Polarization. Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.
.. Poland is now one of the most polarized societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right but also the old Hungarian right, the Italian right, and, with some differences, the British right and the American right, too.
.. Some of my New Year’s Eve guests continued, as my husband and I did, to support the pro-European, pro-rule-of-law, pro-market center-right—remaining in political parties that aligned, more or less, with European Christian Democrats, with the liberal parties of Germany and the Netherlands, and with the Republican Party of John McCain. Some now consider themselves center-left. But others wound up in a different place, supporting a nativist party called Law and Justice—a party that has moved dramatically away from the positions it held when it first briefly ran the government
.. Since then, Law and Justice has embraced a new set of ideas, not just xenophobic and deeply suspicious of the rest of Europe but also openly authoritarian. After the party won a slim parliamentary majority in 2015, its leaders violated the constitution by appointing new judges to the constitutional court. Later, it used a similarly unconstitutional playbook to attempt to pack the Polish Supreme Court. It took over the state public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska; fired popular presenters; and began running unabashed propaganda, sprinkled with easily disprovable lies, at taxpayers’ expense. The government earned international notoriety when it adopted a law curtailing public debate about the Holocaust. Although the law was eventually changed under American pressure, it enjoyed broad support by Law and Justice’s ideological base—the journalists, writers, and thinkers, including some of my party guests, who believe anti-Polish forces seek to blame Poland for Auschwitz.
.. he described how, one by one, they were drawn to fascist ideology, like a flock of moths to an inescapable flame. He recounted the arrogance and confidence they acquired as they moved away from identifying themselves as Europeans—admirers of Proust, travelers to Paris—and instead began to call themselves blood-and-soil Romanians. He listened as they veered into conspiratorial thinking or became casually cruel. People he had known for years insulted him to his face and then acted as if nothing had happened
.. This is not 1937. Nevertheless, a parallel transformation is taking place in my own time, in the Europe that I inhabit and in Poland, a country whose citizenship I have acquired. And it is taking place without the excuse of an economic crisis of the kind Europe suffered in the 1930s. Poland’s economy has been the most consistently successful in Europe over the past quarter century. Even after the global financial collapse in 2008, the country saw no recession. What’s more, the refugee wave that has hit other European countries has not been felt here at all. There are no migrant camps, and there is no Islamist terrorism, or terrorism of any kind.More important, though the people I am writing about here, the nativist ideologues, are perhaps not all as successful as they would like to be (about which more in a minute), they are not poor and rural, they are not in any sense victims of the political transition, and they are not an impoverished underclass. On the contrary, they are educated, they speak foreign languages, and they travel abroad—just like Sebastian’s friends in the 1930s... What has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades? My answer is a complicated one, because I think the explanation is universal. Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.
..Dreyfus was not a spy. To prove the unprovable, the anti-Dreyfusards had to disparage evidence, law, and even rational thought. Science itself was suspect, both because it was modern and universal and because it came into conflict with the emotional cult of ancestry and place. “In every scientific work,” wrote one anti-Dreyfusard, there is something “precarious” and “contingent.”
The Dreyfusards, meanwhile, argued that some principles are higher than national honor, and that it mattered whether Dreyfus was guilty or not. Above all, they argued, the French state had an obligation to treat all citizens equally, whatever their religion. They too were patriots, but of a different sort. They conceived of the nation not as an ethnic clan but as the embodiment of a set of ideals: justice, honesty, the neutrality of the courts.
.. Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anticompetitive and antimeritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership.
.. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”
.. Lenin’s one-party system also reflected his disdain for the idea of a neutral state, of apolitical civil servants and an objective media. He wrote that freedom of the press “is a deception.” He mocked freedom of assembly as a “hollow phrase.” As for parliamentary democracy itself, that was no more than “a machine for the suppression of the working class.” In the Bolshevik imagination, the press could be free, and public institutions could be fair, only once they were controlled by the working class—via the party.
.. This mockery of the competitive institutions of “bourgeois democracy” and capitalism has long had a right-wing version, too. Hitler’s Germany is the example usually given. But there are many others. Apartheid South Africa was a de facto one-party state that corrupted its press and its judiciary to eliminate blacks from political life and promote the interests of Afrikaners, white South Africans descended mainly from Dutch settlers, who were not succeeding in the capitalist economy created by the British empire.
