Sunday, November 12, 2017
The Strongman Cult
Early on in the 2016 campaign it became clear to me that not only was Donald Trump in love with global strongmen, he was drawn instinctively to authoritarian style populism. I wasn't alone, of course. Lots of people saw it. Two months after he joined the race in 2015, I wrote this for Salon.
I was talking about one of his early big rallies in Derry New Hampshire:
There was the standard braggadocio and egomania that characterizes his every appearance and weird digressions into arcane discussions of things like building materials (for The Wall, naturally.) He complained about the press and politicians and declared himself superior to pretty much everyone on earth. But after you listen to him for a while, you come away from that performance with a very unpleasant sense that something rather sinister is at the heart of the Trump phenomenon.
Trump was still talking when Chris Hayes opened his show that night with this comment:
I want to talk about what we are seeing unfold here because I think what we are seeing is past the point of a clown show or a parody. I believe it is much more serious and much darker...You have someone now who is getting huge crowds, who is polling at the top of the GOP field, who polls show is beating Jeb Bush by 44 to 12 percent on the issue of immigration, going around the country calling little children, newborn babies, anchor babies saying that he's going to use that term which I find a dehumanizing and disgusting term. Talking about giving the local police the ability to "do whatever they need to do to round up" the "illegals". Building a wall, talking about basically chasing 11 million people out, talking about deporting American citizens to "keep families together", talking about what would essentially be the largest most intrusive police state in the history of the American republic to go about this task, that is the person that is right now at the head of the Republican party's presidential contest.And the delirious crowd applauded all those those things just as they loudly cheered this reference to Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier held by the Taliban for more than five years:
"We get a traitor like Berghdal, a dirty rotten traitor, who by the way when he deserted, six young beautiful people were killed trying to find him. And you don't even hear about him anymore. Somebody said the other day, well, he had some psychological problems.
You know, in the old days ......bing - bong. When we were strong, when we were strong."
It's that pantomime of him shooting Berghdahl dead and saying "when we were strong, when we were strong" that appeals so much.
Trump repeatedly paints a picture of America in decline -- weak, impotent and powerless, in terrible danger of losing everything unless we get a leader who will cast off all this "political correctness," this effete insistence on following the rules. He promises to "make America great again" by cracking down on the "bad people" and being very, very strong.
He didn't hide it. He ran on it and he won.
This piece by Fareed Zakaria discusses how this dynamic is playing out all over the world:
The formula was honed by Vladimir Putin after he came to power in Russia. First, amplify foreign threats so as to rally the country around the regime and give it extraordinary powers. Putin did this with the Chechen war and the danger of terrorism. Then, move against rival centers of influence within the society, which in Russia meant the oligarchs — who at that time were more powerful than the state itself. Then talk about the need to end corruption, reform the economy and provide benefits for ordinary people. Putin was able to succeed on the last front largely because of the quadrupling of oil prices over the next decade. Finally, control the media through formal and informal means. Russia has gone from having a thriving free media in 2000 to a level of state control that is effectively similar to the Soviet Union.
Naturally, not every element of this formula applies elsewhere. Perhaps the crown prince will prove to be a reformer. But the formula for political success that he’s following is similar to what’s been applied in countries as disparate as China, Turkey and the Philippines. Leaders have taken to using the same ingredients — nationalism, foreign threats, anti-corruption and populism — to tighten their grip on power. Where the judiciary and media are seen as obstacles to a ruler’s untrammeled authority, they are systematically weakened.
In his 2012 book “The Dictator’s Learning Curve,” William J. Dobson presciently explained that the new breed of strongmen around the world have learned a set of tricks to maintain control that are far more clever and sophisticated than in the past. “Rather than forcibly arrest members of a human rights group, today’s most effective despots deploy tax collectors or health inspectors to shut down dissident groups. Laws are written broadly, then used like a scalpel to target the groups the government deems a threat.” Dobson quoted a Venezuelan activist who described Hugo Chávez’s wily blend of patronage and selective prosecution with an adage: “For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law.”
