Tom Engelhardt: How Donald Trump Reveals the March of American Authoritarianism

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Yves here. I wish I could find an analogy in place of the mosquito/Zika virus image that Engelhardt invokes in his article. The disease vector doesn’t seem quite right, and I wonder if readers can come up with better images for the issue that Engelhardt raises: that Trump may misuse official power…but it’s not as if those powers aren’t already being abused aplenty now.

By om Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower WorldTom Engelhardt gave this address only in the campus of his mind. Originally published at TomDispatch

Graduates of 2016, don’t be fooled by this glorious day.  As you leave campus for the last time, many of you already deeply in debt and with a lifetime of payments to look forward to, you head into a world that’s anything but sunny.  In fact, through those gates that have done little enough to protect you is the sort of fog bank that results in traffic pile-ups on any highway.

And if you imagine that I’m here to sweep that fog away and tell you what truly lies behind it, think again.  My only consolation is that, if I can’t adequately explain our American world to you or your path through it, I doubt any other speaker could either.

Of course, it’s not exactly a fog-lifter to say that, like it or not, you’re about to graduate onto Planet Donald — and I don’t mean, for all but a few of you, a future round of golf at Mar-a-Lago.  Our increasingly unnerved and disturbed world is his circus right now (whether he wins the coming election or not), just as in the Philippines, it’s the circus of new president Rodrigo Duterte; in Hungary, of right-wing populist Viktor Orbán; in Austria, of Norbert Hofer, the extremist anti-immigrant presidential candidate who just lost a squeaker by .6% of the vote; in Israel, of new defense minister Avigdor Lieberman; in Russia, of the autocratic Vladimir Putin; in France, of Marine le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front party, who has sometimes led in polls for the next presidential election; and so on.  And if you don’t think that’s a less than pretty political picture of our changing planet, then don’t wait for the rest of this speech, just hustle out those gates.  You’ve got a treat ahead of you.

For the rest of us lingerers, it says something about where we all are that, once through those gates, you’ll still find yourself in the richest, most powerful country around, the planet’s “sole superpower.”  (USA!  USA!)  It is, however, a superpower distinctly in decline on — and this is a historic first — a planet similarly in decline

How Trumpian Is American Authoritarianism?

In its halcyon days, Washington could overthrow governments, install Shahs or other rulers, do more or less what it wanted across significant parts of the globe and reap rewards, while (as in the case of Iran) not paying any price, blowback-style, for decades, if at all.  That was imperial power in the blaze of the noonday sun.  These days, in case you hadn’t noticed, blowback for our imperial actions seems to arrive as if by high-speed rail (of which by the way, the greatest power on the planet has yet to build a single mile, if you want a quick measure of decline).

Despite having a more massive, technologically advanced, and better funded military than any other power or even group of powers on the planet, in the last decade and a half of constant war across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, the U.S. has won nothing, nada, zilch.  Its unending wars have, in fact, led nowhere in a world growing more chaotic by the second.  Its militarized “milestones,” like the recent drone-killing in Pakistan of the leader of the Taliban, have proven repetitive signposts on what, even in the present fog, is surely the road to hell.

It’s been relatively easy, if you live here, to notice little enough of all this and — at least until Donald Trump arrived to the stunned fascination of the country (not to speak of the rest of the planet) — to imagine that we live in a peaceable land with most of its familiar markers still reassuringly in place.  We still have elections, our tripartite form of government (as well as the other accoutrements of a democracy), our reverential view of our Constitution and the rights it endows us with, and so on.  In truth, however, the American world is coming to bear ever less resemblance to the one we still claim as ours, or rather that older America looks increasingly like a hollowed-out shell within which something new and quite different has been gestating.

After all, can anyone really doubt that representative democracy as it once existed has been eviscerated and is now — consider Congress exhibit A — in a state of advanced paralysis, or that just about every aspect of the country’s infrastructure, is slowly fraying or crumbling and that little is being done about it?  Can anyone doubt that the constitutional system — take war powers as a prime example or, for that matter, American liberties — has also been fraying?  Can anyone doubt that the country’s classic tripartite form of government, from a Supreme Court missing a member by choice of Congress to a national security state that mocks the law, is ever less checked and balanced and increasingly more than “tri”?

