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.
Most religion is highly “legitimating religion.” It is used for social control and public order by the powers that be and individuals. This oppressive use of religion has allowed much of Christian history to fully cooperate in toxic and unjust societies—just as long as each person had “a personal relationship with Jesus.” This will not work anymore; in fact, it never did.
.. If we profess Jesus is indeed “the savior of the world” (John 4:42), we must not, we cannot, continue to think of salvation as merely a private matter. We are wasting our time trying to convert individuals without also challenging corporate, collective sin and fully institutionalized evil.
.. When we send momentarily changed people back into a corrupt system, people can think they are godly but it will never last for long or at any depth.
.. Social justice is clearly God’s concern, starting with liberation of God’s people in the Exodus, yet it has taken Christians a long time to be able to see the Gospel in a fully historic, social, and political context. Truly transformed people organically change the world, while fundamentally unchanged people can only conform to the system and wholeheartedly cheer it on (see Romans 12:2). Culture will win out every time over the Gospel if it is not critiqued by the Gospel.
.. After authentic conversion, our old “country” no longer holds any ultimate position. We can’t worship it any longer as we were once trained to do. Our national identity is okay, probably necessary, but very limited in its capacity for truth, much less universal truth.
And Republicans expect — and want — liberals to be so freaked out by thisthat they oppose her in a manner that can be branded anti-religious. They’re setting her up to be a Christian martyr, minus the grisly end, and daring Democrats to take the bait.
.. Aaron Blake sagely sized up the appeal of this dynamic to Trump, writing that it’s “exactly the kind of battle he generally relishes: One that invites his opponents to overreach.” My Times colleague Ross Douthat tweeted that if Trump wants to “trigger the libs,” he’ll nominate Barrett. Douthat further predicted that her nomination “might bring on the culture-war apocalypse.”
.. She’s the most tactically fascinating of the front-runners in several ways. At 46, she’s the youngest, so her time on the court could easily cover four decades. She’s a longtime resident of Indiana, which happens to be home to Joe Donnelly, one of three Democratic senators whose votes are most clearly in play when it comes to confirming Trump’s nominee.
.. She’d be the only justice on the Supreme Court without the imprimatur of the Ivy League, and there’s little whiff of the coastal elites about her. She did her undergraduate work at Rhodes College in Tennessee and then attended law school at Notre Dame
.. her own time on the bench is limited to her eight months on that court.
.. her promoters revel openly in the idea of Roe v. Wade being overturned after the addition of another woman to a Supreme Court that would then have an almost even gender balance of four women and five men.
.. her Senate confirmation hearings after her nomination for the circuit court made her a hero to conservatives, especially religious ones. They took issue in particular with questions that Senator Dianne Feinstein
.. “The dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein said
The fight over Barrett’s confirmation would almost certainly build trust between President Trump and social conservatives. It would energize Republicans ahead of the midterm elections.
The facts of Barrett’s life — that she is a mother of seven children, and that when she speaks about her Catholic faith, she speaks about God as if she really believes in His existence — will provoke nasty and bigoted statements from Democratic senators and liberal media personalities. Again... Professor Barrett’s qualifications become stronger by virtue of her willingness to write candidly and intelligently about difficult and sensitive ethical questions: Our universities, our judiciary, and our country will be the poorer if the Senate prefers nominees who remain silent on such topics.”.. the fight to confirm her will contain edifying political lessons. We don’t have religious tests for public office in this country, and having a republic that does not have an established religion does not require excluding sincere believers from positions of authority... they should be able to compel religious people to conform to liberal moral norms — which just so happen to track exactly to doctrinal developments in the once dominant Mainline Protestant churches... The ACLU would compel Catholic hospitals to perform abortions... Evangelicals at a crisis pregnancy center will be made to advertise for abortion... contain an even deeper lesson, one that is salutary for both liberal secularists, who once indulged in triumphalism, and conservative believers, who have been tempted to despair: Believing Catholics and Evangelicals will continue to make their contributions to the common good of this country. You will live with us. If we’re going to have peace, we’re going to make it together.