Classic centralized dictatorships were a 20th-century phenomenon — born of the centralizing forces and technologies of the era. “Modern dictators work in the more ambiguous spectrum that exists between democracy and authoritarianism,” wrote Dobson. They maintain the forms of democracy — constitutions, elections, media — but work to gut them of any meaning. They work to keep the majority content, using patronage, populism and external threats to maintain national solidarity and their popularity. Of course, stoking nationalism can spiral out of control, as it has in Russia and might in Saudi Arabia, which is now engaged in a fierce cold war with Iran, complete with a very hot proxy war in Yemen.
Dobson, however, did end the book expressing optimism that, in many countries, people were resisting and outmaneuvering the dictators. Yet what has happened since he wrote the book is depressing. Instead of the despots being influenced by democrats, it is the democrats who are moving up the learning curve.
Consider Turkey, a country that in the early 2000s seemed on a firm path toward democracy and liberalism, anchored in a desire to become a full-fledged member of the European Union. Today, its ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has eliminated almost all obstacles to total control. He has defanged the military and the bureaucracy, launched various kinds of tax and regulatory actions against opponents in the media, and declared one potential opposition group, the Gulenists, to be terrorists. The rulers of the Philippines and Malaysia appear to be copying from that same playbook.
This is not the picture of democracy everywhere, of course, but these tendencies can be spotted in far-flung areas of the world. In countries such as India and Japan, which remain vibrant democracies in most respects, there are elements of this new system creeping in — crude nationalism and populism, and increasing measures to intimidate and neuter the free press.
I'm sure you can see the formula at work here too.
Trump is a very stupid person without the kind of experience or vision of a Vladimir Putin.He doesn't seem to be capable of learning on the job. Indeed, his unfitness to the task may be what saves us in the end. But this global trend toward the strongmen is concerning. In fact, it's terrifying.
Update: This may have already taken on a life of its own. In fact, the US might even be ahead of the curve.
Steve Bannon has sent two of Breitbart News' top reporters, Matt Boyle and Aaron Klein, to Alabama. Their mission: to discredit the Washington Post's reporting on Roy Moore's alleged sexual misconduct with teenagers.
A story that popped today — splashed over the Breitbart homepage — contains what the website claims is a major hole in the account of Leigh Corfman, who says Alabama Senate candidate, Moore, made sexual advances on her when she was 14 years old.
Klein reports from Birmingham, Alabama: "Speaking by phone to Breitbart News on Saturday, Corfman's mother, Nancy Wells, 71, says that her daughter did not have a phone in her bedroom during the period that Moore is reported to have allegedly called Corfman – purportedly on Corfman's bedroom phone – to arrange at least one encounter."
Why this matters: It's quite a head-scratcher as to why Breitbart thinks this bedroom phone detail matters. As Corfman's mother told Breitbart "the phone in the house could get through to her easily." Wells stands by her daughter's allegations. But the fact Breitbart is running stories like this shows the extremes to which it may go to discredit Moore's accusers.
Bottom line: This story is about to get even uglier, if that's imaginable. I expect more counter-attacks will play out in Breitbart News and other outlets over the coming days.
Another hard truth: Many Alabama voters hold the mainstream media in such low regard that they've dismissed the Washington Post's reporting entirely.
For a dose of this reality, check out this man-on-the-street segment from an ABC Alabama affiliate. Political reporter Lauren Walsh said: "Out of all the voters we spoke with Friday in Columbiana, we didn't find one voter who believed the Washington Post report about Moore."
And, for more on this theme, read the quotes in this NBC News report from Prattville, Alabama. The most shocking quote: "Inside the store, a man who declined to give his name said, 'This is Republican town, man. (Moore) could have killed Obama, and we wouldn't care.'"
digby 11/12/2017 03:30:00 PM