it own Russia’s despotism? No. Does it own American neo-Nazis? Clearly not. Does it own a tiny-handed, autocratic Trump? Definitely.
What it also definitely owns is the total repudiation of the federal government that’s motivating a radical GOP base, one that finds common cause with the alt-right. It also owns the “wedge politics” that has fueled right-wing hatred toward perceived scapegoats. This architecture as been built by the GOP and the GOP owns it:
HATING ON GOVERNMENT
Reagan said it: “government is the problem.” It is now clear that many Americans have taken this to heart and want to do something about it, by “dismantling the administrative state,” to quote Steve Bannon.
My old high-school classmate Richard Painter is fond of saying that the “conservatives” now running the show in Washington (Bannon, Miller, Mr. & Mrs. Gorka, Trump, et al.) are neither conservatives nor Republicans. (They’d probably agree with the latter.) I sympathize. But Neanderthals screaming about stolen elections, 2nd Amendment remedies and hiring private militias to guard GOP officials are all inheritors of the mantle of conservatism; they have claimed it as their own; they have been able wrest control of the conservative movement from within the party of Lincoln because, for decades, the GOP has exploited anti-government zealotry to win votes. As Barry Goldwater said once: “You must go hunting where the ducks are.”
There is a big difference between “small government” rhetoric and “anti-government” rhetoric. To be sure, government does some things very poorly, but it also does some things extraordinarily well. And even when government isn’t working optimally, the remedy is to fix what’s broken, not destroy the apparatus of government all together. But that has been the rhetoric of rank-and-file GOP for decades—with increasing ferocity since the Tea Party wave hit the Congress. As a solution, these “conservatives” seem quite eager to invest the total power of the state in a single man to do as he sees fit, without regard for law or custom. To quote a non sequitur from Maine governor Paul LePage: “Sometimes I wonder that our Constitution is not only broken, but we need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country and bring back the rule of law.”
THE SUCCESS OF “WEDGE POLITICS”
Wedge politics have become a GOP staple in the past several decades, from Anita Bryant and the anti-gay movement, to an anti-flag-burning amendment, to the infamous “Willie Horton” campaign ad, to all manner of social conservative diatribes from the Moral Majority and people like Bill Bennett (himself a confessed gambling addict).
To claim that the Republican Party is a “big tent” party is to be ahistorical, despite what many traditional Republicans want to believe. The GOP has for decades been all about blame and division—accusing anyone to the left of Goldwater of being out to ruin the country. The majority within the GOP is no longer the party of Teddy Roosevelt, who said:
“I cannot consent to take the position that the door of hope — the door of opportunity — is to be shut upon any man, no matter how worthy, purely upon the grounds of race or color. Such an attitude would, according to my convictions, be fundamentally wrong.”
The “take our country back” rhetoric championed by GOP candidates for years, from the local to the national level, has set the stage for a large segment of the electorate to see the rest of us as “the enemy” – an enemy worthy of an autocrat to put us in our place.
Conservative, free-trade, free-market economic policies (even those pursued by supposed “liberals” like Bill Clinton), have critically wounded the GOP’s own base. Economic dislocation has hit Middle America hard, and those hardest hit are the ones begging the GOP for more of the same: privatization; deregulation (of the workplace, environment, financial markets and everything else); limitations on corporate liability; increased market concentration and monopolistic business practices; a veritable kitchen-sink of big business entitlement.
At the same time, it’s no secret that the GOP wants to repeal the 20th Century and all the progressive federal legislation that has been a huge benefit to most Americans—from the right to unionize, to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, voting rights, minimum wage, education funding, the list goes on and on. To watch all of this flushed down the drain would give today’s conservatives shivers of joy.
As pointed out by Thomas Frank in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas?, perversely enough, all these policies have served to undermine the economic security of the very people the GOP has recruited to its cause of wedge politics. Those hurt most were given a viable enemy to rail against (liberals), and an ostensible hero in the very people whose policies caused them the most harm.
Personally, I am of the mind that as the global economy grows, so should free trade and free markets. In principle, more economic liberty is better than less, and more trade is better than less. But the practical impact is that ongoing shifts in production and consumption create winners and losers, and painful economic dislocation for many citizens.
Conservatives have an almost religious faith that markets will work things out all on their own—that is a non-starter; they can’t and won’t; blunting the pain of market shifts is not the job of the market itself. Only government can blunt the raw force of economic dislocation and keep the nation pointed toward shared prosperity. And the more success the GOP has in dismantling the government’s ability to help people, the more angry, displaced and authoritarian-leaning their base becomes. Good for building a highly motivated voting base, but not so good for democracy, it turns out.
Apparently the GOP has no faith in its own message. If they did, they would not have spent so much energy gerrymandering their way to legislative majorities. If the GOP truly believed that its message would win the day in the “marketplace of idea” then why draw district lines that look like a plate of spaghetti?
