Spiraling Downwards Towards Authoritarianism
In 1949, U.S. military expenditures totaled 135,63B $US and rose to 633,56B $US in 2018, an increase of 470%. However, the value of the $US declined. A $US in 1949 was equivalent in purchasing power to $10.89 in 2020. If military expenditures had kept up with the declining purchasing value of the US$, the budget for military expenditures should have been 1,477,03B $US, slightly more than double its current total. Military expenditures could be said to have been more than halved in the last seventy years.
Except that trend was reversed under Donald Trump in 2018. The budget, which in 2015 declined and which held roughly steady in 2016 and 2017, was increased in 2018 from $60511B to $648,80B in 2018, an increase of 7.1%. However, as a percent of GDP, the increase was relatively more modest from 3.11% of GDP to 3.16% of GDP, a half point increase. However, a half point on a multi-billion- dollar budget still comes to $43,69B $US.
Authoritarian leaders, autocrats much more than oligarchies, love spending money on the military even when they are risk averse and even isolationist when committing troops for foreign wars. Bill Jordan in a recent article demonstrated that increased spending on armaments is a manifestation “of the links between militarism and the authoritarian turn.” It is also a signal of support for military-style rule, remembering that you do not have to be a military officer to favour that style of rule. You do not even have to favour any military conflict with other countries.
Yet somehow this issue was not raised by anyone in the first two evenings of the Democratic Convention. It is clearly an issue, not only concerning the budget, not only concerning foreign entanglements, but in sketching scenarios for the transition from Trump to Biden. For on Monday Trump said that the only way he could lose was if the election were rigged. This has been just one in a series of remarks implying his intent not to leave office and go easily into the night. As a result of such remarks, in June 2020, the Transition Integrity Project (TIP) was initiated by a bipartisan group of 100 current and former senior government and campaign leaders and other experts to ensure the horror of 1876 is not repeated, a scar on democracy that led to almost a century of Jim Crow.
As a result of TIP’s studies, the participants anticipated chaotic political and legal scenarios for the transition, each referring to a different way in which Trump is expected, by both legal and illegal means, to contest the results in an attempt to hold onto power. It is expected that he will be abetted by the Attorney General. The basic one is that the results of “electoral night” will not be respected. Trump will not concede, helped by the fact that there will still be very many ballots to be counted after election might because of voting by mail.
Lawsuits, propagandistic media campaigns and protests coming from all sides can be expected. TIF noted that, “Of particular concern is how the military would respond in the context of uncertain election results.” Without any analysis, TIF concluded that “recent evidence offers some reassurance, but it is inconclusive.” I presume TIF was referring to the refusal of the military to enable its troops to be used to put down peaceful protesters. I believe the fact that the House of Representatives avoided challenging the military budget may also have played a part to ensure the military remained neutral. This may also be part of the explanation for the absence of any criticism of the military budget thus far in the Democratic Convention.
On the Monday evening opening of the new style Democratic Party Convention, Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders were the headline speakers. Michelle topped the evening with a powerfully passionate lamentation and indictment of Donald Trump for his incompetence, his character, his total lack of empathy and the economic and social consequences for American society.
Her expression of both grief and determination to overcome its source did not have the personal deep tug at our heartstrings as that of an earlier speech by Kristin Urquiza. Kristin virtually accused Trump of the manslaughter of her father, Mark Anthony Urquiza. Her healthy 65-year-old father “had faith in Donald Trump. He voted for him, listened to him, believed him and his mouthpieces when they said that coronavirus was under control and going to disappear, that it was ok to end social distancing rules and was safe if you had no underlying health conditions so that you would probably be fine.”
In late May, after the stay-at-home order had been lifted in Arizona, her dad went to a karaoke bar with his friends, A few weeks later, he was on a ventilator in hospital. Within less than a week he died with only a nurse in the ICU unit to hold his hand. “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that he paid with his life.” “Donald Trump may not have caused the coronavirus, but his dishonesty and his irresponsible actions made it so much worse.” “One of the last things that my father said to me was that he felt betrayed by the likes of Donald Trump.”
In his dying breath, Mark Anthony Urquiza indicted Trump for betraying him. Trump failed to provide leadership, consolation or any semblance of steadiness. Michele Obama generalized on that theme. “(O)ur economy is in shambles because of a virus that this president downplayed for too long. It has left millions of people jobless. Too many have lost their healthcare. Too many are struggling to take care of basic necessities like food and rent.”
