Op Ed

On the Road to Autocracy

Belief in American Exceptionalism may blind us to how our democracy is decaying.

By - Feb 6th, 2018 10:42 am
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Donald Trump. Image from campaign website.

Donald Trump. Image from campaign website.

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.

Fox and a range of far-right web sites spin out a steady stream of lies and distortions, most of which are designed to convince viewers that “the media” is corrupt and out to get Donald Trump; that Christianity is under attack in our country; that liberals are the enemies of America, and that white people are still the Number One race, one being victimized by a variety of leeches.

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.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

11 thoughts on “Op Ed: On the Road to Autocracy”

  1. Huck L. Berry says:

    “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.”

    Screw you Frank Schneiger, you represent everything that’s wrong with this country. It’s because of self-loathing, racist white liberals like you that the Republican Party is becoming more white. Non-whites and moderates aren’t being marginalized or just “drifitng away”, they’re being bullied away by anti-American, identity politic playing, Marxist Democrats like yourself.

    A black person votes Republican, and they are bullied, chastised, and admonished by other blacks and white Democrats alike — accusing them of voting against their best interests and for a being a sell out, Uncle Tom, a Coon, etc.

    An hispanic person votes Republican and they are bullied, chastised, and admonished by other hispanics and white Democrats for voting against “la raza” and for a being a Coconut or some other derogatory term.

    An Asian person votes Republican and they are bullied, chastised, and admonished by other Asians and white Democrats for voting against their best interests and are mocked for being “Model Minorities.”

    Basically, every non-white, non-hetero person, that votes for Republicans is harrassed, bullied and lynched on twitter or in the media by anti-American Democrats. Since most minorities don’t want to expose their families to any more vitriol and threats from “their own people”, they just stop voting (for conservatives) altogether. Relentless bullying and shaming of conservative minorities by Democrats is causing the Republican party to become more white.

    And after scaring the majority of minorities back onto the Democrat plantation, you then say, “See look, white Republicans are bigots! They’re all racist white-supremacists! Told ya so!”

  2. Terry says:

    Well said Frank! Thank you for writing this. Republicans take heed! Stop enabling and appeasing Trump’s authoritarianism.

  3. PMD says:

    So the GOP is becoming more white because millions of non-white people are afraid to vote for Republicans because people will be mean to them on social media so instead they vote Democrat or don’t vote? That is quite a theory. Would love to see some evidence that supports it. How often do you talk to people like that? What are the main reasons non-white, non-hetero people should feel welcome and appreciated by the GOP?

  4. Terry says:

    @Huck, nobody is bullying, harrassing or threatening people except White Nationalists, racists, Confederates, neo-Nazis etc. and their republican enablers and appeasers. Fascism is not cool republicans.

  5. Gloria Rozmus says:

    I agree–nobody is bullying except Trump and his supporters. The rest of us are trying to tend to the wounded. How many times have you heard a Democrat say that because Republicans didn’t clap and praise his speech, they are treasonous? Or that black professional athletes should be fired for peacefully protesting the killing of unarmed young black men by police or police wannabes like Trevon Martin’s murderer? Or that no Muslims should be allowed to enter the country, even though terrorist attacks come from people who are American citizens.
    As for the vote, why did the Supreme Court strike down outrageous gerrymandering by GOP operatives and why must people who want to vote go through expensive and unnecessary requirements–like birth certificates and special ID’s– that they must obtain from the DMV and other agencies to prevent non-existent voter fraud?
    I agree with Mr. Schneiger that this has been a long, terrible year with a president who inspires only negative gutter tactics. We are better than this!

  6. Rita says:

    Both parties embrace exceptionalism, always have and still do. Read the political platforms. Republicans have moved beyond exceptionalism to embrace a radical liberalism that has many elements of Nazism. Unfortunately, the exceptional Democrats have moved so far right over the years they cannot and will not call them out or challenge them without cutting their own throats. Progressivism will not even rise to the occasion. These 3 parties all ultimately draw power from the same forces that promote – whatever ever you want to label it -hegemony, empire, imperialism, neocolonialism, militarism – taking resources and economic opportunity from others, mostly poor and darker than white. What to do? Anarchism is not my preferred plan, but prudent. Plant your gardens, time capsule a copy of the Constitution, arrange your co-ops and barter systems, read books, watch movies, sing, dance while you still can. It’s gonna be a long, tough haul and it’s hard to tell what time will bring . If you haven’t noticed the war isn’t between the parties. They are pretty much aligned. The war is between major powers. The war is on people is real too – here and all around the world – and we have no party, no political power. Many abroad are called terrorists and criminals. The chance of civil war here seems less, but that could easily flare up too if people actually wake up. Then we will be terrorists too. So much for exceptionalism. And so it goes.

  7. fightingbobfan says:

    If you are non-white or gay and the GOP fundraises off of who you are, what self-respecting member of those groups would want to be a part of this party?

  8. Terry says:

    @fightingbob, well said. Most are leaving the state or have already years ago. Why would anyone shop at Kwik Trip or Menards either since they support Walker but Walker and republicans stand at the ready to crack down on gay rights, abortion rights, voting rights, basic civil rights, medical and responsible adult use cannabis rights etc…so people are left with no option but to flee the state just to be free to be themselves and be happy and successful. It’s sad. What’s more sad is relublicans like WashCoRepug cheer people being forced from their home’s and state. Disgusting.

    Dump Walker 2018!
    Dump All republicans 2018!!

  9. TransitRider says:

    Huck L Berry, you claim that if a “black person votes Republican, … they are bullied, chastised, and admonished…”

    How could that even be possible (given that we still have a secret ballot)???

  10. Andy says:

    Thank you Rita. Best thing I’ve seen in a comment section in a LONG time

  11. Terry says:

    It sure didn’t take long for Trump and republicans to blow up the economy, stock market dropped another -1,100 points. All that recovery under Obama after Bush imploded it last time.
    @Rita and Jeff, agreed just don’t get to complacent. There are differences as anyone who has suffered through totalitarianism, civil war, genocide will confirm. Yes, “Plant your gardens, (just not cannabis in Wisconsin) time capsule a copy of the Constitution, arrange your co-ops and barter systems, read books, watch movies, sing, dance while you still can…” Just don’t wait for republican Nazis to come goosestepping down your driveway. Speak up and speak out now! Don’t wait before it is too late.

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