How to Destroy Democracy, the Trump-Putin Way

All around the world, strongmen are seizing power and subverting liberal norms.

fascism came out of particular historical circumstances that do not obtain today—

  • a devastating world war,
  • drastic economic upheaval, the
  • fear of Bolshevism.

.. When Naomi Wolf and others insisted that George W. Bush was taking us down the path of 1930s Germany, I thought they were being histrionic. The essence of fascism after all was the obliteration of democracy. Did anyone seriously believe that Bush would cancel elections and refuse to exit the White House?

.. So maybe fascism isn’t the right term for where we are heading. Fascism, after all, was all about big government—grandiose public works, jobs jobs jobs, state benefits of all kinds, government control of every area of life. It wasn’t just about looting the state on behalf of yourself and your cronies, although there was plenty of that too. Seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the press conference following their private meeting in Helsinki, though, I think maybe I’ve been a bit pedantic. Watching those two thuggish, immensely wealthy, corrupt bullies, I felt as if I was glimpsing a new world order—not even at its birth but already in its toddler phase. The two men are different versions of an increasingly common type of leader:

  • elected strongmen ‘who exploit weak spots in procedural democracy to come to power, and
  • once ensconced do everything they can to weaken democracy further,
  • while inflaming powerful popular currents of
    • authoritarianism,
    • racism,
    • nationalism,
    • reactionary religion,
    • misogyny,
    • homophobia, and
    • resentments of all kinds.

.. At the press conference Putin said that associates of the billionaire businessman Bill Browder gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign $400 million, a claim Politifact rates “pants on fire” and about which The New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel tweeted, “it was so completely without evidence that there were no pants to light on fire, so I hereby deem it ‘WITHOUT PANTS.’”

.. A Freudian might say that his obsession with the imaginary sins of Clinton suggests he’s hiding something. Why else, almost two years later, is he still trying to prove he deserved to win? At no point in the press conference did he say or do anything incompatible with the popular theory that he is Putin’s tool and fool.

.. These pantsless overlords are not alone. All over the world, antidemocratic forces are winning elections—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—and then using their power to subvert democratic procedures.

There’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—remember how when he first took office, back in 2014, he was seen as a harmless moderate, his Justice and Development Party the Muslim equivalent of Germany’s Christian Democrats? Now he’s shackling the press, imprisoning his opponents, trashing the universities, and trying to take away women’s rights and push them into having at least three, and possibly even five, kids because there just aren’t enough Turks.

.. Then there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe these elected authoritarian regimes, now busily shaping the government to his own xenophobic ends, and

.. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, doing much the same—packing the courts, banning abortion, promoting the interests of the Catholic church.

Before World War II Poland was a multiethnic country, with large minorities of Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, and other peoples. Now it boasts of its (fictional) ethnic purity and, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, bars the door to Muslim refugees in the name of Christian nationalism.

One could mention

  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
  • Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and
  • India’s Narendra Modi as well.

Pushed by anti-immigrant feeling, which is promoted by

  • unemployment and
  • austerity,

right-wing “populist” parties are surging in

  • Italy,
  • Greece,
  • the Netherlands,
  • France,
  • Germany,
  • Austria, and even
  • Sweden and
  • Denmark.

And don’t forget Brexit—boosted by pie-in-the-sky lies about the bounty that would flow from leaving the European Union but emotionally fueled by racism, nativism, and sheer stupidity.

.. At home, Donald Trump energizes similarly antidemocratic and nativist forces. Last year, outright neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and Trump called them “very fine people.” This year, Nazis and Holocaust deniers are running in elections as Republicans, and far-right misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys are meeting in ordinary bars and cafés.

.. The worst of it is that once the leaders get into power, they create their own reality, just as Karl Rove said they would:

  • They control the media,
  • pack the courts
  • .. lay waste to regulatory agencies,
  • “reform” education,
  • abolish long-standing precedents, and
  • use outright cruelty—of which the family separations on the border are just one example—to create fear.

While everybody was fixated on the spectacle in Helsinki, Trump’s IRS announced new rules that let dark-money groups like the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity keep their donors secret. 

.. American democracy might not be in its death throes yet, but every week brings a thousand paper cuts.

.. There’s nothing inevitable about liberal democracy, religious pluralism, acceptance of ethnic diversity, gender and racial equality, and the other elements of what we think of as contemporary progress.

.. He has consolidated a bloc of voters united in their grievances and their fantasies of redress. The

  • fundamentalist stay-home moms, the
  • MAGA-hat wearing toughs, the
  • Fox-addicted retirees, the
  • hedge-fund multimillionaires and the
  • gun nuts have found one another.

.. Why would they retreat and go their separate ways just because they lost an election or even two? Around the world it may be the same story: Democracy is easy to destroy and hard to repair, even if people want to do so, and it’s not so clear that enough of them do.

