Illiberal America: A Report Card

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I never thought I would live to see the U.S. turn into the illiberal, authoritarian, populist, white-nationalist country it has already increasingly become in early 2019.

Illiberalism Turns Liberal Democracy on its Head

“Liberal democracy” is characterized in theory by free elections, the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of civil liberties, including property, although in practice it falls short. Yet “illiberal democracy,” or illiberalism, attacks liberal democracy head on, and turns its norms, standards, and practices on their head. What has already become a classic case, and one of the original instances of current Republican illiberalism, was the refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016. This was not “normal,” certainly not the liberal democratic norm. Republicans did indeed “steal” the seat. But it was not technically illegal, that is, justiciable.

Since then, Republicans have acted in explicitly anti-democratic and illiberal ways in at least two other ignoble cases. First was North Carolina in 2016, when lame-duck Republicans passed legislation to hobble the power of an incoming Democratic governor, simply because they had the votes to do so. After the recent 2018 elections, the exact same thing happened in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Widespread Republican voter suppression, especially gerrymandering, is today considered illiberal by more and more voters, particularly after the egregious failure and collapse of Kris Kobach’s nakedly partisan “voter fraud” commission. Yes, Democrats gerrymander too, but not as well and not nearly on the scale that Republicans do. Evidence of gerrymandering, and other measures that prevent individuals’ votes from being cast and counted—unduly restrictive voter ID laws, voter roll purges, gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act, disproportionate white and rural representation in the U. S. Senate and state legislatures—are willfully ignored by an evidence-free, ideologically right-wing Supreme Court. With two terrible nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, already confirmed, expect more objectively undemocratic rulings from a judiciary in thrall to the Right‘s fifth column, the Federalist Society.

Authoritarianism, populism, and racism characterize illiberal democracy. Uniformity and order are, of course, authoritarian values.  Authoritarians obey; they eschew diversity, fear those unlike themselves, and act aggressively toward others. A brazen racist, white nationalist and white supremacist, Donald Trump continually uses racist comments to rile up his base.

Trump is a populist who operates by excluding and stigmatizing the Other. Moreover, Trump often targets the very institutions of “liberal democracy” (CIA, FBI, Federal Reserve) and the post-1945 liberal world order (NATO, WTO, NAFTA), which of course, have been devised and dominated largely by the U.S.

Trump’s is “a Show about Nothing” in which “the Game is the Game” 

Political scientist Corey Robin argues in his book The Reactionary Mind, 2nd edition (2018), that Trump’s conservatism is different, but essentially but the same old “elitist movement of the masses” (p,243). His sensibility is the “faux-aristocratic ethos” of 1980s’ New York. His rhetoric is that of an outsider, and outlier: critical of both market capitalism as “deadening” and of “high politics” (p. 242). He is all about surface, “external detail, … the surface of things,” which add up to “a show about nothing” (p. 258): “soft and buttery” leather pants, window treatments, and making deals (that often fall apart). The President’s Daily Brief bores him, specs for building furnishings and accoutrements fascinate him. Behind the surface show, there is nothing, either in capitalism or dealmaking: “the game is the game” (p. 257). Robin thinks that “Trump is a window onto the dissolution of the conservative whole, … that is dissolving because its victories have been so great”

Michael Moore: Trump “Really Knew How to Play It and to Play People”

I am not so sure. A “Great Leader” Trump is not. But some argue that he is wily, is shrewd. Last September 21 on Democracy Now!, Michael Moore, director of Roger and Me (1989), told Amy Goodman how he had appeared with Trump on a talk show two decades earlier, in 1998. Moore was asked to assuage an anxious Trump beforehand. “Can you just talk to him? Can you just calm him down or whatever?”

Moore went over and shook Trump’s hand, which was “all clammy.” He asked him not to leave and promised not to “go after” him over his real estate dealings and alleged racism. Twenty years later, Moore ruefully realizes that “‘Wow, you know, you never back down, Mike,’ I’m saying to myself ‘and you backed down’ from attacking Trump.”

Moore concluded that, far from his doing Trump a favor, Trump in fact had played him. “I didn’t realize til later, especially until when he was running and I was watching his performance art, I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is good.’ When he talks about the art of the deal—he was playing me. And I thought, ‘Man, like, so this is how he’s gotten this far.’ He really knew how to play it and to play people.”

One area where Trump’s lying skills serve him well is regarding rural America, and his supporters there. Among those embraced by the commentariat after Trump won in 2016 as exemplary interpreters of his rural, white, working-class appeal was J. D. Vance. His book Hillbilly Elegy (2016), has enjoyed critical ups and downs. Initially lauded for its insights, it soon was attacked by critics who showed that Vance was not in fact a hillbilly, that he was born and raised not in Appalachia but Ohio, and that, with a law degree from Yale and a job in a venture capital firm owned by billionaire libertarian and Trump acolyte Peter Thiel , he is decidedly not working class. Of course, such criticisms make Vance a target for leftists unhappy with his lack of a more recognizably, albeit doctrinaire, class analysis.

Arlie Hochschild: “Trump solves a white male problem of pride” 

Much more substantively, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in her Strangers in their Own Land (2016), asks the key question: why do people in places like heavily polluted southwestern Louisiana continue to vote against their own self-interest, against environmental regulation, and in favor of Big Oil, Republicans, and religion? There is insufficient space here to rehearse her argument in detail, about how she fashioned her interviews into a composite “deep story” in which people trudge up the hill towards the American dream, only to have “cutters” cut in line—women, minorities, immigrants, refugees, welfare recipients, public sector workers. She “played” her “deep story” back to her mostly Tea Party interlocutors, who responded that she had gotten it exactly right, “you’ve understood us ” (p. 135). At the same time, however, another of her interviewees states, “most people I know use available government programs, since they paid for part of them … and I don’t blame them.”

Hochschild notes that the generation born since 1950  is the first “to experience … [a]  lifetime [of] downward mobility” (p. 142). Almost as an aside, she notes that most people she talked to share Fox News’ worldview. “Fox commentators reflect your feelings, for your deep story is also the Fox News deep story” (p. 139). What she does not do, however, is to probe how and why they uncritically accept Fox, how exactly Fox mediates and represents their experience; in short, how, objectively speaking, such primarily right-wing propaganda works. For when the dissonance between Fox and their lived experience of falling behind becomes too much, there is all too often the turn to substance abuse (alcohol, opioids), to domestic abuse.

With his rhetoric of resentment and hurt, “Trump solves a white male problem of pride,” Hochschild says. Additionally, the manipulation of working- and lower-class discontent through right-wing media, combined with gerrymandering and voter suppression, and Republican anti-democratic legislation to thwart election outcomes—all these have contributed to the end of liberal democracy as I knew it growing up and coming of political age.

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