James Fallows: Trump Time Capsule #108: Bush, Fahrenthold, Kagan:
A four-month-old article... by Robert Kagan... [with whom] I disagree... on just about everything...
But in the months since he originally published his essay, called “This Is How Fascism Comes to America,” I think his arguments have come to seem more rather than less relevant. Especially this....
We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation.... But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies--his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims... has produced national weakness.... His incoherent and contradictory utterances... provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking... “others”.... His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.
Please also read Garrett Epps’s essay yesterday, to parallel sobering effect. All this is part of what the country knows about this candidate, as it considers whether to make him president; and what the likes of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell know as well, as they stand beside him.
Robert Kagan: This is how fascism comes to America:
The Republican Party’s attempt to treat Donald Trump as a normal political candidate would be laughable were it not so perilous to the republic. If only he would mouth the party’s “conservative” principles, all would be well.
But of course the entire Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular threat to our democracy. Trump has transcended the party that produced him. His growing army of supporters no longer cares about the party. Because it did not immediately and fully embrace Trump, because a dwindling number of its political and intellectual leaders still resist him, the party is regarded with suspicion and even hostility by his followers. Their allegiance is to him and him alone.
And the source of allegiance? We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.
That this tough-guy, get-mad-and-get-even approach has gained him an increasingly large and enthusiastic following has probably surprised Trump as much as anyone else. Trump himself is simply and quite literally an egomaniac. But the phenomenon he has created and now leads has become something larger than him, and something far more dangerous.
Republican politicians marvel at how he has “tapped into” a hitherto unknown swath of the voting public. But what he has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the “mobocracy.” Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.
This phenomenon has arisen in other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, and it has generally been called “fascism.” Fascist movements, too, had no coherent ideology, no clear set of prescriptions for what ailed society. “National socialism” was a bundle of contradictions, united chiefly by what, and who, it opposed; fascism in Italy was anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist, anti-capitalist and anti-clerical. Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how. Today, there is Putinism, which also has nothing to do with belief or policy but is about the tough man who single-handedly defends his people against all threats, foreign and domestic.
To understand how such movements take over a democracy, one only has to watch the Republican Party today. These movements play on all the fears, vanities, ambitions and insecurities that make up the human psyche. In democracies, at least for politicians, the only thing that matters is what the voters say they want — vox populi vox Dei. A mass political movement is thus a powerful and, to those who would oppose it, frightening weapon. When controlled and directed by a single leader, it can be aimed at whomever the leader chooses. If someone criticizes or opposes the leader, it doesn’t matter how popular or admired that person has been. He might be a famous war hero, but if the leader derides and ridicules his heroism, the followers laugh and jeer. He might be the highest-ranking elected guardian of the party’s most cherished principles. But if he hesitates to support the leader, he faces political death.
In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories — and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.
A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. After all, they are voters and will need to be brought back into the fold. As for Trump himself, let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.
What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him. By then that following will have grown dramatically. Today, less than 5 percent of eligible voters have voted for Trump. But if he wins the election, his legions will likely comprise a majority of the nation. Imagine the power he would wield then. In addition to all that comes from being the leader of a mass following, he would also have the immense powers of the American presidency at his command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military. Who would dare to oppose him then? Certainly not a Republican Party that lay down before him even when he was comparatively weak. And is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands, likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-corrupt?
This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.
Garrett Epps: Trumpism Is The Symptom of a Gravely Ill Constitution:
In less than two months, the American experiment in constitutional self-government may hit the wall of history. Even if the disaster of a Trump presidency is averted, this fall’s presidential campaign suggests that the United States Constitution is gravely, perhaps terminally, ill.
Trumpism is the symptom, not the cause, of the malaise. I think we have for some time been living in the post-Constitution era. America’s fundamental law remains and will remain important as a source of litigation. But the nation seems to have turned away from a search of values in the Constitution, regarding it instead as a set of annoying rules.
A Trump victory would render the Constitution as toothless as the Statuto Albertino of 1848 after Mussolini’s March on Rome. That’s not because Trump proposes violating this or that provision; it is because, to him and his followers, the Constitution is simply nonexistent.
Trump’s most consistent and serious commitment is to the destruction of free expression. (Note that his response to the bombings in New York and New Jersey was to call for a rollback of the free press, on the grounds that “magazines” are somehow instructing the bombers.) In other areas, his program is torture, hostage taking, murder of innocent civilians, treaty repudiation, militarized borders, official embrace of Christianity, exclusion and surveillance of non-favored religious groups, an end to birthright citizenship, racial and religious profiling, violent and unrestrained law enforcement, and mass roundups and deportation.
