Nobody would contest that our democracy is a messy business, particularly at this point in our colorful history. 2019 got off to a firecracker start with a government shutdown provoked by the big mouths of a few far-right media bullhorns. It sometimes seems they’d be perfectly happy to see those of us outside their audience disappear so they can have the country all to themselves to create their authoritarian utopia without interference. The fact that they are the minority has never broken upon their chronically constipated awareness. Reality apparently doesn’t interest them. Sad!
We’ve arrived now as a nation at a point of radical polarization that’s pushed us into the danger zone. Polarization disrupts multiple aspects of national life — politics, economics, demographics, the list is long. Things get all jumbled together in the rhetoric wars waged in the public commons so that the causes of polarization become obscured from clear view. The process of decoding public rhetoric to reveal its causative underpinnings is arduous and few people with a public voice do it. If you’re a partisan warrior you don’t sit down quietly and think to yourself, “Just what’s underneath all this conflict?” You get on the barricades and start shooting your mouth off à la Ann Coulter. If you have poor impulse control and a mean streak you might also give in to the urge to thump somebody, as we’ve seen happen more than once over the past few years. If we were kids I know exactly what would happen to us: time-out chair.
Before I launch into discussion of our topic to hand I want to recommend an article by William A. Galston entitled “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” published by the Brookings Institution in April of 2018 and available here. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program. If you only read one thing on this issue Galston’s article should be it. I found it a very useful overview of the topic and a good source of touchpoints prompting me to assess my own understanding of populism/nationalism both in Europe and in the USA.
As for the astonishing phenomenon of mass hypnosis that now makes of the Republican Party a Trump personality cult in which the Donald can do no wrong, one can only wring one’s hands in wonder. It’s become clear (especially after the 2019 CPAC meeting) that Trump can be charged with multiple felonies and the Republican Party will just say the courts are trying to stage a coup. That’s how far off the rails things have gone. I can only suggest reading Hannah Arendt on authoritarianism in the Third Reich. We’ve seen this sorry business before and apparently learned NOTHING from it. Apparently there’s a design flaw in human beings that includes an autocracy circuit. Oops.
It Started in Europe
Acute polarization has emerged in many countries, especially those of Eastern Europe where the most forceful examples of populism/nationalism have developed. Hungary is currently under Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party with its “illiberal democracy,” which is double speak for “dictatorship.” Poland is not far behind with its nationalist Law and Justice party now in power. But similar parties with nationalist platforms exist throughout Western Europe, as well. France has the “Rassemblement national” (= National Rally) party of Marine Le Pen and Germany has Alternative für Deutschland that now has seats in the Bundestag. Spain has had the Vox party emerge recently in Andalucia. It spouts the same populist/nationalist rhetoric as the other groups of its type in Europe. Austria — the spawning ground of Hitler, let us not forget — is following its neighbor Hungary’s lead, albeit in a milder manifestation. Even Scandinavia has its populist parties, which shows just how bad the situation is since that’s absolutely the last place I’d expect to see a nationalist agenda emerge. The BBC published an article last year (September, text here) with a useful map of nationalist parties throughout Europe:
Things have gone so far-right in Poland that the EU invoked Article 7 and referred Poland to the EU Court last September after it began dismantling its judiciary. Hungary has taken a similar path and saw Article 7 invoked against it last September, as well. Of the two countries the most agressively anti-EU is Hungary, which sees the EU as a threat to its own nationalist enterprises to preserve Hungary for Hungarians and to uphold “traditional Hungarian Christian values” (where have we heard that before?). Small wonder the EU Parliament invoked Article 7 against it. EU money has been pouring into Orbán’s Hungary at the rate of 4% of GDP only to fuel an authoritarian regime intent on the EU’s neutralization. It’s hardly surprising that the EU Parliament decided it was high time for a trial separation before possibly filing for divorce. Why should it pay for its own undermining?
