The US Senate has currently been graced with a burst of rhetoric speaking truth to power that is a source of inspiration. It is also a cause for concern. Three prominent Senators, all Republicans, have broken ranks to call out the current occupant of the White House for behavior they consider degrading to the Presidency. John McCain, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake have chastised Donald Trump not for his positions, most of which they’ve voted for, but his demeanor. In doing so, they’ve put patriotism before partisanship. But in each case, their honorable dissent serves as a swan song. Both Flake and Corker will not run again and, given McCain’s struggle with cancer, this is probably his last term in the Senate. All three stand to be replaced by politicians of a different stripe. The noble voices emerging from the Senate may be no more than a farewell to a sense of decency. Welcome to the ascendancy of Bannonism.
For all his braggadocio, Donald Trump is a transitional figure. Steven Bannon is in it for the long haul. He seeks power to advance an ideology, one that is antithetical to American democracy. Although he has battened on the Trump phenomenon he aims to transcend it in the service of a more ambitious agenda. For all the considerable damage it may do, Trump’s tenure is temporary. Bannon envisions something more permanent.
Since his departure from the precincts of the Oval Office, Bannon, liberated from any political restraints, has set up shop in an alternate White House pursuing a strategy of driving the Republican Party to the outer reaches of the right. With his bully pulpit at Breitbart News, the ready cash of the Mercer family, and the headwinds of nativism at his back, Bannon has successfully challenged the GOP establishment by backing a spate of primary candidates who, under normal circumstances, would be considered fringe fanatics. But these are not normal times. Should they be elected, replacing more traditional conservatives with their extremist ideology, the complexion of Congress could be radically altered. Since the GOP currently controls both houses of Congress and an overwhelming majority of state legislatures, together with maintaining a de facto lock on the nation’s electoral machinery, its subversion by a determined minority could be a point of no return on the road to a slow-motion authoritarian America. It can happen here.
The illusion of American Exceptionalism
It should by now have become apparent that the myth of American Exceptionalism is a comforting illusion. There is nothing ingrained in our national character that insulates us from the anti-democratic impulses to which so much of the world has recently succumbed. That we have usually managed to avoid such outcomes is often a matter of contingency. From the outset, we’ve been anything but exceptional.
There was more to the American Revolution than the Spirit of ’76. As the historian Alan Taylor reminds us in his incisive American Revolutions, the revolt against Great Britain was not only a struggle for independence but a brutal civil war in which no quarter was given, anti-Patriot dissidence was violently suppressed, and 60,000 Loyalists were dispossessed and driven from their land.
In the decades after Independence, Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty” spread West, dispossessing the indigenous peoples under the cloak of “Manifest Destiny,” replacing them with enslaved blacks to work the newly seized lands. Although the burgeoning slave power was thwarted in the Civil War, Reconstruction’s brief progress was violently crushed under the iron fist of “Redemption,” reducing black Americans to peonage and virtual servitude, a Restoration abetted by a compliant North.
Americans have had no trouble embracing state-sponsored suppression, particularly in moments of crisis, when the right to dissent is most endangered. The Woodrow Wilson of World War I may be remembered for his “Fourteen Points,” championing self-determination for Europe’s national movements, but back home he presided over the Espionage and Sedition Acts that criminalized anti-war protest, threatening dissenters with prison for voicing language that was “abusive” of the Government, the flag or the uniform. Wilson served as a cheerleader for a pro-war hysteria that led to attacks on anyone objecting to the war. After the conflict, his repressive measures expanded to suppress the American Left, morphing into the Red Scare of 1919-20 with its infamous Palmer Raids, deportations, and the intimidation and jailing of Leftist activists. These years also, marked a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and a high tide of lynchings in the South.
Tolerance fared hardly better in the interwar years. Polls conducted by the American Jewish Committee between 1938 and 1941 found 12-15 percent of Americans receptive to taking action against the nation’s Jews and a further 20 percent willing to abet such behavior.
With the onset of World War II, racist hysteria manifested itself once again with the internment of the Nisei, American citizens of Japanese dissent, a precaution that was not visited on German-Americans whose national origins also sprang from an Axis nation with which we were at war.
The postwar era in America had its own share of reactionary incitement from the ugly enthusiasms of McCarthyism to the race-baiting demagoguery of George Wallace, which commanded considerable followings. All of these phenomena had one thing in common: They were popularly driven.
America’s story is one of enlightened progress succeeded by obscurantist reaction. The Declaration of Independence followed by suppression of dissent, Reconstruction followed by “Redemption,” the Civil Rights movement followed by the Southern strategy. Our history has been a continuous struggle between our better angels and our inner demons. And the darker paths have always had popular appeal. We are at such a crossroads today.
