Skip to content

“On Tyranny” American Style

Last week, I posted a review of On Tyrannya short book by Timothy Snyder published in February 2017.  Snyder offers twenty lessons from 20th-century history and politics, most stemming from the totalitarian regimes of the 30s.  All of his examples demonstrate that most autocrats and dictators do not conquer territory or reach power via a coup.  Rather, they are “invited” into office by the voter or through a democratic process.  Then, through a series of orchestrated events and actions, would be dictators slowly consolidate power.  Ironically, many times the people actually give power to these leaders that then strip individual civil right and freedoms.

Anyone in my orbit knows how sickened I have been these past twelve months.  Part of that disgust is ideology certainly – the modern conservative agenda is an anathema to me in all aspects.  My own Christian faith is saddened by those who profess to believe the same things and yet, support candidates and legislation that in effect do the opposite of those beliefs.

But even in my worst moment, I never really believed that our democracy was at risk.  At worst, I thought, Trump in concert with reactionary conservatives would pass a draconian budget that would strip away protections for the working classes and minorities.  As the bombshells continued, the worst got worse of course, but I always placed the Trump Administration’s antics in context of past political and historical events.  “America always survives,” was my thought.  “We have checks and balances in place.  Congress will intervene.”  And most importantly, “The American people will never stand for losing freedom of the press and individual rights, including the right to bear arms.”

Could America Dissolve into Authoritarianism or Tyrannical Rule?

I think it could.

Before readers cry foul or brush this off as outlandish, hear me out.  If you read Snyder’s work or even my review, you would have come away with several key conclusions, one of which was that American democracy has survived primarily by luck.  Yes, we have a constitution and democratic norms.  We have ingrained those norms and values into our culture and educational system.  But as a whole, our government’s democratic and republican institutions has survived by luck.

Think back to periods of national crisis.  Pearl Harbor, banking panics, the Great Depression, 9/11, each occurred at a specific time and place and under an administration that was committed to the rule of law and constitutional norms.  After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt enacted emergency war measures that directed the production of and later placed price and wage controls on commodity and wage markets.  But after the war ended, the government slowly removed itself from the marketplace, returning to relatively free markets.

After 9/11, certainly, there was heightened security which developed into a larger state apparatus that has been debated in the national media.  Certainly, those with more complicated last names have had a more difficult time since the terrorists’ attacks.  But we were never under martial law.  We never had a suspension of habeas corpus.  The judiciary remained an independent body and as such, when or if it appeared that rights had been violated, individuals were able to sue the government.  And they won.

What these and other situations have in common are actors committed to the rule of law and the constitution. Going back further into our history, when Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and declared martial law during the Civil War, he did not use those powers to make himself a dictator (although I’m confident that he was panned as such in the contemporary media).  The United States as a long history of returning society to normal order (sometimes prematurely) as soon as possible.

Donald Trump and Trumpism show signs of authoritarianism

Overt and Unapologetic Corruption

All organizations have some element of corruption.  Do not let anyone convince you otherwise.  Wasteful spending and “scratching backs” occur at all levels in both public and private enterprises.  But it is amazing that we are less than one year into the Trump Administration and we have discovered numerous examples of corruption.  No, actually what is amazing is that a Republican Senate confirmed and overlooked so many clearly corrupt or potentially corrupt and unqualified officials to head major government agencies.

  • HHS Secretary Tom Price:  Even before the chartered plane scandal, Secretary Price was in trouble.  It has been reported that Price was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for illegal stock trades (in violation of the STOCK Act) while serving as U.S. Congressman.  Republicans confirmed him anyway.  (Note – the U.S. Attorney thought to be overseeing the investigation, Preet Bharara was fired unexpectedly, along with 30 other U.S. Attorneys earlier this year after receiving assurances from the President that he would stay on).
  • Betsy DeVos was widely criticized as the most unqualified Secretary of Education ever to be nominated to the post.  She was confirmed by a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Pence.  DeVos is a billionaire GOP donor and activist.  Her brother is Erik Prince, founder of government services and security Blackwater USA.  Prince has also been embroiled in a bizarre scandal involving a mysterious trip to the Seychelles islands before the inauguration to meet with Putin allies to set up a back channel to the Kremlin.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions:  Aside from his controversial stances on immigration and civil rights, Sessions misled his Senate colleagues during his confirmation hearings when he failed to disclose meetings he had with Russians during the Trump campaign.  Moreover, it has been reported that in addition, he failed to disclose foreign contacts on his security clearance application.
  • Just today, the Senate Judiciary confirmed Brian Benczkowski, Trump’s pick to head the incredibly important Department of Justice’s Criminal Division.  The confirmation was a strict party line vote.  Where is the scandal?  Mr. Benczkowski was nominated despite his representation of Alfa Bank, a Russian firm thought to be under investigation and part of the Mueller probe for repeatedly technical links to the unique IP address of a computer server in Trump Tower.   Benczkowski told the Committee that he would recuse himself from any investigation involving Alfa Bank for the first two years of his tenure should he be confirmed.  Of all the lawyers in all the gin joints, Mr. Benczowski is the most qualified for this post?