Then there’s Matteo Salvini in Italy, whose popularity in polls currently stands at 60%. His emergence in the land that gave us Mussolini and the Mafia shouldn’t surprise us. He has big ideas, too, as an article published in January by Angela Giufridda in The Guardian (here) explains:
Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has said that Italy and Poland could trigger a “European spring” that could break the dominant “Germany-France axis” as he strives to forge far-right alliances before the European parliamentary elections in May.
Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League, travelled to Poland on Wednesday for strategy meetings with members of the ruling Law and Justice party. The two parties share similar anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and Eurosceptic views.
He said during a press conference with the Polish interior minister, Joachim Brudziński, that the Europe that could emerge after the elections could bring about a “renaissance of European values” and “lead us away from the one that is run by bureaucrats”.
Brudziński praised Salvini’s hardline immigration strategy, which has included closing off Italian ports to migrant boats, adding that the two countries shared common goals such as “strengthening borders” and helping to improve conditions in migrants’ home countries.
With EU elections coming up in May we’ll certainly see a lot of frenzied to-ing and fro-ing among these far-right groups as they attempt to consolidate their positions and maximize impact on the composition of EU governance bodies. The results won’t be cheerful, that’s already clear. My hope is that they’ll avoid being disastrous. Let’s keep those fingers crossed …
More than one cause underlies these developments. Differences in the complexion of the populist phenomenon between various European countries have a lot to do with national history just as they do with variation in the current issues facing political leaders. Here’s my take on the situation based on my research.
Western Europe: Immigration and Globalization
Immigration is a big issue because of the waves of people fleeing war-torn and failing states farther south — Syrians, Iraqis, Africans, all sorts of people literally running for their lives. To that flow will come in the future people fleeing the effects of climate change in parts of the world that approach the limits of habitability. So immigration problems are real in Europe, unlike in the USA. That’s an important difference we’ll look at later. Populist/nationalist movements always define and vilify “the other” — in this case immigrants coming from non-European countries become the threat around which politicans galvanize support, pounding on the drums of isolationism and national identity. The rhetoric becomes “us-them” charged with aggressive denigration of “the other” as inferior beings who threaten the security and safety of the homeland and its rightful (white) citizens. Leaders like Orbán and Salvini claim that the population must be protected from these lowlifes who’ll damage the homeland race. If the thought occurs to you that we’ve heard that before (as in 1930’s Germany), you’re right. We’ve also heard it in the States from You Know Who — “… they’re bringing in crime and drugs, they’re rapists …” Same old story, none of it true.
It’s true that immigration in Western European countries is a problem. Ships full of refugees are regularly intercepted off Italy’s coast. Greece is overrun by people from the Middle East seeking a way to Europe to escape war and failed states. The rhetoric of the far right can easily galvanize populist sentiment against immigrants under such harrowing circumstances. Immigration policy is arguably the most divisive issue in the European Union and forms one of the main elements stoking populist/nationalist movements in EU member states.
Globalization also figures into the picture in Western Europe as we see clearly with Brexit in the UK. The Brexiters could easily have taken as their slogan “Make The UK Great Again” because the underlying idea is exactly the same as the retrograde fantasy in the USA. The Midlands and the North of England are the UK’s own Rust Belt where people feel left behind. People in those areas voted to leave the EU, not the Euro-minded people of London or the Home Counties. The parallel with the 2016 election in the USA is obvious.
Eastern Europe: Democracy Talks Big But Doesn’t Deliver
Fully 10 of the 28 EU member states are former Soviet satellites — 11 if you count the former East Germany, which after the German Reunification ceased to be a sovereign state. The two countries that have triggered the EU Parliament’s use of Article 7 are both in that category: Hungary and Poland. Other former Soviet satellite states also have a growing populist/nationalist presence and present similar risks to the EU.
