Posts Tagged ‘Authoritarianism’

Thomas Frank on anti-Trump authoritarians

August 8, 2021

AFP via Getty Images

Thomas Frank, writing in Le Monde diplomatique, points out that the hard core Trump haters are just as authoritarian as President Trump himself.

I remember, back in the 1950s, that the conventional wisdom among college-educated liberals was that if you wanted to fight Communism, you had to understand and address the reasons why poor and down-trodden people saw Communism as an answer.

Those liberals also perceived that threats to liberty could come in many forms: not just fascism, but Communism; not just Communism, but the followers of Joe McCarthy and the Ku Klux Klan.

In the era of Donald Trump, establishment liberals lack this insight.  They do not look at the reasons why ordinary people might turn to someone like Donald Trump, and they fight dissent by trying to silence dissenters.

Here’s how Thomas Frank puts it—

….. Millions of ordinary Americans despise the well educated elite. Why?

Look at the opioid epidemic that raged through middle America in the years before 2016 — a gift of Big Pharma and the medical profession.

Look at the de-industrialization that afflicted the same geographic areas — a product of our brilliant free trade deals.

Look at the global financial crisis and the bailouts — the deeds of America’s greatest math and financial geniuses, who faced almost no consequences for their actions.

Look at the Iraq War — the toast of the foreign policy establishment.

Look at the incredible fact that American life expectancy was actually declining in the years before 2017 rather than increasing.

Trump did nothing to solve any of these problems.  But everyone knows they exist.

One side talks, lectures, scolds and instructs, and the other side — silent by definition these days — seethes with resentment.

Everyone knows this awful dynamic had a role in elevating the racist demagogue Trump to the presidency.  Everyone also knows this country is primed to explode.  [snip]

(more…)

The USA is haunted by the specter of fascism

April 5, 2021

There are certain resemblances between the present-day USA and Germany in the last days of the Weimar Republic.

We have an ineffective government that’s unable to deal with major problems or rein in its military.

We have increasing numbers of Americans who’ve given up on trying to change things by means of politics.

Many see no point in voting or following politics. Others think the only hope for change is in street protests.

Along with this is a loss of confidence in all sources of authority—government, religion, science, academia and journalism—and a hunger for something new.

Ross Douthat wrote a column in the New York Times wondering whether the history of the Weimar Republic could repeat.  I think there are other, more likely ways that American democracy could break down, which I will get to.  But let me examine the Weimar script first.

While there are similarities, there also are big differences between Germany 90 years ago and the USA today. 

American political parties don’t have paramilitary auxiliaries.  Neo-Nazis and avowed racists are few.  Compare the turnout for the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 with the massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year.

But all this could change if there was a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s, particularly if it was accompanied by a humiliating military defeat.

Here’s how things could play out.  This isn’t a prediction, just a possibility.

In the wake of economic collapse, the streets of American citizens are filled with rioters, including extreme radicals and extreme nationalists.  A nationalist demagogue is elected President, and industrialists and the military look to him to restore order.  Congress votes him the power to impose martial law, which he does.  Martial law is never revoked.

The fascist movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s arose from a breakdown of social order and a fear of Communist revolution.  The same conditions could arise in the United States, except that revolutionaries wouldn’t necessarily be Communists and the President who imposes permanent martial law wouldn’t necessarily be a nationalist or a right-winger.

∞∞

The conservative Christian blogger Rod Dreher sees another path to totalitarianism—a kind of low-level bloodless Stalinism in the name of what’s called identity politics or “anti-oppression” or “wokeness.”

Individuals have every right to define themselves on the basis of race, sex, gender or any other attribute, and band together with others to defend their rights and advance their interests.  I would never deny that people are held back by prejudice, and have a right to organize to overcome discrimination.

The problem is that believers in wokeness have embedded themselves in institutions, and demand not only that people subject to those institutions passively accept their ideas, but actively endorse them. 

They also demand a certain kind of way of saying things, so you can get in trouble by saying  “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.”

That’s how the new ideology resembles Stalinism and Maoism.  They, too, demanded not only passive acceptance, but enthusiastic support expressed in a prescribed vocabulary and a required show of penitence for not measuring up.

A recent public opinion poll showed that six in 10 Americans have political opinions they’re afraid to share and three in 10 fear that their political views could harm their job prospects.  Half of all strong liberals would fire a business executive known to have donated to the Trump campaign; three in 10 strong conservatives would do the same to a Biden donor. 

I don’t equate this to Stalin’s mass executions or the Gulag.  But I do think there’s a widespread and well-founded fear of getting into trouble by inadvertently saying the wrong thing or offending the wrong people, and I do see people afraid to speak their minds as I think free Americans ought.

Some people make a practice of searching social media to find things that people have said that could be considered objectionable, and then using this information to attack their reputations and careers.

