Authoritarianism with a Liberal Face


Napoleon III: The model for Donald Trump?

Jon Elster, a professor of social sciences at Columbia, has an essay comparing Donald Trump to Napoleon III in a new collection, Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America (HarperCollins), edited by Cass R. Sunstein.  Elster’s point is a little murky, but essentially it seems to be that Trump and Louis Napoleon, who ruled France from 1848 to 1870, are autocrats cut from the same “narcissistic and megalomaniac” cloth.  I said something similar in December 2015 when Jacobin magazine polled some of its contributors as to whether Trump could be defined as a fascist, properly speaking.  I said he couldn’t and described him instead as a “Bonapartist – a tough leader who positions himself above the fray and simultaneously attacks enemies from the Left and the Right.”  I predicted that he would “do better against Clinton than most people assume by attacking her for backing the invasion of Iraq and for now calling for a Syrian no-fly zone.”  If he made it into the White House, I added, he’d “function as a classic authoritarian, blustering and bullying and maybe imposing a state of emergency if conditions get hairy enough.  But all this would establish him as a precursor to fascism rather than the genuine article.”

This wasn’t half-bad considering how few commentators took Trump seriously at the time.  But in other ways it was off the mark.  Essentially, I expected Trump to follow the standard model of a strong man who outmaneuvers traditional conservatives while prevailing over a weak and divided liberal opposition.  But that isn’t how things have turned out.  The liberal state has fought back much more vigorously than I expected, to the point where it’s now Trump – beset by scandal, pursued by prosecutors and journalists – who’s on the ropes.  But rather than defeating Bonapartism, all liberals have succeeded in doing is ushering it in through the back door.

The result – authoritarianism with a liberal face – is the real surprise of the Age of Trump.  Where once it was a Tea Party-driven GOP that kept leftists awake at night, now it’s anti-Trump Democrats.  In their zeal to drive Trump out of office, liberals have launched an anti-Russian scare campaign that is pumping up tensions to ever more dangerous levels; promoted a drive to censor the internet, and are doing their utmost to marginalize critics of US policy in Syria, the Ukraine, and beyond.

They’ve also used the FBI, CIA, and NSA in ways that harken back to the bad old days of J. Edgar Hoover.  This is a point that Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor, makes in another essay in the Sunstein collection.  Goldsmith is an interesting character.  He headed the Office of Legal Counsel under Bush II but clashed with higher-ups over torture and was a participant in the famous March 2004 hospital-room stand-off when a critically-ill Attorney-General John Ashcroft said no to White House demands that he approve stepped-up domestic spying.  Goldsmith resigned a few months later, and the experience clearly left him hyper-sensitive to the problem of intelligence agencies slipping the leash.

Hence his alarm at what the “intelligence community” is now up to.  Since Trump’s election, unknown intelligence agents have leaked NSA wiretaps showing that incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lied about discussing US sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, information that was then used to drive Flynn out after just 24 days in office.  “Deep State” operatives leaked communication intercepts of Russian officials discussing potentially derogatory information about Trump and top campaign aides; of Russian officials claiming that they could use Flynn to influence Trump; of Kislyak informing Moscow that he discussed campaign-related issues with then-Senator Jeff Sessions; and of Kislyak discussing Jared Kushner’s efforts to establish secure back-channel communications with Moscow.

All of which, Goldsmith says, is unprecedented: “These leaks probably mark the first time ever that the content of foreign intelligence intercepts aimed at foreign agents that swept up US-person information was leaked.  They clearly aimed to damage US persons – ones who happen to also be senior US government officials.”  The upshot has been “a return to the Hoover-era FBI’s use of secretly collected information to sabotage elected officials with adverse political interests.”

It’s as if Watergate and the 1975 Church Committee had never happened.  Liberals would be up in arms if the administration had done this.  But since the intelligence agencies have done so in order to undermine Trump, they’re jubilant. As one especially addlepated columnist put it in the vehemently anti-Trump Vanity Fair: “…if the Deep State can rid us of the blighted presidency of Donald Trump, all I can say is ‘Go, State, go.’”

If ever there was a way of whistling on the way to the concentration camp, this is it.  Another dirty trick, one that Goldsmith doesn’t discuss, is the famous Christopher Steele dossier, the document that singlehandedly turned “golden showers” into a household term.  No matter what the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the New Yorker might say, the dossier is a feeble concoction that would never pass any real journalist’s smell test.  The urination episode is absurd on any number of grounds, not least of which is the fact that Trump, just as he says, is a well-known “germaphobe” who is unlikely to take part in any such activities.  (If you don’t believe it, check out Erik Hedegaard’s hilarious 2011 Rolling Stone interview in which the then-reality-TV star goes on about the merits of Purell versus other hand sanitizers.)  The famous “pee tape” is dubious since, if it really existed, the Kremlin would have undoubtedly used it by now in response to Trump’s decision to slap on additional sanctions, expel Russian diplomats in the wake of the Skripal affair, sell anti-tank missiles to the Ukraine, or bomb Russia’s ally, Bashar al-Assad.  Presumably, Trump would have hesitated blackmail was a real concern.  But he hasn’t.  The only thing that seems to concern him is Democrats taunting him for being soft on Russia.

