How To Build An Autocracy: A Double Entry Journal Model

I have a day job upon which this blog is based.  It’s teaching teachers as an assistant professor.  However, this blog has also been a form of thinking aloud in public space–public reflection more than public intellectualism, but public thoughts, nonetheless.  This morning I began reading the cover story from next month’s The Atlantic entitled “How Donald Trump Could Build an Autocracy in the US”.  It’s a long article with a lot to read through so I thought I’d turn today’s entry into a type of double entry journal, with quotes and responses (although not the traditional side by side format because, well, technology formatting limitations) since there was too much to share, quote and think about in my traditional social media formats.  And, because teaching literacy strategies is actually part of my job, and modeling with text is something I believe strongly in.  So, here goes (original text in italics, my thoughts following in blue):

Nobody’s repealed the First Amendment, of course, and Americans remain as free to speak their minds as ever—provided they can stomach seeing their timelines fill up with obscene abuse and angry threats from the pro-Trump troll armies that police Facebook and Twitter. Rather than deal with digital thugs, young people increasingly drift to less political media like Snapchat and Instagram.

Response: I could connect to this so much, particularly with public platforms like Twitter.  I can see how this would drive people away from speaking up and have us share the comforts of selfies and foodie pictures on snapchat and Instagram.  Sometimes I admit to not even wanting to deal with the angry discourse between friends on my own Facebook timeline.  This causes me pause.

Despite the hand-wringing, the country has in many ways changed much less than some feared or hoped four years ago. Ambitious Republican plans notwithstanding, the American social-welfare system, as most people encounter it, has remained largely intact during Trump’s first term. The predicted wave of mass deportations of illegal immigrants never materialized. A large illegal workforce remains in the country, with the tacit understanding that so long as these immigrants avoid politics, keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, nobody will look very hard for them.

African Americans, young people, and the recently naturalized encounter increasing difficulties casting a vote in most states. But for all the talk of the rollback of rights, corporate America still seeks diversity in employment. Same-sex marriage remains the law of the land. Americans are no more and no less likely to say “Merry Christmas” than they were before Trump took office.

This really got to me.  As most people encounter the system, it will not have changed significantly enough for those who are not affected to notice, and silence is rewarded with the safety and comfort of every day lives as civil rights are slowly whittled away.  We are “free to speak our minds” but that freedom comes with a cost.  Be silent is rewarded.  This is my fight everyday as an Asian American person in this country.  Silence and hard work are rewarded.  Don’t complain.  Be grateful.  Your life is fine.

No society, not even one as rich and fortunate as the United States has been, is guaranteed a successful future. When early Americans wrote things like “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” they did not do so to provide bromides for future bumper stickers. They lived in a world in which authoritarian rule was the norm, in which rulers habitually claimed the powers and assets of the state as their own personal property.

We truly believe in American exceptionalism, that because we are the United States, we will always be a stronghold for democracy.  But those ideals can sometimes blind us from being vigilant as we see rights being challenged, particularly the right to protest, which is cast as so threatening. 

The exercise of political power is different today than it was then—but perhaps not so different as we might imagine. Larry Diamond, a sociologist at Stanford, has described the past decade as a period of “democratic recession.” Worldwide, the number of democratic states has diminished. Within many of the remaining democracies, the quality of governance has deteriorated….The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”

This type of “persecution-light” and psychological/ material oppression is a lot harder to quantify and stand up for.  It’s insidious.  It reminds me of diplomats, state department workers, and other government workers being told they are “free to leave” if they disagree with the President.  They have the right to disagree or find another job, but at a huge cost for that disagreement.  And, if you go along with the status quo, you get all the benefits.  It can be so alluring that sometimes, in the exhaustion of activism, it causes one to wonder why you’re fighting so hard. 

The United States is of course a very robust democracy. Yet no human contrivance is tamper-proof, a constitutional democracy least of all. Some features of the American system hugely inhibit the abuse of office: the separation of powers within the federal government; the division of responsibilities between the federal government and the states. Federal agencies pride themselves on their independence; the court system is huge, complex, and resistant to improper influence.

