A historically-minded look at the news and events of the day.
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Will the 2018 midterms be fair?
Mexican President Carlos Salinas is sworn in.
Prior to the 1988 Mexican presidential election, outgoing president Miguel de la Madrid selected his fellow Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) member Carlos Salinas de Gortari as his successor. Typically, that alone would have enough to ensure Salinas’ electoral victory, given the PRI’s hold on Mexican politics. But Salinas’ opponent that year was a high-profile PRI apostate named Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, himself the son of a former Mexican president. Running in opposition to his old party, Cárdenas represented a coalition of small, left wing factions called the Democratic National Front. Cárdenas was vying to become the first non-PRI president of Mexico since that party’s founding in 1929. As the election returns started coming in that night—and in spite all of the PRI’s deep, institutional advantages—it looked like Cárdenas would win. But the PRI controlled the government, and the government counted the votes.
In his 2004 autobiography, President de la Madrid admitted that his party rigged the 1988 presidential vote count, recounting the frantic advice of one top PRI official that election night: ''You have to proclaim the triumph of the PRI. It is a tradition that we cannot break without causing great alarm among the citizens.'' In the face of demands to publicize the election returns, the Mexican government claimed that the computer system used for counting the votes had crashed, and declared Salinas the winner. (Two later, the PRI and the PAN agreed to burn the physical ballots, erasing the evidence of the ballot rigging). The episode, later referred to as “la caída del sistema,” (the crash of the system), became a kind of cynical, knowing shorthand for the rot at the heart of Mexican politics.
Viewed more broadly, Mexico’s PRI is a case study in the long term conservation of institutionalized political power. Over 9 decades, it never permanently lashed itself to any particular ideology. Founded as a paternalistic democratic socialist party, the PRI had evolved by the 1980s to champion a doctrinaire form of neoliberal capitalism. Variable ideology and bad governance notwithstanding, no organization outside the Iron Curtain was better at gaining, holding and using political power in the 20th century. Mario Vargas Llosa famously called it the “perfect dictatorship.” As Mexico’s “state party,” the PRI’s enormous will to power manifested as a patented formula of official graft, electoral fraud, political violence and demagoguery. Given its history, the PRI’s decision to blatantly rig the vote for Salinas in 1988 seems overdetermined. A political party bent on preserving power will use any tool available, including the machinery of the state. There was no possibility that PRI would do otherwise.
The search for historical parallels and antecedents to current American political events keeps leading me to the histories of countries with weaker democratic traditions. Which seems ominous. But like the PRI of the 1980s, the GOP is ideologically incoherent, procedurally unmoored, thoroughly corrupt, and shameless in its blatant political and moral hypocrisy. Its adherents are increasingly open in their contempt for American traditions of democratic governance, and for their political opponents. And like the PRI, its control over machinery of the state makes it immensely powerful.
The GOP's antidemocratic tendencies long predate Trump’s arrival on the political scene. But the Republican embrace of Trump has, at last, stripped away last remaining fig-leafs of the party's intellectual integrity and ideological coherence. Two years into the Trump era, the raw exercise of power is the Republican Party’s only consistent through line.
On the left, the rhetoric surrounding the stakes of the 2018 election borders on apocalyptic. Democratic voters are angry and motivated, and recent polls appear to show a clear path for the Democrats to retake the House, and possibly even the Senate. Even with the massive structural advantage afforded the Republicans by geography and gerrymandering, the Democrats appear poised for major gains.
But the stakes are just as high on the Republican side. The more entangled the Republican Party becomes in Trump’s efforts to cover up his Russian collusion and obstruction of justice, the more vulnerable rank-and-file Republicans become to political and even legal reprisal for having doing so. For Republicans, winning the next election may not simply be a matter of keeping their seats, but of preserving their personal wealth, social status, future employability, and felony-free criminal records. They’re in too deep to walk away now.
The Republican Party now controls all three branches of the federal government, and enjoys total legislative and executive control in 26 states. Republican secretaries of state preside over elections in 32 states. Like the PRI in 1988, the Republicans of 2018 face a choice: either leverage their undemocratic advantages or risk losing them. We may be in for our own caída del sistema.