The dossier also says that “TRUMP has declined various sweetener real estate deals offered him in Russia in order to further the Kremlin’s cultivation of him,” but then adds a few pages later: “Finally, regarding TRUMP’s claimed minimal investment profile in Russia, a separate source with direct knowledge said this had not been for want of trying.  TRUMP’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St Petersburg as well as Moscow but in the end TRUMP had had to settle for the use of extensive sexual services there from local prostitutes rather than business success.”  It says that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen met with Russian operatives in Prague in mid-2016, yet Cohen denies ever setting foot in the Czech capital and has even allowed Buzzfeedto examine his passport to prove it.

Indeed, the dossier is so weightless that even Steele is walking away from it.  He has reportedly downgraded the “truthiness” of the golden-showers incident to just fifty-fifty while, in papers filed in response to a libel suit in London, he now maintains that the dossier “did not represent (and did not purport to represent) verified facts, but were raw intelligence which had identified a range of allegations that warranted investigation given their potential national security implications.”

The golden-showers incident may be true or may not.  Yet according to a 15,000-word article by staff writer Jane Mayer in last month’s New Yorker, an ex-aide tried use the dossier to persuade Republican super-hawk John McCain to force Trump to step down before even taking the oath of office.  FBI Director James Comey may have been up to something similar when he confronted Trump with the golden-showers episode in a one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower.  Comey has never adequately explained that meeting, which occurred just two weeks prior to inauguration.  In a memo he wrote shortly after, he said he wanted Trump to know that “media like CNN had them [i.e. the sixteen memos comprising the dossier] and were looking for a news hook.”  Yet word of the meeting, which quickly leaked, provided CNN with precisely the hook it need to publish the first news story about the dossier.  Comey said he didn’t tell Trump that the Clinton campaign had commissioned the dossier because “[i]t wasn’t necessary for my goal, which was to alert him that we had this information.”  But Trump would have seen the dossier in a very different light if he had known that it was nothing more than “oppo research.”

A phony intelligence report that Democrats paid for and have since used ever since to harass Trump at every turn?  Not even Nixon could have come up with something so audacious.  Yet not only does the press fail to protest, but it cheers the Dems on.  Forty years of post-Watergate reform are going up in smoke – not because of Trump but because of his liberal opponents.

Pace Elster, Bonapartism is not a Trump-only affair.  To the contrary, it’s fully bipartisan, with the Democrats, if anything, taking the lead.  Plainly, the party underwent a phase change during the 2016 election when the Democratic mainstream came under attack from both Bernie Sanders and Trump.  The combined one-two punch sent the Hillaryites careening off into an authoritarianism that has only intensified in the months since.  The  system is breaking down, just as it broke down in France beginning in 1848.

The Mathematics of Political Decline


Benjamin Netanyahu: The Jewish Viktor Orban

A dreadful piece of legislation making its way through the Israeli Knesset sheds light not only on the Jewish state’s lurch to the right, but on the constitutional breakdown here in the United States.

Known as the Jewish Nation-State Bill, its purpose is to do away with the old rigmarole about Israel as simultaneously a Jewish and democratic state and shifts the balance decidedly in favor of the former.  Apologists say the bill will change little since the UN declared Israel to be a Jewish state  back in 1947, Israel’s own declaration of independence said the same thing a year later, while the entire world has routinely employed the phrase ever since.  So what does it matter if, instead of a “Jewish state,” Israel is now a “Jewish State” with a capital “S”?  What’s the big deal?

But, of course, it’s a very big deal.  An Israeli journalist named Lahav Harkov explained why – in back-handed way, of course – in an article in Commentary in 2013.  “For Israel to thrive uniquely as a Jewish democracy,” he wrote, “its institutions and laws must ensure that its democratic nature is never brought into irresolvable conflict with its Jewish identity.”  But democracy can’t help but conflict with Judaism, the basis of “Jewish identity” (whatever that may be), for the simple reason that two ideologies are mutually incompatible.  Political democracy was new and revolutionary when it burst upon the world in 1789 because it wrested sovereignty away from the church and crown and vested it with the people instead.  Various liberals, pluralists, pragmatists, etc., have tried to blur the difference ever since.  But the fact remains that there can be only one person, group, or entity in charge, either God or the people but never both.