The old tea party may be over, but the new one is at peak power

Pompeo’s ascent underscores just how many politicians who came to prominence with the tea party — including Vice President Pence, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney — now occupy powerful positions in Trump’s administration. Depending on how far Trump goes to try to remake the GOP in his image, tea party alumni may form the core of a new Republican establishment.

.. The grievances that animated the movement and fed Trump’s presidential candidacy live on. The tea party’s insurgent impulses have fused with his erratic populism to become one of the three contending forces in the Republican Party — the other two being establishment Republicanism and ideological conservatism. Tillerson’s fall is a prime example of how traditional Republicans are becoming yesterday’s men and women in the Trumpified GOP. Tomorrow, will it be the ideological conservatives like House Speaker Paul Ryan?

.. The Washington Post reported that Trump disdained Tillerson, the pro-big-business former ExxonMobil CEO, for being “too establishment” in his thinking, by which the president seems to have meant Tillerson’s prudence (at least in relation to Trump), adherence to traditional diplomatic protocols, and unwillingness to rip up trade agreements and the Iran nuclear deal.
Pompeo, on the other hand, first won election to Congress in 2010 as a tea party favorite, in a race where some of his supporters urged Kansans to “Vote American ” to defeat his Indian American opponent.
.. party leaders were uneasily aware that the tea party stood apart from the Republican Party and in some ways defined itself in angry opposition to the GOP establishment. (The divide plagued the speakership of John Boehner and ultimately helped lead to his resignation.)
.. Republican and Democratic leaders came across to tea party activists as equally uninterested in their worries about immigration, the loss of jobs and industry to global economic competition, and a social agenda of “political correctness” pushed by academia and the media. Trump built his movement by championing these issues both parties seemed to ignore and projecting a willingness to fight to the death rather than surrender.
.. In the long view of history, the tea party was one more episode in a series of right-wing populist revolts that marked the development of the modern conservative movement.
  • .. President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, squelchedSen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, while the conservative intellectual champion
  • William F. Buckley Jr. expelled the conspiracy-mongering John Birch Society from the respectable right. At other times, leaders like
  • Ronald Reagan brought conservative activists into the mainstream of the GOP without permitting them to engage in intra-party fratricide.

.. When the conservative supporters of Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona came together in the early 1960s, for example, they took over many state and local party organizations and threw out anyone they deemed insufficiently committed to the cause.

.. As for Burch, after Goldwater’s massive defeat, he repented and told the RNC that “this party needs two wings, two wings and a center, or I fear it may never fly again.”

.. The grievances of most tea party supporters didn’t fade with time but were inflamed by Trump’s campaign, which strengthened the movement’s tendency to view opponents as illegitimate and un-American, and compromise as treason.

.. Despite the tea party’s provenance as a conservative movement, there was little about past political patterns and practices that it wanted to conserve. Activists hoped not only to “throw the bums out” but also to get rid of anything that passed for the status quo.

.. The affinity of tea party veterans for Trump is based in part on their common interest in disruption. Ryan may soon be in trouble because his authority and his orthodox conservatism have become another establishment to be overthrown

 

Slouching Toward War With North Korea

John Brennan, the former head of the C.I.A., estimates the chance of a war with North Korea at 20 to 25 percent.

Joel S. Wit, a Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University, puts it at 40 percent.

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the odds may be somewhere around 50/50.

.. Almost no expert believes that sanctions will force Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons or halt his missile program. That puts us on a collision course, for North Korea seems determined to develop a clear capacity to target the U.S. with nuclear weapons

.. the White House hints that it would rather have a war than allow the North to become a nuclear threat

.. Tammy Duckworth, a former military pilot who is now a Democratic senator from Illinois, says that from what she hears, the chance is greater than 50/50 that the president will order a strike.

.. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, has said that Trump told him he’d choose a war with North Korea over allowing it to continue on its course.

.. There is a military option: to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” Graham told the “Today” show, relaying a conversation with Trump. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here — and he’s told me that to my face.”

Graham said that if North Korea continues to test intercontinental ballistic missiles, a war is “inevitable.”

.. Eerily, on my last visit, North Koreans repeatedly said that a nuclear war with the U.S. was not only survivable but winnable.

The U.S. must now choose among three awful options:

  1. A “freeze for a freeze” deal, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be pursuing;
  2. Long-term deterrence, just as we have deterred North Korea for decades from using its chemical and biological weapons;
  3. A conventional war that might escalate into a nuclear exchange.

.. North Korea may also inflame the situation with provocations at any time, such as firing a long-range missile into the sea near Guam, or conducting an atmospheric nuclear test that would send radioactive fallout drifting toward the United States.