Saturday, February 3, 2018

What Will Come After Trump?

Politics is beginning to feel like one of those thriller movies where some poor bastard is being targeted by some kind of vast, mysterious conspiracy that forces him to go on the run. A stranger, friend, relative or some other figure seems to be helping him out, giving him a place to stay, some money, some vital information, and then--BAM--turns out they're in on the conspiracy too, and were just setting him up. I suppose my meaning it isn't immediately clear from that analogy.

Let's be a little more specific. The Senate Intelligence Committee has started 'scrutinizing' Jill Stein's campaign for signs of collusion with Russia. The top Democrat on the committee justified this on the grounds that she's praised Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and that she appeared at RT's tenth anniversary gala in 2015, where she says she was invited to speak. RT is a Russian TV network that receives funding by the Russian government, known for disseminating such sinister pro-Kremlin propaganda as 'Larry King Now' (yes, that Larry King) and 'News with Ed Schultz,' the latter featuring the titular former MSNBC host. Stein has denied she accepted any compensation or payment for the trip, but whoa, she was right there at the same table as Vladimir Putin, the Great Satan. She has stated here was no translator at the table, but that's an unimportant detail, of course.
Sen. Mark Warner, top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee (taken from Twitter)

One can disagree with Stein's decision to attend the gala (though personally I'm not offended by it), but it's more than a little chilling that a senator would argue someone should be investigated for appearing at an event hosted by a 'subversive' TV network. Let alone, for that matter, for expressing a high opinion of WikiLeaks. Nor is it any more comforting that Hillary Clinton's former Director of Rapid Response, Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas, promptly asserted that Jill Stein is a Russian agent (eight times in one tweet, just for good measure), naturally without any evidence.

This is not an isolated incident. RT was recently forced by the Department of Justice to register as a foreign agent, in an unusual step (the BBC, Al Jazeera, and China's CCTV have not been forced to do so despite also being funded by foreign governments, as The Nation notes). The registration "requires regularly submitted paperwork that lists its sources of foreign government-tied revenue and the contacts it makes in the United States, and it would require any reporting to be labeled as being influenced or financed by the Russian government." Additionally, Aaron Maté writes that:
[Democratic] Senator [Dianne] Feinstein has called on Facebook to hand over any information on “Russia-connected accounts,” which in her formulation means “a person or entity… that may be connected in some way to Russia, including by useIf hr language setting, user currency or other payment method.” Feinstein also wants to widen the investigative net to private communications. She has asked Twitter to hand over all direct messages sent and received by Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange and a number of related accounts, including, according to Assange, messages sent to his US attorney.
Again, one does not have to like RT, Assange or WikiLeaks to find all of this a little troubling. I have written before about the Russia hysteria and its irrationality, but back then I saw it as more of an annoying distraction than a major threat in and of itself. The reactions to the Stein investigation have me more worried.

Let's take a few other factors into account: number one, the United States has undeniably been creeping toward greater and greater authoritarianism for some time now--the PATRIOT Act, the NSA surveillance, extrajudicial execution, indefinite detention. This authoritarianism has a bipartisan legacy, as the Democratic support for renewing section 702 of the FISA Act recently reminded us. Secondly, Donald Trump has been smashing to bits the most basic norms we've had for presidents up to this point. If he lasts four years (or, God forbid, eight), it seems entirely possible we will have developed a sort of collective numbness to the sort of behavior that would provoked utter shock under previous administrations. And Trump's successor stands to benefit from that numbness.

Public outrage can be an effective check on the behavior of the government. No president wants to deal with a PR crisis. But if nothing short of publicly castrating political dissidents can provoke outrage, that check on the government's power has largely disappeared. Yes, we have a Constitution--but so what? The government has given itself the powers of widespread surveillance and extrajudicial assassination. A piece of parchment can't stop the power of the federal machine. And yes, there are the courts--but even if they do shoot down a president's actions as unconstitutional, they can be ignored (and it has happened before). And the idea of Congress seriously restraining the president's power has become a sick joke at this point.

In my nonprofessional, nonexpert judgment, then, it seems we have a higher-than-trivial chance of descending to the sort of pseudodemocratic level of certain countries in, say, Eastern Europe. The sort of shenanigans that led to Nixon's resignation could potentially become normal, seen as just another part of the dirty game of politics. Our elections can hardly be looked at as a shining beacon of hope to the rest of the world right now, as two unpopular parties continue to basically run the whole show, and it doesn't look as if they've been getting better. If this seems too far-fetched, keep in mind that Turkey once--recently--looked like a relatively healthy democracy. And of course there's the simple fact that a few years ago, the realities we're seeing under Trump's presidency would have sounded like something out of a bizarre work of satire.

And we can look at recent history as a disturbing indicator of where we could be headed. After eight disastrous years of George W. Bush, who liberals loathed by the time he left office, Obama came into office and continued many of the same policies. He even crossed lines that Bush didn't, such as assassinating a US citizen, which one can only imagine liberals would have howled about under Bush. But because Obama was able to successfully market himself as an inspiring, transformational figure, he was able to get away with this without a peep of complaint from many liberals. Because he was, superficially, the anti-Bush--a well-spoken, intelligent liberal in contrast to Bush's image as a bumbling cowboy reactionary--he was able to convince ardent Bush critics to acquiesce to, or even embrace, policies they would have been outraged by under Bush.

After a few years of Trump, it will not be hard for a challenger to look eloquent and diplomatic in contrast. And just as Obama did after Bush, Trump's successor could very well engage in the same abuses of power that Trump has (and will) while still maintaining the affection of the anti-Trump crowd, simply by being superficially different.

Of course, we're far from doomed to this future. In fact there's an easy action that can be taken to prevent it: to simply refuse to "get used" to Trump's abuses of power and to refuse to embrace the authoritarian tendencies within the so-called resistance to Trump. As I said, outrage can be an effective check on government power. The solution, then is to continue to be outraged and to voice that outrage very publicly, including in actions rather than just words. The question simply is whether enough people will choose that path to make a difference.

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