The Contract With Authoritarianism

“Remaking Partisan Politics through Authoritarian Sorting,” a forthcoming book by the political scientists Christopher FedericoStanley Feldman and Christopher Weber, who argue that

Three trends — polarization, media change, and the rise of what many people see as threats to the traditional social order — have contributed to a growing divide within American politics. It is a divide between those who place heavy value on social order and cohesion relative to those who value personal autonomy and independence.

The three authors use a long-established authoritarian scale — based on four survey questions about which childhood traits parents would like to see in their offspring — that asks voters to choose between independence or respect for their elders; curiosity or good manners; self-reliance or obedience; and being considerate or well-behaved. Those respondents who choose respect for elders, good manners, obedience and being well-behaved are rated more authoritarian.

The authors found that in 1992, 62 percent of white voters who ranked highest on the authoritarian scale supported George H.W. Bush. In 2016, 86 percent of the most authoritarian white voters backed Trump, an increase of 24 percentage points.

.. Over the last few decades, party allegiances have become increasingly tied to a core dimension of personality we call “openness.” Citizens high in openness value independence, self-direction, and novelty, while those low in openness value social cohesion, certainty, and security. Individual differences in openness seem to underpin many social and cultural disputes, including debates over the value of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, law and order, and traditional values and social norms.

Johnston notes that personality traits like closed mindedness, along with aversion to change and discomfort with diversity, are linked to authoritarianism:

As these social and cultural conflicts have become a bigger part of our political debates, citizens have sorted into different parties based on personality, with citizens high in openness much more likely to be liberals and Democrats than those low in openness. This psychological sorting process does not line up perfectly with older partisan differences based on class, because those higher in income and education also tend to be higher in openness.

One Thing Donald Trump Would Like Is Freedom From the Press

More than any president in living memory, Donald Trump has conducted a dogged, remorseless assault on the press. He portrays the news media not only as a dedicated adversary of his administration but of the entire body politic. These attacks have forced the media where it does not want to be, at the center of the political debate.

Trump’s purpose is clear. He seeks to weaken an institution that serves to constrain the abusive exercise of executive authority.

.. He has described news organizations as “the enemy of the American people.” He has routinely called reporters“scum,” “slime,” “dishonest” and “disgusting.”

.. Rosen observed that the history of right-wing attacks on the media

extends back through Agnew’s speeches for Nixon to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and winds forward through William Rushertalk radio, and of course Fox News, which founded a business model on liberal bias.

Trump is not just attacking the press but the conditions that make it possible for news reports to serve as any kind of check on power.

.. From undue influence (Agnew’s claim) to something closer to treason (enemy of the people.) Instead of criticizing ‘the media’ for unfair treatment, he whips up hatred for it.

.. Trump has some built-in advantages in his war on the media. Confidence in the media was in decline long before Trump entered politics

..  in September 2017 that 37 percent of the public had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the mass media, down from 53 percent in 1997.

.. The Trump administration, with a rhetoric that began during the campaign and burgeoned in the earliest days of Donald Trump’s presidency, has engaged in enemy construction of the press, and the risks that accompany that categorization are grave.

.. Insofar as Trump succeeds in “undercutting the watchdog, educator, and proxy functions of the press,” they write, it

leaves the administration more capable of delegitimizing other institutions and constructing other enemies — including

  • the judiciary,
  • the intelligence community,
  • immigrants, and
  • members of certain races or religions.

.. Trump is signaling — through his terminology, through his delegitimizing actions, and through his anticipatory undercutting — that the press is literally the enemy, to be distrusted, ignored, and excluded.

.. motivate it to want to call out the changing norms that it sees around it, and to defend the role of important democratic institutions when they are attacked. But when the press is itself one of those institutions, it finds itself a part of the story in ways that it is unaccustomed to being, and it has to weigh the potential loss of credibility that might come with an aggressive self-defense.

.. “The best way for the press to react to Trump’s undemocratic behavior is to continue trying to do their jobs the best they can,”

.. Ladd specifically warned against “reacting to Trump by becoming more crusadingly anti-Trump.”

Trump has successfully “put the mainstream media in a difficult position,” according to Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago:

If the media directly address the accusations of fake news, they ironically run the risk of dignifying the accusations. But if they ignore the accusations, they miss the opportunity to prove their professionalism to those who have grown skeptical.

.. Trump’s disdain for the First Amendment is an integral part of a much longer series of developments in which both parties have demonstrated a willingness to defy democratic norms, although the Republican Party has been in the forefront.

For a quarter of a century, Republican officials have been more willing than Democratic officials to play constitutional hardball — not only or primarily on judicial nominations but across a range of spheres. Democrats have also availed themselves of hardball throughout this period, but not with the same frequency or intensity.

