Instinctual Authoritarianism

Things could change this year. Donald Trump could be neutered if the Democrats take back the House. They’d stop everything he tries. He wouldn’t get his wall or anything else he wants. Democrats all seem to have agreed that, if they take back the House, voting to impeach Trump would just make them look vindictive and foolish. It would be better to work on fixing things – health care and the country’s shattered international reputation and whatnot. Be positive – and even if a Democratic House impeached Trump, the trial would be in the Senate. Even if the Democrats took back the Senate – possible but not likely – they’d need two-thirds of the Senate to vote to convict Trump of “high crimes and misdemeanors” – and the Democrats will never control two-thirds of the Senate. Impeachment is a fool’s errand.

Impeachment is off the table, but things are changing this year. There’s a “blue wave” coming. ABC News’ John Verhovek documents that:

In the 13 states that have held primaries so far in 2018, Democrats have seen a surge in turnout that has them confident they’re harnessing discontent generated by President Donald Trump and turning it into political gains. From Georgia to Idaho, from Texas to Pennsylvania, Democrats have consistently voted in higher numbers compared to previous midterm cycles in the last decade.

In Georgia last week, where former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams made history as the first African-American and the first woman to sit atop the ticket in Georgia, Democratic turnout surged by 69 percent compared to 2014 – from just over 328,000 votes to more than 550,000 votes. Republican turnout stayed essentially flat, increasing only by roughly 4,000 votes…

In the U.S. Senate primary in Texas, nearly twice as many Democrats – 1,042,914 to be exact – turned out compared to the last midterm cycle in 2014, when 510,009 ballots were cast. The 2018 turnout was the highest for Democrats in Texas in any cycle since 2002.

Verhovek goes on to discuss each primary and each candidate in each state, getting specific about this “blue wave” bearing down on the Republicans, and notes why this seems to be happening:

Democrats have credited the man in the White House with not only fostering higher levels of political engagement but also inspiring new candidates to run for office.

“One day, hopefully very soon, we will remember this president as the best thing that ever happened to our party,” Congresswoman Grace Meng, D-N.Y., Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee said last week at the party’s annual women’s leadership forum.

There are more women than ever running in these primaries, and winning, and more women voting than ever – women who despise Trump – but many despise Trump. He may be the best thing that ever happened to the whole of the Democratic Party, but as Vanity Fair’s Peter Hamby points out, they’re still the Democratic Party:

On the same day this week that President Donald Trump was tweeting about the FBI’s fictional SPYGATE “scandal” and the special counsel’s WITCH HUNT into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia – lies that were splashed across the country’s television and mobile screens in short order – Senate Democrats held a photo-op at the most expensive Exxon station on Capitol Hill. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, was joined by three other suit-wearing Democrats to make the case that Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal would drive up gas prices. It was a definitional middle-class “pocketbook” argument, one that Democrats hope to make part of their 2018 economic message. Schumer, waving a sheaf of paper, stood behind a sign that proclaimed, rather impotently, “Senate Democrats Demand Lower Gas Prices.”

“Senate Democrats look for traction on gas prices,” was the headline of The Hill’s perfunctory write-up of the event. Did you hear anything about it? Most likely you didn’t. Traction, in the Trump era, is a mighty difficult thing to obtain.

That was as pathetic as it was predictable, but Hamby argues that there’s something new here:

This is always true for the party out of power, forced to reckon with its ideological cleavages, personality conflicts, and the lack of a singular leader who can compete head-to-head with the bully pulpit of a president. But Trump, our first celebrity president, has made the challenge even more difficult for his foes. We are supposed to be living in a time of historic media fragmentation, when the competition for fickle eyeballs is the chief priority for businesses, media companies, and politicians. Only Trump, an old-school media hound who still cares about things like magazine covers and leathery faced 90s-era TV personalities, has figured it out. He dominates our attention universe to the point where he blocks out the sun. It is as depressing as it is remarkable. And it’s no wonder people don’t quite know what Democrats stand for.

