Part One: The Problem
- A Creeping Authoritarianism
- How did we get here? The Root Problems
1. A Creeping Authoritarianism
So I think it’s clear now that the US is in some serious trouble.
Of course everyone is still hoping that things are going to normalize. We hope that Trump is soon going to settle down into a typical, if a bit “spicy”, pro-business Republican. “Yes, he’s going to be aggressive and a bit unpredictable, and he’s going to push boundaries, but fundamentally he’s going to stick to the rules, and play the game. Don’t worry. He’ll be kept in check.”
Perhaps. But the line between hope and denial can be a fine one. If we step back a little, there are a lot of signs that are pointing in a darker direction. It’s getting hard to ignore them.
Trump has been…
- scapegoating the outsider (Mexicans, refugees) and subtly green-lighting a whole host of anti-minority prejudices
- encouraging nationalism
- systematically denigrating and bullying all established bases of power that intimidate him or are independent of him (intelligence, army, the central bank, judiciary, congress) — there is a very good article on Bloomberg about this
- attacking and delegitimizing the press and undermining its trustworthiness and credibility
- placing relatively inexperienced and politically “unattached” figures in key positions of power, who are therefore almost totally, personally dependent on Trump for their position
- playing the security card
Does this sound familiar?
This is the basic recipe for instituting an authoritarian regime. It’s been used again and again, and very often successfully, particularly when societies are economically stressed (e.g. experiencing large disparities in wealth, education or opportunities).
The next step – which hasn’t yet happened – would be to take advantage of a crisis by assuming “emergency powers”. Trump would present himself as the strong-man saviour. This crisis could be military, terror-related, or maybe economic (we can say a variety of things about Trump’s economic ideas, but one thing is very curious: they are all risky). It could even be some type of culture-war escalation or other internal civil disruption. In any case, his response would require using “temporary” or extra-ordinary powers that are at least substantively unconstitutional – i.e. they would be a violation of the rule of law. But then he would retain the powers. Traditionally this would be followed by a clamp-down on communication (censoring). We would also start to see a new, strong and coercive rhetoric of national unity. And so on.
Again, this hasn’t happened yet. But if it does – and it doesn’t have to be one big incident, it could be a series of small ones, perhaps cloaked in constitutional “confusion” – Lord have mercy, American democracy would be in a lot of trouble.
Now, we might hope that American institutions would be able to withstand such an assault on their values and history. But here we need to consider a sobering fact. The key institutional check that was meant to weed out Trump – the party nomination process – has already failed. Now that Trump is in power, it will be much more difficult for American institutions to mount any type of effective resistance should he go awry. Bureaucracies, intelligence agencies and militaries are obligated to function within the law, but they are not designed to function as checks on the executive’s powers. That’s not their job.
Whose job is it? Well, the judiciary, and congress, but ultimately, it’s our job! “We, the people”, and our elected representatives.
Should we panic? No, not at all. Things may well turn out ok. But I think there is no question that we need to be on heightened alert. This is not normal. We are in a very dangerous spot, and we need to keep a hawk’s eye on every move the Trump administration makes – much more so than any administration in living memory. Doing so is not alarmist; it is simply a matter of prudence, and of good citizenship.
2. But how did we get here? The Root Problems
The fundamental root of the Trump phenomenon is almost certainly economic. To Obama’s credit, I think he understood the importance of the nation’s economy to its overall well-being, which is why he spent most of his political capital quietly trying to nurse the American economy back to health. In broad terms, he succeeded; but he failed to deal with the problems of inequality and chronic employment instability. Thus, Trump.
But there are some cultural pieces to the puzzle that also need to be considered. Here I’d make two observations.
Trump CEO. For our democratic institutions to work, they require two things: a) a clear and sensible framework of rules; b) a set of common values and shared institutional culture that allows the system to function.
If you have the rules, but not the culture, the system won’t work. Witness the numerous attempts to export western democratic systems to developing countries. They often fail because the cultural matrix assumed by the rules is not present. For example, our systems assume that it is culturally acceptable and even honourable to cede power after a term in office. In many other societies, ceding power like this would be a sign of deep shame and disgrace – so it doesn’t happen.