The highest bidder isn’t always American.
Since the Supreme Court’s landmark 2013 Citizens United decision that political donations by independent entities (i.e. unions, corporations, etc.) are a form of free speech, Vladimir Putin has been speaking with a mighty voice in American politics. Technically, it’s illegal for foreign nationals to contribute to American political campaigns, but the law’s loopholes are big enough to drive a Russian tractor through. In 2016, it was cheap and legal for anyone to buy online political advertising that amplified social divisions and spread disinformation, so long as it didn’t mention a candidate. And in the absence of an enforcement mechanism, Facebook was happy to run any ad it could make money from—even those that fell afoul of existing campaign finance laws.
Neither was it difficult for Russian operatives like Alexander Torshin and Mariia Butina to find American collaborators through which to funnel political money. The National Rifle Association appears to have been one such willing partner. The NRA’s dark money arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, spent a reported $35 million in election-related activities for 2016, including untraceable independent expenditures like this 30-second, “Hillary did Benghazi” attack ad. The ILA’s expenditures for 2016 represent a 270% increase over the previous election cycle. Under current campaign finance regulations, the NRA is not required to identify where that money came from, and it looks like a lot of it came from Russia.
If Russian money influenced the electoral outcome in 2016, it’s worth noting that it did so in the same way as the money from Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, the Kochs, the Mercers, and any number of other American billionaire activist donors. If Russian intelligence agencies helped put Donald Trump in the White House, then it’s worth remembering that the majority of the Republican Party welcomed their assistance. And it makes sense: Putin wants to game American elections to hurt the United States, and Republicans don’t mind hurting the United States to win elections. And our campaign finance laws are such a toothless mess that experts aren’t even sure any of it is illegal.
The bottom line is that loose campaign finance laws and deluded Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United have allowed the American political system to become a battlespace in a global information war. And while Republicans are still too pleased with the outcome of the 2016 election to see it, that’s very bad for everyone who lives in and/or cares about the United States. Without stronger financial disclosure laws, Vladimir Putin is just another skilled and deep-pocketed player in the graft-fest that we’ve made of our own elections. In a perfect example of this dynamic, Concord Management and Consulting, a Russian firm under investigation in the Mueller probe for illegally interfering in an American election, is now citing previous decisions by Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to argue that all charges against it should be dropped. Quite the coincidence how Kavanaugh’s name made it to the top of the pile.
Obviously, Citizens United won’t be overturned any time soon, although there are things we can do to mitigate its damage in the meantime. But that decision, and the 2016 election, is a call to arms for anyone who cares about the preservation of democracy in America. This cynical, transactional, and laissez-faire view of our political system as just another unregulated marketplace is at the root of my quarrel with modern-day Republicanism. I believe that it represents an existential threat to our ability, and our right, to govern ourselves.
The family separations are a statement of intent: the Trump regime will soon target American citizens for systematic internment and exile.
The Trump administration is what an incipient American dictatorship looks like. You can see it in the abdication of congressional oversight, and the rapid concentration of political power into a hierarchical executive branch characterized by corruption, intrigue and paranoia. You can see it in the transformation of Fox News into a party-aligned organ of state propaganda, and the cult-like way its viewers regard the current president. It’s visible in the swift and sudden exchange of America’s traditional international allies for new relationships with the world’s most repressive regimes. It’s there in the stacking of hyper-factional judges across federal and state judiciaries. The alteration of the census and purging of the voter rolls. The transformation of ICE and the Border Patrol into an American secret police, working not on behalf the state or its citizens, but Trump himself. You can see it in the Trump regime’s constant efforts to remold facts and reality around predetermined and obviously false narratives, and the way it consciously works to undermine any sense of shared American identity or common weal.
These are all known and well-theorized waypoints on the road to despotic government. Bur what lies ahead is even more worrisome. Because eventually, all tyrannies resort to systemic violence and terror against their own citizens. Eventually, they all use the machinery of the state to methodically hurt and kill as an instrument of rule.
