“Demagogues find it easier to gain control of societies that once enjoyed, but lost, a position of respect or power," wrote eminent psychologist Jerome Kagan in his book On Being Human: Why Mind Matters, published in 2016 months before the election. "The yearning for a return to the earlier period of greatness helps to explain why Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were able to gain despotic control of their societies, and why Putin enjoys popularity among Russians."
There's obvious application to the US election of 2016--and to the stated position of one of the candidates, the one now in power. However there was always a problem--there is little real evidence that the United States had lost a position of respect or power, and plenty of evidence that it had not. Indeed, the Obama administration restored at least some of the nation's standing, tarnished by the humiliating excesses of the Bush years.
Rather there are socioeconomic groups within the US that have lost their access to an identification with greatness as a mirror image of themselves, their values and projections.
Characters within the category of white male to begin with. Then it breaks down into groups united by anger. The rich who are always angry, perhaps a byproduct of greed and avarice. Then those with more actual grievances, like the industrial lower to middle middle class, joined by increasing numbers of small town and small city whites including those in clean-hands occupations who find themselves losing the ability to maintain a middle class life at all, victims of an increasing economic inequality in which fewer get more, and many get less. This inequality affects other races and groups even more severely, but they as yet do not identify with this group, especially as they are regarded as the enemy.
Then those with generations of twisted grievance, like southern white racists, like intolerant adherents of religious sects that mock the principles of their supposed object of worship.
All of these are ripe for demagoguery, and just enough apparently voted for the demagogue to bring him to power. They are not looking to make America great again--in fact, everything that their hero has done has diminished America in the eyes of the world, and has begun to erode its actual power and resilience. They are looking for someone to remake the world as they wish to see it.
Failing that--and this will always fail--they live in an entirely invented world, a virtual reality created and maintained by lies. (That these are highly obvious lies adds to the cognitive dissonance, which our system is flummoxed by.) Politically they are determined to impose that vision on the real world, blind to the disasters they are creating.
So how fares our apprentice dictator and his dictatorial dreams? So far he has turned out to be politically weaker than feared. And he has inspired a fierce resistance of an amazing proportion. He is openly mocked and disbelieved by everyone and every institution except among his core supporters--no more than a quarter of the electorate--and the institutions (including and especially media) of the rabid right.
But the authoritarian danger is far from over. He has more than three years left in his term, and for all the sound and fury of investigations, it remains likely he will remain there. His defeat after that seems likely now but is not assured, if only because there is a lot of time to the next election.
The nightmare scenario of the Mueller investigations is that after all the frenzy and the likely indictments of associates and underlings, the apprentice dictator himself is untouched. This could suddenly make him stronger.
Apart from starting a war or declaring a national emergency because of a terrorist attack, his slower path to dictatorship lies with the erosion of the rule of law. He's well on the way there. His conflicts of interest and violations of the emolument clause are multiple and open, yet no one seems willing or able to do anything about them.
In addition to flouting application of the law to himself, his administration continues attacking laws by fiat and in the courts on everything from environmental law to immigration law to election law. The courts have by and large stood firm so far, but it's a long game, and the Supreme Court stacked with perhaps just enough rabid right ideologues is at the end of it. For example, as our stellar Member of Congress Jared Huffman predicted here in Arcata months ago, courts have ruled that the policy of punishing cities for sanctuary policies is unlawful. But the Supremes have yet to rule.
In terms of law, the most important indication will be the courts' reaction to the repugnant abuse of power of the Arpaio pardon. There are legal challenges to the pardon itself but the emboldened Arpaio is petitioning to get the actual court decision rescinded. If a court reverses its own conclusion--especially on a matter this fraught with constitutional significance apart from the pardon--on the order of the chief executive, it would be the first brick in the edifice of legal dictatorship.
In terms of the resistance, it has yet to be truly tested. It hasn't cost anybody anything and has apparently gotten some folks some awards (check the Emmys coverage anywhere.) Those who resisted the Vietnam war paid a price, and some continue paying it to this day, as it is the one of the wounds of that war that hasn't healed. (Another one, a truly unconscionable one, is the treatment of veterans.)
In terms of the great divide in America that everyone seems to be talking about (partly, apparently, because of the Ken Burns Vietnam docu) there are real grievances and real stories among those whose plight does not fall into easy categories of the oppressed. But politically there is no equivalence, and it is dangerously muddled to think of them as equivalent.
Granted that progressive do not help themselves when their own approach to speech has a twisted Nineteen Eighty-Four quality. There have always been authoritarians on the left, certainly in the antiwar movement era. They also exhibit inabilities to see their unconscious at work, as individuals and as groups. But none of this contradicts the basic point that one side lives in a conspiracy of illusions, and the other still has some hold on respecting facts, which is the only basis for a functioning democratic society.
In this I side with Jonathan Chiat, countering a piece by political scientist Lee Drutman about the now fashionable division of Americans into two opposite and equal tribes. A quote he isolates from Drutman and his rejoinder encapsulate my point:
Both fear each other will cheat to win and use their power to stack the voting deck. “If Republicans win in close elections, Democrats say it’s only because they cheated by making it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote; if Democrats win in close elections, Republicans say it’s only because they voted illegally.” But while it is not true that Democrats have allowed illegal voting in nontrivial levels, it is extremely true that Republicans have deliberately made voting inconvenient for Democratic-leaning constituencies. The psychology is parallel, but the underlying facts are not."
Chiat's piece is entitled "The Only Problem in American Politics is the Republican Party." Of course it's not the only problem, but Chiat makes a solid case for why it is the major problem.
Here, too, the news has been mixed. Congressional weakness has been the most recent theme, but again that could turn around with the latest last minute unhealthcare bill--worse than the last one--which is allegedly very close to having the votes to pass the Senate. Any chaos in the states--as will eventually result if this bill becomes law--will add mightily and immediately to this administration's few effective efforts to warp us into a weaker, more divided and more volatile nation. By making America less great in reality, the dictator apprentice creates internal conditions ripe for his graduation to full dictatorship.
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