There are more.  These are just the high-profile scandals that made it through the Republican-controlled Senate.  I would encourage everyone to refer back to Bill Clinton’s first year in office.  It was horrible and largely due to his nominees.  Their issues were nothing compared to these.  As I recall, his nominees did not pay nominal amounts of social security taxes on wages paid to domestic help.  Twenty years ago and you were disqualified from holding a cabinet office if you failed to pay all of your taxes.  Now, you can literally lie under oath and still get the job.

In the not so distant past, President Obama’s first choice for HHS Secretary was former Majority Leader and Democratic Senator Tom Daschle.  His nomination was withdrawn because he had failed to disclose as income use of a limousine service provided as part of a consulting job.  Additionally, he claimed charitable donations incorrectly which was discovered by his accountant, and did not pay taxes on income earned via consulting.  In sum, Daschle paid about $140,000 in back taxes and fines.  But he withdrew his nomination because it had become clear that he was a political liability.

And at that time, February 2009, Democrats had a super majority.  They had 60 votes.  It was the Democrats, the president’s own party that would not confirm their former colleague.

DeVos was the most controversial appointment and required a tie-breaking vote by the Vice President.  But she was still confirmed.  The road to authoritarianism starts with consent.  And consent starts with approval.

Lies Disguised as Truth

Lies emanate from the White House and the President on an hourly basis.  On one hand, President Trump has single-handedly revived the print journalism industry.  Fact-checking has become a full-time job but the shocking result of all that reporting is that Trump supporters accept his lies either as truth or as simply acceptable.  They do not care.  And apparently, neither does his party as long as it is politically expedient.

It really should not be surprising that the GOP willingly acquiesces to Trump’s reality because the party has fabricated the benefits of their conservative economic platform for decades.   Supply-side economics and small government mean tax breaks for the wealthy and deep cuts in the social safety net, including popular programs like Medicare and Social Security.  Republican promises to repeal Obamacare failed because Republicans do not believe that the government has a role in guaranteeing healthcare to Americans.  Access?  Maybe.  Guaranteed to see a doctor for preventive care? No.  But that position was never part of the repeal – replace campaign.

Yesterday, during his press availability session, President Trump blatantly lied nine times (Chri Hayes counted) indicating that the Republicans had the votes necessary to pass Grahan-Cassidy.  The issue, he said, and I am paraphrasing, was that one Senator was in the hospital (he was not) and could not return for the vote.  He circled around a bit on two other mysterious ‘yeses,’ repeated the hospital claim and repeatedly said that the GOP had the votes but would not pull it together by the deadline.

And his inauguration was still the biggest and the best in the history of inaugurations.  Period.

Conservative Media Participates in and Promotes Authoritarian Memes

FOX News launched in 1996 and promoted its coverage as an alternative to what was widely panned as the liberal media establishment.  (Ironically, FOX News then set itself up right in the middle of left, liberal media establishment country; New York City and Washington D.C.).

But what may have started as ‘Fair and Balanced’ has since turned into what some have called the GOP’s party cable network.  We should not mistake FOX News for a state-run propaganda machine.  But it is important that FOX and other conservative news outlets follow the pattern and messaging of their state-owned media peers.   Unlike those referred to as “leftist,” (Which I guess is all the network outlets, CNN, MSNBC, Reuters, and the AP?) conservative media preserve its market share by telling its customers that only they can be trusted.

Anchors and journalists use minor reporting errors and mistakes (that are usually acknowledged and reporters held accountable) to demonstrate the liberal media’s natural bias.  And so, viewers and readers of conservative media (FOX, Breitbart – honestly, these are the two I know but there are plenty more) stick to a one or two news outlets, but always those with a conservative bent.

This would not be a problem if the outlets were truthful.  But they are not.  And so, America ends up with a large segment of the population believing their own facts and their own truth.  That is a dangerous reality.