Dreher fears the emergence of a social credit system like the one in China, where everyone’s every move is tracked through surveillance technology and social media, and people are rewarded or punished according to the acceptability of their behavior.

(more…)

Glenn Greenwald on the real threat to democracy

December 28, 2020

Monopolists Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos

The Threat of Authoritarianism in the U.S. Is Very Real and Has Nothing To Do With Trump by Glenn Greenwald.  “The COVID-driven centralization of economic power and information control in the hands of a few corprorate monopolies poses enduring threats to political freedom.”

The rise of the anti-democratic ‘centrists’

June 6, 2018

In the 1930s and 1940s, the threat to democratic institutions came from fascists and Communists, radical ideological parties of the right and left.

Many political analysts today write as if we’re still living in that kind of era.  But political researcher David Adler finds that, compared to self-described leftists or rightists, self-described centrists are:

  • Less likely to say that democracy is a “very good” form of government.
  • Less likely to say that free and fair elections are an “essential feature of democracy.”
  • More likely (in the USA) to say that a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with a legislature is “fairly good or very good.”

As I think about this, it makes sense.  If you call yourself a centrist, you mean that you’re reasonably satisfied with the status quo.

And the status quo is a government in which, according to the Princeton Study, legislators respond to the wishes of the economic elite and organized interest groups, but not at all to public opinion.

It is not surprising that so many self-described centrists feel threatened by the rise of populism and want to create gatekeepers to keep the voting public from getting out of hand.

John Burn-Murdoch of Financial Times argued that people with the least education and least interest in politics are most prone to identify as centrists.  Adler says he has allowed for this.

And, anyhow, maybe it says something that people with more education and more interest in politics are more likely to reject the status quo.

(more…)

How to tell when the fascists have come

November 18, 2016

During the past few years, I’ve read a number of definitions of fascism, which have been mostly lists of personality traits or philosophical assumptions or political tendencies.

The problem with these lists is that while they are traits, assumptions and tendencies often found in fascists, they also are commonly found among people who definitely aren’t fascists.

A blogger named Ian Welsh challenged his readers to produce benchmarks that would be definite evidence that fascism has arrived or was about to arrive.

authoritarianism9fd18cThat’s tough!  During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, we had the executive claiming the authority to (1) arrest enemies of the state without legal process, (2) torture enemies of the state, (3) order the assassination of enemies of the state without legal process, (4) put the entire population under secret surveillance and (5) start wars without approval of the legislative body.

All these things are characteristic of fascist regimes.  All would be powers that a fascist dictator would try to claim.

But I can’t really see the Bush and Obama administrations as fascist in the same way that, say, Chile under Pinochet was fascist.

Racism, misogyny, religious intolerance and extreme nationalism are characteristic of fascist governments, but not all racists, misogynists, religious bigots or nationalists are fascists.

For what it’s worth, here is my list of defining characteristics of fascism:

  • Deification of a leader.
  • A requirement to pay lip service to a ruling ideology.
  • Arrests of opponents of the government on trumped-up charges or no charges at all.
  • Fear of making criticisms of the government.
  • Arbitrary power and lack of due process of law.
  • Lynchings and pogroms.
  • Death squads.
  • Concentration camps.

The problem with making such a list is that the mere absence of death squads and concentration camps can be taken as evidence that the United States or any other country is a free country.

(more…)

Why nihilism is worse than hypocrisy

March 7, 2016

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit

Donald Trump (Reuters)

Donald Trump’s assertions that he would require American military officers to practice torture and other war crimes stirred up a strong backlash, and he backed down.

Others point out that the U.S. government has long been doing things that Trump is only talking about.

That’s true, but I still think indignation is justified.  Advocating crimes against humanity is just as bad, and in some ways worse, than practicing crimes against humanity.

It is better to be a hypocrite than a nihilist.  The hypocrite, even if lying to others or to self, has a road back to human decency.  The frankly sociopathic nihilist has burned his bridges.

(more…)

How Obama paved the way for Trump

December 4, 2015

Seeing the popularity of Donald Trump’s nationalism and authoritarianism, many liberals and progressives are reading up on the history of fascism in Europe and wondering about the future of democracy in the USA.

What really makes Donald Trump and other authoritarian Republican candidates so dangerous is George W. Bush and Barack Obama have already created a legal and organizational framework for exercising the powers of a dictator.

Consider the powers claimed by President Obama:

  • To wage war on his own say-so by means of bombs, drone attacks, Special Operations, proxy armies or any other means short of massive use of American ground troops.
  • To order the killing on his own say-so of any person he says is a threat to national security.
  • To preside over a secret national surveillance system that potentially reaches every citizen and covers the whole world.
  • To prosecute whistle-blowers who reveal abuses of power.
  • To give immunity from prosecution to torturers, crooked bankers and other high-level criminals.

authoritarianism9fd18cObama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered an attack on Libya, a nation whose government was no threat to the United States, and reduced it to bloody chaos, where radical jihadists flourish.  Now Obama is carrying on a proxy war to overthrow the government of Syria, which also was no threat to the United States, and which, if successful, would create more bloody chaos where ISIS terrorists would flourish.