That’s because Trump is overwhelming:

When Trump claims that he is the victim of a DEEP STATE conspiracy designed to undercut his presidency – #SPYGATE! – our political conversation suddenly becomes premised on a lie, but his lies are nevertheless the terms of the debate. The conservative echo chamber falls in line behind Trump to amplify the noise, repeating his claims without scrutiny. Even the mainstream press slips and muddies the waters, as when The New York Times blithely repeated Rudy Giuliani’s one-sided claim that Robert Mueller plans to wrap up his investigation into whether Trump obstructed the Russia investigation by September 1. How can Democrats possibly compete with this information overload?

They can’t compete:

Trump doesn’t understand much, but he very much understands that simplicity and conflict win the attention war, not nuance. His shamelessness, too, is an advantage. As the Associated Press reported this week, Trump told an associate that he wanted “to brand” the FBI informant who was dispatched to snoop on his campaign as a “spy,” because he believed “the more nefarious term would resonate more in the media and with the public.” He went on to tweet about SPYGATE ten times in three days, and it’s now what the national press is talking about.

Things might not change this year after all, but there is recent history concerning political conversation premised on lies and nonsense. On November 7, 2006, the Republicans got wiped out in the midterm elections. They lost control of the House and Senate. Nancy Pelosi returned as the first female Speaker of the House, and the next day Donald Rumsfeld resigned as our dismissive and condescending Secretary of Defense. He’d no longer be at that podium rolling his eyes at reporters’ questions. Iraq was a mess, collapsing into civil war, and it never would recover. Bush and Cheney had said don’t ask questions, we’re going to war. Anyone who asks questions is on the side of the terrorists. That argument collapsed that month. Shrugging and accepting what those who were in authority said, as if it was true because they said it was true, wasn’t going to work anymore.

Authoritarianism took a big hit that month, and that did puzzle Republicans, and perhaps it still puzzles them. Authoritarianism is part of who they are. In fact, that year, John Dean wrote a book about the authoritarian impulse, and how conservatives found it hard to resist. That was Conservatives Without Conscience (a selected excerpt is here) – and the title is a play on the title of a book by Dean’s longtime friend, Barry Goldwater, the one from 1960, The Conscience of a Conservative – things had changed since the Goldwater days.

The best summary of the Dean book is from Glenn Greenwald here:

Dean contends, and amply documents that the “conservative” movement has become, at its core, an authoritarian movement composed of those with a psychological and emotional need to follow a strong authority figure which provides them a sense of moral clarity and a feeling of individual power, the absence of which creates fear and insecurity in the individuals who crave it. By definition, its followers’ devotion to authority and the movement’s own power is supreme, thereby overriding the consciences of its individual members and removing any intellectual and moral limits on what will be justified in defense of their movement.

It’s hard not to think of Donald Trump now, as Greenwald explained Dean’s two main theses back then:

First, that what is currently described as the “conservative movement” bears virtually no resemblance to Goldwater’s conservatism, and has nothing to do with restraining government power or preserving historical values. Instead, it has transformed into an authoritarian movement which largely attracts personality types characterized by a desire and need to submit to and follow authority.

Second, because those who submit to authority necessarily relinquish their own conscience (in favor of serving the conscience of their leader and/or their movement) those who are part of this movement are capable of acts which a healthy and normal conscience ought to preclude. They can use torture, break laws, wage unnecessary wars based on false pretenses, and attempt to destroy the reputation of plainly patriotic and honest Americans – provided that they are convinced that doing so advances the interests of the authority they serve and the movement of which they are a part.

That was then – the Bush years – and now there’s taking children from immigrant mothers, and losing more than a thousand of them. There’s calling others animals. That had to happen. In August, 2015, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos noted this:

When a government that has pledged to do everything can’t do anything, otherwise sensible people turn to the strongman. This is how the autocrat, the popular dictator, gains power. We are seduced by his success and strength… As our old, inflexible government grows beyond its capacity to service a complex and adaptive society, and its failures deface our landscape, it creates demand for efficiency. Who can bring order to this chaos? Who has the guts and the strength to make the mess we have made work?

Then, the call goes out for the strongman. Who cares what he believes or promises? And with the voice of the common man, though he is anything but, the strongman comes and pledges to make America great again.

