The Coming Dictatorship of Donald Trump?

January 24, 2017

We have won power in Germany, now we have to win over the German people.

– Adolph Hitler, on being appointed Chancellor of Germany

Donald Trump’s Inaugural Speech was a study in right wing populist demagoguery. Rejecting the politics that have enriched elites like himself and his cabinet picks and now ensconced them in power, he reiterated over and over the claim that his election was a victory for all those Americans who had been left behind by the triumph of the predatory capitalism he represents so well and by the political class that protects and promotes it.

Trump’s indictment of the ruling class and his account of the impact of their policies on ordinary Americans was certainly justified, even if partial and hypocritical. His call for an America first policy – as if American trade and foreign policy was not always about America first – and his bizarre depiction of foreign governments stealing companies and jobs from America foreshadowed a shake-up in U.S. foreign policy that in certain respects is long overdue. Whether the trade pacts he deplores are really vulnerable or the protectionism he invoked will amount to anything remains to be seen.

His notion that the U.S. must no longer pour money into building up other countries squares badly with his utter commitment to the Israeli state, the all-time top recipient of U.S. economic and military aid. And it is anybody’s guess how he intends to “eradicate Islamic terrorism” while standing behind Israel’s annexation of Palestine. But his rhetoric responds nicely to the perception of many Americans that the U.S. government does more for others abroad than for its own people and that we face existential threats “out there”.

Constitutional governments are not singularly weak before such appeals, but they have fallen time and again as determined leaders have managed to acquire power one way or another and justify their policies by appeal to popular grievances. Trump is no Hitler, no Mussolini. Though his support is as minoritarian as was theirs at the onset of their power, he has no storm troopers, no organized thuggery behind him. The “Bikers for Trump” who appeared briefly in Washington on Inauguration Day, pledging to put a wall between their president and the protesters who thronged the streets, disappeared just as quickly, with scarcely a scuffle to their credit, and appeared to be wholly self-organized.

Trump’s appeal, though decisive enough to give him the presidency, is limited. With just over 30 percent approval ratings on Inauguration Day, and a poor showing on the Mall (the 160,000 who turned out for Trump’s inauguration were a shadow of the estimated 1.8 million who filled the Mall at Obama’s inauguration, not to mention the 470,000 who came out the next day for the Women’s March), Trump has an uphill battle to win over the American people as a whole.

Minority support has rarely kept an American president from claiming a popular mandate for his policy agenda. Nor has it stood in the way of the assumption of dictatorial powers by leaders in other constitutional orders. Should Trump’s populist promises fail, as surely they will, he can be expected to fall back on the racism, xenophobia and nativism that drew such enthusiastic support at his rallies, as progressive Naomi Klein warned. And he will have behind him the tremendous power of the presidency, as conservative Peter Wehner in a recent New York Times op-ed. Between pro-Trump thugs and the well-armed police apparatus prepared against popular unrest under every president since Bill Clinton, the government of Donald Trump may well devolve into the sort of dictatorship we have seen around the world wherever capitalism and oligarchic power has found itself in crisis.

And Trump will find himself in crisis from the beginnings of his administration. Last week Harvard Law professor Lawrence Tribe commented that Trump will find himself eminently impeachable from the moment he is sworn in. Conflicts of interest, a willingness to flaunt the law and to exercise extra-Constitutional power, and an already galvanized opposition guarantee continuous conflict. Sanders Democrats and followers of Ralph Nader concur that organizing to block Trump’s more dangerous initiatives must go on in each Congressional District. And failed policies and popular outrage at broken promises or serious breaches of constitutional rights make it likely that Republicans will be on the defensive already by the mid-term elections. After that the outcome will be nasty, as both Trump and his opponents take the gloves off, if they hadn’t done so before then.

Behind the scenes conflict is due to erupt immediately, as thousands of federal employees find themselves confronted with a policy agenda hostile to the one they have been following sometimes throughout their careers and to which many of them have contributed. The “permanent government,” as the British call their civil service, will not give way lightly to demands for an about face on climate policy, clean air and water policy, the regulation of toxic chemicals, voting rights, gender equality, health services for women, and an enduring public education system, to name just a few of the policy areas that the Trump team has targeted. Whether we will see mass resignations – particularly likely at the senior level – or outright rebellion or obstruction, news of the battle within will leak out quickly. And, like the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago (!), forced to incorporate thousands of Tsarist officials into their administration, Trump and his “revolutionaries” will face a bureaucracy fundamentally hostile to much that the new administration stands for.

It is impossible to predict where we are heading, and difficult to give good counsel about how to approach the menace of a Trump dictatorship. There are always good reasons for non-violence, of course, but easy efficacy is not one of them. Nor is avoidance of violence. Violent responses to Trumpism will no doubt provide an excuse for state, state-sponsored and state supporting violence. But Trump and the forces aligned with him need no such excuses, nor have the forces of “law and order” needed them in dealing with protests over the last thirty years. “Resistance” in the streets, whatever form it takes, will be met with violence at some level or another, though it is heartening to note that the likes of The New York Times has finally taken notice of popular protest in its favorable coverage of the Women’s March.

More likely to make a difference is the mobilization of citizens that voices from Michael Moore to Robert Reich to Ralph Nader to Bernie Sanders have called for. The campaign 100 Days of Resistance promises to bombard lawmakers with protests against the Trumpist agenda and calls for important policy advances. Already the Trump victory seems to have galvanized dissidents within the Democratic Party to attempt to reform the party from within. Recent elections for the California Assembly District Delegates turned out record numbers of candidates and voters, many of them Bernie voters. And Nader’s Breaking Through Power (It’s Easier Than You Think) provides a roadmap to seizing power through the coming Congressional elections.