Now, does someone like Trump share the cultural instincts or sensibilities that our democratic institutions assume? Does Trump actually believe in a democratic political system, with their assumption of public service, consultation, dialogue, compromise, collegiality, talking?
Here I’m not sure. In fact, I’m not certain Trump even understands them. The reason for this, I believe, is a fundamental problem of our current political culture: the dissonance between corporate and civil-democratic governance.
Corporations are basically constitutional monarchies, or, if the Board is strong, oligarchies. Like the military, they are hierarchical, quasi-authoritarian institutions. That’s simply how they work. As a result, a CEO is a very different creature from a head of a democratic government. Think about it: the governance culture of most of our workplaces is probably different from that of our civil institutions. But what happens when someone like Trump assumes power? More broadly, what happens when we try to transfer a “business” culture to our democratic institutions? The result is a failure of institutional culture. The one culture isn’t fit for purpose in the other institution. Thus the Trumps of the world really have no idea how to govern a democratic institution – and possibly don’t care. The right institutional “culture” and formation simply isn’t there.
We recently had a frightening brush with this in Canada. Our last prime minister, Stephen Harper, approached his job as if he were Canada’s chief CEO. We suddenly saw members of parliament muzzled, the cabinet’s role reduced, and power concentrated in a coterie of unelected advisors and officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (to be fair, this last had started earlier, under Jean Chrétien – this phenomenon crosses aisles). Message control now became paramount and iron-fisted. Special advisors were introduced to carefully control what was said and by whom – ministries and even members of parliament were forbidden from speaking to the media, or only with message prepared directly by the Prime Minister’s Office. Scientists on the public payroll were notoriously silenced.
All of this made perfect sense if you think of it from the perspective of a CEO running a business. Harper saw himself as the boss, the cabinet as his VPs, and the members of parliament as the heads of the company’s local branches. All Harper’s subordinates were expected to do the bidding of the central office. But this attitude, when transferred to Parliament, fundamentally undermined our democratic structures. I’m not sure Canada has ever been in such (quiet) danger.
Harper was swept out in the last election, and replaced by a more traditional group of parliamentarians. But the underlying problem has not really been addressed.
Death-throes of American Conservatism? A perhaps more pressing cultural question is why so many people supported Trump in the first place.
On one level, there’s nothing mysterious about it. Protest votes are nothing new. Populists are as old as democracy. People were in a rough spot, they wanted something different, and they were drawn to someone who seemed to give refreshingly direct voice to their anger.
But a few things have been unusual in this campaign. First, Trump is an exceptionally distasteful figure: he’s problematic morally, he has a bad business record, his economic expertise is slim, and his Russian connections are highly suspect. Many traditional business voters, value voters and nationalist voters – i.e. traditional Republicans – should have had a lot to give them pause here. But they still voted for him.
Second, his supporters are exceptionally vehement. There has been an uncharacteristic viciousness in the air.
Third, and most troubling, the level of flat-out lying in the campaign has been astonishing. Politics has always been known for an “economy of truth”, but Trump’s regular bald-faced dismissal of facts is a new development in American political discourse. He’s not even bothering to argue. He’s just lying. It’s created a very strange world where white is black and black is white.
What’s going on?
Clearly, the Trump vote represents the kind of move you make when you are cornered and feeling existentially under threat. It’s desperate. It’s what happens when you feel that you are totally under assault, totally beleaguered. It’s what happens when your entire identity, your very way of life, is suddenly called into question. You’re basically throwing caution to the wind, because you don’t think you have much to lose.
But why all the desperation? Is conservative America really in that much trouble?
I’ve been turning this over in my mind for a while. Particularly the lying. What is going on?
But then it struck me. It’s a terrible thought, but: is the right now so wrong that lies are, in effect, the only thing that can sustain it? I know that sounds terribly polemical, but bear with me.
The left had its dark night of the soul in the deep corruption and slow unwinding – and finally collapse – of the eastern bloc dictatorships. That version of socialism was finally and happily swept into the “dustbin of history”. Interestingly, when people described the final years of the Soviet Union, they often emphasized the level of lie that everyone was living. Even the economics were a gross lie: the whole socialist “paradise” was running on loans from western capitalist banks!
