On the Road to Autocracy
Belief in American Exceptionalism may blind us to how our democracy is decaying.
Ron Johnson quickly recanted his recent reckless statements charging there was corruption among FBI higher-ups. But that fact that a U.S. Senator was engaging in such rhetoric is a symptom of a profound transformation of our country. The starting point to understand this is a rejection of the notion of American exceptionalism, the false belief that all the experiences of other nations is irrelevant to us, that we are unique in the world and in history.
Exceptionalism blinds us to the reality that our nation shows many signs of a decaying democracy, and not a few of emerging plutocracy, kleptocracy and autocracy. The pace of decay has rapidly accelerated in the year that Donald Trump has been president. The assault on a free press, on an independent judiciary, on the functioning agencies of our government, and on norms of human decency and basic civility are now indisputable features of daily life in America. As are the incessant lying, the rampant corruption, and the constant focus on scapegoats.
This assault on democracy is not bipartisan. It is being led by the Republican Party, whose elected members are either happy to fall in behind Donald Trump, or are afraid to cross him and his dark money, hyper-wealthy backers. Today’s Republican Party is also dependent on elements that are racist, and, in some instances, fascist in the classic sense of the term.
The Republican Party has effectively become the White People’s National Party. In the age of Trump, it will only become whiter, more nativist and more bigoted, as non-white groups are more aggressively scapegoated and marginalized, while the remaining moderates drift away.
Some of this will be masked as long as the economic expansion continues, but even in good times, the party will be driven by the constant need for someone to blame. In Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler‘s 1940 novel set in the Soviet Union, the warden of the prison says, “Experience teaches that the masses must be given for all difficult and complicated processes a simple easily grasped explanation… mankind could never do without scapegoats.”
Without scapegoats the Republican Party would be a plutocratic fringe group. It is impossible to imagine a President Trump in the absence of the scapegoating of black people, Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, refugees and LGBTQ people.
But, if this is so obvious, why can’t people see it? There may be a relatively simple answer. It may be that you cannot understand what has happened to the United States if you do not watch the Fox News Channel, especially in the age of Trump, when it functions as the administration’s semi-official propaganda organ.
Why do people believe these lies? As the pundit Malcolm Muggeridge once said, “People don’t believe lies because they have to, but because they want to.” And, in the words of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, “It’s not a lie if I believe it.”
These lies have had a profound effect. In communist and authoritarian countries, the regime controls the mass media and suppresses opposing opinions. In the United States, there is a diversity of opinion. But what difference does diversity make if a large group of motivated people, the 30 percent, get all their information from one source and are convinced that everything else is “fake news”?
Additionally, the daily flood of information, much of it labeled “breaking news,” coupled with the scale of the administration’s misdeeds, becomes too overwhelming for most people to process. So, as our moral and ethical standards collapse, a $130,000 hush-money payment by Donald Trump to a prostitute just before the 2016 election becomes a one-day story.
The cumulative impact of all of this is to reinforce the reality that Americans increasingly live in two information worlds, with two versions of truth. And these versions are becoming more and more irreconcilable.
We are approaching a watershed example of that irreconcilability. The self-proclaimed “most generous people on earth” are about to deport three quarters of a million young people to countries that many of them have never known, an action that will not only tear apart families, but place many of them at great risk.
This is going to happen because, contrary to the lie that Republicans want to “solve the problem” of “the dreamers,” their base does not want to solve the problem. They want to get rid of these mostly non-white young people, and to make sure that more like them don’t come here.
Historic analogies are always tricky, especially when you bring up the subject of Nazi Germany. But in the mid-1930s, years before the Holocaust, the German government considered deporting German Jews to Madagascar, a place that none of them had ever seen. It was just one of many warning signs of what was to come.
While the United States is not a cruel country, cruel people are now in power, and they continue to appeal to the worst instincts of a segment of the population. For a majority of Americans, the deportation of this group of young people will be a moral stain that will haunt us for decades to come. For the 30 percent, it will be good riddance.
In life, there is always a continuum. From time to time, leaders emerge who seem to be capable of anything. We are now living in such a time. And there are always zealots on the continuum who are willing to follow those leaders and do the dirty work.
Down the continuum from the zealots there are the supporters and opportunists, those who go along with the program because it seems to be the winning side. These are the Ron Johnsons of the world. Johnson may be a cipher, a know-nothing and a mediocrity, but autocracies, failed democracies and horrific events always float on a sea of ciphers, know-nothings and mediocrities. There are always lots of Ron Johnsons.
And, “on the ground,” there is the 30 percent, the so-called “base.” In our country, it consists primarily of white Christians, a group that believes it is being victimized and insists on its own innocence in all matters.
Many might be called the “ordinary people,” those who either do not care, or care but don’t do anything. They will try to avoid this moral dilemma. They will make adjustments and go about their business. As Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina, “There are no conditions to which a person cannot become accustomed, especially if he sees everyone around him living in the same way.”
The line between politics and morality is always ambiguous–except when it isn’t. You might be able to make the case that using the lives of 700,000 young people as a bargaining chip is just politics. That is the Republican argument. To most Republicans, these young people are an abstraction. But the fate of this group represents a profound moral challenge for our country. This is not just politics. And their lives aren’t abstractions. A moral choice is being made.
Despite the speed at which change is occurring, many people have already grown accustomed to what is happening to our country. A large minority, the base, actually likes it, especially the constant search for scapegoats. In decades past, those on the political left in America carelessly tossed around terms like “fascist,” “racist” and “Nazi.” They were warned that those terms would lose all resonance when the real thing came down the road. We may be paying the price for the failure to heed those warnings.
In 1935, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, “it” being the rise of the Nazis. It Can’t Happen Here was an early rejection of the belief in American exceptionalism. It may be time for a rewrite.
Frank Schneiger is founder and president of Frank Schneiger and Associates, a management planning and consulting firm, and has held top government positions for both the city of New York and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.