Paranoiac Visage, Salvador Dalí, 1935.
David Frum has a lengthy but must-read piece (link embedded): How to Build an Autocracy that is to appear in the March 2017 print edition of The Atlantic but that is already available online.
The sub-title is: "The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here's the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism."
It's 2021, and president donald trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka's arm during his infrequent public appearances.
The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí, 1931
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
Swans Reflecting Elephants, Salvador Dalí, 1937
The president's critics, meanwhile, have found little hearing for their protests and complaints. A Senate investigation of Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential campaign sputtered into inconclusive partisan wrangling. Concerns about Trump's purported conflicts of interest excited debate in Washington but never drew much attention from the wider American public.
The Temptation of St. Anthony, Salvador Dalí, 1946
Allegations of fraud and self-dealing in the TrumpWorks program, and elsewhere, have likewise been shrugged off. The president regularly tweets out news of factory openings and big hiring announcements: "I'm bringing back your jobs," he has said over and over. Voters seem to have believed him -- and are grateful.
The Washington Consensus in the Style of Dalí's "The Temptation of St. Anthony"
Most Americans intuit that their president and his relatives have become vastly wealthier over the past four years. But rumors of graft are easy to dismiss. Because Trump has never released his tax returns, no one really knows.
Three Sphinxes of Bikini, Salvador Dalí, 1947
Anyway, doesn't everybody do it? On the eve of the 2018 congressional elections, WikiLeaks released years of investment statements by prominent congressional Democrats indicating that they had long earned above-market returns. As the air filled with allegations of insider trading and crony capitalism, the public subsided into weary cynicism. The Republicans held both houses of Congress that November, and Trump loyalists shouldered aside the pre-Trump leadership.
The business community learned its lesson early. "You work for me, you don't criticize me," the president was reported to have told one major federal contractor, after knocking billions off his company's stock-market valuation with an angry tweet. Wise business leaders take care to credit Trump's personal leadership for any good news, and to avoid saying anything that might displease the president or his family.
The media have grown noticeably more friendly to Trump as well. The proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner was delayed for more than a year, during which Time Warner's CNN unit worked ever harder to meet Trump's definition of fairness.
Under the agreement that settled the Department of Justice's antitrust complaint against Amazon, the company's founder, Jeff Bezos, has divested himself of The Washington Post. The paper's new owner -- an investor group based in Slovakia -- has closed the printed edition and refocused the paper on municipal politics and lifestyle coverage.
Meanwhile, social media circulate ever-wilder rumors. Some people believe them; others don't. It's hard work to ascertain what is true.
Nobody's repealed the First Amendment, of course, and Americans remain as free to speak their minds as ever -- provided they can stomach seeing their timelines fill up with obscene abuse and angry threats from the pro-Trump troll armies that police Facebook and Twitter. Rather than deal with digital thugs, young people increasingly drift to less political media like Snapchat and Instagram.
Trump-critical media do continue to find elite audiences. Their investigations still win Pulitzer Prizes; their reporters accept invitations to anxious conferences about corruption, digital-journalism standards, the end of nato, and the rise of populist authoritarianism. Yet somehow all of this earnest effort feels less and less relevant to American politics. President Trump communicates with the people directly via his Twitter account, ushering his supporters toward favorable information at Fox News or Breitbart.
Despite the hand-wringing, the country has in many ways changed much less than some feared or hoped four years ago. Ambitious Republican plans notwithstanding, the American social-welfare system, as most people encounter it, has remained largely intact during Trump's first term. The predicted wave of mass deportations of illegal immigrants never materialized.
A large illegal workforce remains in the country, with the tacit understanding that so long as these immigrants avoid politics, keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, nobody will look very hard for them.
Pearls Before Swine, January 31, 2017
African Americans, young people, and the recently naturalized encounter increasing difficulties casting a vote in most states. But for all the talk of the rollback of rights, corporate America still seeks diversity in employment. Same-sex marriage remains the law of the land. Americans are no more and no less likely to say “Merry Christmas” than they were before Trump took office.
BWI Airport lounge, January 31, 2017.
People crack jokes about Trump's National Security Agency listening in on them. They cannot deeply mean it; after all, there's no less sexting in America today than four years ago. Still, with all the hacks and leaks happening these days -- particularly to the politically outspoken -- it's just common sense to be careful what you say in an email or on the phone. When has politics not been a dirty business? When have the rich and powerful not mostly gotten their way? The smart thing to do is tune out the political yammer, mind your own business, enjoy a relatively prosperous time, and leave the questions to the troublemakers.
The remainder of the article discusses the ways in which Trump and the enabling Republicans in Congress -- and the larger society -- will bring about this state of affairs.
In true police states, surveillance and repression sustain the power of the authorities. But that's not how power is gained and sustained in backsliding democracies. Polarization, not persecution, enables the modern illiberal regime.
By guile or by instinct, Trump understands this.
Whenever Trump stumbles into some kind of trouble, he reacts by picking a divisive fight. The morning after The Wall Street Journal published a story about the extraordinary conflicts of interest surrounding Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Trump tweeted that flag burners should be imprisoned or stripped of their citizenship. That evening, as if on cue, a little posse of oddballs obligingly burned flags for the cameras in front of the Trump International Hotel in New York. Guess which story dominated that day's news cycle?
Mark D. beachside shortly after sunset somewhere in South Florida, January 31, 2017.
Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource. Trump will likely want not to repress it, but to publicize it -- and the conservative entertainment-outrage complex will eagerly assist him. Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags; Black Lives Matter demonstrators bearing antipolice slogans -- these are the images of the opposition that Trump will wish his supporters to see. The more offensively the protesters behave, the more pleased Trump will be.
So very, very true.
In the early days of the Trump transition, Nic Dawes, a journalist who has worked in South Africa, delivered an ominous warning to the American media about what to expect. "Get used to being stigmatized as 'opposition,' " he wrote. "The basic idea is simple: to delegitimize accountability journalism by framing it as partisan."
The rulers of backsliding democracies resent an independent press, but cannot extinguish it. They may curb the media's appetite for critical coverage by intimidating unfriendly journalists, as President Jacob Zuma and members of his party have done in South Africa. Mostly, however, modern strongmen seek merely to discredit journalism as an institution, by denying that such a thing as independent judgment can exist. All reporting serves an agenda. There is no truth, only competing attempts to grab power.
Twitter, unmediated by the press, has proved an extremely effective communication tool for Trump. And the whipping-up of potentially violent Twitter mobs against media critics is already a standard method of Trump's governance ... I've talked with well-funded Trump supporters who speak of recruiting a troll army explicitly modeled on those used by Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russia's Putin to take control of the social-media space, intimidating some critics and overwhelming others through a blizzard of doubt-casting and misinformation.
Oh, and he does quote the Russian - American journalist Masha Gessen in what she said her critically important "Autocracy: Rules for Survival" that appeared right after the election.
You get the idea. The article tries to end on a hopeful note of things that citizens can do in terms of civic engagement and vigilance to avoid this outcome.
Speaking of ending ... let's end this entry with something a bit happier ...
Baby Fiona, the very premature hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo, January 31, 2017. She seems to be doing better.
I'm home tonight watching some funny reruns of Wings, Becker, and Newhart on Antenna TV. It was a non-gym night and after work, I stopped for some dinner at The Bottom Line. It's already damn near 3AM and I'm going to bed now.