Yet the American system is also perforated by vulnerabilities no less dangerous for being so familiar. Supreme among those vulnerabilities is reliance on the personal qualities of the man or woman who wields the awesome powers of the presidency. A British prime minister can lose power in minutes if he or she forfeits the confidence of the majority in Parliament. The president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit. What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities?

Yes, yes! The founding fathers set up a robust democracy, but the awesome powers of the presidency…That phrase, “The president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit.  What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities?” I’m not talking partisanship here, I’m talking about a moral, ethical center, a belief in the importance of core values.  This frightens me, as does the fact that we have come to take democracy for granted. 

Over the past generation, we have seen ominous indicators of a breakdown of the American political system: the willingness of congressional Republicans to push the United States to the brink of a default on its national obligations in 2013 in order to score a point in budget negotiations; Barack Obama’s assertion of a unilateral executive power to confer legal status upon millions of people illegally present in the United States—despite his own prior acknowledgment that no such power existed.

Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical. A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it. It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled.

My conservative friends have asked where the critique was when Barack Obama was issuing executive orders.  This is part of that critique.  I think it also points to (and this is somewhere else in this piece), how we have become so “loyal” to our party that it blinds us to our loyalty to humanity and democracy.  Yes, Barack Obama set in place the power of the executive order that now puts us in the position we are in with Trump.  I could see that coming at the end of his presidency and it made me very afraid, even if ideologically I agreed with some of his executive orders.  We must respect our democracy and the critiques of Trump go far beyond that–particularly with personal attacks against citizens who stand up against him.  The irony of Melania fighting against cyber-bullying when Trump repeatedly attacks those against him, not just media outlets or officials, but individuals and citizens–it’s not lost on me. 

Congress enacts laws, appropriates funds, confirms the president’s appointees. Congress can subpoena records, question officials, and even impeach them. Congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president.

But will it?

As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party. Recent presidents enjoying a same-party majority in Congress—Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010, George W. Bush from 2003 through 2006—usually got their way. And congressional oversight might well be performed even less diligently during the Trump administration.

This.  THIS HITS ME IN THE HEART.  This happened in my lifetime.  Congress and the system of checks and balances was meant to protect the people from the power of the President, yet, particularly in the last 2 years, the use of the Congressional majority to block anything sponsored by the President has been baffling.  And now, Congressmen and Congresswomen, who were elected to move our government forward, will do so, along party lines, rather than looking critically at what is best for Americans?  This is not normal.  This is new.  This is the threat to American democracy. 

Discipline within the congressional ranks will be strictly enforced not only by the party leadership and party donors, but also by the overwhelming influence of Fox News. Trump versus Clinton was not 2016’s only contest between an overbearing man and a restrained woman. Just such a contest was waged at Fox, between Sean Hannity and Megyn Kelly. In both cases, the early indicators seemed to favor the women. Yet in the end it was the men who won, Hannity even more decisively than Trump. Hannity’s show, which became an unapologetic infomercial for Trump, pulled into first place on the network in mid-October. Kelly’s show tumbled to fifth place, behind even The Five, a roundtable program that airs at 5 p.m. Kelly landed on her feet, of course, but Fox learned its lesson: Trump sells; critical coverage does not. Since the election, the network has awarded Kelly’s former 9 p.m. time slot to Tucker Carlson, who is positioning himself as a Trump enthusiast in the Hannity mold.

From the point of view of the typical Republican member of Congress, Fox remains all-powerful: the single most important source of visibility and affirmation with the voters whom a Republican politician cares about.

I just can’t with biased media.  I don’t even know how to have conversations with people anymore because I will cite from my news sources and they will cite from theirs and even though I may have more, they will blame the liberal media and I will critique the conservative media, who often do feel like apologists for Trump, rather than looking critically–rather than being “fair and balanced”–we keep moving towards polarization. 

Donald trump will not set out to build an authoritarian state. His immediate priority seems likely to be to use the presidency to enrich himself. But as he does so, he will need to protect himself from legal risk. Being Trump, he will also inevitably wish to inflict payback on his critics. Construction of an apparatus of impunity and revenge will begin haphazardly and opportunistically. But it will accelerate. It will have to.