.. In Europe, two such illiberal parties are now in power: Law and Justice, in Poland, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in Hungary. Others, in Austria and Italy, are part of government coalitions or enjoy wide support. These parties tolerate the existence of political opponents. But they use every means possible, legal and illegal, to reduce their opponents’ ability to function and to curtail competition in politics and economics. They dislike foreign investment and criticize privatization, unless it is designed to benefit their supporters. They undermine meritocracy. Like Donald Trump, they mock the notions of neutrality and professionalism, whether in journalists or civil servants.
.. Notably, one of the Law and Justice government’s first acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. The Polish foreign service also wants to drop its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet.*
.. You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, then what’s wrong with it?
.. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?
.. the rules of competition are flawed because the reforms of the 1990s were unfair. Specifically, they allowed too many former Communists to recycle their political power into economic power.
.. in late 1990, Wałęsa ran for president and won, by galvanizing people who already resented the compromises that had accompanied the negotiated collapse of Communism in Poland (the decision not to jail or punish former Communists, for example). The experience made Jarosław realize that he didn’t like politics, especially not the politics of resentment: “I saw what doing politics was really about … awful intrigues, searching for dirt, smear campaigns.” That was also his first encounter with Kaczyński, “a master of that. In his political thinking, there is no such thing as an accident … If something happened, it was the machination of an outsider. Conspiracy is his favorite word.”
.. A friend of both brothers told me she didn’t think Jacek had any real political philosophy at all. “Is he a conservative? I don’t think so, at least not in the strict definition of conservatism. He’s a person who wants to be on top.” And from the late 1980s onward, that was where he aimed to be.
.. Asked about this invention, Jacek reportedly told a small group of journalists that of course it wasn’t true, but “Ciemny lud to kupi”—which, roughly translated, means “The ignorant peasants will buy it.” Borusewicz describes him as “without scruples.”
.. Under Law and Justice, state television doesn’t just produce regime propaganda; it celebrates the fact that it is doing so. It doesn’t just twist and contort information; it glories in deceit.
.. Jacek—deprived of respect for so many years—is finally having his revenge. He is right where he thinks he should be: at the center of attention, the radical throwing figurative Molotov cocktails into the crowd. The illiberal one-party state suits him perfectly. And if Communism isn’t really available anymore as a genuine enemy for him and his colleagues to fight, then new enemies will have to be found... the polarizing political movements of 21st-century Europe demand much less of their adherents. They don’t require belief in a full-blown ideology, and thus they don’t require violence or terror police. They don’t force people to believe that black is white, war is peace, and state farms have achieved 1,000 percent of their planned production. Most of them don’t deploy propaganda that conflicts with everyday reality. And yet all of them depend, if not on a Big Lie, then on what the historian Timothy Snyder once told me should be called the Medium-Size Lie, or perhaps a clutch of Medium-Size Lies. To put it differently, all of them encourage their followers to engage, at least part of the time, with an alternative reality... In Hungary, the lie is unoriginal: It is the belief, shared by the Russian government and the American alt-right, in the superhuman powers of George Soros, the Hungarian Jewish billionaire who is supposedly plotting to bring down the nation through the deliberate importation of migrants, even though no such migrants exist in Hungary... In Poland, at least the lie is sui generis. It is the Smolensk conspiracy theory: the belief that a nefarious plot brought down the president’s plane in April 2010. The story has special force in Poland because the crash had eerie historical echoes. The president who died, Lech Kaczyński, was on his way to an event commemorating the massacre in Katyn, the place where Stalin murdered more than 21,000 Poles—a big chunk of the country’s elite—in 1940. Dozens of senior military figures and politicians were also on board, many of them friends of mine. My husband reckons that he knew everybody on the plane, including the flight attendants... The truth, as it began to emerge, was not comforting to the Law and Justice Party or to its leader, the dead president’s twin brother. The plane had taken off late; the president was likely in a hurry to land, because he wanted to use the trip to launch his reelection campaign. There was thick fog in Smolensk, which did not have a real airport, just a landing strip in the forest; the pilots considered diverting the plane, which would have meant a drive of several hours to the ceremony. After the president had a brief phone call with his brother, his advisers apparently pressed the pilots to land. Some of them, against protocol, walked in and out of the cockpit during the flight. Also against protocol, the chief of the air force came and sat beside the pilots. “Zmieścisz się śmiało”—“You’ll make it, be bold,” he said. Seconds later, the plane collided with the tops of some birch trees, rolled over, and hit the ground... Perhaps, like so many people who rely on conspiracy theories to make sense of random tragedies, Kaczyński simply couldn’t accept that his beloved brother had died pointlessly; perhaps he could not accept the even more difficult fact that the evidence suggested Lech and his team had pressured the pilots to land, thus causing the crash. Or perhaps, like Donald Trump, he saw how a conspiracy theory could help him attain power.Much as Trump used birtherism and the fabricated threat of immigrant crime to motivate his core supporters, Kaczyński has used the Smolensk tragedy to galvanize his followers, and convince them not to trust the government or the media. Sometimes he has implied that the Russian government downed the plane. At other times, he has blamed the former ruling party, now the largest opposition party, for his brother’s death: “You destroyed him, you murdered him, you are scum!” he once shouted in parliament.
