We have a new type of rule now. Not one man rule or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decisions. They are representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self. The iron-willed dictator is a thing of the past. There will be no more Stalins, no more Hitlers. The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident; inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine that they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which button to push." – William S Burroughs, Interzone
Well, not so fast there, Bill.
It’s not clear when William Burroughs wrote that – it appeared in Interzone
in 1989, but that book includes a lot of earlier work by Burroughs, so it could have been written any time between the late 50s and ’89.
Anyway, it’s a quote that’s stuck with me over the years – partly because he recorded it for Dead City Radio
, and also because it struck me as the perfect description of how the US govt and Western democracy work. It helped that a college history professor I greatly admired gave a similar assessment – that the real power in Washington lies with the vast bureaucratic mechanism of government itself overseen by career politicians and experts who understand how it works. The President is really just a figurehead who surrounds himself with the experts who understand how the machine runs and how it will process whatever decisions are made. That doesn’t mean the POTUS has no power – just very limited power compared to a Stalin or Hitler. (Whether this is a good thing depends of course on how concerned you are about the balance of power between the elected POTUS and the appointed bureaucrats, the transparency of the process, etc.)
Anyway, it was this quote I found myself remembering when I came across this article on Quartz
(written in March before Trump’s nomination, BTW) about the return of authoritarianism – not just in America, where D.Trump has risen to power on a strikingly authoritarian platform, but in other countries that have elected leaders with similar authoritarian qualities in recent years.
Theresa May (UK), Vladimir Putin (Russia) and Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) are the obvious ones that you hear about the most because of (respectively) Brexit, Trump and Duterte’s policy that if you see someone dealing drugs, you have permission to execute them on the spot. But there’s also Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), Shinzo Abe (Japan), Narendra Modi (India) and Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel). Meanwhile, in France, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front has moved from the fringe to the mainstream,emboldened by Brexit and Trump’s victory. The same goes for Geert Wilders and his far-right PVV (Party For Freedom) in the Netherlands.
And even in countries where far-right populist parties aren’t leading the polls, their support is growing
. All of them are pushing the populist line that essentially aims to galvanize nationalist sentiment, kick out the foreigners (by which they mostly mean Muslims), selectively curtail civil liberties (particularly for their critics), and Make [Insert Country Name Here] Great Again.
It’s like Trump opened a franchise, although that would be giving him too much credit. Much of this – even the sentiments that his campaign successfully exploited – has been brewing for years and years. These politicians didn’t just show up out of nowhere and con people into buying xenophobic claptrap they didn’t know they needed. Those sentiments were already there.
The obvious question is: why? And the answer is a lot of complex and nuanced guesswork. You can read the Quartz article
, this WaPo piece
and this article here
for an idea.
Personally, I would add that a lot of it comes down to the rise of fear, uncertainty and instability that many people feel as the world changes at a faster rate than people are prepared to deal with. There are specific things you can point to, like the wealth inequality gap, education quality, social upheavals of institutional norms that people haven't had time to process (gay marriage, transgender washrooms, etc), and the ability of both broadcast and social media to amplify all of these issues to wildly disproportionate levels of hysteria.
But on a macro level, I think it’s really down to people feeling afraid and uncertain about the future. I think this is also why we’re seeing a rise in fundamentalist ideologies – not just of the religious kind (Christian and Muslim), but also sociopolitical beliefs. Fundamentalism by definition does not tolerate any idea or opinion that contradicts its worldview. And I’ve written before about how this election more than any other in my lifetime has been characterized by political debates in which people on the other side of the sociopolitical aisle are branded not just misguided or wrong, but evil and dangerous criminals and traitors who will destroy the country and society as we know it unless they are stopped (preferably at the polls, although if that doesn’t work, well …).
In that kind of environment, it’s no wonder more voters are seeking some kind of strongman (at least a symbolic one) in charge to put everything in order the way they think it ought to be put (i.e. in their favor).