“Stating that black lives matter is still met with derision from the nation’s highest office.” Michele Obama made clear that racism was front and centre even in the COVID-19 crisis. People may not hear me because “I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic Convention.” She continued: “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.” However, the most serious fear was that there would be an effort to suppress the vote and keep Trump in office. Things could get much worse.
Bernie Sanders preceded Michele. His speech was passionate as well. He went all out in support of Biden’s proposed platform. “Joe supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Joe will also make it easier for workers to join unions, create 12 weeks of paid family leave, fund universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year olds, and make child care affordable for millions of families. Joe will rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and fight the threat of climate change by transitioning us to 100 percent clean electricity over the next 15 years.”
But Saunders also indicted Trump, not so much for his character flaws, not so much for his failure to act and for his dishonesty, but for his politics and his policies. Donald Trump is a “threat to our democracy…leading us down the path of authoritarianism.” Sanders was the only one on either of the first two evenings who pinned the tail on the donkey and unequivocally labeled Trump an authoritarian who would turn America from a democracy in favour of autocratic rule. Sanders quipped, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfs.”
Clever! Pointed! But wrong. Not because Trump does not play golf while America burns up with the COVID-19 crisis and rampant systemic racism. This is all accurate. Nevertheless, it is wrong because Nero did not play the fiddle while Rome burned. First, Rome did not burn. There was a large fire in the city and the extent of it is debated given the various accounts of historians and observers at the time. The claim is also wrong because Nero never played the fiddle. It had not yet been invented. However, Bernie was correct in his major claim. “The future of our democracy is at stake. The price of failure is just too great to imagine.”
A ruler who has authoritarian aspirations does not have to favour strong central power in spite of impressions to the contrary. Where the issue may be the health of your population, it is possible to be indifferent about centralizing power even in a pandemic when strong central leadership is needed. An authoritarian leader concentrates and centralizes power in his own hands because he is more interested in subjecting the behaviour of citizens to his (or her?) will and limiting the expression of freedom of anyone else when the expression of that will conflicts with his own. Thus, an authoritarian leader requires supporting players who are sycophants who will definitely not speak truth to power. Further, the exercise of informal power (executive orders) matters more than the orderly resolution of policy differences.
To that end, constraints on legislatures and the judiciary have to be put in place. Further, institutional devices have to be created to prevent the expression of citizens if that expression might challenge the authoritarian rule. Elections become increasingly fraudulent if they are held at all. Manipulation rather than choice will be the order of the day. The authoritarian leader favours large displays of leadership adoration because such a leader leads, not by persuasion, but by a different type of emotional appeal – to resentments, to hatreds, to divisiveness, and primarily by an appeal that turns citizens into mini-authoritarians. Therefore, there must be a segment of the population that is despised and not worthy of even participating in the adoration game. Identity politics is emphasized, not to ensure the redress of groups that suffered in the past, but rather to continue and enhance such oppression.
“Fearful people seek protection from powerful authority figures. No authority figure is more powerful than the sitting president of the United States, who oversees massive security resources. This is why so many observers worry that Trump’s motive in sending federal paramilitary forces into US cities was not to deter violence, but to provoke it.” (Eric Posner) However, past presidents like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush all exploited fears of domestic violence, usually in reference to urban crime, to enhance their victory chances as presidential candidates. But there was never any suggestion that they would resist leaving office in the face of an apparent defeat by voters.
Further, the results may be much closer than is expected now if an easy COVID-19 self-testing system comes to market as expected. If that is accompanied by protesters provoked by police to riot, then efforts to counter systemic racism will have a formidable opposition and Trump will have been handed his rallying cry. There will be, as one writer opined, “a resurgence of white, nativist violence blessed with the power of the state and emboldened from the highest office.”
What is most distinctive about authoritarian power is the absence of any authentic authority and the substitution of whim, vague references and shifting positions. Authoritarians are inherently flakes. For in favouring the unpredictable, others are both knocked off their guard and forced to constantly keep their guard up. Information is made suspect so that fabulism can displace it. For the success of authoritarian rule depends on controlling the priorities, perspectives and preferences of the population. Competent officials displaying their expertise may be the best step to a demotion or actual firing. What counts is loyalty to the leader, not competence.