Abandonment of Science, Reason, and Intellectualism

This will be quick.  Along with the rise of the more radical element in the conservative movement and thus, the Republican Party is the abandonment of scientific thought and deduction, intellectualism and reason.  Consider the recent poll conducted on views of higher education.  Fifty-eight percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.   I have linked to an article from the Pew Research Center, but there are many others.

Part of the negativity is related to the perception that universities are a hotbed of liberalism and leftist thinking.  We will set that aside for now.  Another reason may be the nature of the Republican base.  In the last 10 years, the GOP has expanded its blue collar and populist appeal.  These voters may not have a college degree and thus, may not always see the value in the investment.

But the more likely scenario is the long-term devolution of intellectualism and rational scientific thought.  Consider our reaction to climate change, overwhelmingly the most critical global issue that has faced humankind.  Republicans refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence.  This attitude has always been present in conservative circles, particularly in Evangelical Christian circles.  Case in point:  the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.  But this is different.

Why is this important?  Consider history.  In every society that has dissolved into authoritarianism, the dictatorial elements attack intellectuals.  They attack and condemn the intelligentsia.  Academics, scientists, attorneys, activists and other rational actors are natural defenses against authoritarian rule.  You must discredit and humiliate them in order to maintain the loyalty of the people.  In a tyranny, there is only room for one expert and that expert is the ruler.

Disrespect for the Rule of Law

We know the administration’s view on the judicial system and the President’s opinion about Senate rules.  We can stick a pin in that for now.

The pardon of Joe Arpaio is a fantastic example of disrespect for the rule of law.  I posted a few comments about Trump’s pardon of the controversial sheriff, but the disregard for cultural norms and values in the case of Arpaio began well before Trump granted clemency.  Read any background story – Arpaio was a menace.  An absolute menace to the people he served and yet he was re-elected to multiple terms.  Arpaio was accused of corruption and of not pursuing legitimate cases of child abuse and sexual assault, all the while persecuting the Hispanic population near and around Pheonix, Arizona.  Additionally, he framed a mentally challenged teenager for an assassination plot against HIM in order to heighten publicity ahead of his re-election.

And the people of Pheonix continued to vote for him.  This is not Trump.  These are American citizens.

Last night, I posted comments about Judge Roy Moore’s victory over Luther Strange to secure the Republican party’s nomination for the Alabama Senate seat.   If you have not a chance to read it, please do.  The relevant point to this post is Moore’s blatant disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law.  Consider the placement of the Ten Commandments statue in the state judicial building against the order of the courts.  Equally alarming was his public attempt to persuade the Alabama Supreme Court (to which the citizens of Alabama voted to place him) to disregard the United States Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

But perhaps the most disturbing element of the Moore victory are his beliefs about God’s Law and what those beliefs portend for public policy should he be elected.  Moore believes that the U.S. Constitution is subservient and inferior to God’s Law or more specifically, Moore’s interpretation of God’s Law.  This could have a significant impact on public policy and the American citizenry should he be seated in the Senate.

I am a Christian.  The U.S. Constitution is not inferior to God’s Law.  I will happily have a conversation about my thought process here, but no, God’s Law is not higher than the U.S. Constitution because we are not a theocracy.  Accepting the principle that God’s Law is paramount to man’s law (the U.S. Constitution) is exactly the argument against Sharia Law. It is one of our arguments against the Iranian state.  Different faith, same concept.

The Republican Party have now publicly embraced Moore in his effort to win the seat.  Why?  Tactics, not country.  One more Republican vote for tax cuts.  One more Republican vote for Obamacare repeal.  Another Republican vote for judicial confirmations.  Another Republican vote for a conservative agenda that so far, does not seem to have a base other than donors.  McConnell and Ryan get tax cuts and the Senate edges closer to Trumpism.


What if???

  • What if North Korea attacks one of our allies or territories?  What if the White House says we are attacked but there is really no proof?  What if our allies disagree?
  • What if the voter integrity commission somehow gins up “evidence” of voter fraud?  Polls have suggested that a majority of the Republican base would favor a postponement of the 2020 Presidential election while we “investigate” allegations of voter fraud.
  • What if we have another terrorist attack?  What if the administration coordinates a “terrorist” attack on the homeland?  (This has never happened in the United States but it has absolutely happened in other countries and in other democracies).
  • What if the economy suffers a significant blow?  Consider another Enron or WorldCom, Lehman Brothers or financial meltdown.  Do we know what financial derivatives are actively on the market and traded?
  • What if cybercriminals attack the electrical grid or the New York Stock Exchange?