.. Fishkin and Pozen cite the work of Mark Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, to define constitutional hardball as “political claims and practices”

that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understandings. Constitutional hardball tactics are viewed by the other side as provocative and unfair because they flout the ‘goes without saying’ assumptions that underpin working systems of constitutional government. Such tactics do not generally flout binding legal norms. But that only heightens the sense of foul play insofar as it insulates acts of hardball from judicial review.

Republicans on the far right, in particular, Fishkin and Pozen write, have been willing to engage in constitutional hardball because they are drawn to “narratives of debasement and restoration,” which suggest

that something has gone fundamentally awry in the republic, on the order of an existential crisis, and that unpatriotic liberals have allowed or caused it to happen.

The severity of the liberal threat, in the eyes of these conservatives, justifies extreme steps to restore what they see as a besieged moral order.

.. As with so many things about President Trump, it strikes me that he didn’t start the fire. He got into office because it was already burning and now he’s pouring on gasoline.

.. Accusations that the press has a political agenda can, perversely, help create an agenda which is then said to corroborate the accusations.

.. Pozen described Trump’s denunciation of the press as “the culmination of several decades of comparable attacks by media pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh” and he argues that Trump’s calls

to lock up one’s general election opponent, encouraging online hate mobs, lying constantly, attacking the press constantly, contradicting oneself constantly, undermining the very idea of truth are individually and in common potentially profound threats to the integrity and quality of our system of free expression.


Trump’s Tool Kit Does Not Include the Constitution

a survey of 2000 voters that shows public faith in 27 key democratic principles — ranging from the independence of the judiciary to constitutional limits on executive power — has declined across the board.

.. from September 2017 to January 2018, voters’ assessments of the ability of the courts, Congress and the Constitution to “effectively check executive power dropped by 7-8 percentage points.”

.. If scholars are right that erosion proceeds on a piecemeal basis, and that the first steps often entail targeting democracy’s “referees,” then our results regarding declines in judicial independence and support for a free press are especially disturbing.

.. On Monday, he charged that Democratic members of the House and Senate were treasonous in their failure to applaud him during his State of the Union address. In a speech in Blue Ash, Ohio, Trump described how he saw it:

You’re up there, you’ve got half the room going totally crazy, wild — they loved everything, they want to do something great for our country. And you have the other side, even on positive news — really positive news, like that — they were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said, “treasonous.” I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not?

.. Iyengar posed the following hypothetical:

Let’s assume that Mueller uncovers evidence of collusion and close associates of the Prez are implicated. Republicans are likely to deny the validity of the charges on the grounds that the investigators are biased and Republicans in Congress, as they’ve repeatedly demonstrated, will stick by Trump since the base is with him. Trump, of course, will continue with the ‘hoax’ narrative, and his surrogates in the media will be only too happy to back him up. At that point, we will have a very real threat to the rule of law.

.. Trump’s attacks on the F.B.I. are a case study in his polarization strategy. Since its founding in 1908, the F.B.I. has had substantial popular support, especially among Republicans.

.. Polarization by party identity is so powerful at the moment that most voters see the world through thick red and blue lenses. Almost everything is politicized. And, in almost every study I have run, I find that Republicans are more intense partisans than Democrats on average. We’ve seen partisanship color Republican evaluations of the FBI (negatively) and Russia and Putin (positively).

..  Trump has a negative 40-55 percent approval rating, but it’s “his best overall score in seven months.”

.. Seventy percent of voters described the economy as excellent or good, the highest since 2001

.. in politics, “what matters in the economy is real disposable income over the 6-12 months before an election.”

.. the future of democracy in America during the Trump administration depends as much or more on unemployment, take home pay, the Dow Jones industrial average, tax rates and the gross domestic product as on principled support for the rule of law.

.. as the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, continues to pursue lines of inquiry reaching deep into the White House, Trump will have plenty of opportunities in the near future to push the envelope on the rule of law.

.. I see the Democrats poised right now to make net gains of about 10 to 14 seats. They need 25 or so depending on vacancies.

..  Franklin Roosevelt’s seeking of a third (and then a fourth) term is among the most important norm violations in American political history. He hadn’t been dead for two years before both chambers of Congress proposed the 22nd amendment to limit presidents to two terms.

.. After Lincoln’s use of emergency powers to flex presidential power in ways not previously seen, Congress fought back against his successor, Andrew Johnson. More of his vetoes were overridden (15) than for any other president and Congress limited presidential influence over executive branch employment by passing the Tenure of Office Act (1867).

