Authoritarians aren't like Mao anymore. They're like Trump.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration continued its post-acquittal abuse-of-power bender by brazenly interfering in the sentencing of Russiagate figure Roger Stone. Following the ouster of key impeachment witness Alexander Vindman and his twin brother Yevgeny from their White House postings over the weekend, and the firing of Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, the president is practically daring anyone to stop him.
These developments are dangerous not because the fate of the republic hinges on how many years the execrable Stone spends in prison or the future employment prospects of the Vindman brothers but rather because of the precedent that they set about how presidential authority will be wielded. What President Trump has done goes beyond these individuals, and beyond even the never-ending Russia scandal that started it all and which still supplies the president's basic motive to cover things up. We are no longer in the realm of politics, since there is no conceivable political benefit to exacting revenge on executive branch employees. We are well beyond corruption, because the president's economic interests would be much better served by letting Stone whither in jail and allowing the Vindmans to continue with their work.
What is happening is that President Trump and his allies are conducting a stress test of our tolerance for nakedly despotic practices. And we are failing it not only because we don't really understand what authoritarianism is or what it feels like, but because the president's indecencies are carefully calibrated to touch no one other than their intended targets.
Authoritarianism is frequently misunderstood in the United States, to our detriment. In the collective imagination, it is associated with tanks in the streets and dramatic moments of confrontation between the wielders of tyranny and its resisters. We think of gulags and purges and mass murder, and with good reason. The very worst kinds of authoritarian regimes were responsible for human suffering on previously unimaginable scales during the 20th century.
But authoritarianism as it is practiced in most countries today is more mundane. In places like Egypt, authoritarianism is an elaborate system of patronage, with the coercive apparatus (the army, security services) tied closely to the regime by distributing economic perks and status to those willing to protect the rulers. If there are other rationales or justifications for the existence of the system, they are secondary. At the top is the president, the ra'is. The state is essentially a shell that each despot takes over and upon which he places his own imprimatur.
In such systems, justice is administered arbitrarily. You can be abducted by the police and returned back to your family, dead or alive, days, weeks or years later with no explanation. You may appeal to courts, but in all likelihood they are compromised. If you need to get out of trouble, you have to know someone who knows someone, a social currency known in the region as wasta and best thought of as a more systematized form of nepotism. You'll find that getting ahead on merit always takes a back seat to the regime's needs at any given moment.
Unlike totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or Maoist China, you can mostly avoid unpleasant encounters with the state if you collaborate with the regime or tacitly agree not to make trouble. These are not systems of nonstop violence. Violence represents failure. To deliver the necessary benefits to collaborators, the system needs to function smoothly almost all of the time. Public compliance with the regime's basic structure should be freely given, because constant coercion would strain the economic foundations of the authoritarian bargain and erode the regime's legitimacy.
You agree that there are two systems of justice — one for the state and its agents, and one for you and everyone else. You must grow accustomed to the friends of the ra'is flouting both law and convention and getting away with it. You know that if you veer out of the lane the state has paved so carefully for you, by going to a protest or publicly challenging the regime, that you may end up disappeared, blacklisted, or dead. You acknowledge that others will get rich and that you will get by. If you agree to these rules, you may find that you can live a life not significantly unlike the one you would lead in a real democracy.
President Trump's affinity for the people who wield power in these kinds of systems is not an accident. He envies them and wishes there were no appellate courts and hostile branches of Congress to push back on his whims. He yearns openly for the right to summarily execute troublemakers and drug dealers. He also has the instincts of a transactional tyrant — the most recent example is yanking Global Entry privileges from everyone in the state of New York, a kind of collective punishment favored by despots. New Yorkers didn't abide by the rules and so they must pay.
Obviously, there is a difference between manipulating customs privileges for the jetset and constructing jails to disappear political prisoners into. We have much farther to fall before we reach the point where basic freedoms are imperiled. Trump is both smart enough to know he cannot stage a takeover of U.S. institutions overnight and also too stupid and arrogant to do what he is doing subtly enough to avoid consequences. A more clever maneuver would have been to deny either Vindman a promotion, or to post Sondland to a war zone. Same result, less fanfare. But Trump loves the spectacle. He's like the heel in a fake wrestling match, and he loves every minute of it.
But whether by design or by accident, he has found yet another weak point in the U.S. constitutional order. There is no Department of Justice in the Constitution, let alone firm rules for how much power the president should wield over the attorney general. The norms preventing presidents from simply ordering persecution of enemies and impunity for allies are not written down, in the same way that the Constitution does not spell out the precise mechanisms of the Constitution's advice and consent procedures. Now that the GOP-controlled Senate has refused to hold the president accountable, there is no institution left standing in the United States which can prevent the president from continuing to hollow out the DOJ and transform it into his personal legal agency.
Just as the despot doesn't have to order you to comply with the rules of the system, Trump also doesn't necessarily need to issue these orders himself. They are implied. The logic of the system becomes twisted and organized around protecting the ra'is and his friends and family. That is how you keep your job, and how you get a better one. Once power is consolidated in one realm, it will be extended to another and then another after that. Trump has conquered the executive branch, stripping the parts from the ones he thinks are useless (the State Department) and repurposing the power of others (like the Department of Justice and the EPA).
Again, none of this is likely to have yet touched you personally, and the president knows better than anyone that the hullabaloo of D.C. is far removed from the lived experience of most Americans. But he has successfully fashioned himself as a kind of Supreme Judge, setting aside ordinary procedures for justice in the military, as with the seemingly gratuitous pardons of war criminals, and now these latest outrages. He has accustomed us to power being exercised not just arbitrarily but unapologetically in the service of his own interests. He has demonstrated the impotence of the institutions meant to restrain him and humiliated and cowed the political leaders who should be standing up to him. And he's counting on the unemployment rate and the stock market to keep the rest of us in line.
There really isn't that much distance between freeing your guilty friends and jailing your innocent enemies. For us, it might be about 10 months, give or take.
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