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.

This American Life: Trends With Benefits

The number of Americans receiving federal disability payments has nearly doubled over the last 15 years. There are towns and counties around the nation where almost 1/4 of adults are on disability. Planet Money‘s Chana Joffe-Walt spent 6 months exploring the disability program, and emerges with a story of the U.S. economy quite different than the one we’ve been hearing.

Some Things Are True Even if Trump Believes Them

One of the hardest things to accept for all of us who want Donald Trump to be a one-term president is the fact that some things are true even if Donald Trump believes them! And one of those things is that we have a real trade problem with China. Imports of Chinese goods alone equal two-thirds of the global U.S. trade deficit today.

.. he’s so weirdly obsessed with protecting “manly” industries like coal, steel and aluminum that affect our allies more than China — and he’s built such a chaotic policymaking process and unilaterally surrendered so much leverage to Beijing — that he can’t be relied upon to navigate the China trade issue in our national interest.

.. David Autor, the M.I.T. economist who’s done some of the most compelling research on the impacts of China trade

.. the “shock” that China delivered to U.S. lower-tech manufacturers in the years right after Beijing joined the World Trade Organization in 2001

.. roughly 40 percent of the decline in U.S. manufacturing between 2000 and 2007 was due to a surge in imports from China primarily after it joined the W.T.O.

.. it led to the sudden loss of about one million factory jobs in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump won all of those states.

.. This “China shock,” said Autor, led not only to mass unemployment but also to social disintegration, less marriage, more opioid abuse and more people dropping out of the labor market and requiring government aid.

.. “International trade creates diffuse benefits and concentrated costs,”

..  has created identifiable losers in trade-impacted industries

.. We assumed that China would “reform and open” after it joined the W.T.O.,

.. Instead, China “reformed and closed.” So China kept a 25 percent tariff on new cars imported from the U.S. (our tariff is 2.5 percent)

.. China grew its companies behind a wall of protection, fed them with state funds and, when they were competitive enough, unleashed them on the world

..  “Chinese and foreign makers are about to start sending huge numbers of fully built cars to the U.S. We are about to see a big increase in the U.S. trade deficit in automotive in the next several years.”

.. U.S. tech firms, like Apple, that want to offer cloud services to Chinese citizens have to store the data in China on servers operated by a Chinese partner. The U.S. has no such regulation.

.. “if they don’t accept demands to partner with Chinese companies and store data in China, then they risk losing access to the lucrative Chinese market, despite fears about trade secret theft and the rights of Chinese customers.”

.. “no US auto company is allowed to own even 50% of their own factory in China, but there are five 100% China-owned EV auto companies in the US.”

.. American electric vehicle (E.V.) companies operating in China are forced to have a Chinese partner and transfer technology to them.

.. they are also playing by a set of rules that others would be naïve to ignore.

.. So what would a smart American president do? First, he’d sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord. TPP eliminated as many as 18,000 tariffs on U.S. exports

.. focused on protecting what we do best — high-value-added manufacturing and intellectual property.

.. China was not in TPP. It was a coalition built, in part, to pressure Beijing into fairer market access, by our rules. Trump just gave it up for free.

.. “Since you like your trade rules so much, we’re going to copy them for your companies operating in America: 25 percent tariffs on your cars, and your tech companies that open here have to joint venture and share intellectual property with a U.S. partner — and store all their data on U.S. servers.”

.. Having a really tough trade negotiation with China on manufacturing and high technology, but doing it in secret, makes sense to me.

Starting a public trade war with our allies over aluminum and steel that raises the costs for our manufacturers, that doesn’t protect our growth industries and that loses allies that we need to deal with China makes absolutely no sense.

.. We needed to be, and still need to be, much more serious, and generous, about creating “wage insurance” and community reinvestment policies for people and places whose employers are suddenly wiped out by a trade shock.

.. tax incentives, Pell grants, community colleges — to create the conditions for every American to be constantly upgrading skills

.. Too much of the economic discussion of late “has been focused on the 1 percent versus the 99 percent,” observed Autor. “It’s become a kind of ‘inequality porn’

.. You lose sight of the fact that there is a dramatic rise in the economic return to tangibly acquiring skills — skills that are available and should be within everyone’s reach.”

.. The lack of real meritocracy in our country today, he added, “is not about the returns to realized skills. It is about the inequality in the ability to acquire those skills.

.. If you get educated in America today, and have a good work ethic, you are going to be rewarded.’

.. What does education do? It gives you a skill set and enables you to adapt to change better.

And cities and towns anchored by universities tend to reinvent themselves more easily; they’re engines of adaptation.

The Crown Prince and the New Saudi Economy

The Public Investment Fund is supposed to be Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, but the prince, who heads its board, runs it like his own business. In April, it acquired 129 square miles of state land for a sports and entertainment city. In August, it announced plans for a tourist resort bigger than Belgium. And in October, Prince Mohammed unveiled Neom, his $500 billion robot city, at an international conference.

..  Far from diversifying wealth, he seeks to centralize it in his hands.

.. Prince Mohammed still hopes to raise around $100 billion from the purge. Yet that amount would cover only his budget deficit in 2015

.. the Saudi economy dropped into recession more sharply than predicted in the last quarter. The gross domestic product dipped 0.7 percentin 2017, substantially down on pre-purge predictions of growth of 0.1 percent, and worryingly below population growth of 2 percent.

.. Saudi Arabia’s ranking on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index has fallen from 26 in 2014 to 92 in 2017. Unemployment continues to increase, in part because of the influx of women into the job market.

.. Economists expect the ranks of Saudis living in poverty — around 20 percent — to swell.

.. A direct sale to Chinese state-owned oil companies is also being mentioned.

.. Investors and neighbors crave predictability, stability and the confidence that comes with a sound regulatory system. All three are what made Dubai. Properly carried out, such a system would please bankers who might welcome the chance to retrieve debts or land from princes that act like robber barons.

.. A new House of Lords would lessen the risk that wounded egos will spawn an opposition. Subject to his elders’ scrutiny, the crown prince might be more prudent about spending money, particularly on defense and security, which documents indicate was 43 percent over budget in 2016.

.. For now Prince Mohammed is offering more personal liberty and relief from the scowls of the religious police as compensation for the introduction of taxes.

But as Abdullah, the previous king, recognized, more taxation — whether direct or indirect — will stoke demands for broader representation.