Having said that, I don’t think this necessarily signifies the return of Stalins and Hitlers – at least not to those extremes. As I’ve said before, Trump is no Hitler – at least not yet, and not as long as he stays confined by the constitutional framework, economic infrastructure and diverse media outlets that he has no control over. (Those of you tempted to bring up conspiracy theories about the corporate media being a willing tool of the Republican Wall street fat cat evil bastards who really run America, you go right ahead, but I will shake my head sadly at you and move on.)
If it helps, here are two things to keep in mind for perspective:
1. There’s a difference between an authoritarian state and a totalitarian state – both are dictatorships but the latter is the more extreme version where every aspect of society is controlled by the dictating power (see: Stalin, Hitler, Kim Jong-Un, etc).
2. Authoritarian leadership doesn’t equal an authoritarian state. The latter is a monopoly of political power that can be maintained even in a system that allows some form of democracy. So unless (and until) Trump restructures the political system to prevent anyone other than Trump (or the GOP) from controlling every branch of government (to include state level) permanently, the US cannot be called an authoritarian state. The same goes for other countries where authoritarian politicians have power or are closer to acquiring it.
So to come back to that Burroughs quote up there, I think it's true that there will be no more Stalins or Hitlers – in the traditional sense. Perhaps what we’re seeing now is a mutation of sorts – a new breed of iron-willed dictator who is able to dictate within the constitutional confines of a democratic system with a functional (if inefficient) bureaucracy without radically altering its structure. They don’t need to understand how the machine works – they just need to figure out how to get the machine to do what they want it to do without breaking it. It helps that in the last 50 years (or longer), the machine has already been stress-tested in terms of how far you can quietly erode freedoms and civil liberties (in the name of national security) within the constitutional parameters under which it operates.
Which, again, is probably giving Trump too much credit – it’s reasonably clear he’s in this for the ego boost rather than any actual power, and had no real plan for anything apart from winning the election. And I would argue that Trump isn’t an iron-willed dictator so much as a thin-skinned egotistical blowhard control freak.
Is there a difference? I think so, in the sense that the former generally wants ultimate power to transform the country to his/her ideological vision of purity and will do whatever it takes to achieve it. The latter wants power mainly to stroke his/her ego and make his/her life as easy as possible – if they can institute their policies without breaking the system, then great. If not, then it becomes a question of tradeoffs (as in: will abolishing Congress impact my stock options?).
I may be way off here, of course. I’m guessing like everyone else, and I’m drastically oversimplifying all this. My overall point is that I don’t think the rise of authoritarian leaders means that traditional dictators (i.e. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, etc) are coming back into style.
What we may be seeing is a shift towards a quasi-authoritarian democracy under which people decide who gets to be dictator for the next term. Given the increased polarization and fundamentalist attitude of political parties, I think we're already at a point where a significant number of people will settle for nothing less than their favored political party achieving solid control over all three branches of govt and refusing to compromise an inch on any given policy idea or legislation. In short, they want a dictatorial govt that works in their favor – but they also want the mechanism in place to change dictators without resorting to a coup de tat (which would mean hard work and sacrifice).
To be sure, I’m reasonably certain those people who want an authoritarian version of democracy don’t think of it in those specific terms. And they are in the minority – for now. But their numbers are growing, and people like Trump are taking advantage of that. Put another way, the problem may not be Trump (or May, Erdoğan, Abe, Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu et al) so much as the voters that put them into positions of power in the first place.
Where this will lead to is anyone’s guess – again, I’m not convinced it will lead to Trump literally doing what Hitler did. But we are seeing a weakening of support for a loyal opposition that is essential for making democracy work. When you rebrand the loyal opposition en masse as the enemy of the state, yr asking for authoritarians to step in and fix them but good – maybe not in terms of purges and concentration camps, but certainly in terms of permanent disempowerment.
In which case perhaps democracy really will be a case of the winners getting the government they deserve – at the expense of everyone else.
We have met the enemy and he is us,
This is dF