Bulgaria serves as a good case in point. It has significant problems with organized crime just like Russia. As long ago as 2008 the EU suspended €500 million of funding because Bulgaria couldn’t bring corruption and organized crime under control. It remains to be seen whether or not organized crime there comes to form part of the state apparatus as it now does in Russia. The attack against “the other” also takes a frightening turn in Bulgaria, as Emilia Zankina, a political science professor at the American University in Bulgaria explains (article here):
A common feature of most East European radical parties is the creation of a demonised “other”. In Bulgaria, the nationalist ATAKA (Attack) and the Patriotic Front (a coalition of two radical right parties) target primarily national minorities, namely ethnic Turks and Roma, who constitute 8% and 4.4% of the population respectively. Even in the context of the current migration crisis, questions of migration remain secondary and are mainly seen through the prism of national ethnic minorities, i.e. Muslim migrants radicalising domestic Muslim minorities. Targeting an “internal” rather than an “external” other means that exclusionary rhetoric and policies take on a different character as the minorities that need to be excluded share common citizenship, rights, and even history with the dominant majority.
The Bulgarian radical right retains socialist nostalgic, combining elements of left-wing and right-wing ideology. Nationalism, clericalism, and irredentism are mixed with neo-totalitarianism, welfare chauvinism, and nostalgia for the communist past. Such a clearly populist mix can be explained by the different foundation of the radical right in the East and the West.
The rise of the radical right in Western Europe is associated with postindustrial culture, party de-alignment, erosion of traditional cleavages, globalisation, multiculturalism, and immigration. By contrast, its East European counterpart is a response to difficult and prolonged democratic transitions and disillusionment with democracy. This is why the radical right in Eastern Europe relies on the so-called red-brown vote, attracting voters from the left and the right alike.
The phrase “socialist nostalgic” should IMO read “Communist nostalgic” — there’s a critical difference that underlines the disparity between Western European EU members and those from the former Soviet bloc. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the citizens of former Communist countries had hopes that democracy would put a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, an aspiration easy to understand. Liberal democracy has largely failed to bring those conditions about because the transition from Communism to democracy was derailed by political chaos, massive corruption and organized crime. Russia is the most glaring example of that process, a failure of transition that resulted in Putin’s kleptocratic dictatorship with a mafia integrated into the functions of the state.
Considered in the light of democratic backsliding, there’s not far to go in Eastern Europe until you reach the Communist past to which national cultures there were conditioned for many decades. The pressure Russia now exerts on all the countries in the former Soviet sphere of influence undermines democratic processes in order to realign those states with its own autocracy. It’s no secret that undermining — or ideally eliminating — NATO is another of Putin’s hotly desired goals. That goal also drives Russia’s intent to undermine the development of democracy in neighboring states.
Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary shows little difference from Putin’s “managed democracy” — all the more dangerous in Hungary’s case because it’s an EU member state. An article by Angela Dewan and Boglarka Kosztolanyi on CNN from April 2018 (here) entitled “Hungary is starting to look a bit like Russia. Here’s why” makes that point well:
Orbán, 54, has made no secret of his admiration for Russia’s political system. He has proudly described his vision for Hungary as an “illiberal democracy,” a phrase that brings Russia’s “sovereign democracy” to mind, both euphemistic terms for an autocratic style of governance.
Orbán served first as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, but it was after he was again elected in 2010 that he and Putin began meeting annually.
And like Putin, Orbán has surrounded himself with a powerful group of businesspeople. He has also come under scrutiny for awarding contracts to a small number of businessmen and family members, according to a Reuters analysis. His spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, brushed off these allegations to CNN, saying it was “up to the courts to decide” in such cases.
Single party rule, rigged elections, takeover of the media and the judiciary, seizure of state resources for distribution to cronies — all the boxes are ticked. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment for Orbán, who began his political career as a strident critic of the Soviet Union, the country that oppressed Hungary for over 40 years. How quickly we forget the past … So the Russian rot spreads westward while we have an American president whose ear is inclined far more to the East than to our allies in the West. Not good.
America: Globalization and Corporatocracy
The average American pays little attention to things outside the country — it’s all so far away there’s no need to think about it, so it seems. We have immigration concerns at our southern border, true, but there’s no real crisis there despite all the fictions Trump trumps up. To the West and East we have only vast expanses of ocean and to the North lies Canada, which many Americans think is just like the USA except people say words like “out” and “about” in an odd way. Globalization with its migration of U.S. jobs overseas has put paid economically to the long-established American habit of self-referentiality. The presence of a growing retirement-age Boomer population ill-prepared to deal with the life circumstances globalization brings in its wake only exacerbates political polarization. As manufacturing has declined so too has the size and financial security of the American middle class.