A populism born abroad
Donald Trump has positioned himself as a populist, a tribune of the people whose interests have been ignored by an elite catering to global conspirators, parasitic minorities and illegal immigrants who threaten both the security and livelihoods of real Americans. Assuming the mantle of populism is generally a good bet in democratic politics. One thinks of Mr. Smith going to Washington or the grass-roots agrarian movement that took on corporate America in the late 19th Century. But Trump’s brand of populism is a post-war phenomenon and it comes from abroad. It is an alien concept both in origin and ideology.
As the historian Federico Finchelstein demonstrates in his astute study, “From Fascism to Populism in History,” Trump’s version is rooted in the Latin American one-man rule perfected by Argentine strongman Juan Peron and exported to such nations as Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. In recent decades it crossed the ocean to Europe where it has made headway in Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Greece and France. More recently, after a stop in Great Britain (Brexit), it has re-crossed the Atlantic and sunk roots in the US. While Trump talks of walls to keep out Latino immigrants, he has provided a visa for a foreign ideology far more dangerous to American democracy than Mexican farm workers.
The essence of this phenomenon is that it is a populism of the Right. It is not Fascism, which insists on violence to gain power and dictatorship to maintain it. Rather, it is authoritarianism, a political phenomenon that uses electoral politics to achieve anti-liberal democracy. It embraces a charismatic leader who intuits the will of the people and rules in their name in opposition to the “elites.” It embraces ultra-nationalism, condemns political opponents as traitorous, is impatient with tolerance, media criticism and the rule of law; it is suspicious of both pluralism and “the deep state” and sees itself as the true embodiment of the nation, excluding outsiders as threatening alien elements. But elections are important to its agenda and to its adherents’ sense of themselves as the upholders of democracy as opposed to the “tyranny” threatened by their elitist foes. They achieve this by marginalizing and demonizing their opponents, appropriating to themselves the mantle of sovereignty and the role of the majority.
This is why it was so important for Trump to insist that he had won a majority of votes in the Presidential election. Although there were sufficient predecessors who had gained the White House without winning the popular vote, Trump had to demonstrate that he had the bulk of American voters behind him and it was only the illegitimate ballots of illegal voters that thwarted the people’s will in electing him.
The uses of disenchantment
Donald Trump has yet to achieve authoritarian rule, and he may never do so. But his endless campaign, which is pivotal to his presidency, provides a virtual checklist of the steps leading to an authoritarian form of republicanism. Trump did not gain the White House through a coup. He was elected by a plurality of American voters, some of whom saw in him a savior from the liberal state, or a firewall against the demography that would make them a minority in their own country.
If liberals see Trump as a Lord of Misrule, it is misrule at the behest of an aggrieved constituency. He rose to power by creating a sense of crisis whether or not one actually existed. He portrayed himself as the man on horseback who would ride in to save the nation. What he needs to maintain his momentum is a perpetual state of crisis. Which is why he keeps stirring the pot. Whether it is Iran or the National Football League or North Korea or cabinet members or war widows or Federal judges or the media or immigrants or Senators from his own party or a host of other foes, real and imagined, that are the targets of his twitter outbursts, he needs to stoke the fires that invigorate his base. If this divides the country it is a small price to pay by his own peculiar reckoning.
Trump must keep his rank-and-file in a constant state of petulance. They are about to be put upon by the latest liberal outrage and it is Trump, through his outbursts on Twitter, who takes umbrage in their stead. The more indecorous his behavior is to the elites, the more his acolytes adore him.
Whether by calculation or intuition Trump has sought to undermine the very American institutions that are the pillars of our republic: The press, the courts, the Congress, the Federal Government — which he calls the swamp, but is actually a national shield forged over a century to protect the public from free-booting corporate parasites. Trump doesn’t have to remove these institutions. By simply denigrating and emasculating them he maintains the husk while removing the kernel. Over time, this concentrates power in his hands. Nothing has changed, and everything has changed.
Which brings us back to Steven Bannon. Trump is a nominalist. His success as a demagogue is that he can say whatever comes to mind. He doesn’t have to be consistent. It is his style rather than his substance that excites his followers. But Bannon is an ideologue. Trump gave voice, resonance and legitimacy to Bannon’s ideology. But it struck a note with a segment of America that has always been there. It is an ideology that is anti-Enlightenment, obscurantist, clerical, anti-secular, white nationalist, nativist, anti-democratic and essentially authoritarian. Bannonism without Trump, and perhaps without Bannon, may be with us for a long time. Should authoritarianism ever come here it will be wrapped up in red, white and blue.
Jack Schwartz was formerly book editor of Newsday.