.. Although the Macierewicz commission has never produced a credible alternate explanation for the crash, the Smolensk lie laid the moral groundwork for other lies. Those who could accept this elaborate theory, with no evidence whatsoever, could accept anything. They could accept, for example, the broken promise not to put Macierewicz in the government. They could accept—even though Law and Justice is supposedly a “patriotic” and anti-Russian party—Macierewicz’s decisions to fire many of the country’s highest military commanders, to cancel weapons contracts, to promote people with odd Russian links, to raid a natofacility in Warsaw in the middle of the night. The lie also gave the foot soldiers of the far right an ideological basis for tolerating other offenses. Whatever mistakes the party might make, whatever laws it might break, at least the “truth” about Smolensk would finally be told.
.. The Smolensk conspiracy theory, like the Hungarian migration conspiracy theory, served another purpose: For a younger generation that no longer remembered Communism, and a society where former Communists had largely disappeared from politics, it offered a new reason to distrust the politicians, businesspeople, and intellectuals who had emerged from the struggles of the 1990s and now led the country. More to the point, it offered a means of defining a new and better elite. There was no need for competition, or for exams, or for a résumé bristling with achievements. Anyone who professes belief in the Smolensk lie is by definition a true patriot—and, incidentally, might well qualify for a government job.
.. The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity. It explains away complex phenomena, accounts for chance and accidents, offers the believer the satisfying sense of having special, privileged access to the truth. But—once again—separating the appeal of conspiracy from the ways it affects the careers of those who promote it is very difficult. For those who become the one-party state’s gatekeepers, for those who repeat and promote the official conspiracy theories, acceptance of these simple explanations also brings another reward: power.
President Trump stopped his motorcade in Manhattan today, jumped out of his limousine and shot a man on Fifth Avenue who was shouting anti-Trump epithets. The shooting was recorded by the White House press pool as well as by dozens of bystanders with cellphones and by security cameras in the area. When asked for his reaction, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “We will need more information than is available at this point.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said through pursed lips that he “was not going to comment on every up and down with this president.”House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes said he already had information indicating that the man whom Trump shot “worked for the Clinton Foundation and may have been a relative of former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin.”
Fox News did not cover Trump’s shooting at the top of its broadcast, which focused instead on the killing of an Iowa woman by an undocumented immigrant. Fox’s only reference to the fact that the president shot a man on Fifth Avenue was that “a New York City man died today when he ran right into a bullet fired by the president.”
Senator Lindsey Graham quipped that “Trump shoots as well as he putts”and that this incident would not cause the South Carolina senator to cancel his coming golf round with the president at his Bedminster, N.J., course.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that she was looking the other way when the shooting happened so she had no comment, adding: “I haven’t had a chance to discuss it with the president. I’ll get back to you if I have something. But the president has stated many times that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. So he’s just keeping a campaign promise. He did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him. And even though I have no comment, and he has no comment, we’ve commented on this extensively.”
Hours later, though, the president tweeted: “Actually, some people are saying that a man who looked a lot like Barack Obama did the shooting. I’m not saying that — but some people are. It also could have been somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds who fired that shot. Like Rudy said: Truth is not truth — unless I say so.”
Jerry Falwell Jr., a top evangelical leader, announced that his movement would be holding a vigil this evening, praying that the president had not stressed himself too much by having to shoot a man on Fifth Avenue. Falwell added, “This would never have happened if Jeff Sessions were doing his job.”