That is why an authoritarian leader is inevitably a liar. You cannot speak truth to power if there is a widespread distrust of truth and if you believe that people believe what they do to reinforce their own quest for power. What one believes is arbitrary and not based on evidence. That is why magical thinking is advanced and others who oppose or might oppose the authoritarian leader are stamped with negative brands. Further, as part of resentment and negative identity politics practiced in authoritarian systems, it is no surprise that authoritarian leaders are racists and misogynists.
In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower ended his presidential term by warning the nation about the increasing power of the military-industrial complex. His remarks, issued during a televised farewell address to the American people, were particularly significant since Ike had famously served as the head of the allied forces in WWII. The military-industrial alliance has remained intact because neither party has taken on the challenge, including Bernie Saunders as the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The height of irony may be that the partnership of both parties with the industrial-military complex may be the most important factor in preventing America from adopting authoritarianism even though they elected a president with an authoritarian personality and even though the GOP had adopted features of authoritarianism even before Trump entered fully into the political fray, a transition which allowed Trump to further deform the party into an instrument of personalist rule.
On the second evening, John Kerry revealed that Trump’s foreign policy had been a fraud. Bill Clinton brilliantly and succinctly skewered his economic accomplishments as a fabrication. In a gentle but forceful voice, Colin Powell, a former Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, tore through Trump’s national security policy as one that was indifferent both to American forces and American security interests.
But the most important condemnation, in my obnservation largely ignored by commentators, was the speech of Sally Yates on Trump’s assault on the constitution. That day, the Senate Intelligence Committee in a bipartisan report released its fifth and final volume that documented Russia’s interference on behalf of Trump in the 2016 election and the scurrilous and treasonous behaviour of his Campaign Chairman. Paul Manafort both shared confidential information with a Russian intelligence officer, Konstantin Kilimnik, and repeatedly lied to both Mueller and the Senate about his contacts and communications. Trump’s supporter for spreading lies, Roger Stone, was eventually pardoned by Trump. Manafort was dubbed a “threat” and Kilimnik “a grave counterintelligence threat.”
Sally Yates, however, was the one that fingered Donald Trump himself. He “trampled the rule of law.” Sally Yates served as acting attorney general at the start of the Trump administration but was unceremoniously removed from her post for refusing to implement Trump’s Muslim immigration ban because it was illegal, a position eventually upheld by the courts. Yates declared that, “From the moment President Trump took office, he’s used his position to benefit himself rather than our country. He’s trampled the rule of law, tried to weaponize the Justice Department to attack his enemies and protect his friends ”rather than standing up to Vladimir Putin,” Trump fawned all over him, a dictator still trying to interfere in American elections on behalf of Donald Trump. Further, given the machinations with the post office – efforts that have been stopped because of the huge backlash – Yates declared that Trump was “even trying to sabotage our Postal Service to keep people from being able to vote.”
Why did a non-partisan civil servant choose to speak so forcefully and explicitly at a Democratic Convention? “The future of our democracy is at stake.” Trump is an autocrat and, if left to his own devices, if by some fluke he is re-elected to be president for a second term, will undoubtedly take much bolder steps to subvert the constitution and turn American government into an authoritarian regime.
Tuesday evening, especially with the tale told by Jill Biden, Joe Biden was characterized as a man of integrity, a man of empathy, a man tough in dealing with enemies but open to taking into account differences with people across the aisle. He was portrayed as the very opposite of Trump – a true patriot, someone who had the back of the American military in which his own son served in contrast to Donald Trump’s sons, and someone in touch with the common people who celebrated the diversity of America as well as the ability of the many to come together and cooperate as one.
The roll call Tuesday evening for about an hour displaying that diversity with ordinary Americans from 57 states and territories paraded before the TV audience was brilliant. But it also raised my ire at CNN which went to a commercial break when Hawaii, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois were being polled. When one is made angry at missing a voting poll, you know that the producers of the convention have done very well. Joe Biden officially became the Democratic Party nominee for president of the United States. If they want to avoid authoritarianism, if they want to enhance American democracy, a good majority of Americans will support Joe Biden’s candidacy.