Monday, January 16, 2017
The common factors in the authoritarian populist wave
Good morning. Here's a little bit of crystal ball gazing to start your day:
This column is about what life will be like under Trump, based on discernible patterns in other countries where populists gained power, especially those with possible murky Russian ties. I write this not as the kind of airy opiner now ubiquitous via the internet – just one more shrill partisan voice in the noise – but as a professional with specific two-decades-long experience in the subject. Experience on the ground that is, as a reporter and commentator. I have now covered upwards of a dozen countries that have buckled under the emergent wave of populist leaders, from the Far East to the Mideast to Europe and the Americas. Many of the countries have done so quite democratically, at first. That emergent wave has crashed onto US shores in a fashion thoroughly precedented abroad.
Recently, I wrote about how I’d seen all the tricks in the Trump campaign before, actually in Tbilisi, Georgia, during the 2012 national elections when the pro-US candidate lost to a pro-Russian populist. At that time, no one was ready to believe the Russians capable of influencing Western style elections. Many still don’t, even after Trump. We now have enough experience of populists in power in the West and elsewhere to guess intelligently at what’s to come in the US; what life will feel like under Trump. Here is a checklist to compare against in the coming months and years. We will all be happier if none of this comes to pass but the weight of evidence suggests the worst. Equally, none of this implies that supporters of Trump don’t have legitimate issues on their side which, sadly, other politicians won’t address. Which is how populists come to power.
Already the intelligence services and Mr.Trump have squared off. Think about that for a long moment. Then think about what Trump will do. He will appoint new chiefs. They will fight with their rank and file. He will try to downsize and defund. There will be pushback. Imagine what that will look like in the media. Then there’s the ‘Emoluments Clause’ that, according to various experts, requires Trump resign from his businesses. He won’t fully. His kids certainly wont. His kids will also occupy indefinable White House positions with disproportionate power, raising all manner of nepotism questions. For a long while, Trump will ignore his more-or-less respectable cabinet chiefs and get things done via non-accredited unofficial advisors. Picking through the legal minefield, the courts and ultimately the Supreme Court will be very busy. So, think about vacancies on the Supreme Court. Watch Republicans in Congress divide endlessly over the issues. There will be incessant all-against-all confusion in America’s institutions – as there was in the very process of the election. All this chaos – cui bono? Confusion and uncertainty creates a yearning for strongman rule.
Democratic Institutions Will Save US
Here is a scary cri de ceour from a Hungarian intellectual with several years of living under populist rule. Published in the Washington Post, the op-ed warns us against putting faith in the rectifying force of statutes or institutions “Do not be distracted by a delusion of impending normalization. Do not ascribe a rectifying force to statutes, logic, necessities or fiascoes. Remember the frequently reset and always failed illusions attached to an eventual normalization of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Orban.” In short, no ‘normalization’ happens under the corrective effect of institutions. Rather, institutions themselves get eroded.
Everything Is Equal And Opposite
At first it was Trump forecasting doubts on electoral fairness. After the election, it was Hillary’s side. First the FBI seemed to take Trump’s side. Then the CIA took the opposite side. Rightwingers went with Putin over their own national security agencies. Prog types unprecedentedly sided with national security. Suddenly Up is down, down is up. Everything can become its reverse, moral equivalency will reign. Trump’s conflicts of interest? Answer: What about the Clinton Foundation. Trump’s (and Kissinger’s) connections to Russia? Answer: What about the Clinton Foundation. Kremlinologists of recent years call this ‘whataboutism’ because the Kremlin’s various mouthpieces deployed the technique so exhaustively against the US. So Putin commits Georgia, Crimea, Donbass, MH17, Olympic doping, poisoning and killing of opponents, Assad, Allepo etc.? Answer: What about Iraq and Libya.
The suspicious similarity between Kremlin propaganda and Trump propaganda surely cannot mean that the Kremlin influences the Trump campaign? Surely not. Preposterous notion. But just in case the patterns don’t go away, remember: the Kremlin’s goal is not merely to create national bifurcation. The goal is to create confusion of allegiance, of trust, of truth, loss of faith in the open society, in the very epistemology of empirical fact. You’d think such a quasi-metaphysical inversion of all certainty couldn’t be deliberately achieved. You’d have to be paranoid to believe that.
I doubt things will unfold exactly they way it unfolded in other places. And Trump is very, very dumb so who knows how that would impact any scenario. But it's probably a good idea to take into account other peoples' experiences and perceptions of similar events.
On the other hand, the loss of trust, of faith in institutions and the epistomology of empirical fact started in this country before the Trump campaign. The American right has been on board with that for a while. Recall:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
*BTW: As I've written numerous times, it is not unprecedented for the left to be credulous of IC analyses (as opposed to covert activity) and the right to be skeptical of CIA analyses going back to the 1950s. Neither is it unprecedented for the right to be supportive of the FBI or the FBI to be supportive of the right. That part of this story isn't as surprising as the rest of it.
digby 1/16/2017 09:30:00 AM