Taming the Beast

How on earth do we return authoritarian true believers to civil society? There are short-term and long-term answers.

By Jim Sleeper

Tagged AuthoritarianismDonald Trumppoliticswhite supremacy

Some of President Trump’s true believers may be “disarmed” by his Tele-Prompted condemnation of violence (“unequivocally,” no less) in an effort to escape Senate conviction on the House impeachment resolution citing the violence he has fomented. He may well dodge that bullet. But that won’t stop the people he’s led across a Rubicon that separates believing harmless conspiracy theories from making conspiracies that kill.

The dangers we must meet are both immediate and long-term: Right now, government must stop authoritarians without internalizing their authoritarian premises and practices. In the longer-term, we must end economic abuses that have driven millions of Americans to seek revenge and relief through Trumpism. 

On the first point, we need to begin with what the Republicans used to say they stood for—law and order, within constitutional limits. “The only way to deal with these people,” a federal prosecutor who has worked to foil violent organizations told me this week, “has been pursued successfully in Northern Ireland through the 80’s and here after 9/11. Anti-terrorist units infiltrated them, ‘flipped’ their agents.

“The British were effective at this and caused many loyal IRA members to come under suspicion. Some were assassinated within their own ranks. To a lesser degree, that’s how we decimated the Mafia: by making everyone believe everyone else was a rat. We need to start this again now. It will be costly. It may be brutal. It will take years.” 

But it will also require safeguards against government overreach that sacrifices civil liberties for safety. Do we have such protections now? Ever since Edward Snowden warned of dangers in surveillance and extra-legal interventions that had grown from “Patriot Act” provisions, we’ve needed to ensure that such operations are very strictly targeted and warranted. We certainly don’t want to emulate everything the British did in Northern Ireland, or even everything our government did to corral the mob. 

But how has American authoritarianism reached a point where so many thousands of citizens, including more than a few police officers and military veterans, joined the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol?  

Desperate faith in Trump’s demagoguery is only the most dramatic part of the problem. There are also America’s perennial racism and tribalism, and, more recently, their expansion owing to widespread ressentiment —the curdled rage of individuals whose market-driven losses of security and social belonging and status I sketched here recently.

Ever since Trump demolished the credibility of both Republican and Democratic Party establishments during his 2016 presidential campaign, he has accelerated the casino-like financing and predatory marketing of a “precariat” economy. Many who sounded alarms about Trump are employed by and invested in that economy’s destructive financing and in the ever-more intrusive, predatory marketing that made Trump himself a financier of casinos and a predatory marketer long ago. 

Like his reality TV show The Apprentice, some of these practices seem harmless as they grope, goose, track, indebt, and addict us. Millions of us now spend billions on palliatives, medications, addictions, and even surveillance, helping to spread what the historian of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon called “a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire…” until its citizens “no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honour… and the habit of command.”

Wondering how “the habit of command” that Gibbon admired in Roman citizens has become nihilism in so many American lives, I spoke to Alex Brooks, the editor and publisher of the Eastwick Press, a newspaper in New York’s mostly rural, white working-class Rensselaer County. Towns there, Brooks told me, “have seen jobs disappearing, despair and depression and the drug and alcohol use creeping in, and education at the local high school inadequate to succeed in the new economy…

“Neither political party gives a damn about it,” said Brooks, the son of the late New Yorker magazine business writer John Brooks. “So when Trump said he would restore the America they’d known as kids, they wanted to give the guy a chance. I know Trump supporters who are good people, but they’re not good at untangling Republican political messaging. It has been so superior to that of progressives that trying to lay the blame where it belongs is a Sisyphean project. They hear Trump’s hostility to China and anti-immigrant messaging as ‘fighting to protect American jobs.’

“Trump’s base may morph into something even uglier until we take their grievances seriously…They need jobs that pay enough to have a nice house and car, good health care and education, as they had for three decades after World War II. Today’s unregulated capitalism isn’t giving it to them. We need public-private partnerships that create jobs. People will stop calling that ‘socialism’ as soon as they get one of those jobs.”

Some CEOs of big business corporations have announced they’ll stop campaign contributions to congressional Republicans who opposed certifying Joe Biden’s election. But, as Biden noted Thursday night, while sketching his economic rescue plan, many corporations “ship American jobs overseas” and “pay zero in federal income taxes.” His dramatic reversal of Bill Clinton’s “The era of big government is over” was the most “progressive” (pre) presidential address since Lyndon Johnson explained his Great Society initiatives to the American people. Biden spoke as directly to small-town whites in Alex Brooks’s Rensselaer County as to low-income people of color whose urban neighbourhoods Trump and other Republicans have condemned.

But will the corporate CEOs and boards that have cut campaign contributions to Republicans because they’re alarmed by the instability of mobs now direct those funds to pay what Biden called their “fair share in taxes” to support the economic rescue plan? Or have they forgotten that a healthy society strides on both a “left foot” of public provision for schools, health care, and environmental safety, without which stable communities and economies can’t flourish; and a “right foot” of irreducibly personal responsibility and initiative, without which even well-intentioned social-engineering would reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse?

Recovering a balanced stride will take time. Meanwhile, law enforcement may have to engage in the kind of dark, ugly work the prosecutor I talked with described. But equally hard will be neutralizing the poison of unregulated financing and predatory marketing that many corporations and both political parties have abetted for far too long.

Read more about AuthoritarianismDonald Trumppoliticswhite supremacy

Jim Sleeper is a writer on American civic culture and politics. He taught political science at Yale for 21 years and is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.

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