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.

Trump’s World and the Retreat of Shame

Viktor Orban, the prime minister, declares that, “We do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed; we do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others.” Now, what color, precisely, are Hungarians, and what color were the nearly 440,000 Jews deported by the Nazis, mostly to Auschwitz, in 1944 with the cooperation of Hungarian authorities?

.. Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister of Poland, another European Union member state, defends a new law that makes it a crime to accuse “the Polish nation” of complicity in any “Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.” He says there were also “Jewish perpetrators” of the Holocaust.

Yes, shame is in retreat; decency too. Freedom is in retreat. The American president expresses semi-joking approval for Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, extending his rule indefinitely.

.. Why the illiberal counterrevolution? “First,” Berman tells me, “because there’s always a counterrevolution! Second, fear. You can only understand the macho cartoons that are Putin and Trump through the fear aroused by the revolution in women’s rights. Fear of globalization, too, and then we have this cultural collapse that leads so many Americans to be incapable of seeing at a glance that Trump should not be president.”

Donald Trump’s Identity Politics

Millions of white voters began to see themselves more openly not as white supremacists but as white identified.

It is no secret that the president has capitalized on the increasing salience of race and ethnicity in recent years. The furious reaction to many different historical and cultural developments — mass immigration; the success of the civil rights and women’s rights movements; the election and re-election of a black president; and the approaching end of white majority status in the United States — has created a political environment ripe for the growth of white identity politics.

The vast majority of white Americans who feel threatened by the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity are not members of the KKK or neo-Nazis. They are much greater in number, and far more mainstream, than the white supremacists who protested in Virginia over the weekend.

..  total of 36 percent of whites described their racial identity as either “very important” (16 percent) or “extremely important” (20 percent), according to an American National Election Studies survey in January 2016. Another 25 percent said it was “moderately important.”

.. The survey, they write,

asked four questions that captured dimensions of white identity: the importance of white identity, how much whites are being discriminated against, the likelihood that whites are losing jobs to nonwhites, and the importance of whites working together to change laws unfair to whites. We combined those questions into a scale capturing the strength of white identity and found that it was strongly related to Republicans’ support for Donald Trump.

.. In a separate essay on the Post’s Monkey Cage site in March 2016, Tesler and Sides explained that

Both white racial identity and beliefs that whites are treated unfairly are powerful predictors of support for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.

.. What are the views of “white identifiers”?

According to Jardina, these voters

are more likely to think that the growth of racial or ethnic groups in the United States that are not white is having a negative effect on American culture.

And they are

much more likely to rank illegal immigration the most important issue facing the U.S. today, relative to the budget deficit, health care, the economy, unemployment, outsourcing of jobs to other countries, abortion, same-sex marriage, education, gun control, the environment or terrorism.

.. Perhaps most important, Jardina found that white identifiers are

an aggrieved group. They are more likely to agree that American society owes white people a better chance in life than they currently have. And white identifiers would like many of the same benefits of identity politics that they believe other groups enjoy.

In other words, most — though by no means all — white identifiers appear to be driven as much by anger at their sense of lost status as by their animosity toward other groups, although these two feelings are clearly linked.

Tesler argued last November, after the election, that the

Trump effect combined with eight years of racialized politics under President Obama, means that racial attitudes are now more closely aligned with white Americans’ partisan preferences than they have been at any time in the history of polling.

.. Podhoretz recognizes Trump’s adamant refusal to alienate his most dogged backers:

If there’s one thing politicians can feel in their marrow, even a non-pol pol like Trump, it’s who is in their base and what it is that binds the base to them

.. He did so, Podhoretz argues, by capitalizing on media and organizational tools disdained by the establishment: Alex Jones’s Infowars; the American Media supermarket tabloids, including The National Enquirer, Star and the Globe; the WWE professional wrestling network where “Trump intermittently served as a kind of Special Guest Villain.”

.. 43 percent of Republicans said there is a lot of discrimination against whites, compared to 27 percent of Republicans who said that there is a lot of discrimination against blacks.

.. Direct and indirect references to threats to white identity continue to shape Trump’s rhetoric. In his ongoing drive to demonize the media, Trump declared during his rally in Phoenix on Tuesday that “they are trying to take away our history and our heritage.”

his supporters think that whites and Christians are the most oppressed groups of people in the country.

.. No one doubts that it has been unsettling for many Americans to adapt to an increasingly interconnected world. Still, history has not been kind to those who have unequivocally yielded to racial grievance — to our local agitators, the David Dukes and the Father Coughlins, as well as to the even more poisonous propagators of racial hatred overseas. As Trump abandons his campaign promises

he has kept his partially veiled promise to focus on white racial essentialism, to make race divisive again. He has gone where other politicians dared not venture and he has taken the Republican Party with him.