It’s as simple as that.  So when Harkov says that democracy must never interfere with Jewish identity, what he’s really saying is that democracy must be pared back so that Judaism remains undisturbed.  This becane crystal clear when he went on to discuss an explosive Israeli Supreme Court ruling in the year 2000 declaring that an Israeli Arab couple named Adel and Iman Kaadan had a democratic right to purchase a home in a Jewish settlement, this despite the fact that the settlement is located on land owned by the Jewish National Fund, which, as a matter of deep principle, refuses to sell or lease to non-Jews.  Most people, and certainly most Americans, would regard the court’s decision as a ” no-brainer,” as they say.  After all, what could be more elementary than a citizen’s right to live wherever he or she pleases regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity?  But Harkov, out of devotion to Zionist national purity, sees it as a threat because it “erode[s] Israel’s Jewish nature in the name of preserving its democratic one.”

So there’s no question that the proposed new law will rein in democracy and tip Israel even further in the direction of ethno-religious authoritarianism à la Viktor Orban’s Hungary or Jaraslaw Kaszynski’s Poland.

But why now?  What is it about the make-up of the Israeli state that propels it in such a direction after seventy years of muddling through?

Demographics provides at least part of the answer.  After peaking at around eighty-nine percent in the late 1950s, the Jewish share of the Israeli population has edged downward ever since – to 85.5 percent in 1970, to 83.8 percent in 1980, to 81.6 percent in 1990, and, finally, to 75.3 percent as of early 2013.[1]  But the Six Day War in 1967 complicated matters by bringing millions of Palestinians under Israeli sway.  Inside “greater Israel,” the area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean that includes Gaza and the West Bank, Jews are now in the minority according to various estimates or will be shortly.

The result is nothing less than a sea change.  Back when Jews were 89 percent of the population, the concept of ethnos and demos overlapped so completely that it was easy to pretend that they were essentially the same.  Israeli society looked democratic, acted democratic, and even felt democratic, so it was easy to overlook the fact that one person in nine was a second-class citizen.  But now, with Jews slipping into an outright minority, the two concepts are pulling apart.  Instead of a demos, Jews are fast turning into a herrenvolk, a master race, ruling over a subordinate population of Palestinians and various other groups.

Ironies abound.  The Israeli position has never been more secure.  Palestinians are exhausted and defeated, the entire Muslim world is in disarray, while the economic gap between Israel and is neighbors has never been wider.  With twice as many scientists and engineers per capita as the US or Japan (as Perry Anderson noted a few years ago in the New Left Review), the Israeli economy has never been more dynamic.  One would think, therefore, that it could afford to be magnanimous.  But the numbers dictate otherwise.  They force it in a direction of a dark and brooding nationalism that is increasingly punitive and authoritarian.

But what of the US? What do the numbers tell us here?

The magic number as far as America is concerned is 4.4. That’s the percentage of the United States that lives in the thirteen least populous states, the minimum required to veto any constitutional amendment.  Like the Jewish share of the Israeli population, it, too, is on the decline.  In 1790, the equivalent figure was 9.8 percent, in 1860 it was 5.5, while by 2030 it is projected to fall to 4.0.  If we take these numbers and multiply them by the number of years the constitutional order has been in existence, then we can come up with something like a numerical index showing how much “we the people” have lost control over their political structure.  By the Civil War, for instance, Americans had lost 44 percent of their power over a system that was now past its seventieth birthday, while by 2018 they have lost another eleven points with regard to one that is well into its third century.

The more powerful, ornate, and all-embracing the constitutional order grows, the more democratic control shrinks to zero.  Despite the enormous constitutional restrictions imposed by the founders, “we the people” still had some sense in 1860 that they were still in charge.  They had created the Constitution in order to further their own interests, and now they were prepared to act independently to remove a slaveholder dictatorship that was increasingly intolerable.  The upshot was a revolutionary explosion that was both democratic and extra-constitutional.  The people suspended the Constitution in order to destroy the slaveholder elite and then, once the job was done, re-imposed it on a subjugated South after implementing significant structural changes.

Now, however, all memory of popular sovereignty has been expunged, with the result that “we the people” are lost in a legal-constitutional maze with no idea how to get out.  Nothing works.  Congress is paralyzed and corrupt, the popular will has been disregarded in two of the last five presidential elections, while the judiciary increasingly leans toward a concept of “original intent” that is designed to tighten constitutional restrictions even more.  Economic polarization is shooting through the roof, mortality rates are rising, while a 1914 moment is playing out in the Middle East as Donald Trump prepares to engage Russia and Iran in a regional war over unproven allegations of poison-gas use in the suburbs of Damascus.

Yet the people can do nothing other than fasten their seat belts as a decrepit ruling class careens toward destruction.  For those who don’t remember their history, this is what a pre-revolutionary moment looks like.  If I was a member of the American ruling class, I’d be very worried about where all this chaos is heading.  But, fortunately, I’m not.

[1]Statistical Abstract of Israel 2012,Central Bureau of Statistics, Table 2.2.  See also Sergio DellaPergola, “Demographic Timebomb? People Power and the Future of Israel as a Jewish State,” Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, February 14, 2013.