Yes, of course it will.  And as the payback increases, so will the fear of those who speak against the administration, and the exhaustion.  We are sprinting, but we’re going to hit a wall.  Literal, perhaps and metaphorical, certainly.

The power of the pardon, deployed to defend not only family but also those who would protect the president’s interests, dealings, and indiscretions, is one such means. The powers of appointment and removal are another. The president appoints and can remove the commissioner of the IRS. He appoints and can remove the inspectors general who oversee the internal workings of the Cabinet departments and major agencies. He appoints and can remove the 93 U.S. attorneys, who have the power to initiate and to end federal prosecutions. He appoints and can remove the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, and the head of the criminal division at the Department of Justice.

What a civics lesson on the power of the Presidency.  I am actually amazed at the fact that our democracy has lasted this long with so many powers concentrated in the hands of a single person.  My naivety comes back to haunt me. 

It is essential to recognize that Trump will use his position not only to enrich himself; he will enrich plenty of other people too, both the powerful and—sometimes, for public consumption—the relatively powerless. Venezuela, a stable democracy from the late 1950s through the 1990s, was corrupted by a politics of personal favoritism, as Hugo Chávez used state resources to bestow gifts on supporters. Venezuelan state TV even aired a regular program to showcase weeping recipients of new houses and free appliances. Americans recently got a preview of their own version of that show as grateful Carrier employees thanked then-President-elect Trump for keeping their jobs in Indiana.

“I just couldn’t believe that this guy … he’s not even president yet and he worked on this deal with the company,” T. J. Bray, a 32-year-old Carrier employee, told Fortune. “I’m just in shock. A lot of the workers are in shock. We can’t believe something good finally happened to us. It felt like a victory for the little people.”

I feel deeply for the Carrier employees who felt like someone cared for them through this act.  I empathize with them.  Who can convince them, based on their experience, that they have not personally benefitted from the Trump presidency? No one.  And these promotionals are powerful; they stay with people.  And our desire to believe in the good of our government combined with these stories of regular Americans benefitting make it easy to overlook that the president profits as well. This is a real struggle. 

You would never know from Trump’s words that the average number of felonious killings of police during the Obama administration’s tenure was almost one-third lower than it was in the early 1990s, a decline that tracked with the general fall in violent crime that has so blessed American society. There had been a rise in killings of police in 2014 and 2015 from the all-time low in 2013—but only back to the 2012 level. Not every year will be the best on record.

A mistaken belief that crime is spiraling out of control—that terrorists roam at large in America and that police are regularly gunned down—represents a considerable political asset for Donald Trump. Seventy-eight percent of Trump voters believed that crime had worsened during the Obama years.

This is HUGE.  We have seen a decrease in felonious killings of police during the Obama administration alongside the general fall in violent crime.  Yet, I have heard from conservative friends about how under attack the police are and about the growing racial violence and crime.  It’s not the truth. We believe lies if they are repeated enough by our media sources.  This is absolutely frightening. I wish there were links to sources here though because I feel like there’s going to be push back on this statement.

Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource. Trump will likely want not to repress it, but to publicize it—and the conservative entertainment-outrage complex will eagerly assist him. Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags; Black Lives Matter demonstrators bearing antipolice slogans—these are the images of the opposition that Trump will wish his supporters to see. The more offensively the protesters behave, the more pleased Trump will be.

We must continue to resist, but this also frightens me.  People need to be able to advocate for their rights, but I know that it is spun in ways that can work against the resistance.  We all tell the stories from our perspectives.  And the perspective with the most weight is generally that in power.  And, then people infiltrate protests and turn peaceful protest into violent protest.  

By filling the media space with bizarre inventions and brazen denials, purveyors of fake news hope to mobilize potential supporters with righteous wrath—and to demoralize potential opponents by nurturing the idea that everybody lies and nothing matters. A would-be kleptocrat is actually better served by spreading cynicism than by deceiving followers with false beliefs: Believers can be disillusioned; people who expect to hear only lies can hardly complain when a lie is exposed. The inculcation of cynicism breaks down the distinction between those forms of media that try their imperfect best to report the truth, and those that purvey falsehoods for reasons of profit or ideology. The New York Times becomes the equivalent of Russia’s RT; The Washington Post of Breitbart; NPR of Infowars.