The so-called “zero-tolerance” policy of separation and imprisonment of the children of asylum-seekers on the southern border is a major milestone on the road to authoritarianism, and a preview of the Trump regime’s malign trajectory. (Not for nothing, “zero tolerance” also happens to be a popular slogan on the Russian far right.) As usual, the origins and purpose of this terroristic policy are obscured in a thick fog of lies and contradictions. The Trump administration has claimed that it is merely following existing law. But seeking asylum here is not illegal and has never resulted in the separation of families until now. The president has blamed the Democrats in congress, but “zero-tolerance” for asylum-seekers is a policy-level change coming directly out of Trump's Justice Department. Attorney General Sessions claims that the rending and imprisoning of children separately from their parents is necessary to discourage others from seeking asylum here. But even if there were any public benefit to punishing asylum-seekers—and there is not—Sessions is also lying about the purpose of this policy.
The intended audience for this terror-theater isn’t the people fleeing violence in their own countries. It’s the people watching Fox News—Trump's Republican base. The policy's purpose is to enshrine, through policies of cruelty and violence, the conspiracy theories and fictions that undergird the Trump regime. Specifically, the fiction that aliens are trying to sneak in and destabilize the country, and that they are aided by Democrats, who are trying to undermine Trump himself.
Witness Fox’s coverage of the family separations this week, for which a uniformed Border Patrol official was brought onto the set of Fox and Friends to falsely assert that it is illegal to seek asylum in the United States. A bold-faced, easily-debunked lie, but it’s all Fox viewers will ever hear. “Those people” are different and have done something bad, so we are justified in putting their children into concentration camps, and anyone who criticizes the policy is just trying to damage our Leader." The bloody simple-mindedness of this narrative turns the entire episode into an ideological weapon. This, they are being told, is what you voted for. This is what you want. Each fresh outrage radicalizes Trump’s supporters a bit further. Every howl of protest elicited from progressives is proof that their team is winning. Is there any reason to believe that their response will be different when the Border Patrol just starts shooting people?
In The Origins of Totalitarianism (still one of the most important treatments of the rise of fascism and Stalinism in the mid-20th century) political theorist Hannah Arendt tried to distinguish between despotic systems (which have existed for millennia) and totalitarian systems, examples of which can only be found in the 20th century. One of the key differences between these systems, Arendt contends, lies in how they use political violence. Authoritarian regimes use measured violence as a tool to force compliance and liquidate rivals. But totalitarian regimes require unending and unreasoning democidal savagery to bolster the fictions on which they rest. The goal of totalitarian political violence, according to Arendt, is a citizenry of willing executioners and victims: “as though their plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions.”
It doesn’t matter whether the targets of that violence present any real threat, or whether the regime’s rationalizations for violence against them make sense. “Practically speaking,” Arendt writes, “the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, kill him in self-defense.” Does that sound familiar?
Donald Trump’s natural style of leadership is totalitarian—charismatic, fraudulent, arbitrary, terroristic and depraved. He frequently demands "loyalty" of his subordinates, by which he means blind obedience and total self-abnegation. So his henchmen are every bit as craven as he is. His regime expertly serves up a constantly changing buffet of political targets (primarily ethnic communities) upon which his supporters can train their rage and frustration. He has suborned entire federal law enforcement agencies into the Trumpist project, particularly ICE and the Border Patrol, and possibly the FBI. With the help of his media propagandists, congressional enablers, and autocratic clients overseas, Trump's cult of personality is growing in both size and strength. These are tremendous assets for any aspiring dictator. And Trump has a major incentive to operationalize them, in order to stave off the outcomes of future elections and the Mueller probe.
Terroristic violence is inherently attractive to Donald Trump as an instrument of power and control. His family separation policy is a trial balloon to gauge the political costs of using it. If the Democrats don't manage to win at least one house of Congress this fall, that violence will have fulfilled its purpose as an electoral strategy, and 2018 will likely have been the last free election in the US for quite some time. After that, the Trump regime will broaden and escalate these kinds of terror-based policies to target a wider range of communities and populations. That's what dictators do.
These kids are going to save lives. Maybe they'll change everything.
These kids are going to save lives. Maybe they'll change everything.