In the Vietnam era, people first began talking about an “imperial presidency.”  Today, in areas of overwhelming importance, the White House is, if anything, somewhat less imperial, but only because it’s more in thrall to the ever-expanding national security state.  Though that unofficial fourth branch of government is seldom seriously considered when the ways in which our American world works are being described and though it has no place in the Constitution, it is increasingly the first branch of government in Washington, the one before which all the others kneel down.

There has, in this endless election season, been much discussion of Donald Trump’s potential for “authoritarianism” (or incipient “fascism,” or worse).  It’s a subject generally treated as if it were some tendency or property unique to the man who rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” or perhaps something from the 1930s that he carries in his jacket pocket and that his enthusiastic white working class followers are naturally drawn to and responsible for.

Few bother to consider the ways in which the foundations of authoritarianism have already been laid in this society — and not by disaffected working class white men either.  Few bother to consider what it means to have a national security state and a massive military machine deeply embedded in our ruling city and our American world.  Few think about the (count ’em!) 17 significant intelligence agencies that eat close to $70 billion annually or the trillion dollars or more a year that disappears into our national security world, or what it means for that state within a state, that shadow government, to become ever more powerful and autonomous in the name of American “safety,” especially from “terrorism” (though terrorism represents the most microscopic of dangers for most Americans).

In this long election season, amid all the charges leveled at Donald Trump, where have you seen serious discussion of what it means for the Pentagon’s spy drones to be flying missions over the “homeland” or for “intelligence” agencies to be wielding the kind of blanket surveillance of everyone’s communications — from foreign leaders to peasants in Afghanistan to American citizens — that, technologically speaking, put the totalitarian regimes of the previous century to shame?  Is there nothing of the authoritarian lurking in all this?  Could that urge really be the property of The Donald and his followers alone?

Perhaps it would be better to see Donald Trump as a symptom, not the problem itself, to think of him not as the Zika Virus but as the first infectious mosquito to hit the shores of this country. If you need proof that he’s at worst a potential aider and abettor of authoritarianism, just take a look at the rest of our world, where the mosquitoes are many and the virus of right-wing authoritarianism spreading rapidly with the rise of a new nationalism (that often goes hand in hand with anti-immigrant fervor of a Trumpian sort).  He is, in other words, just one particularly bizarre figure in an increasingly crowded room.

Bursting Bubbles and Melting Ice Caps

If, as the first openly declinist presidential candidate, it’s The Donald’s job to make America great again, and if, despite its obvious wealth and military strength, the heartlands of the U.S. do look ever more Third World-ish, then consider the rest of the planet.  Is there any place that doesn’t look at least a little, and in a remarkable number of cases, a lot the worse for wear?  Leave aside those parts of the world from Afghanistan to Syria, Yemen to Libya, Nigeria to Venezuela that increasingly have the look of incipient or completely failed states.  Consider instead that former Cold War enemy, that “Evil Empire” of a previous incarnation, the once-upon-a-time Soviet Union, now Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

It has made it to the top of the American military’s list of enemies.  And yet, despite its rebuilt military and still massive nuclear arsenal, the superpower of yesterday is now a rickety petro-state with a restive population, a country that is neither great, nor rising, and may in fact be in genuine trouble.  Yes, it has been aggressive in its borderlands (though largely in response to a sense of, or fear of, being aggressed upon) and yes, it is an authoritarian land, but no longer is it the planet’s second superpower or anything remotely like it.  Its future looks, at best, insecure, at worst bleak indeed.

Even China, the only obvious rising power on the planet (now that countries like Brazil and South Africa are falling by the wayside), that genuine economic powerhouse of the last decade, has seen its economy slow significantly.  In such a moment, who knows what one burst bubble, real estate or otherwise, might do there?  An economic meltdown in the People’s Republic, with an expanding middle class that still remains small compared to its peasant masses, and an unparalleled record of peasant revolts extending back centuries, could prove an ominous event.