The unfortunate result of such market manipulation is that GOP districts are now beholden to a louder and more radical minority of primary voters. Even an arch-“conservative” like Eric Cantor can get tossed out in a primary for not being conservative enough. Republicans have thus painted themselves into a corner: they cannot oppose an autocrat without alienating the Trumpian horde waving pitchforks outside the gate.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev) criticized Mitch McConnell’s Obamacare repeal effort, opposing its initial formulations (and actually, 54% of Nevadans oppose Obamacare repeal). For his trouble, Heller earned himself a GOP primary challenger who vowed to fight for “real reforms against the liberals in our party.” Dean Heller is a “liberal?” Really? Such is the purified, gerrymandered orthodoxy under which the GOP now operates.
THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING
When we see the egregious behavior of dictators abroad, it’s easy to spot, and easy to condemn. Take for instance the president of Azerbaijan, who named his wife as vice president in an effort to secure dynastic rule—and the profits of kleptocracy.
Appointing your family to the highest levels of government! Ha! What a joke!... Except… um… now it’s happening here. America feels like a real-life version of The Apprentice, as if written by Paddy Chayefsky. And it might even be amusing were it not so incredibly dangerous, even deadly, after Charlottesville.
Jonathan Chait wrote an excellent piece in The New Yorker before the election, asserting in its title that “The GOP’s Age of Authoritarianism Has Only Just Begun.” To read the piece now is to be impressed by its prescience, all except for his belief that Hillary would win. He traces the autocratic tendencies of the GOP taking shape over many decades, and in this context, it’s hard not to see Trump World as a tree planted and deliberately nurtured by the GOP, now bearing fruit.
The “Big Love” marriage of the alt-right, an autocratic candidate, and the GOP party apparatus may have been borne of pragmatism for the GOP, owing to electoral math, but it was a bargain with the Devil. And we are seeing the Devil deliver, in spades. The question remains: what is the bill going to look like when it finally comes due?
Just after Trump took office, POLITICO ran a piece titled, “The Conservative Movement Is Donald Trump: Trump’s takeover of conservatism is faster and more decisive than anyone expected.” In it, Tim Alberta made many insightful observations about Trump coopting both the GOP and its conservative moniker. But this quote is most relevant to the discussion here:
To spend three days at this year’s CPAC, the annual right-wing carnival of politics and culture, was to witness an ideology conforming to an individual rather than the other way around.
It wasn’t just the ubiquitous deification of Trump that was so jarring. It was the degree to which his worldview was accepted, championed and cheered by conservative speakers and attendees with no obvious connection to the new president. Consistently, anti-trade rhetoric drew the loudest ovations, especially when packaged as part of a broader assault on “globalism,” a particular hobbyhorse of Bannon and the Breitbart crew.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, CPAC’s governing body, swore he wasn’t worried about the appearance of Trumpism subjugating the traditional right. “Trump voices that are added to CPAC are wonderful because it will help us win,” he told me. “We have to have more people. We can be a very pristine conservative movement—and be very small and make no difference.”
In his piece, Chait quotes Ed Conrad, “a former business partner of Mitt Romney’s and a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.” Conrad makes the same point about alliances, but without the sugar coating:
So the question is, how do we [the GOP] build a coalition with displaced workers like we did with the religious right after Roe v. Wade and which we used to lower the marginal tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent … and that leaves us in control, us being advocates of free enterprise, in control of the coalition? The answer, I believe, is tough, and perhaps even odious, compromises.
In the fictional myths about vampires, the vampire cannot enter one’s home without being invited in. Well, the GOP has invited the autocratic vampire (even perhaps a neo-fascist one) over its threshold. Now the beast has buried its fangs deep in the neck of the GOP and by the looks on their faces, half of them are in mortal agony, the other half in terrified ecstasy.
The rest of us watch in horror, praying for dawn. But stepping back, it’s hard to see where sunlight may break through. Demographics and immigration (and refugee) trends show no signs of changing. Wage and tax arbitrage by global business continues unabated (i.e., moving job costs and profits to countries where the former is squeezed and the latter is sheltered). Technology innovation, especially automation, is only accelerating the upending of once-stable sectors of the economy. There is no corrective on the horizon to counteract the nativist, racist, authoritarian extremisms boiling over around the world.
Here in America, we are witnessing before our eyes the construction of the apparatus of an autocratic state. The battles over simple things, like facts, will only get more intense and frequent. A third of the American electorate is digging in and walling itself off from the rest of us, and now, with a fully formed national propaganda organ (see #3 above), their bubble is stronger and more impenetrable than ever. The GOP is also showing no signs of backing away from its decades-long electoral strategy of exploiting their anti-government, authoritarian rage.
The battles to keep America’s checks checking, and keep the balances balancing, are only now beginning. As they say on the evening news just before a commercial break: “More to come.”