Surviving autocracy

The Trump era appears to be coming to its logical end with a massive defeat followed by a well-publicised by spectacularly inept coup at the US Capitol building. While Trump’s footsoldiers ran rampant in the Capitol taking selfies their beloved president reluctantly told them to go home telling they were “very special“. The only surprise was that he told them to go home and and not stay and set fire to the building.

Writing in “Surviving Autocracy” about Donald Trump in early 2020 before it was obvious he was going to lose the election, Masha Gessen defined Trump’s range as “government by gesture, obfuscation and lying, self-praise, stoking fear and issuing threats”. Gessen’s prologue was written late enough to describe the catastrophic early response to COVID-19 which ultimately led to his downfall. Despite hospitals ill-equipped to face an onslaught of patients, a shortage of PPE, essential information withheld and little testing available, Trump baldly denied any responsibility and instead issued bogus medical advice yet almost half the people believed he was doing a job. To Gessen, who grew up in Russia, it was striking familiar to the USSR’s response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and showed how far down the path America had gone to autocracy.

Gessen noted Trumpian news was always shocking without being surprising. Though an assault on the senses they are just more of the same of him beating the government, the media and politics itself into a state beyond recognition. When the inconceivable becomes routine, words fail us. Gessen draws on the work of Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar who realised the language of the media and academia was not up to the task of describing what happened to his country after the fall of Communism. Magyar coined the term “mafia state”as a specific clan-like system in which one man (and it is always a man) distributes money and power to everyone while establishing autocracy and then consolidating it.

The Hungarian model was useful to describe the US. Though the situation has evolved since 2016, Gessen says democratic crackdowns have always been part of the US experience such as the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 18th century, Lincoln suspending habeas corpus, the Sedition Act of 1918, Japanese interment in the Second World War, the McCarthy era, and the Nixon wiretapping era. In the 21st century Bush granted sweeping surveillance powers and Obama suppressed whistleblowers.

But American public officials have largely acted in good faith and even those who lied did so in accordance with sincerely held beliefs and a coherent system of values. Until Trump no powerful political actor had set out to destroy the American political system itself. His campaign slogan “drain the swamp” was a declaration of war against the American system of government. It was a campaign built on disdain for the “other”, immigrants, women, disabled people, people of colour, Muslims, anyone who wasn’t a white straight American-born male or anyone who was, but who was an “elite” who coddled those others. Autocrats like Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro campaign on resentments and continue to traffic in them even after election as though they were still insurgents. Trump denigrated his own departments, issuing humiliating tweets and promoting officials who were opposed to the existence of those departments who lied their way through confirmation hearings taking their lead in contempt for the government from their boss. Trump had no time for the demands of office which annoyed him and he showed no interest in “being presidential”.

His aims were obvious from his inauguration speech which pitched to base emotion and intelligence. Any money spent abroad was money lost and his vision for the future was a fortress under siege and a walled country that put itself first and the rest be damned. He immediately signed an executive order to overturn the Affordable Care Act and scrubbed the White House website of content on climate policy, civil rights and health care while adding a biography of Melania Trump that advertised her mail-order jewelry.

Trump has shown repeated lack of aspiration and a disdain for excellence, common among autocrats. It is as Gessen called it, a kakistocracy, a government of the worst. He showed no interest in filling cabinet positions many of whom he felt should not exist, and when he did, he turned to the military such as Mike Flynn, John Kelly, James Mattis and Mike Pompeo. In April 2017 he admitted being president was harder than he expected but blamed that on his predecessor and the establishment and still felt one person should give orders which should be carried out. But when the pandemic came the vacuum Trump had wilfully created at the top of government translated into deadly inaction.

The corruption of his government is a family business matter. Trump repeated said the president can’t have a conflict of interest and implied that if he did have to draw a line he would have to forego seeing his adult children who worked for him. Within weeks Ivanka moved to the East Wing and then the West Wing and took meetings with Angela Merkel and Trump’s seat at a meeting of G20 leaders. Despite a protest from the Office of Government Ethics, Trump said it was okay because she was not drawing a salary.

The Trump Hotels were doing business in synergy with their owner. The RNC held its Christmas party at Trunp Washington while Saudi lobbyists booked out floors at a time. On the phone call that led to the impeachment inquiry, Ukrainian president Zelensky mentioned he stayed at the New York venue. Yet because this was so open, Gessen was loath to call it corruption. Trump is not duplicitous, he acts in the transparent belief political power should produce personal wealth.

Trump’s love of fellow autocrats is well documented. His first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia where he got an honourary gold collar from the King. When Saudi journalist Adnan Khashoggi was murdered inside the Istanbul embassy, Trump issued a statement called “America First!” and reaffirmed his friendship with the Saudis. When Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington, protesters at the Turkish embassy were beaten up severely by a group that included Erdogan’s security team. Trump merely said he was “a big fan”.

There was one area of government Trump paid close attention to: the courts. By November 2019 he had set a record for the number of appointees and he had filled a quarter of all appeal judges. Gessen noted he had two Supreme Court justices, later rushed to three in the dying days of his rule. The appointees weren’t just far right, dismissive of civil rights and in favour of deregulation, they were also notably inexperienced, bypassing the American Bar Association vetting process (imitating George W Bush) and more ideologically extreme as time progressed.

One of the great hopes of bringing down Trump was the much-feted Mueller Report into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The 448-page report delivered after 22 months was a comprehensive portrait of Trumpism. The first half told the story of the links between Russia and the Trump campaign. There was no single “gotcha” as shady Russians and Americans set out to swindle each other, everyone lied and no-one got what they wanted. Part 2 was about Trump’s behaviour during the investigation. Trump had instructed White House Counsel Don McGahn to remove Mueller (McGahn ignored the request) and then tried to get McGahn to deny the request happened. Mueller stopped short of saying it was an obstruction of justice, that, he said, was for Congress to decide. When new Attorney General William Barr read the report he told Congress there was no case to answer prompting protest from Mueller. By the time Barr released the redacted report it was reduced to a battle of interpretations depending on party affiliation. Having a liar in the Oval office did not constitute an emergency, or as Gessen said, American political institutions were not equipped to treat it as one.

Gessen notes how an autocratic attempt in the US has a credible chance of succeeding. It build logically on the structures and norms of American government and on the concentration of power in the executive branch and on the marriage of money and politics. “Recovery will be possible only as reinvention,” Gessen writes. “Of institutions, of what politics means to us and what it means to be a democracy, if that is indeed what we choose to be.”

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