The Department of Homeland Security exists in theory to protect Americans from jihadist terrorists from abroad.  But it was used to coordinate a nationwide crackdown on Occupy Wall Street protesters, which, whatever you think of them, constituted no threat to the security of the homeland.

To sum up:  The President has the power to commit acts of war, with no accountability.  He has the power to sign death warrants, with no accountability.   He presides over a vast surveillance apparatus which can be used to spy on dissenters and he prosecutes those who reveal abuses of power.

What power would be lacking for a would-be dictator?  Maybe you think President Obama has enough restraint and good judgment to be trusted with such power.  But he is not going to be in office after January, 2017.   Somebody else is.

Recently the U.S. Congress did enact one restriction on abuse of power.  Congress banned torture and limited interrogation to what is now permitted in the U.S. Army field manual.  But, oddly enough, this does not seem to bother Donald Trump, who continues to promise that, if elected, he would authorize torture.

How could Trump promise to do something that is against the law?  Well, torture was against international law all along.  And there is another law, called the War Powers Act, which forbids the President to engage in acts of war without congressional authorization except in an emergency, and then to get authorization within 60 days.   President Obama has disregarded this law, without consequences, so why couldn’t President Trump disregard the anti-torture law?

During the Watergate era, President Richard M. Nixon broke the law and abused the power of his office.  There were countervailing forces in Congress, in the courts, in the press and in his own administration that held him in check and made his accountable.   Where are today’s checks and balances?

(more…)

The global rise of Putinism

December 16, 2014

What do the following leaders have in common?

  • Vladimir Putin of Russia.
  • Xi Jinping of China.
  • Narendra Modi of India.
  • Shinzo Abe of Japan.
  • Recep Tayyip Erodogan of Turkey.
  • Viktor Orban of Hungary.

Putin-ModiThey all reject the ideals of democracy and human rights as historically understood in the United States, Great Britain and France, and instead embrace authoritarianism, nationalism, state capitalism and religious and social conservatism.  For want of a better name, call the new ideology Putinism.

Other names arguably could be added to this list.  Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, like Putin and Modi, is an ethnic and religious nationalist who turns a deaf ear to advocates of universal human rights.

I wouldn’t say any of these people are movements are exactly the same as Hitler, but neither to I think it is a coincidence that Nazi symbols keep popping up in unlikely places, because the Nazis are the polar opposite of liberal and democratic values.

The Taliban, al Qaeda ISIS and other radical Salafists represent a different kind of anti-democratic backlash.  They’re not Putinists.  They hate Putin, Xi, Modi and Erdogan.  They aren’t nationalists.  Their leaders don’t care whether you’re an Arab, a Afghan, a Chechen, a Uighur, a Somali or even a European, so long as you accept their religious dogma and hate people of different religions.

I think we Americans and others should resist the temptation to take sides in quarrels among freedom’s enemies.  The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

(more…)

Moral authority and the military

February 9, 2012

The military virtues of duty, honor, country are real and important.  I know a number of young men who led aimless, delinquent lives who straightened themselves out as a result of military service, which provided them a sense of order and discipline they had not found in civilian live.

While the military virtues in and of themselves are good, it is not good that they are coming to be regarded as the only virtues.   A democratic society also needs the civilian virtues of freedom, reason, tolerance.

A society in which the military is regarded as the main source of moral authority is in danger of devolving into becoming like a Latin American or the Middle Eastern nation, in which the armed forces regard themselves as the repository of national honor, with a right overrule civilian leadership.

“Lambert Strether,” who posts on the Naked Capitalism and Corrente weg logs, wrote a good two-part series on this subject, using President Obama’s State of the Union address as his point of departure.  In the first part, he described how the American military’s self-definition has shifted from loyalty to the Constitution and the laws to loyalty to “The Mission,” which in practice is whatever somebody in power says it is. This is an attitude reflected in techno-thriller fiction and movies, in which the hero (sometimes a trained assassin) operates outside the laws and morality of civil society.

In the second part, he contrasted military values with the historic American genius, as described by Alexis de Tocqueville and others.   What Tocqueville found exceptional about the United States of his day was the ability of ordinary Americans to self-organize and initiate projects without waiting for a leader to tell them what to do.  American society was based on initiative from the bottom up, not orders from the top down.

President Obama’s authoritarian rhetoric is deplorable, but it does not exist in a vacuum.  It reflects the way the American political climate and popular culture has devolved in the past 10 years.

Click on Obama’s SOTU, authoritarian rhetoric and civil society Part I and Part II to read the series.  Both parts are well worth reading in full.  The posts originally appeared on the Corrente web log, and were cross-posted to Naked Capitalism.