The day ended with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declaring that the fact that the president could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight “only proves again why we need to arm all our schoolteachers.”
My biggest challenge in writing all of the above? Worrying that readers wouldn’t realize it was made up.
.. America, we all know, won the Cold War. Our values and economic system proved superior to Russia’s. But what is at stake in the 2018 midterms is who is going to win the post-Cold War.
.. what we are seeing in the behavior of Trump and his toadies in the G.O.P. is the beginnings of the Russification of American politics. Vladimir Putin could still win the post-Cold War.
.. Because the Soviets claimed to have built a worker’s paradise, it was important that we had strong unions, a strong middle class, less inequality and an adequate social safety net. The Soviets did not have the rule of law. So we had to have it more than ever.
“I came here from Russia in ’75,” Gorbis added, “and it was remarkable to me that in this society there were laws and norms and principles, and people abided by them. The idea that people actually paid their taxes was kind of remarkable to me.” In the Russia she grew up in, said Gorbis, “we did not have that; if there was a law, there was always a way to bribe and get around it.”
.. But with the Cold War now far back in our rearview mirror, Trump has not only insisted on bringing America closer to Putin’s Russia geopolitically, but also politically.
.. Trump still refuses to show us his tax returns long after his “audit,” which can only mean he is hiding something. His campaign chairman Paul Manafort is a convicted tax cheat who was trying to keep Putin’s stooge in power in Ukraine. Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen is another confessed tax cheat.
.. And the first two House Republicans to endorse Trump in 2016 — Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins — were both just indicted on corruption charges.
.. one has a stronger feeling than ever that with a moral vacuum at the heart of the Trump White House — and with the president assaulting the media and the judiciary on a regular basis, not unlike Putin — everything goes, so grab what you can, because no one’s looking.
.. “The Russification of America under Trump, it’s not just about collusion, corruption and money laundering,” said Gorbis. “It is about his behavior” — crass language, simplistic slogans reminiscent of the Soviet rhetoric, use of terms such as “enemy of the people,” and his insistence on personal loyalty over loyalty to the Constitution or institutions.
.. There are other parallels between Trumpism and Putinism: the glorification of oil, gas and mining over science and technology; the elevation of white, Christian, nationalist values; and the neutering of the legislative branch — today’s G.O.P.-dominated Congress behaves just like the rubber-stamp Russian Duma. Worse, this Russification of politics is also spreading — to the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and maybe soon to Brazil.
.. A few more years of this Russification of America and the rot will be everywhere. Russia will have won the post-Cold War
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
- reactionary religion,
- 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
right-wing “populist” parties are surging in
- the Netherlands,
- Austria, and even
- Sweden and
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.
One proposal would limit justices to 18-year terms, which would create an opening on the court every two years, and reduce some of the political gamesmanship that surrounds open seats today. But any change to the justices’ tenure would require a constitutional amendment, and so is a longer debate for another day... During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump publicized a list of possible Supreme Court nominees preapproved by the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, another conservative group. It was scrubbed of any squishes along the lines of David Souter, Anthony Kennedy or even Chief Justice Roberts, all of whom have been deemed insufficiently committed to the cause for failing to vote in lock step with the radical right’s agenda. (Judge Kavanaugh was left off the original list but was added later.)
The Federalist Society claims to value the so-called strict construction of the Constitution, but this supposedly neutral mode of constitutional interpretation lines up suspiciously well with Republican policy preferences — say, gutting laws that protect voting rights, or opening the floodgates to unlimited political spending, or undermining women’s reproductive freedom, or destroying public-sector labor unions’ ability to stand up for the interests of workers.
.. Senate Democrats need to use the confirmation process to explain to Americans how their Constitution is about to be hijacked by a small group of conservative radicals well funded by ideological and corporate interests
.. We’re witnessing right now a global movement against the idea of liberal democracy and, in places like Hungary and Poland, its grounding in an independent judiciary. Mr. Trump and Senate Republicans appear happy to ride this wave to unlimited power. They will almost certainly win this latest battle, but it’s a victory that will come at great cost to the nation, and to the court’s remaining legitimacy.
.. Americans who care about the court’s future and its role in the American system of government need to turn to the political process to restore the protections the new majority will take away, and to create an environment where radical judges can’t be nominated or confirmed.