As income polarity increased dramatically over the past decades so has the number of people who feel left behind economically. Wage growth for middle- and working-class Americans has been stagnant for decades while the cost of living has steadily risen. So a tinderbox of social discontent and economic hardship has been building for years in large sectors of the population as a direct result of American corporatocracy. Hindsight on economic policy since 1980 leaves one wringing one’s hands in distress. Trickle-down economics was clearly an enormous con job — it still is, as the American populace is now finding out about the tax bill of 2017, which has funnelled billions of tax dollars to the economic elite.
Corporatocracy has infested Washington, D.C. like some nasty algal bloom until the entire pond now resembles a fetid swamp from which emerge only more creatures from the Black Lagoon — people like Secretaries Mnuchin and Ross, who fail not only as federal administrators but also as reasonable human beings. If they were words on a page you’d reach for the White Out. The only thing to do with mistakes like that is to make them disappear.
All that angst and anger can easily be channeled into a populist upwelling against an Establishment (aka The Swamp) that seems to serve only its own interests with an attitude of devil-take-the-hindmost toward the bulk of the population. But the aforementioned Secretaries Mnuchin and Ross are perfect examples of that beast, especially Secretary Ross who can’t open his mouth without saying something that leaves your eyes rolled back in their sockets, to say nothing of his penchant for accessorizing with $600 velvet slippers bearing the Commerce Department seal. Why it doesn’t dawn on the Trump base that their hero and his kleptocratic pals are taking them to the cleaners is beyond me. Maybe their shriking tax refunds will bring that point home more strategically.
Since the populist manifestation in the USA comes from the far-right, not the far-left as happens in some countries, the party of agency in America is the Republican Party, which has advanced its authoritarian and xenophobic tendencies steadily since the 1980’s. By adopting that trajectory it took on characteristics that made it susceptible to takeover by a populist movement. Some of the things we’ve seen in the past two years of Republican majority in all three branches of government show clear subversion of established democratic practice. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, long-time analysts of the American political landscape finally found themselves forced to a startling conclusion, expressed in their 2012 article “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem” (here). Sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade.
Evidence for the validity of that opinion screams from the headlines since 2016. Mitch McConnell refused even to engage hearings for a candidate for Supreme Court chosen by Obama and then rode roughshod over established protocols to get Kavanaugh seated. Devin Nunes ran around like a pizza delivery boy to keep the President informed about committee actions in an example of abject lackeyhood that rightly elicited howls of satire. Republicans rammed the new tax bill through in 2017 without hearings or participation by Democrats in a legislative equivalent of rape. I suppose you could call it a case of Republicans grabbing Congress by the p***y, taking their cue from a president who finds that an appealing modus operandi.
One of the most outrageous recent examples is Trump deciding on the basis of tongue-lashings by the fringe elements Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to precipitate the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history. During the shutdown Mitch McConnell (aka #WheresMitch LOL) disappeared, refusing even to bring onto the Senate floor bills passed by the House to reopen government. So the populist/autocratic rot has spread throughout the Republican Party to the point it now stinks like old roadkill. Ask Republicans in California where that ends you up. It’s not a recipe for job security.
The Trump Whisperer Gets It Rolling
We all hear the name Trump a hundred times a day if we watch the news, but Trump really has no ideology and no overarching strategy of his own. He’s just playing a role like the reality-TV creation he is. Steve Bannon was the real ideologue in the emergence of the populist/nationalist agenda in the U.S. political arena through his activity as strategist for the Trump campaign and early administration. Bannon has a virulently active ideology he characterizes as “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” What an extraordinarily nihilist objective for the political strategist of a sitting president to announce. He injected it into the Republican body politic, which was structurally and ideologically disposed to accept the virus. Bannon was instrumental in locking in that strategy of deconstruction, which Trump learned to mouth and has never changed — a strategy far more in alignment with Putin’s intentions toward the USA than with American political values. Bannon’s ideological infection has continued to spread through Republican politics long after his departure from active involvement in 2017. The obliteration of the Republican Party in California is one measure of how well that stance sits with the American electorate.