In short the Revolution has just begun. Whether it’s Trump’s, Bernie’s or something else altogether remains to be seen. And everything is at stake, including, first of all, the dictatorship of Donald Trump.


Gulf Coast Disaster: Let Them Eat Jobs

May 26, 2010

Gulf Coast Disaster:  Let Them Eat Jobs

Michael Foley
As the nation’s greatest environmental disaster unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, it has become strikingly clear that environmental issues aren’t just about endangered owls and gorgeous views.  They’re also about livelihoods, about the ways people make a living and their ability to pass down their way of life to their children.  The oil slick off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama threaten wildlife and human livelihoods in the same measure.  “If it gets to the [marsh] grasses,” said one fisherman, “the natural abundance that we depend on is gone.”

President Obama’s efforts to reassure are hardly promising.  BP will pay — but court cases following the Exxon Valdez disaster put quit to any expectation that long-term costs will be borne by the polluters.  The Federal government will continue to do all it can to minimize the damage from the oil spill — but the response is in BP’s hands and damage is already widespread.  Despite the dismal prospects for the region, Obama promised that the government will see to it that affected residents have jobs.

Lose your livelihood and your way of life.  It’s OK.  You can always have a job.  Obama’s resort to the familiar cliche was no doubt unthinking.  After all, it is a matter of faith for both liberals and conservatives that jobs are what make the economy go ’round, jobs are economic development, and it’s jobs people want when they worry about their future.

But for the self-employed, for those who’ve built a fishing or oystering or tour boat business from scratch, for those who live by the sea because they love the way of life, a job, just any job, isn’t much of a consolation for the loss of their independence, self-reliance and deep knowledge of their business and their place.  A job, for someone who has carved out their own place in the world, might even be considered little more than wage slavery.

Wage slavery.  Few know it, but “wage slavery” is a deeply American phrase, coined not by Karl Marx but by struggling American farmers and working people at the very beginning of the nineteenth century when most Americans worked for themselves but also found their independence threatened by an emerging mercantile and corporate economy, nurtured by the courts and promoted by ambitious schemes of national development along lines first sketched by Alexander Hamilton.  The new economy would be built on debt and taxes, and the winners would, over the course of the next two hundred years, come to employ the vast majority of the population.  Sizable majorities of those present at the birth of the nation, however, saw not liberation but enslavement in the prospect of a United States of wage earners.

Were these early rebels — who were also often the heroes of struggles to democratize the aristocratic state constitutions of the day — so far off the mark?  For liberal and conservative intellectuals, business leaders, and professionals, the idea is just unthinkable.  They may revel in their job satisfaction even where they answer to a boss.  But for most people, a job is just a job, and the boss may be benevolent or cruel or just stupid, but he or she is always the boss.  “Do what you’re told, and keep your mouth shut” is the wisdom that governs most people’s work life.

It was certainly the dubious wisdom that kept miners at work at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where a disaster foretold took the lives of 29 miners in April.  Recent testimony by survivors, widows and relatives of the dead make clear that conditions were extraordinarily unsafe at the mine.  But workers who might have walked off the job in protest, if they had been unionized, were routinely dismissed if they raised safety concerns.

The eleven workers who died in the explosion that sank BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig were well paid by any standard.  Some of them may have thrilled at the danger of a job that set them far out at sea with risks they couldn’t always anticipate.  But if they knew they were in immediate danger, it’s not clear that they had any more recourse than the Upper Big Branch miners.

It’s unlikely that any of BP’s even better paid executives will go to jail for those deaths, even if the evidence that they were involved in criminal negligence is substantial.  It is even less likely that the corporation itself — or Halliburton, which had just completed work on the well, or Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig — will suffer more than a handslap.  Corporations don’t go to jail.  Corporations — persons though they be, according to our courts — don’t face the death penalty.  Corporations, after all, provide the jobs that are the lifeblood of the economy.  As for their victims, those that survive, and the multiple ways of life that were built on the Gulf Coast’s natural resources, well, a way of life can always be replaced — with jobs.

One Man’s Terrorist….

March 3, 2010

Ronald Reagan may have had one thing right.  “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  Or something to that effect.  The brouhaha over Joe Stack’s suicide attack on the IRS building in Austin, Texas, last month might be dismissed with that old saw.  But the debate has deeper significance.  While left and right bicker over whether Stack was a “terrorist” or just another angry American, progressives show that, once again, they just don’t get it.

Stack has become a hero manque to large swaths of the American public because he took on the tax system and the federal government in the most direct way possible.  Liberals and progressives, leaping to the defense of big government, insist we recognize that Stack’s act was classic terrorism.  In doing so they line up as implicit defenders of the “war on terror” and the Patriot Act — so long as the playing field is level:  not just Muslims and foreigners but red-blooded Americans, too.  That would be bad enough but not unprecedented:  it was a liberal president Clinton and his liberal attorney general, Janet Reno, after all, who backed the Anti-Terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the pre-cursor to the Patriot Act, in the face of another act of domestic terrorism.

Maybe more troubling is the evidence that progressives want to ignore what Stack was all about and why he has won his momentary notoriety.  Read the rest of this entry »