Glance at the history of this country, and you’ll notice that humiliation and shame have long been potent weapons of racial oppression, social alienation and disenfranchisement. Many of the important liberal advances in our history are stories of transcending shame and stigmatization, from the civil rights movement to the feminist and LGBT movements.
But there are also moments, scattered throughout the history of modern progressivism, in which shame became a weapon of liberation, justice and equality. Moments in which it was invoked specifically to confront those who oppressed others for their own ends, and then lied about it. In these moments, shame became a call to conscience, and a call to arms.
In 1829, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison publicly rebuked a New England merchant named Francis Todd for profiting off the transportation of slaves. Todd sued Garrison for libel and had him jailed. But Garrison had found both his calling and his method. While sitting in a Baltimore jail pending the adjudication of his case, he penned a defiant defense of his actions, including the following:
So long as a good Providence gives me strength and intellect, I will not cease to declare, that the existence of slavery in this country is a foul reproach to the American name; nor will I hesitate to problem the guilt of kidnappers, slave abettors, or slave owners, wheresoever they may reside, or however high they may be exalted. I am only in the alphabet of my task; time shall perfect a useful work.
Garrison became one of the most vocal and strident opponents of slavery before its abolition in 1865, and a savage critic of its defenders. His unrelenting advocacy in the face of the death threats, jailings, and the bounty placed on his head by the state of Georgia only added to his celebrity, and thus to the power of his cause.
In 1892, Ida B. Wells documented the complicity of the South’s “leading citizens” in the practice of lynching, and punctured the myth that lynching was anything other than white terrorism in the service of racial subordination.
In 1902, Ida Tarbell’s straightforward prose thoroughly exposed the unfair business practices of John D. Rockefeller, leading to the forced disintegration of his Standard Oil monopoly.
In 1955, after a Chicago teenager named Emmett Till was tortured and murdered in Mississippi, his mother Mamie Till-Mobley buried her son’s mutilated body in a glass-topped casket, forcing the nation to confront the brutality that underpinned Jim Crow. Till’s murderers never saw justice for their crimes, but his memory galvanized a movement.
Eight years later, the black children of Birmingham marched against segregation, and transformed public safety commissioner Bull Connor, along with his dogs and firehoses, into potent symbols of the country’s failure to guarantee the rights of citizenship for people of color.
There are so many more exemplars of this kind of love and courage, some recorded, but many lost to history.
In the Trump era, it’s hard to imagine what it would take to shame the Republicans into making more just and inclusive policy.. There's not much that progressives can do to discredit Trump and his party that they haven't already done to discredit themselves. Like all authoritarian movements, the underlying goal of Trumpism (i.e. modern conservatism) is to acquire and wield a kind of power that, like its namesake, can neither be embarrassed nor constrained.
But it’s worth noting that not all of the acts of moral witness listed above achieved immediate change. Nor did they do much to sway the minds of the oppressors themselves. That wasn’t their aim. The reason these moments of moral courage matter, and that we remember them today, is because of the purpose, energy and determination they inspired in other like minded people.
Earlier this month, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, scene of the deadliest high school shooting in American history, traveled to the Tallahassee to implore the radically pro-gun Florida legislature to ban the sale of semi-automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines. That such a reasonable demand seems radical is a testament to how far to the right we are on guns.
For that, they have already become targets of online harassment and death threats. They’ve been dismissed as “crisis actors” by the far-right fringe. The mainstream media assures them that nothing will persuade Congressional Republicans to take meaningful action on gun control. Which is probably true—the modern Republican Party is largely impervious to shame and deeply entangled with the gun industry.
But even though the students are meeting with elected officials, they're really talking to the rest of us. Their moral witness injects momentum and urgency into the flagging effort for sane gun laws. Those who agree with them (the majority) will come out to the polls in force during the upcoming election. Perhaps more importantly, the students’ assumption of responsibility for preventing future massacres is a powerful counterexample to the sociopathically self-centered and short-sighted politics of Trumpism.
The student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are not afraid, and they don't have time for our stupidity when it comes to guns. They’ve set an example that will reverberate for a long time to come.
One wonders what an observer as keen as Ulysses Grant would say about our present moment. Probably not "lol, nothing matters."