Research on Bannon’s background revealed to me why he’s always reminded me of Baron Harkonen in Dune. After a successful stint doing hostile takeovers at Goldman Sachs he moved on, curiously enough, to running a gaming operation in Hong Kong based on the premise of cheating online gamers out of cash — another form of hostile takeover, I suppose. Joshua Green, who published a book on Bannon’s involvement with Trump (Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising), describes it thusly (article here):
The company didn’t actually make video games, what it did was try to profit from something called gold-mining, where you have players go in to these games, win gold and special armor and prizes, and then go sell it to gamers in the real world so they can kind of cheat and skip ahead a couple of levels.
This was a serious business, it was actually backed by Goldman Sachs, but it crashed and went bankrupt because the gamers themselves who weren’t cheating became enraged basically that these other people were doing, they put so much pressure on the gaming companies. The gamers organized themselves on these “World of Warcraft” message boards. They put so much pressure on the video game companies, that they decided to basically ban gold-farming, which killed Bannon’s business, but it awakened him to the power of what he called “rootless white males” who spend all their time online. And five years later when Bannon wound up at Breitbart, he resolved to try and attract those people over to Breitbart because he thought they could be radicalized in a kind of populist, nationalist way. And the way that Bannon did that, the bridge between the angry abusive gamers and Breitbart and Pepe was Milo Yiannopoulous, who Bannon discovered and hired to be Breitbart’s tech editor.
From the time I met him in 2011, he’s had exactly the same politics. The same stuff you heard from Trump, you saw on the campaign trail. What he was looking for was a vessel because nobody in Republican Washington believed in these kinds of ideas. The whole trend in the Republican party was toward liberalizing immigration laws, passing comprehensive immigration reform. He was against it. Very big into the idea of populism and Palin had emerged from the 2008 election as kind of the populist Tea Party champion. So originally, Palin went to Bannon and said, “Hey, you’re a filmmaker, you’re a conservative guy. Would you shoot some commercials for me, some kind of videos?” And Bannon, as he is prone to do, got whipped into a frenzy. Wound up spending about $1 million of his own money to produce this elaborate Palin documentary called “The Undefeated,” which he thought was going to be Palin’s vehicle to run for the presidency. In fact, the first time I ever traveled with Bannon and Palin was to Pella, Iowa to debut that film. Everybody in the national media was there. Andrew Breitbart was there. Sarah Palin was there because we all thought this was the wink wink launch of the “Sarah Palin for President” campaign in 2012, but when that thing kind of crashed on the launchpad, Bannon moved on to other people and eventually wound up with Trump.
What substrate did Bannon identify in the USA? It’s a population sector not very different from the one found in Western Europe — “associated with post-industrial culture, party de-alignment, erosion of traditional cleavages, globalisation, multiculturalism, and immigration.” Does that tick the boxes of “Make America Great Again?” I think it does. Post-industrial culture and globalization (i.e. bringing jobs back), party de-alignment (i.e. “draining the swamp”), multiculturalism (i.e. playing to a predominantly white base and inciting opinion against minorities) and especially immigration (all those brown rapists bringing crime and drugs across the border in hot-eyed hordes). Boxes ticked, yes indeed.
Bannon also had the brilliant idea to mobilize far-right extremists for the Republican cause. So we can include the element of nationalist violence we saw in Charlottesville, the last place in the world I’d have predicted as the site of a riot resulting in the death of a young woman by a white supremacist-slash-neo-Nazi, James Alex Fields, Jr., ramming a car into a crowd (article here). Fields was sentenced in December of last year to life plus 419 years and $480,000 in fines. So much for “fine people on both sides.” I attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — affectionately dubbed “Mr. Jefferson’s University” — in the 1980’s. If you’d told me as I sat in the gardens near the Rotunda that in 30 years there would be murder on the streets due to riots involving Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, I’d have shaken my head in disbelief. Look where we’ve come in the last few decades.