No other serious political program in American history has been as openly contemptuous of the nation’s founding document, of its Bill of Rights, and of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection.
Can those values survive four years of Trump? There’s not much reason to think that this own party will oppose anything he wants—the GOP leaders have already surrendered without a whimper. I suspect that he will find supporters within the bureaucracy, the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, and the American military. And Stanley Milgram’s “obedience to authority” experiment suggests that others, who know better, will simply stand aside as the toadies take over.
But even if America is spared President Trump, will the pathologies of the last year simply dissipate in a burst of national good feeling? Hardly. Trump was not a meteorite who has unexpectedly plunged to earth out of the uncharted depths of space; he is the predictable product of a sick system.
“Political correctness” is out of favor, so I won’t pretend that “both sides” bear responsibility. The corrosive attack on constitutional values has come, and continues to come, from the right. It first broke into the open in 1998, when a repudiated House majority tried to remove President Bill Clinton for minor offenses. It deepened in 2000, when the Supreme Court, by an exercise of lawless power, installed the President of their choice. It accelerated when the inadequate young president they installed responded to crisis with systematic lawlessness––detention without trial, a secret warrantless eavesdropping program, and institutionalized torture.
In the years since Barack Obama—with a majority of the vote––replaced Bush, the same forces, now in opposition, have simply refused to accept him as the nation’s legitimate leader. In control of Congress, they will not perform that body’s most basic duties––formulating a budget, tending to the national credit, filling vacant posts in the government—and, most shockingly, controlling the nation’s passage from peace to war. Now they have turned their attention to the Supreme Court, and are slowly crippling it in pursuit of partisan advantage.
Commentators are assiduously mainstreaming this political deviancy. “[W]e should not pretend that the Senate has some sort of constitutional duty to confirm a nominee, or even schedule a vote,” conservative Professor Josh Blackman of the University of the South Texas College of Law, assured readers of the National Review soon after Justice Antonin Scalia died. Fact-checker Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post conceded that it is a “matter of opinion” whether the Senate is duty-bound to consider a Supreme Court nominee—then, inexplicably, crowned his own opinion as “fact” and awarded Three Pinocchios (“Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions”) to those whose opinions differ.
Of course, these worthies are right––if the Constitution is nothing but an aggregation of unrelated rules to be used by those who seek power—if the only mandatory provisions are those that explicitly say, “This provision imposes a duty on people to make it work realio trulio no kidding uh-huh baby pinky swear really not kidding, you hear me, Mitch?”
Under this reading, Congress has almost no “duties”—it must meet for one day every December, it must elect officers, it must keep a journal, and it must count the electoral votes every four years. There’s no “duty” to approve a presidential cabinet, or to fill vacancies in the military officer corps, or to appropriate funds to run the government.
This interpretation is a post-constitutional pathology. The Constitution imposes lots of obligations, and affirms many values, that are apparent to any open-hearted reader. Step away from its values, and it imposes almost none.
(The conservative aversion to actually governing, interestingly enough, is not in evidence in states that they control. Legislators in red states are eager to suppress the vote, regulate women’s fertility and sexuality, roll back LGBT gains, silence criticism of agriculture, gut collective-bargaining rights, dismantle higher education, and strip away academic freedom. And state leaders truly in a hurry are eager to call a “convention of the states” and scrap the Constitution altogether.)
It’s true that the Democratic side of the ledger has also succumbed to a certain slovenliness in its approach to the Constitution; as I wrote at the time, for example, the Obama administration’s excuses for not seeking authorization for the Libya intervention were as lame as anything the Bush White House produced. Current operations against ISIL in Syria and elsewhere have no shadow of authorization from Congress.
It is not justification, but simply description, to say that this kind of executive chicanery is inevitable if Congress refuses to do its duties. The government must keep running, and in a crisis, presidents will inevitably conclude that their plan is imperative. Congress has the power to say yea or nay to military force; but if it will not speak at all, presidents will act as they think best. And remember that the most consistent attacks on Obama as “weak” cite the one occasion on which he decided that military action actually did require Congressional approval.
Constitutional rot has spread from a feckless Congress to a desperate executive, and is now enfeebling the judiciary.
Whatever is taught in school, the Constitution never was (in James Russell Lowell’s phrase), “a machine that would go of itself;” what has made it work is a daily societal decision that we wish to live in a constitutional democracy. In 1942, Judge Learned Hand warned that “a society so riven that the spirit of moderation is gone, no court can save; that a society where that spirit flourishes, no court need save.”
The willingness to live by fundamental law has fled, and few seem to notice. It will not return, if at all, until as a society the United States finds a constitutional vision that is about more than power.