And the rest is history. America was seduced by Donald Trump’s self-reported success and self-reported strength. He must have the guts and the strength to make America great again – even if things were fine. He said so, and John Dean had been right. NBC News’ Noah Berlatsky covers that:

George Washington, in his Farewell Address, worried that political parties, or factions, could “allow cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” to rise to power and subvert democracy. More recently, many political observers are concerned that increasing political polarization on left and right makes compromise impossible, and leads to the destruction of democratic norms and institutions.

A new study, however, suggests that the main threat to our democracy may not be the hardening of political ideology, but rather the hardening of one particular political ideology.

It’s happening again:

Political scientists Steven V. Miller of Clemson and Nicholas T. Davis of Texas A&M have released a working paper titled “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy.” Their study finds a correlation between white American’s intolerance, and support for authoritarian rule. In other words, when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.

Miller and Davis used information from the World Values Survey, a research project organized by a worldwide network of social scientists which polls individuals in numerous countries on a wide range of beliefs and values. Based on surveys from the United States, the authors found that white people who did not want to have immigrants or people of different races living next door to them were more likely to be supportive of authoritarianism. For instance, people who said they did not want to live next door to immigrants or to people of another race were more supportive of the idea of military rule, or of a strongman-type leader who could ignore legislatures and election results.

That makes them more supportive of Trump, or else they were waiting for Trump:

The World Values Survey data used is from the period 1995 to 2011 – well before Donald Trump’s 2016 run for president. It suggests, though, that Trump’s bigotry and his authoritarianism are not separate problems, but are intertwined. When Trump calls Mexicans “rapists,” and when he praises authoritarian leaders, he is appealing to the same voters.

Miller and Davis’ paper quotes alt right, neo-fascist leader Richard Spencer, who in a 2013 speech declared: “We need an ethno-state so that our people can ‘come home again’… We must give up the false dreams of equality and democracy.” Ethnic cleansing is impossible as long as marginalized people have enough votes to stop it. But this roadblock disappears if you get rid of democracy. Spencer understands that white rule in the current era essentially requires totalitarianism.

They were waiting for Trump:

Trump’s rise is often presented as a major break with the past, and as a repudiation of American values and democratic commitments. But in an email, Miller pointed out that white intolerance has long served as an excuse for, and a spark for, authoritarian measures.

“People are fond of the Framers’ grand vision of liberty and equality for all,” Miller says, “but the beauty of the Federalist papers can’t paper over the real measures of exclusion that were baked into their understanding of a limited franchise.”

Black people, Asians, Native Americans and women were prevented from voting for significant stretches of American history. America’s tradition of democracy (for some) exists alongside a tradition of authoritarianism (for some). The survey data doesn’t show people rejecting American traditions, then, Miller says, so much as it shows “a preference for the sort of white-ethnocentrism that imbued much of the functional form of democracy for the better part of two centuries.”

The Founders supported democracy as long as it was restricted to white male property holders.

That was then, and this is now:

Trump’s nativist language made the GOP’s sympathies more explicit, leading to further erosion of support among non-white voters. George W. Bush won 35 percent of Hispanic voters in 2000; Trump won only 28 percent. His showing with Asian-American voters was only 27 percent – worse than any winning presidential candidate on record.

White people continue to decrease as a percentage of the U.S. population; at some point, it’s going to be impossible to win a national, democratic American election with a platform that alienates people of color. The GOP, seeing their coming demographic apocalypse, has pushed voter ID laws and other barriers to voting to try to prevent black and other minority voters from getting to the polls. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker even attempted to delay elections for state seats that he believed Democrats would win.

“The GOP has dug itself into such a hole on this that the most practical effort to stave off these impending losses is to disenfranchise the votes of the same ethnic/racial outgroups against whom GOP messaging has been stoking animosity,” Miller tells me. A party built on demonizing and attacking marginalized people is a party that will have to disenfranchise those same people if it is to survive.

In practice, the GOP has increasingly been embracing a politics of white resentment tied to disenfranchisement. “Since Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy,’ the GOP has pigeon-holed itself as, in large part, an aggrieved white people’s party,” Miller told me.

And that’s where they’ll stay stuck. The Founders wrote the rules into their brand-new Constitution – there would never be a strongman leader who could ignore legislatures and election results. That was forbidden. There’d be checks and balances – but there’s human nature. When people fear democracy may benefit the wrong people, they abandon their commitment to democracy. The Founders were no different. They were concerned with white male property holders. Sometimes it’s necessary to disenfranchise some people to survive. And there is that psychological and emotional need to follow a strong authority figure which provides a sense of moral clarity and a feeling of individual power, which is far better than fear and insecurity.

John Dean saw something new and alarming. It wasn’t new. It was only alarming, and it’s still alarming:

Veteran journalist Carl Bernstein questioned on Sunday if President Trump’s actions are leading the country toward authoritarianism.

Bernstein, known for his work helping to expose the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to former President Nixon’s resignation, said Trump’s actions, particularly in relation to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, were troublesome.

“I think we can look at a big picture now with some real definition, in which the perilous moment for our country right now, and it’s a question of whether lies, authoritarianism and the character of the president of the United States are going to take us to an authoritarian place where we have never been in, which he will bury a duly constituted and legal investigation that will determine whether or not the president is above the rule of law,” Bernstein told CNN’s Reliable Sources.

Bernstein is worried. The character of this president might take the United States to an authoritarian place where it has never been, or that might be a place where it has always been.

Michael Gerson puts that a bit differently:

Much about the future of American politics – and the historical judgment that will be visited on those associated with it – depends on the answer to one question: Is President Trump an instinctual demagogue or an instinctual authoritarian?

On most days, the evidence favors the former interpretation. Trump often acts like a desperate, self-interested politician, convinced that his enemies fight dirty and determined to out-slime them. So he pursues a strategy of character assassination against the special counsel on the model of President Bill Clinton discrediting Ken Starr. This is squalid and damaging, but at least familiar.

Then there are other days – and more and more of them – that justify the latter interpretation. Rather than a politician trying to muddy the waters, Trump seems more like a strongman probing the limits of democracy. He seems less like Clinton and more like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking to dismantle institutional checks on his authority.

Gerson sees that latter:

There is an authoritarian playbook, used (with some variations) in Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela and Russia. Dismantle checks on executive power. Control the criminal-justice system. Scapegoat minority groups. Co-opt mainstream parties. Discredit the independent media. Call for opponents to be jailed. Question the legitimacy of elections. Claim to be the embodied soul of the people.

Trump has praised and congratulated leaders who have done all these things – including Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. And he has attempted some parts of the authoritarian playbook himself, particularly in his systematic attacks on law enforcement and the media, and his self-conception as the voice for “real Americans.”

This is new and alarming, but Gerson trusts what the Founders set up, sort of:

Because Trump lives here, his authoritarian instincts are unlikely to dominate a government thick with balancing institutions. But the stakes of our politics have dramatically changed. If Trump were a typical politician, other Republicans could keep their heads down and wait for the storm to pass. If his ambitions are autocratic, the cowardice of elected Republicans is indefensible and near to unforgivable. Trump’s enablers in politics and the media are reducing the political cost of undemocratic rhetoric and behavior. They are hurting the country in sad and lasting ways.

On November 7, 2006, the Republicans got wiped out in the midterm elections. They lost control of the House and Senate. Authoritarianism of all sorts also took a big hit that day, and that did puzzle Republicans, but it seems they got over it. On November 6, 2018, the Republicans may get wiped out in the midterm elections again – there may be a “blue wave” again – but that wave always crashes on the rocks of America’s instinctual authoritarianism. There’s nothing new here. Democracy is hard. Human nature always messes it up.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Instinctual Authoritarianism

  1. On this Memorial Day, I am more concerned about the general American laziness…pathetic laziness…in understanding our own cause in the matter of our own destruction. We have a twitter mentality, if we even bother to read and think about the headlines. We are gullible. I don’t think we’re authoritarian material, frankly, Until Trump we haven’t had much need to deal with autocrats. Turkey was once the Ottomans, and some might remember the Armenian genocide; Hungary put up with many years in the Soviet bloc, which was no bastion of freedom. We’re killing ourselves….

  2. PS: I need to amend my previous comment. By deleting it I would be failing to acknowledge my own stupidity. We are a nation born of genocide, really, both in our own history, and the European colonial pre-history of North and South America. Throw in slavery and we look even worse. So, I apologize, and I hope no one else read the above, standing alone. I hold to the part preceding “gullible”, though I have to include myself in that class as well. My apologies.

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