Any of these scenarios would have a significant impact on American society.  But go back to my initial comments.  With any other president from any other era, Americans could be assured that the government would not take advantage of the situation and attempt to usurp power.   In past crises, democratic norms were followed so we could be reasonably confident that they would be adhered to in the current crisis.  The free press and independent judiciary would serve as watchdogs during any short-term suspension of constitutional protections.  Perhaps I am naive but in the past, I certainly never worried about losing my constitutional rights to organize and to protest.

But can you now envision a path in which a Trump or a Trump successor could continue to chip away at those democratic and republican norms that we have all come to respect and accept?  Tyranny does not happen overnight.  It is the result of a painstakingly gradual process and abdication of diligence.  Any of these scenarios could lead to the imposition of martial law, a suspension of habeas corpus and a host of additional measures that may not yet be in the law.  How many additional Roy Moore’s will it take to move the Senate far enough to the right to approve such draconian measures?

I have no faith in the Republican-led Congress to check its president. There are a few mavericks and they will continue to be commended.  But think about this past year and the manner in which the Republican majorities have governed and responded to Trump’s belligerence and bluster.  Even when he attacks them, they do not break with their president.  Why?  Because of the base.  It is always about the base.  It is always about their re-election.  Even today, in the wake of another healthcare failure, Republicans have rolled out a tax cut proposal, not tax reform but a tax cut for the wealthy.   Republicans have repeatedly admitted to reporters that passing this bill is the difference between maintaining the majority or being relegated to minority status.

Given all of the issues within this administration and the challenges we must solve domestically and in foreign policy, the Republican Party’s priority today is getting re-elected.  And so, they will support a man who is unfit and unqualified to shine the shoes of a United States Senator, let alone serve in such an august body.  But then again, every single one of them supported this president.  Why would I believe that they would oppose a “short-term suspension of the Bill of Rights?”  Why would you believe it either?

What Happens After Trump?

I used to think we would get back to normal.  I used to think that Trump would be impeached (and he still might) and removed from office.  The scandal would bring down his entire administration and in effect, to a certain extent the Republican Party.  The fallout would be similar to Watergate.  The Democrats would regain the majority in both chambers and likely secure the White House for at least one, likely two terms.  But essentially, things would go back to normal.

Now, I do not think things will go back to normal.  There are more Trumps out there.  But they are smarter and more articulate.  And they will not be nearly as stupid in covering up collusion and corruption.  Trumpism is not going to go away for quite some time.  The permission that the President has given to what I will call “bad manners” has been unleashed.  The genie is out of the bottle and it is not going back in until it actually dies.  We must then hope that the younger generations do not pick up the same bad manners.

The Russians will continue to spread divisive disinformation using Twitter and Facebook.  But the robots spreading disinformation only work if humans pass that disinformation on.

I have a Facebook friend who will sometimes forward what turns out to be right-wing propaganda.  I enjoy playing detective and compete with myself to see how fast I can debunk it.  A while back, this gif showed up in my Facebook feed and was referenced as a legitimate quote made by Elizabeth Warren.  My friend believed it to be true!  It took ten seconds.


But how many people with an already skewed understanding of liberal ideology saw this, believed it and passed it on?  I do not know that answer.  But I bet it was more than one.

There have been others but regretfully, my cookies are not such that I get a lot of disinformation feeds.  The point is, we have foreign actors adding to already existing political noise and furthering the divide between Americans.  Just this past weekend, Russian bots were identified on both Twitter and Facebook feeding the flames of debate over the flag and the NFL protest.  And Americans are happily going along to get along.

I am not sure how we fix this.  Congress will look to regulate and while we do need to apply some guardrails to social media platforms, particularly when it comes to stopping foreign money influencing our elections, we do not have consensus on the basic concept of regulation.  Ask any Republican about “regulations” and in the response, you will hear, “stifling growth, expensive and need to repeal.”  So without teeth and punitive measures to enforce, regulations mean nothing.

And even then, regulations may not solve the problem because as I have noted above, social media is not the only contributing factor in our slide toward tyranny.  In this past election, almost 61 million people proved that given certain circumstances, they are willing to hand over the levers of power and the nuclear codes to the most ignorant, untested and unqualified individual to ever run for the presidency.  And if they will do that, what is to stop the electorate over the next several cycles to elect additional Congresspeople, Senators, Governors and statehouse representatives that hold Trumpian notions of governance and power?  Once those people are in place, then all it takes is the right sequence of events.

I do have ideas on how to solve or at least on how to stop this slide toward authoritarianism which I will expand on in a future post.  But for now, please consider my comments.  Because this really could happen.  It really could happen in America.


%d bloggers like this: