Abandoning Commitment to Democracy

The past is the present. Nothing much changes. On November 7, 2006, the Republicans got wiped out in the midterm elections. They lost control of the House and Senate. Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House – a woman – who wouldn’t lay down the law. Women don’t do that. Women build consensus on this and that. 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. Authoritarianism had always been a part of who they are. In fact, that year, John Dean wrote a book about how conservatives now found it hard to resist what he called the authoritarian impulse. That was Conservatives Without Conscience (an excerpt is here) and the title is a play on the title of a book by Dean’s longtime friend, Barry Goldwater, from 1960 – The Conscience of a Conservative – but things had changed since the Goldwater days.

Glenn Greenwald explained what Dean was up to:

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. There is calling them animals. And the press is the enemy of the people, and so are black professional football players. That had to happen. None of them will submit to and follow authority.

That would be, this time, finally, with Trump, a new absolute authority, not the failed old government of negotiation and compromise and working things out. Such a government has no authority. No one is in charge when everyone is in charge. Trump would fix that. That’s what he was selling. 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, and NBC News’ Noah Berlatsky covers the history:

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.

The rest is a discussion of that study – “when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy” and so on. The study confirmed what John Dean had been saying. The study confirmed what many had been saying. The past was the present. This had to happen.

And this had to happen:

Freedom of the press may be guaranteed in the Constitution. But a plurality of Republicans want to give President Trump the authority to close down certain news outlets, according to a new public opinion survey conducted by Ipsos and provided exclusively to The Daily Beast…

All told, 43 percent of self-identified Republicans said that they believed “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” Only 36 percent disagreed with that statement. When asked if Trump should close down specific outlets, including CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, nearly a quarter of Republicans (23 percent) agreed and 49 percent disagreed.

They should submit to authority or pay the price, and the poll’s internal details show that Trump is winning this argument:

Republicans were far more likely to take a negative view of the media. Forty-eight percent of them said they believed “the news media is the enemy of the American people” (just 28 percent disagreed) while nearly four out of every five (79 percent) said that they believed “the mainstream media treats President Trump unfairly.”

But swaths of self-identified Democrats and Independents supported anti-press positions as well. According to the survey, 12 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of Independents agreed that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior” (74 percent and 55 percent, respectively, disagreed). Additionally, 12 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Independents agreed that “the news media is the enemy of the American people” (74 percent and 50 percent, respectively, disagreed)

But all is not lost:

In one of the poll’s few silver linings for the press, 57 percent of all respondents said that they believed news and reporters were “necessary to keep the Trump administration honest” including a plurality of Republicans (39 percent agreeing with that statement compared to 35 percent disagreeing). A slightly less robust 46 percent of respondents said they agreed that “most news outlets try their best to produce honest reporting” (compared to 35 percent who disagreed). And virtually everyone (85 percent of respondents) believed that “freedom of the press is essential for American democracy” (compared to 4 percent opposed to that statement).

Or, conversely, all is lost:

Despite support for journalistic principles in the abstract, respondents also seemed inclined to believe that reporters had too much professional protection. According to the survey, 72 percent of all respondents agree it should be easier to sue reporters who knowingly publish false information, including 85 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats.

The past is the present. In February 2016 Daniel Politi reported this:

The leading contender to become the Republican candidate for president wants to make it easier to sue news organizations. Donald Trump said on Friday that he wants to change the country’s libel laws in a way that could strike at the heart of the First Amendment.

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win – and I hope we do, and we’re certainly leading – I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said. “So when the New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”

Trump then went on to utter what sounded like a straight-up threat: “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”

Now that seems like a good idea to many Americans, but it’s not that simple:

Although Trump did not give any details about what he would do to turn his threat into a reality, he does seem to want to undo New York Times v Sullivan. In that 1964 landmark case, the Supreme Court determined that public figures must prove that any defamatory statements were made with “actual malice,” meaning it “was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”

Many conservatives have long criticized the 1964 decision, including late justice Antonin Scalia, who said in 2012 that he “abhors” the ruling. “Who told Earl Warren and the Supreme Court that what had been accepted libel law for a couple hundred years was no longer?” Scalia said in a Charlie Rose interview.

Scalia died a disappointed man. Sullivan stands, for now, and Marc J. Randazza, a prominent First Amendment attorney, explains what this was really about:

Trump has a history of filing SLAPP suits. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation. This describes a lawsuit filed against someone for exercising his or her First Amendment rights – filed with little chance of success, but with the knowledge that the lawsuit itself is the punishment. After all, if people have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend themselves because they criticized Donald Trump, they might think better of doing so again in the future.

However, some states, like California and Nevada, have strong anti-SLAPP laws, which dispense with such cases early and force the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s attorneys’ fees. … Trump recently got stung with an anti-SLAPP decision, which he probably had in mind when he spoke about “opening up” our libel laws. In fact, he isn’t the first big shot to try to make it easier to sue for defamation after having a SLAPP suit blow up in his face.

To get a sense of what Randazza is talking about, think back to April 2, 2013:

Donald Trump is withdrawing his lawsuit against television host and comedian Bill Maher seeking $5 million that Maher said he would give to charity, in a seemingly facetious offer, if Trump could prove he was not the son of an orangutan.

The lawsuit stems from comments Maher made during an appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” in January in which he said an orangutan’s fur was the only thing in nature that matches the shade of Trump’s trademark hair.

Records in Los Angeles Superior Court show the real estate mogul requested the lawsuit be dismissed without prejudice on Friday, eight weeks after he filed it.

California has a strong anti-SLAPP law. Trump was going to lose – that was a given – that was the plan all along – but in California Trump would have to pay Maher’s legal costs. He couldn’t bankrupt Maher by burying him in those massive legal fees he’d have to shell out to defend himself against Trump’s legal team with nearly unlimited resources and all the time in the world after all. Trump’s deep pockets and massive legal team and endless available time would do him no good – that would be his cost, not Maher’s – so what was the point? Trump walked away.

But the case was interesting:

Maher offered a $5 million donation to the charity of Trump’s choice – “Hair Club for Men” he suggested – if Trump produced a birth certificate that proved he was not half-ape. … Last year, during the presidential campaign, Trump offered to give $5 million to charity if Democratic President Barack Obama would release his college records. Trump, who briefly considered a White House run, had previously questioned Obama’s citizenship and boasted that his skepticism prompted the president to release his so-called “long-form” birth certificate.

Trump took the bait:

In a letter to Maher before filing the lawsuit, Trump’s lawyer wrote, “Attached hereto is a copy of Mr. Trump’s birth certificate, demonstrating that he is the son of Fred Trump, not an orangutan.”

Legal experts said Trump was unlikely to succeed in his lawsuit because Maher’s offer was obviously a joke, and courts rarely enforce verbal contracts that are clearly satirical in nature.

That didn’t satisfy Trump:

In an appearance on Fox News after the lawsuit was filed, Trump said he was convinced that Maher was not joking. “That was venom,” he said. “That wasn’t a joke.”

It was a joke, but now seventy-two percent of all respondents in that new poll agree it should be easier to sue reporters who knowingly publish false information. No one asked them about Bill Maher. Satire isn’t journalism. But Bill Maher should worry now. Trump doesn’t see the difference. Today’s conservatives – with their overdeveloped post-Goldwater authoritarian impulse – may not see that difference either. There are no jokes in life. They don’t get jokes. Jokes, as a rule, mock authority. Reporters proudly defy authority. It’s the same thing, and the general public may be coming around.

That might not happen. Authoritarianism took a big hit on November 7, 2006, when the Republicans got wiped out in the midterm elections and Donald Rumsfeld resigned at the Bush administration’s self-proclaimed self-evident “authority” in all things collapsed. That could happen again, but the authoritarian impulse is stronger than ever, and the nation’s commitment to democracy is weaker than ever.

The hits keep coming. Jonathan Chait covers another one:

Donald Trump’s defenders have insisted all along that when evaluating his immigration policy, we should ignore his veiled and even textbook racist appeals, and instead view it as a straightforward application of law enforcement. “Would-be lawbreakers know that we are restoring the rule of law and enforcing our immigration laws again,” boasted Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “At stake in this debate is not how to enforce immigration laws but whether we should do so at all,” argued conservative columnist Jonathan Tobin. It’s not about keeping America white, they say, it’s about following the rules and making people get in line.

That defense was strained to the breaking point by Trump’s child-separation policy, which frequently targeted families attempting to seek asylum through legal channels. And now the bare pretense is about to be snapped altogether.

NBC’s Julia Ainsley has obtained an internal Trump administration document laying out a plan to deny citizenship to legal immigrants.

This comes from the kid from Santa Monica High School who never got over his outrage at all the Spanish spoken in Los Angeles back in the day:

The mastermind of the new policy is Stephen Miller, a radical who has gained almost total control of the administration’s immigration agenda. Under the forthcoming plan, any legal immigrants who have ever used (or whose household contains people who have ever used) children’s health insurance (CHIP), Obamacare, supplemental nutrition assistance, or other social benefits could be denied legal status.

This is something new:

Since the 19th century, immigration policy has discriminated against migrants who might become a “public charge.” But Trump plans to expand the definition of the term to include basic benefits for the working class, like health insurance. Almost nobody in the United States actually pays for their own insurance in a completely self-sufficient fashion. People who get insurance through their job are benefitting from a massive, costly tax deduction for employer-sponsored insurance. Those who get it through Medicare likewise enjoy a taxpayer-financed social benefit.

Programs like Obamacare and CHIP simply extend the same regimen of subsidies and risk pooling to the low-income population that have already been granted to the middle class.

To define people getting insurance this way as “public charges” does violence to the concept. But it is also perfectly in keeping with the Randian ideology that has crept into Republican thought and never left, despite Trump’s ostensible populism. Low-income workers are to be re-conceptualized as the leeching 47-percenters that Mitt Romney so despised.

This is not a commitment to democracy:

Trump’s contribution to the party creed will be to infuse the top-down class war with a racial tinge. That this all proceeds from some fastidiousness about following the rules is a pretense nobody need bother entertaining anymore.

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent add more:

Donald Trump – who, let’s not forget, got elected by saying he’d ban Muslims from entering the country and build a wall on our southern border – is following through on his vision, and that of people like Stephen Miller, that America should no longer welcome immigrants, and kick out as many of those who are already here as they can.

But they see why Trump would do this:

His new move should be looked at in the context of the midterm elections. We already know that Miller and Trump want the fall elections to be all about immigration. In the spring, Miller said in an interview that he wants the “big fight” this summer to pit Trump’s immigration agenda, which he described as pro-American-worker, against the Democrats’ embrace of “open borders.” (Both of those are lies, but never mind that for now.) Plainly, Miller and other Republicans want immigration to be in the headlines, to make it harder for Democrats to break through with talk about the Trump/GOP tax cut for the rich and the Trump/GOP drive to repeal Obamacare, both of which have proven epic political flops. So Miller is floating this latest policy as part of this broader strategy.

But there’s something else:

While Trump (and many GOP candidates imitating him) have used immigration to launch many race-baiting appeals designed to energize the hard-core Trumpist base – from the claim that Dems coddle MS-13 to the vow to make Mexico pay for the wall – this issue is a bit different. Immigration advocates believe the attack on immigrants claiming benefits is directed not just at the base, but also at softer supporters of Trump or even Republicans who are turning away from him, such as GOP-leaning college-educated or suburban whites who might recoil at the more obvious race-based messaging.

In short, this isn’t really race-baiting. It’s about fiscal responsibility. And those guys marching in Charlottesville with the torches and screaming about the Jews just like those historic statues of those generals, as fine examples of civic art. That was art-appreciation, right?

Waldman and Sargent add this:

The question will be whether the less-Trumpist GOP voters, having already been alienated by this particular administration’s cruel and wretched immigration policies – particularly the family separations landing untold numbers of children in cages, but also Trump’s open displays of bigotry and his stepped up deportations of longtime residents – might actually be less inclined to side with the administration on even this “softer” policy directed at supposed immigrant welfare cheats.

That’s an open question now. The authoritarian impulse is stronger than ever, and the nation’s commitment to democracy is weaker than ever. There may be no going back to democracy now. The past isn’t necessarily the present. Commitments can be broken. Donald Trump is on his third wife after all.


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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