And mind you, graduates of 2016, that’s just to begin a discussion of the stresses on a planet whose ice caps are melting, sea levels rising, waters warming, forests drying, fire seasons expanding, storms intensifying, and temperatures rising (while petro-states, frackers, and giant oil companies keep pumping fossil fuels in ever more inventive ways as if there were — and don’t just think of it as a figure of speech — no tomorrow).  In such a situation, no place, including this country, is too big to fail.  And on such a helter-skelter planet, who will be there to bail out the too-big-to-fail states or anyone else?  Judging by none-too-big-to-fail countries like Libya, Yemen, and Syria that have already essentially collapsed, the answer might be no one.

Decades ago, in the mid-1970s, in the first book I ever wrote, I labeled our American world “beyond our control.”  Little did I know!

American Magical Realism

Now, let’s turn to you, graduates of 2016, and while we’re at it, to what we’re still calling an “election.”  I’m talking about the roiling, ever-expanding phenomenon that now fills our TV screens and the “news” more or less 24/7 and for which, whatever he’s done and whomever he’s insulted, Donald Trump cannot all by himself be held to blame.

There is, to my mind, one question that makes what we call “election 2016” of paramount interest, even if we seldom bother to think about it: What the hell is it?  We still refer to it as an “election,” of course, and on November 4th millions of us will indeed enter voting booths and opt for a candidate.  Still, don’t tell me that, in any normal sense, this is an election, this weird money machine pouring billions and billions of dollars into the coffers of media barons, this endless, overblown, onrushing event with its “debates” and insults and anger and minute-by-minute polling results and squadrons of talking heads yammering away about nothing in particular, this bizarre stage set for an utterly unfiltered narcissist and reality-show host and casino owner and bankruptee and braggart and liar and fantasist and womanizer and… well, you know the list better than I do.  Yes, it will put someone in the Oval Office next January and fill Congress with the usual set of clashing deadheads, but in any past sense of the word, an election?  I don’t think so.

Don’t tell me it isn’t something new and different.  Everyone knows it is.  But what, exactly?  I have no idea.  It’s clear enough, however, that our American system is morphing in ways for which we have no names, no adequate descriptive vocabulary.  Perhaps it’s not just that we have no clear bead on what’s going on, but that we prefer not to know.

Whether Donald Trump wins or not, rest assured that we all have an education ahead of us.  This, after all, is our world now.  You have no choice but to leave these grounds and neither, in a sense, do your parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, the whole lot of us.  Whether we like it or not, we’re all being shoved unceremoniously into an American world that’s changing in unnerving ways on a planet itself in transformation.

Which brings me to the task ahead of your generation (not mine), as I imagine it.  After all, I’m almost 72 years old.  I’m superannuated.  When something goes wrong on my computer I genuinely believe myself doomed, grieve for the lost days of the typewriter, and then, in despair, call my daughter.  And if I can’t even grasp the basics of the machine I now live on much of the time, how likely is it that I — and my ilk — can grasp the world in which it’s implanted?

As I see it, you’ve been attending classes, studying, and preparing all these years for just this moment.  Now, it’s your job to step into the fog-bound landscape beyond these gates where the pile-ups are already happening and make sense of it for the rest of us.  Soon, graduates of 2016, you will leave this campus.  The question is: What can you do for yourself and the rest of us then?

Here’s my thought: to change this world of ours, you first have to name (or rename) it, as any magical realist novelist from Gabriel Garcia Márquez on has long known.  The world is only yours when you’ve given it and its component parts names.

If there’s one thing that the Occupy Wall Street movement reminded us of, it was this: that the first task in changing our world is to find new words to describe it.  In 2011, that movement arrived at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan calling the masters of our universe “the 1%” and the rest of us “the 99%.”  Simply wielding those two phrases brought to the fore a set of previously half-seen realities — the growing inequality gap in this country and the world — and so briefly electrified the country and changed the conversation.  By relabeling the mental map of our world, those protesters cleared some of the fog away, allowing us to begin to imagine paths through it and so ways to act.

Right now, we need you to take these last four hard years and everything you know, including what you weren’t taught in any classroom but learned on your own — your experience, for instance, of your education as a financial rip-off — and tell those of us in desperate need of fresh eyes just how our world should be described.

In order to act, in order to change much of anything, you first need to give that world the names, the labels, it deserves, and they may not be “election” or “democracy” or so many of the other commonplace words of our past and our present moment.  Otherwise, we’ll all continue to spend our time struggling to grasp ghostly shapes in that fog.

Now, all you graduates, form up your serried ranks, muster the words you’ve taken four years to master, and prepare to march out of those gates and begin to apply them in ways that your elders are incapable of doing.

Class of 2016, tell us who we are and where we are.

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  1. EndOfTheWorld

    Trump has said he wants to change the admittedly absurd foreign policy that Englehardt rails against. But Englehardt doesn’t note that. He’s trying to do a hit speech on Trump but he can’t think of anything really bad to say about him.

    1. James Levy

      Then let me:

      Women who ask me probing questions must be on the rag.
      Climate change is a hoax dreamed up but the Chinese to destroy our industry.
      Israeli settlements are a great thing.
      We should torture more people.
      Mexican immigrants are rapists.
      Mexican-American judges must be biased–they’re Mexican.
      We should ban the immigration of all Muslims because they are all potential 9/11 terrorist.
      If you beat that protester up, don’t worry, I’ll pay your legal fees.

      That good enough for you?

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Don’t forget to leave out, “You’re a sucker if you believe anything I say about anything since I became a “billionaire” by screwing my customers, contractors, vendors, creditors and the public at large.”

        With a choice between Donnie and Hillary, we are truly f&#!-ed, but I must say I am shocked at the credulity of some NC readers (of all people!) who take Donnie’s criticism about our misadventures in the Middle East at face value, and somehow think that he’ll bring the National Security State to heel.

        Straws to grasp at, anyone?

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          A witless, narcissistic, temper tantrum in human form with his fingers on all manner of nasty buttons or a diabolically arrogant cold hearted mass killer with total immunity and a hard relentless grip on dynastic imperialism. Singular choices for a singular democracy!

          Human disease is never a good way to describe any type of government, any more than home economics is suitable for describing national deficits. Listening to tyrants speak of “the patient getting better” is agony.

          Bleak humor is better

        2. EndOfTheWorld

          Trump has said the Iraq invasion was a bad mistake, at a Republican debate. I don’t think Hillary has ever done so in such strong terms. Trump has never been seen publicly hugging GW Bush at a funeral. Take him at face value? Of course not. Nobody knows what he will do. I’m willing to give him a chance, given the alternative.

          1. Michael Fiorillo

            All true, and perhaps tempting to draw some hope from… still, given past behavior on his part, isn’t it also possible/likely that Donnie was just trying to get his brand stamped “All New!,” in the public mind, in order to separate himself from the others during primary season?

            His deeply-embedded default reflex is personality-driven authoritarianism, with a nasty racial edge – over decades New Yorkers have been “treated” to his racist, NYPD-worshiping full-page ads in the Times – and yet you think he will break with and reign in the Deep State institutions that set policy and run the country?

            Tell me that you’re considering a vote for Donnie because you hope he’ll destabilize the political status quo, and that good things will result therefrom, and I’ll listen respectfully, though I’d probably disagree.The worse, the better, and all that…

            Tell me that you honestly think he’ll make good on some of his seemingly sane campaign proposals, and I’ll say you’re being hustled, and there’s over forty years of documentation to back up the charge.

            The post we’re commenting on is useful because it demonstrates that Donnie has not emerged out of nowhere, and that while his character may be sui generis, his politics are not; the soil has been prepped for decades.

            OK, so now what?

            No matter who is elected, the post-election word is Struggle, but I fear that there’s a lot of wishful thinking and logical fallacies happening when people’s justifiable contempt for Hillary morphs into thinking that Donnie is therefore preferable.

            1. EndOfTheWorld

              “Some hope” is preferable to “no hope whatsoever.” Taking a strong stand against street crime in NYC is completely different from advocating perpetual war. But of course, I’m not planning my life for when Trump establishes world peace and solves all the world’s problems, but he will keep it interesting, I believe.

              1. Michael Fiorillo

                “Some hope” was offerred as a sop of acknowledgement that Donnie is only 99.99% likely to renege on anything/everything he promises voters. So, yeah, if you’re comfortable with that one tenth of one percent chance, feel free.. . though you’d have much better odds at one of his casinos.

                And Donnie didn’t “take a strong stand against street crime,” he took out venomous full-page newspaper ads urging that suspect teenage boys in a racially-inflamed rape case- later released and paid large damages by NY State when DNA evidence exonerated them – be executed. He also didn’t hesitate to couch his white-woman-violated-by-Black-“animals” (“wilding” was the actual term used by the local tabloids to goose up the race dial, which Donnie then turned to eleven) assumptions in war-like language.

                If you don’t think his willingness to turn loose a racist army like the NYPD is any indication of what his foreign policy might be like, then I’m really not sure how to respond, except to wish us all good luck.

                Finally, on a historical note, please inform us of the last time the election of a dishonest megalomaniac led to economic, political progress. In this case, I think it’s much more likely to unleash the dogs, many of whom are aching to get even with Somebody (and I think we know who those Somebodies are likely to be) and, given the near-death condition of the labor movement and what passes for the Left in general, it takes a lot of complacency to think that anything good will come of it.

                Hillary is Godawful, and I’d expect little or nothing benign to emerge from her presidency, but people on this site should consider that they are fooling themselves if they think a vote for Donnie is anything other than a vote to jump into a pink and gold, Trump-monogrammed abyss.

                1. EndOfTheWorld

                  I’m not familiar with Trump’s earlier years. I don’t know much about him really, except he went to Wharton and he’s not Hillary Clinton. That’s enough to get my vote.

                    1. Lambert Strether

                      I have never understood this argument. Even if we set Clinton’s AUMF vote aside, she tipped the balance on Libya, and her creature, Victoria Nuland of the Kagan clan, did her best to foment a war in Ukraine. And then there’s Honduras. On the one hand, we’ve got a parade of horribles, and on the other, we’ve got a track record of proven warmongering. How is this hard, unless you’re the type to fall for Rovian strategies?

            2. tegnost

              Unless you can wax so poetically about what hillary represents that is better than the alternative I’m sticking with “as bad as donald is, hillary is worse”. Funny, or not, how hillary supporters can’t name any hillary positives to counter trump negatives because they are two peas in a pod. Don’t like donald? vote for bernie. Donald might disrupt the status quo, hillary won’t. What good things will hillary bring. You disagree so let’s hear it. The argument isn’t the worse the better, or hillary would the catastrophe candidate. What campaign proposals has hillary made that she will make good on? List please. You are being hustled, not me, and yes, there’s plenty of documentation to back that up. Who prepped the soil for donald? You want those same people to have another 4 yrs to wreak more destruction and prep the ground further? As to logical fallacies try this when people’s justifiable contempt for Donnie morphs into thinking that Hillary is therefore preferable is equally true and you propose that it’s somehow different.Logically your argument cancels itself out. There is a better candidate for the dems also, while the repubs have nothing and wound up with donald, the dems are actively undermining their best candidate for one who is strikingly similar to the one you claim to despise. Iraq war, patriot act aca bank bailouts, foaming the runway, libya, syria, ukraine, drones, national security state. No wonder hillary supporters have to talk about donald when they talk about hillary, she has more dirt and blood on her hands than your contemptible donald. Without referencing any other candidate, list reasons why should I vote for hillary, and why don’t you run some of her campaign promises past me just for fun.

              1. fresno dan

                June 6, 2016 at 10:55 am

                I agree with you – save for:

                “…hillary positives to counter trump negatives because they are two peas in a pod…”

                I think Hillary is far more competent, and has the backing of a party and the MSM to actually get us into far more wars than Trump could ever hope to (IF he actually wants to – who knows for sure?).

                People who criticized Bush as a total moron forget that he was able to rally his party and a number of dems for his Iraq adventure. Hillary likewise I believe would be able to do the same – no small feat. All I am saying, is give incompetence a chance..

                Saying that Trump would be to inept to do the same thing is thin gruel indeed – but I think, by Hillary OWN words, that she is far more likely to precipitate a conflict with Russian AND/OR China, and of course, we will have more of the same in the mideast. She BELIEVES in using the military, and using it often, to achieve goals despite overwhelming evidence that the strategy and tactics are indisputable failures. The fact that she puts this in the verbose Washington speak, and defends the indefensible with the facile, tendentious arguments of the best and the brightest, doesn’t make her less evil than Trump. It makes her the more effective evil.

              2. weinerdog43

                How about: If the system goes down on Donald’s watch, the blame will be laid at his feet. Never mind the vast state machinery that is currently wobbling. Blame Trump and the deep state can (sort of) justify the implosion as caused by Trump.

                But if Hillary is on the throne when we auger into the ground, there is no way for it not to be understood as a colossal failure of the state. In other words, while they can blame Trump and perhaps escape the fallout, if everything blows up on Hillary’s watch, there’s no place to hide. The naked emperor will be revealed.

                1. tegnost

                  some consolation i guess, but i worry about the end game, they’re so close to TPP and global domination that they can taste it and once they get it they’ll be meting out justice on their own terms. It can get worse, and very likely will. I’ll throw a shout out into the wilderness for some hillary supporter to effectively argue that she has some interest, any interest, in the well being of the average american (other than the interest accrued on, say, one’s student loan debt, which she clearly intends to allow goldman to garnish your social security for, if there’s any left after it’s been privatized). But I’m sure this is all i will hear…

                  1. Michael Fiorillo

                    I’ll speak my last piece on this thread by saying that you’re absolutely right about Hillary.

                    However, it’s a fallacy to then reach the conclusion that Donnie is therefore automatically better. As evil as Hillary is (and she is that evil), it’s still possible for her opponent to be evil-er, and given Donnie’s track record as a businessman and human being, is that such a stretch, especially when he is so mistruthful that the very concept of lies or truth is almost beside the point?

                    Yes, Hillary lies all the time, all the time, but couldn’t it be argued that her constant lying takes place in a domain still somewhat tethered to reality, and mundane things like truth or falsity?

                    Hillary claims to be truthful, and wants to be seen as truthful, and can therefore be exposed as the liar (and worse) that she is. But with Donnie, questions of fact or opinion, truth or lies, are beside the point. Without giving Hillary one iota of the benefit of the doubt, that could make a material difference for a lot of people.

                    I live in NY, so I have the luxury of being able to vote my conscience in November (though I also have enough RAM left in my brain to acknowledge that anybody-but-Hillary voters may be right, since I also feel that way frequently), but if I lived in Florida or Ohio, I might have to think for a while about whether I’d prefer to dance to Donnie’s Apocalypso beat for four years, since ugly things can happen very quickly when people’s fears and hatreds are validated and given license.

                    Oh, and on that pesky historical note, I see that no one has yet offered up an example of a megalomaniacal, racist and nationalist leader who was directly followed by economic, political and social progress.

                    Finally, I have to laugh ruefully at the irony that, despite my endless diatribes against the Clintons when among family, friends and colleagues, I now find myself cautioning people on one of the few websites/blogs where I feel very much at home.

                    What can I say? Perverse times, perverse responses…

                    1. tegnost

                      yes indeed, thank you for the thoughtful reply, it’s the best way to be welcomed anywhere and I share your admiration for this forum. I disagree with you in this case by degrees but that is bearable, and agree that we are in perverse times. I think from your name you’re of italian ancestry, and I’m going to sleep tonight believing that the newest members of our nation will, without the cynicism of those of us whose ancestors emigrated here long ago, act in the spirit of the country they believe we are, registered democrat so they can’t be easily dismissed with provisional ballots, and they vote for the future that is best for them and their families. It’s worked before, it can work again…

      2. Benedict@Large

        The problem James is that those are words. Offensive words, yes, but words, nonetheless.

        How exactly are we supposed to measure those words off against, say, Libya and 30,000 dead bodies. Dead mind you because of Hillary’s advocacy, and what was her rationale? That everyone would simply behave once we had killed the dictator. Where did she pick up that idea from, James? Iraq?