And this, the proliferation of fake news is demoralizing.  The fact that people don’t know who to trust and don’t trust those that are exposing the lies.  

This outcome evidently gnawed at the president-elect. On November 27, Trump tweeted that he had in fact “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He followed up that astonishing, and unsubstantiated, statement with an escalating series of tweets and retweets.

It’s hard to do justice to the breathtaking audacity of such a claim. If true, it would be so serious as to demand a criminal investigation at a minimum, presumably spanning many states. But of course the claim was not true. Trump had not a smidgen of evidence beyond his own bruised feelings and internet flotsam from flagrantly unreliable sources. Yet once the president-elect lent his prestige to the crazy claim, it became fact for many people. A survey by YouGov found that by December 1, 43 percent of Republicans accepted the claim that millions of people had voted illegally in 2016.

You no longer have to have evidence to say what you want.  You just need power.  This is dangerous. 

Twitter, unmediated by the press, has proved an extremely effective communication tool for Trump. And the whipping-up of potentially violent Twitter mobs against media critics is already a standard method of Trump’s governance. Megyn Kelly blamed Trump and his campaign’s social-media director for inciting Trump’s fans against her to such a degree that she felt compelled to hire armed guards to protect her family.

Absolutely frightening.  

If people retreat into private life, if critics grow quieter, if cynicism becomes endemic, the corruption will slowly become more brazen, the intimidation of opponents stronger. Laws intended to ensure accountability or prevent graft or protect civil liberties will be weakened.

This is why I have to keep raising my voice, in spite of my fear and exhaustion.  I have to bring another perspective.  It is so hard though.

Of course we want to believe that everything will turn out all right. In this instance, however, that lovely and customary American assumption itself qualifies as one of the most serious impediments to everything turning out all right. If the story ends without too much harm to the republic, it won’t be because the dangers were imagined, but because citizens resisted.

Yes, right.  The citizens must unite and resist.  I must play my part for the future of my children and all children. 

Many of the worst and most subversive things Trump will do will be highly popular. Voters liked the threats and incentives that kept Carrier manufacturing jobs in Indiana. Since 1789, the wisest American leaders have invested great ingenuity in creating institutions to protect the electorate from its momentary impulses toward arbitrary action: the courts, the professional officer corps of the armed forces, the civil service, the Federal Reserve—and undergirding it all, the guarantees of the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights. More than any president in U.S. history since at least the time of Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump seeks to subvert those institutions.

Popular doesn’t mean right. Institutional problems need reform not circumventing.

Public opinion, public scrutiny, and public pressure still matter greatly in the U.S. political system. In January, an unexpected surge of voter outrage thwarted plans to neutralize the independent House ethics office. That kind of defense will need to be replicated many times. Elsewhere in this issue, Jonathan Rauch describes some of the networks of defense that Americans are creating.

Get into the habit of telephoning your senators and House member at their local offices, especially if you live in a red state. Press your senators to ensure that prosecutors and judges are chosen for their independence—and that their independence is protected. Support laws to require the Treasury to release presidential tax returns if the president fails to do so voluntarily. Urge new laws to clarify that the Emoluments Clause applies to the president’s immediate family, and that it refers not merely to direct gifts from governments but to payments from government-affiliated enterprises as well. Demand an independent investigation by qualified professionals of the role of foreign intelligence services in the 2016 election—and the contacts, if any, between those services and American citizens. Express your support and sympathy for journalists attacked by social-media trolls, especially women in journalism, so often the preferred targets. Honor civil servants who are fired or forced to resign because they defied improper orders. Keep close watch for signs of the rise of a culture of official impunity, in which friends and supporters of power-holders are allowed to flout rules that bind everyone else.

Keep vigilant, watch out for one another.  Don’t give up. 

And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.

It is up to each one of us.  Don’t be afraid.  Your voice matters.  You matter.  Step into the resistance.  Step into standing up.  Demand honesty, integrity and professionalism.  We must be in action. 

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