But is something similar now happening to the right? Are we now witnessing the death-throes of the traditional conservative identity?
Think about it. Although it’s much less dramatic than what we saw in the eastern bloc, if you look at the conservative-right edifice since the 80s or so, it is basically the story of failure and decline.
- the neo-liberal reforms have failed most Americans: income inequality has grown wider, middle-class incomes have stagnated, and quality, stable jobs, particularly for the less educated, have become rarer and rarer. The benefits of free trade have been very uneven. De-regulation almost completely sank the American (and global) economy in 2008. And of course the application of neo-liberal reforms to countries like Russia were notoriously destructive.
- on a more fundamental level, some of the cornerstones of classical conservative economics are now in question. When the legendary Fed chairman Alan Greenspan admitted in 2008 that he had made a mistake in following too closely orthodox free-market doctrine, he signalled the end of an era. Now, even mainstream economics questions some of the core assumption of the old conservative free-market synthesis: rational choice theory, the greed motivator, etc. Stuff that was supposed to work – e.g. people moving and re-training when free-trade closed down some industries and bolstered others – simply hasn’t happened. And heretical ideas like more active (if selective) government interventions, higher minimum wages, and basic income, are gaining ground.
- gun-control. Here’s a hugely symbolic issue for the right. It encapsulates the conservative belief in the self-sufficient, powerful individual as the bedrock of society’s moral and social health. But in the Newtown massacre – to name but one – this whole idea was catastrophically discredited. When you look at the stats, it’s clear that widespread gun ownership is has been a disaster for the US – it’s an obvious “moral fail”. It’s embarrassing. The ideology can now only be perpetuated by flat-out denial and spin.
- Free-market capitalism has failed to account for the real costs of environmental harm or to reverse them. Additional regulation was necessary, and so now with climate change we are in real danger. Again, failure.
- religiously, the traditional “Christian America” project has been unravelling. It’s not simply the problem of overall decline in attendance, but of a general loss of authority and influence. The churches are no longer automatically seen as centers of the good, the holy, the virtuous, the respectable. Increasingly the conservative churches have taken refuge in fundamentalism, which, by insisting on doctrines like biblical inerrancy or creationism, has further alienated the churches from the society around them. When people have a choice, they seem to mostly not choose the old synthesis – or only in very proprietary, selective ways. America is finding God elsewhere.
Think about all of this from the perspective of someone who has grown up in these conservative milieus.
- You’ve been taught that if things aren’t going well you simply need to work harder and pull yourself up by your bootstraps – it’s all about what you, the individual, choose. Everyone can make it, if they try. But this isn’t true. Statistically, you’ve probably never really had the opportunities to even get close to success.
- You’ve been told that keeping taxes low, making free-trade deals, destroying unions, and loosening regulations will bring wealth – nope, facts are in, and they’ve only helped the rich.
- You have been told that you live in the greatest country on earth. But unless you happen to be quite wealthy, the US really isn’t that great. Chances are your standards of living are by all sorts of measures well below standards in other developed countries. You’re believing something that hasn’t been true for some time.
- You were taught that owning guns is good, right, ok. Again, not true. This idea is killing kids.
- You’ve been taught that keeping faith in the free-market system will eventually solve almost every problem, including the environment – but the effects of climate change on our world are now incontrovertible. You literally have to shut your eyes not to see it.
- You have been deeply invested in a religious identity that requires beliefs about the world and people – e.g. creationism – that require that you live in a kind alternative fact universe.
Factually, then, your world is very tenuous. To maintain your world, you have to swallow a lot of stuff on a daily basis that simply isn’t true. So of course you don’t want to hear any facts. Of course you’re going to be comfortable in lies. And of course you are a bit desperate. Because chances are you’ve done everything you were supposed to have, and believed everything you were supposed to – and mostly the result has been grinding poverty, marginalization and the decline of your own world. And the worst part is that you’ve internalized a set of beliefs that is often actually harming you.
So what do you have left? Where do you turn? Where now do you find dignity? Where do you find a way out?
So are we surprised that there is huge disappointment out there, huge grief – and, of course, that means, huge anger?
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