The Slow-Moving Coup in Washington, D.C.
Bill Maher is no doubt on the President’s enemy list along with the cast of Saturday Night Live. Maher’s characterization of the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress as a “slow-moving coup” sounds like late-night comedy hyperbole but he means it. Does he have a point? Yes, he does. (There’s a major silver lining in that black cloud that’s important for all of us to remember, but more on that later.)
So what do you need to stage a coup? Stephen M. Walt in an article in Foreign Policy from November 2016 entitled “10 Ways to Tell if Your President Is a Dictator” (here) gives us a handy checklist. Let’s have a look:
- Systematic efforts to intimidate the media.
- Building an official pro-Trump media network.
- Politicizing the civil service, military, National Guard, or the domestic security agencies.
- Using government surveillance against domestic political opponents.
- Using state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents.
- Stacking the Supreme Court.
- Enforcing the law for only one side.
- Really rigging the system.
- Demonizing the opposition.
If we fact-check (one of our era’s new verbs LOL) against the history books for the steps to staging a political (rather than a military) coup we come up with following elements: 1) take control of the media, 2) subvert the judicial system to support the ruling party and act prejudicially against the opposition, 3) wage a propaganda war to corrupt and undermine public opinion, 4) surround yourself with cronies and sycophants from whom you demand loyalty, not competence, 5) subvert the legislative process so that it’s compliant with the dictator’s will, 6) plunder the country’s assets for the benefit of yourself and your supporters, and — if you’re really on a roll — 7) alter or replace the constitution so the legal basis of the regime reflects the dictator’s will. Easy peasey!
So how’s The Donald doing? Efforts to intimidate the media — check. Build an official media network … well, only one cable channel (Fox News) has become State TV, but a girl can only do so much in a liberal democracy (harumph) so point awarded for effort — check. Politicizing what shouldn’t be politicized — big fat check, especially after the campaign rally for the troops in Iraq. Using surveillance against political opponents — not really, he just wanted to throw Hillary in jail but couldn’t find any NYC thugs in the DOJ or the FBI to do it, so that box stays unticked. Stacking the Supreme Court — check, and thanks so much for your help, Senator McSnap … I mean McConnell. Enforce law for only one side — wanna yes, but can’t (otherwise the entire cast of Saturday Night Live would be in the klink). Rigging the system — giving it the old college try, yes siree, but not entirely there yet, so we’ll just pencil in a tick for that box and see what happens as appointments of federal court judges continue. Fearmongering — check (with a Magic marker). Demonizing the opposition — (Magic marker) tick in that box, too.
Hey, that’s 7 out of 10. Whadda ya think? It’s 70% so over half, but dictatorship is said to be an art, not a science, so I’ll leave you to decide whether to round up or down. All I can say is this: Bannon must look at The Donald and feel proud of his handiwork.
The Silver Linings In All This Mess
The results of the 2018 midterm elections showed the handwriting on the wall, especially clear in California where the Republican Party was essentially voted into extinction (article here). Being a theoretical type by nature I find it germane to ask even at this point what the experiment has taught us about our democracy. There’s a corollary question, as well: what should we change in our democracy in order to strengthen it structurally to preclude such autocratic chaos in future?
If you really sit down and think things through many questions of critical importance arise. Should it be allowable for someone with no background in statecraft or foreign policy to occupy the position of Commander-in-Chief or Head of State? We all know that resumes count in the regular workplace, so why is it ok give somebody the job of head of the law enforcement, regulatory and intelligence services of the United States who’s a real estate developer from erstwhile Mafiaville with multiple bankruptices in addition to having (1) no experience in politics or foreign policy, (2) a history of running organizations subject to civil or criminal prosecution, and (3) decades-long ties to Russian organized crime? It’s not ok. It’s never been ok. It never will be ok.
What happens to the Constitution when all three branches of government are in the grip of the same political party and that party manifests an unmistakeable penchant for authoritarianism like the ones we witness now in European countries? Why does the office of president invest one person with authority beyond the ability of any single human to provide competence commensurate with the authority of that office? Why are law enforcement, regulatory and intelligence services placed under the power of the president in the executive branch, thus making them susceptible to subversion by a president intent on their deconstruction?
As for the judiciary, ostensibly the third of the three separate branches of government, it’s a sitting duck for takeover by the executive branch because of the possibility for collusion between the president and the Senate, as we’ve seen with Trump and McConnell doing their disgusting tango over court appointments. McConnell operates like a racketeer in that regard and the capo is in the White House. It’s so disturbing I try not to think about it. The Founding Fathers were no help in preventing such shenanigans because they didn’t go into enough detail. We’re going to have to figure out a solution on our own after the fetid fog lifts from the White House and 2020 — fingers crossed — flushes out the Senate like the stables of Hercules.
The underlying problem, of course, is the toxicity of party politics itself vis-a-vis liberal democracy. In so highly polarized a culture as ours now is partisan politics cease to serve the national interest and become self-referential. Political self-referentiality serves autocracy quite well but has no legitimate structural function in a democracy. I fervently hope that fact comes to bear before we don’t have any hair left to set on fire.
The past two years have raised in my mind these and many other big picture issues. Somehow we’ve managed to muddle through without total collapse, miracle of miracles. With the House coming this year under Democratic control the slow-moving coup has finally met a deterrent. I don’t know how things will turn out and I’d be a fool to attempt prediction. The fact that the House is now blue I take as a sign that the tide against populism/nationalism has already turned in the USA, especially when you consider the ethnic diversity of the new representatives. So let’s think ourselves forward to 2020 and give ourselves permission to imagine that the Trump Experiment has been consigned to history and we have to figure out how to move forward after the end of the debacle that began in 2016. Here are the major silver linings IMHO.
Things have not fallen apart, the center has held. (Apologies to Chinua Achebe and W. B. Yeats.) We did manage to get through it and while we’ve had our hair on fire way too many times and we look a bit singed, we’re still in one piece. We have our constitutional infrastructure to thank, which is the longest-standing one of the modern world. I’ve quoted in another post an article by the English scholar Ruth Deyermond (here) expressing a thought that deserves restatement and frequent remembrance:
Despite fears about the damage being done to the US constitution and political life by the Trump presidency, the US political and legal systems are robust, and civil society and media freedoms remain exceptionally strong. Although currently under pressure, the constitutional separation of powers across the presidency, Congress, and the judiciary sets limits to the damage that can be done by a president with the authoritarian impulses of Donald Trump.
The base from which we’ll work out how to move forward as a democracy after this sordid tango with populism/nationalism is the same one we had before beginning the experiment. The constitutional infrastructure has offered massive resistance to the authoritarian tendencies of the Republican Party since the experiment began. Fotunately it has proved itself remarkably resistant to rapid and wholesale corruption or abrogation, both of which would have suited the purposes of many of the Republicans in power. The Democratic majority in the House now wages war on the abuses of the past two years. So we’ve not been taken back to ground zero, we’re still on the same page as before and will move forward from the same point of departure we had in 2016. We just need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and cut off those singed edges from our hair being on fire every five minutes.
A new opportunity arises for change. The good thing about politics is that there’s always another election and each election is an opportunity for change. We saw that in spades with the midterm elections last year. We now have challenges to Republican gerrymandering heading to the Supreme Court. We’ve had election fraud in North Carolina — done by Republicans, of course — brought out into the daylight in a national scandal that still awaits resolution. I came across an important article published in January in Slate by Nathaniel Frank and Evan Wolfson with the title “Trump’s Shutdown Is a Historic Opportunity for Democrats” (here). It makes some very good points:
With Democrats now in charge of the House of Representatives, and the country nearing a fifth week of the disastrous Trump shutdown, progressives are beginning to feel new momentum. But while Democrats may be poised to win the short-term political argument over the shutdown, the pain and suffering it has inflicted are part of a long-term right-wing strategy that’s older and broader than many people realize. That strategy involved a decades-long campaign to turn everything from the courts to the Congress to the country’s overall cultural character sharply rightward by stigmatizing forms of collective action—government, unions, even voting—that history shows are necessary counterweights to the greed of the powerful.
