Sunday, August 6, 2017

ICYMI: Sliding Toward Authoritarianism

I try to be a measured observer.  Even when I agree with people, philosophically, I tend to veer away from alarmist rhetoric.  The sky, most of the time, isn't actually falling.

But I find myself genuinely and unshakably alarmed.  Amidst the salacious and shiny personal scandals that seem to arise almost daily, a number of stories have continued to trickle out that, frankly, make my spider senses tingle.  You probably lost them in all the noise.

There's an ongoing debate about whether our president is an Authoritarian.  People often point to his tendency to praise foreign dictators.  Is it his personality (or its deficiencies), his governing philosophy, or perhaps his core beliefs?  Some combination of the three? In my judgement, it doesn't matter all that much what's driving it; it's the outcomes that matter.  And those outcomes, increasingly and in accumulation, point to an alarming trend of, brick by brick, the construction of an authoritarian state.

As always, I leave it to you, the reader, to form your own assessment.  Here's what I see.

The consolidation of power to a concentrated few (with leverage)
The failure of the Trump administration to appoint dozens of sub-cabinet leadership positions has been the subject of much reporting (so I won't link).  Above that, they have dismissed career officials (dubbed the deep state) across the executive branch without replacing them.  Those he has appointed, to a one, have deep conflicts of interest with the programs over which they preside. Many have significant allegations of corrupt action in their past, often in direct relation with those programs.  This makes these select few especially beholden to their chief executive.

A concentrated effort to obscure
From removing website content, to gag orders on federal employees, to withholding visitor logs, to omitting contacts with foreign officials and their representatives, to blatantly, repeatedly, and intentionally lying to the public, this administration has clearly articulated its position that it is not answerable to the American people.  Its obsession with so-called "leaks" belies its belief that secrecy FROM the constituents it represents is a top priority.

The establishment of a propaganda arm
When the former Communications Director, Boris Epshteyn, joined a largely-unknown Sinclair Media, it was a "shrug moment."  Since then, however, Sinclair, it's broadcast affiliates, and it's digital arm, Circa, have steadily pumped out a pure, synchronized Trumpian narrative.  It's basically the Sputnik/Pravda/RT for the Trump White House.  All the while, they hammer away at the "fake news media," despite the fact that, over and over again, their reporting holds up under pressure.   It is one thing to disagree on the interpretation of common facts.  It is quite another to reject objective reality and substitute it with a political fiction.

An attempt to co-opt law enforcement
In a recent interview with the New York Times, the president admitted he believes the FBI director should report directly to him.  Imagine the resources of a nationwide internal security force placed at the direct whim of a man who has a long-documented pattern of settling scores with his "enemies."  The demand for the dramatic expansion of DHS agents under Customs and Border Patrol, as well as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), already feels like the beginnings of a police state.  It should be noted that, in authoritarian regimes across the world, internal security and secret police forces are the most feared, responsible for hunting down and jailing political opponents and dissidents.

The abridgment of due process
In the name of action toward illegal immigrants, this administration has set up so-called "rapid reaction forces" and "streamlined procedures" for ICE.  These terms are shorthand for circumventing the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.  In this country, EVERYONE operates under the presumption of innocence and is entitled to all aspects of due process.  These "streamlined" actions, however, instead presume guilt and strip people of their rights to representation and trial.  The Muslim Ban on travel and immigration also presumed guilt of those already lawfully admitted to the country and deprived them of due process (as pointed out by the federal courts).
Defining an "undesirable class" (or several)
Through rhetoric and policy, this administration has plainly set its sights on a number of non-white groups.  By intertwining undocumented immigrants (and sometimes not even bothering with the 'undocumented' distinction) with rapists, murderers, and gang members, the President is openly asking white Americans to look with suspicion at anyone with brown skin.  By conflating the TINY number of jihadi mujaheddin with the remainder of a BILLION muslims across the world, the president has encouraged white Americans to fear anybody with a beard or head scarf.  He WANTS you to be suspicious and afraid of these "undesirables" and to beg him to help save you from their unsavory appetites.  Every dictator needs a clearly defined enemy.  Add to that the series of decisions that strip equal status and protection for LGBTQ Americans.

Attacking the Democratic Process Itself
The president's claim of three to five million illegal and fraudulent votes post-election seemed like a laughable ego trip.  But the establishment of a Presidential Commission has upped the ante significantly.  Staffing it with conspiracy-promoting fringe types and granting it data-gathering power over the entire electorate is a breathtaking move.  If you operate from the presumption that there are a large number of people on the roles who don't deserve to be and put the force of the DOJ behind it, you can reshape the electorate in any way you like and make Putin-like proclamations about the "real" level of support of opposition to any candidate or official.  You can also proactively focus your money, agenda, and narrative against anyone who emerges that appears to threaten your regime.

And, finally, an attempt to circumvent the constitutional military order through the establishment of a private mercenary army.
In the turmoil of the daily circus that has become the news cycle, an incredible story emerged and was quickly lost in the froth.  In July, Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist to the president, took a proposal to the Secretary of Defense suggesting that a private army made up of mercenaries from around the world should be established to carry out military action in Afghanistan.  The fact that this proposal was rejected by Secretary Mattis is hardly comforting.  It is unlikely in the extreme that Bannon would have made this step without consulting (and getting at least tacit approval from) the president.  A private corporate army, unconstrained by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Law of Armed Conflict, and presumably outside the control of the military establishment, should chill the blood of every single American man and woman.  The only other paramilitary forces that operate this way: ISIS and Al Qaeda.

It's possible, even likely, that you'll read this and go "Mike, you're just overreacting.  Cut back on the caffeine."  It's possible.  I hope you're right.  But what if you're not?  Is it worth the cost to wait and see?  Or is it time to put specific, focused, and unending pressure on Congress to see this for what it is and do everything in their power to curtail it?

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