I am particularly struck by how well Grant captures the sense of excitement and consumable drama that accompanied the run-up to the Civil War. The Union’s final unraveling took place in an environment of wall-to-wall propaganda, disinformation and hysteria. Southerners consumed a steady news diet fetishizing abstractions like state sovereignty, slavery and aristocracy, and purporting to unmask Northern conspiracies behind every proverbial corner. Meanwhile, popular anger over the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act fed a rising tide of resentment against slavery in the North. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies in its first year. Which was a lot, relatively speaking.
There were rallies and parades. At meeting halls and taverns, Americans marinated in the latest outrages perpetrated by the Other Side, and thrilled to the stem-winding speeches of local orators and broadsides in partisan newspapers. Voter turnout in the 1860 election approached 84%. Each startling political development seemed to follow on the heels of the one before it, whipping up a dizzying atmosphere of political theatricality. Regardless where one’s sympathies lay, in other words, the dysfunctional politics of sectionalism was entertaining as hell.
Against such a backdrop, it must have been hard to muster much concern for the threat of war. There was (with the exception of the Kansas territory) no fighting in the streets. There was no mass exodus to other countries so as to spare husbands, sons and brothers from the looming cataclysm. America’s most recent war—the invasion of Mexico in 1846—had been a romp. Few believed that half of the white men from many Southern towns and hamlets would be dead within four years. Few imagined that they might themselves perish in battle, near obscure creeks and villages whose names would be sanctified by their blood.
There is little doubt in my mind,” Grant wrote,” that the prevailing sentiment of the South would have been opposed to secession in 1860 and 1861, if there had been a fair and calm expression of opinion, unbiased by threats, and if the ballot of one legal voter had counted for as much as any other. But there was no calm discussion of the question. Demagogues…declaimed vehemently and unceasingly against the North; against its aggressions upon the South… They denounced the Northerners as cowards, poltroons, negro-worshippers; claimed that one Southern man was equal to five Northern men in battle; that if the South would stand up for its rights the North would back down.”
The traditions of truthfulness, political restraint and forbearance—traditions that underpinned the American federal system—needed to be destroyed almost as a precondition for secession. To that end, Southern extremists used the threat of secession as a political cudgel, seizing on various pretexts to provoke constitutional crises and extract economic and political concessions. As the Southern slavocracy set about undermining the union, they were actually helped by the unexpected entertainment value of their efforts. The more extreme their tactics and rhetoric, the more riled up everyone got, the weaker the federal government became, and the nearer they came to their goal of separatist confederacy. The road to disunion was paved with bullshit.
And in that sense at least, it’s hard not to see some parallels between the politics of the late antebellum and the present day. A deeply racist and corrupt party representing a factional white minority controls all levers of federal power. Like the Fire Eaters of old, today’s Republicans seem to view the destruction of comity and forbearance in federal politics almost as a goal unto itself. Trump is giving James Buchanan a run for his money as the worst president in American history. Republicans now deal heavily in conspiracy theories, and thrive on distrust in government. The American public, meanwhile, lives in siloed and polarized informational environments, and we are well down the road toward self-segregation on the basis of political affiliation. Our politics might be a car wreck, but we are all imbricated, and it’s hard to look away.
There is, of course, no direct comparison to be drawn between the sectionalism of the 1850s and contemporary politics. Nor is there any domestic issue that remotely approaches the import and sensitivity of the “slave question.” There is, however, a sort of gleeful and destructive recklessness to our present political moment that echoes the late antebellum era, when politicians scoffed at the notion that there could ever be a war between the states, and thus saw little harm in trying to start one.
Like the 1850s, it feels as though we live in an age of suspended consequence. Surely, there must be some limit to the Republicans’ ability to dissemble their way into power. Surely, there must be some terrible, world-altering price to pay for the damage being done to our union, and our ability to self-govern. In the late antebellum era, the costs of that recklessness utterly exceeded the grasp of the American imagination. Is this an "ante-something" era too? If so, what? And how bad will it get?
One wonders what an observer as keen as Ulysses Grant would say about our present moment. Probably not "lol, nothing matters."
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