This long-game effort calls for an equal and opposite strategy: something that will bolster the promising, if disparate, elements of the resistance—mass protests, diverse candidates, grass-roots door-knocking, bold policy ideas—by offering a sustained, deep story about the positive role government plays in American life. To change the narrative effectively, progressives should launch a long-term persuasion campaign designed to restore belief in government. …
The right’s campaign to demonize government took root in 1971, when future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell penned a revolutionary memo calling for a corporate counterinsurgency against efforts to use government to humanize the free market. His proposal was not simply to fill the courts with corporate-friendly judges, but to marshal “the wisdom, ingenuity and resources of American business … against” liberal foes.
Alongside a pro-corporate lobbying and litigation campaign, Powell urged full-scale information warfare in which no tool of communication would go unleveraged: infiltration of media networks, monitoring of textbooks, a speakers bureau, student groups, and think tanks—all would be used “over an indefinite period of years” to valorize markets and corporations, cripple labor unions, and vilify liberals and government. In the rise of Trumpism, this 50-year effort is showering its patrons with dividends while pummeling democracy in the process.
Democratic backsliding has been going on for years in the USA and if 1971 was an “inflection point” as the current buzzphrase styles it, the presidency of Ronald Reagan was the onset in practice. The inevitable outcome of that trajectory is the kind of ultrapolarized society that made Trump possible. It will take far more than one election cycle to undo the damage but progress will continue because the kind of people now entering the political commons find the Old White Guy system ridiculous. More and more of the political players will be millennials, not dinosaurs who look at life like a 1950’s football game. So it seems logical to assume that the pace of change from 2020 forward will quicken and the horrors of the populist/nationalist experiment will impel people to put that chapter behind us as fast as possible. I think it will ultimately result in a resolve to strengthen the democratic infrastructure based on what we learned from the detour into authoritarianism.
Party politics is dying a slow death and good riddance. If you look at the young people coming into the political arena today, they’re idea people and don’t really care about party politics. A political party is just like a piece of clothing you wear, it isn’t an ideological prison in which you spend an entire lifetime. What matters to younger politicians is ideas. They want the facts so they can decide what’s the best thing to do. They’ve been exposed to a multiplicity of ideas since their childhood and are used to formulating the best strategy from a broad spectrum of conceptual options.
The Old White Guy way of doing things is alien to their very nature. They’re on their phones asking Siri for the latest stats at the drop of a hat. In contrast think of Trump holed up in his residence rooms watching Fox News all morning long. Information bubble from hell, that is. Then he calls in to Judge Janine to have his looney ideas corroborated by somebody who appears to base her public image on Joan Collins in a vamp role. Hopefully those days will soon be gone forever. Judge Janine may find herself compelled to dress more like Betty Crocker but she can handle it, she’s a tough cookie.
We can decide on our own path. Imagine being a member state of the EU where the coordination of 28 sovereign countries has to be sorted out in order to enact policy. My hat’s off to the EU for doing as good a job as they have done over the years but they’re in trouble now. It’s difficult to see an easy way out of it. We in the United States operate under no such constraints. We can change on a dime if we like and not worry about being blocked by somebody outside our borders. That freedom from external conditions will work to our advantage as we go about the business of restoring the vigor of our democratic infrastructure after the detour through populism/nationalism. It will be challenging, there’s no doubt of that, but it really is up to us and us alone, which means we have both the freedom and the responsibility to chart our own course into the future. That’s just as it should be in a liberal democracy.
I take this image as my sign for the future: a group of freshman representatives from the House invades the Senate hunting down Mitch McConnell to give him a letter with the demand that he get off his backside and open the government by passing the bills they’ve been sending to the Senate. They look here, they look there but they find him nowhere. The result: “#WheresMitch.” That’s the future and it’s high time to move into it.