.. Trump won the Republican nomination and the presidency by conducting a campaign directly challenging the notion that the electorate will punish a politician for “violating accepted constitutional arrangements.”

.. If Republicans retain control of both branches of Congress in 2018 — even if by just one vote in the House and a 50-50 split (with Vice President Pence the tiebreaker) in the Senate — Trump will claim vindication. His assault on the pillars of democracy will continue unabated, with increasingly insidious effect.

You Cannot Be Too Cynical About the Republican Tax Bill

The rush to enact the tax bill was designed to mask — as a break for the middle class — what is in fact a $1.4 trillion package of benefits for key donors and lobbyists, the richest members of Congress, President Trump, his family and other families like his.

.. The speed from introduction to passage — seven weeks, with no substantive hearings — effectively precluded expert examination of the legislation’s regressive core, its special interest provisions and the long-term penalties it imposes on the working poor and middle class through the use of an alternative measure of inflation — the “chained CPI.”

.. The primary authors of the report — Ari Glogower, David Kamin, Rebecca Kysar, and Darien Shanske — describe the legislation as “a substantial blow to the basic integrity of the income tax” that will “advantage the well-advised in ways that are both deliberate and inadvertent.”

.. The most serious structural problems with the bill are unavoidable outcomes of Congress’s choice to preference certain taxpayers and activities while disfavoring others — and for no discernible policy rationale.

These haphazard lines are fundamentally unfair and inefficient, and invite tax planning by sophisticated taxpayers to get within the preferred categories.

..  The game is clear: Don’t be an employee, instead be an independent contractor or partner in a firm.” The ability to make this shift is available primarily to the well-paid.

.. It means that old property can still get the benefit of expensing, but only if it is sold to another party. If the original owner holds it, they have to depreciate according to the old rules; if they sell it to another party, then suddenly the full cost is eligible for expensing

.. It appears that the buyer of the asset could even lease it back to the existing owner, so that the property doesn’t even have to go anywhere.

.. create new incentives to shift tangible assets (and jobs) abroad. Given President Trump’s relentless message about U.S. jobs, it is incomprehensible to me that we are about to pass something that has this effect without any kind of meaningful discussion of the issue.

.. lower and middle-income families, who are especially dependent upon inflation-indexed deductions, credits, and bracket thresholds, will feel the impact increasingly as time goes on.

.. In the long term, Hemel argued,

this is a very subtle way to increase taxes on the lower and middle classes and then use those revenues to pay for a massive tax cut for corporations.

.. the shift to chained CPI — a less generous, slower-growing measure of inflation than the one currently in use — would not only result in a tax increase over time, it would set a precedent for Republicans who would like to use the same method to pare back so-called entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. It is, in effect, a backdoor method of reducing benefits for the elderly and the disadvantaged without public scrutiny or debate.

.. offers little redress to workers who have grown to believe that the country’s tax law thicket advantages those with power, political connections and lawyers on retainer.

.. (2) Carried interest provision. When Trump was careening around in his populist candidate mode, he promised to end it. Here is one campaign promise that he “somehow” failed to redeem when the clear and available chance presented itself.

(3) Restriction on state and C local tax deduction — consciously vindictive imposition of double taxation on citizens of certain Democratic states

.. (4) Expanding the standard deduction but financing the cost of so doing by repealing the personal exemptions is a bit of a bait and switch maneuver. Some people might be worse off.

(5) In a bill in which 100s of billions of dollars were sloshing around to provide steep tax cuts for already wealthy and highly prosperous corporations and pass through businesses, the Republicans could only find the will to raise the refundable portion of the child care tax credit from $1000 to $1400. Rubio wanted it to be raised to $2000 and his Republican brethren refused to even meet him halfway. Pitiful.

.. (6) Deduction for extraordinary medical expenses — retention of this deduction did not even get the five-year sunset window applied to all the other individual tax provisions, two years only. Vicious.

.. How well does this procedure stand up to the requirements Senator Ben Sasse specified in his maiden Senate speech on Nov. 3, 2015? In it, Sasse argued that the Senate was failing in its responsibility to fully air and debate the important issues before the county, calling for what he called “a cultural recovery inside the Senate”:

.. Good teachers don’t shut down debate; they try to model Socratic seriousness by putting the best possible construction on arguments, even — and especially — if one doesn’t hold those positions.

.. How could nearly every Republican representative — and all 52 Republican senators — support the tax bill? The best answer may be the most cynical: because it benefits key leaders, their friends, their heirs and their donors.

.. it is difficult to conclude that the motivations of its sponsors are either benevolent or somehow in the best interests of the country. More likely it is hypocrisy and venality mixed up into one awful bill.