        1. James Levy

          That’s like saying Obama never did anything as a state legislator or a Senator, so he couldn’t possibly be a bad president because he hadn’t done anything.

          Words matter, especially from a person who seems to have no governor on his tongue. They tell you something about what he thinks and what he might do. Expecting a man whose tag line is “You’re fired” to love the workers is pretty weird.

          I will repeat myself: Clinton being bad should never lead one to make excuses for Trump, and I’ve seen plenty of them on these pages in the past weeks. And if a person got on their high horse and denounced the Obama voters for taking the “lesser of two evils” tack, and now turns around and thumps the table demanding we vote for Trump because he is the lesser of two evils, well, those people are dishonest cretins and should just shut up.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, I didn’t want to prejudice readers by saying so at the top, but I found this piece to be really weird. It’s a mash of domestic and international angst, but does point out that you can’t blame Trump for authoritarianism, that horse left the barn long ago. The article is oddly lacking in focus, as if Engelhardt wanted to say too many things and only riffed some themes rather than making a firm argument, or was holding back on saying stuff her wanted to say.

      1. Carolinian

        I got this link from another blog a few days ago and while the facts are known the summary is telling. 20 million are dead since WW2 thanks to America’s covert and overt wars. Stalin or Hitler would be proud.

        Which is to say we have always been an authoritarian country with little regard to non-Americans and, in most of our history, people of color. While Trump is more than a bit bizarre at least he’s the one in the coming contest who hasn’t killed anyone (that we know of).

        1. Vatch

          Some of the wars on that list are clearly the fault of the United States, or at least partly the fault of the U.S. But I think the author of the article tries too hard to blame the U.S. for events that are really someone else’s responsibility.

          The U.S. tricked the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan? No, the Soviets did not need to take the bait. They were the ones responsible for that war.

          The Hungarian uprising was not caused by the U.S. Maybe Radio Free Europe misled the rebels, but the U.S. did not cause the rebellion, and it was the Soviets who crushed it violently.

          The Pakistani war against East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) was not caused by the U.S. The U.S. clearly failed to do anything to stop the war, but the West Pakistanis are to blame for this horror.

          The Korean War’s origins are quite murky, and whatever blame the U.S. deserves, is also shared by several other countries.

          Cambodia. The U.S. bombing of Cambodia was a war crime, but the behavior of the Khmer Rouge psychos can not be blamed on the U.S. They chose to commit mass murder, and were not encouraged to do so by the U.S.

          The civil wars in Sudan would have occurred whether or not the U.S. was involved or not. Did the U.S. government behave badly, and worsen the situation? Yes. Did they cause the wars? No.

          Yugoslavia. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the U.S. for these problems. Yugoslavia was an artificial country created in the wake of World War I (like Iraq), and was held together very tenously. The U.S. is not to blame for the nativist policies of Milosevic.

          There may be a few other items on the list that really shouldn’t be blamed on the U.S. I think the author weakens his position by trying to claim too much. The U.S. government was responsible for plenty of atrocities during the Cold War, and there’s no need to exaggerate.

      2. ScottW

        I agree this “speech” lacks focus. I also dislike the impulse of hoisting future change on graduates’ shoulders, as the only ones who can change the World. I attended a conference at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy (Tufts) in which one of the speakers said it was up to the younger generation to change the mess her generation created. In the Q & A, I stated that is a totally unfair request and it is our generation (>50 years old) that was responsible for creating the mess, so we have the responsibility for cleaning it up.

        Fat chance of that ever happening as the Bernie v. Hillary (change v. status quo) demographic of support demonstrates. My generation got ours and is sadly screwing our children and grandchildren. Maybe it is unrealistic asking people to cast aside their personal comforts and support wholesale changes that will not directly benefit them. But believing the status quo is sustainable is pure fantasy.

        I think renaming the World is less important than to keep asking and attempting to answer the questions Bernie’s campaign raises that makes Hillary supporters so uncomfortable because it challenges their liberal credentials. For he has exposed the hypocrisy that many faux liberals live by and the danger they are creating by giving bipartisan support to neo-liberalism and never ending war.

      3. oho

        engelhardt has cognitive dissonance…he agrees with much of what trump says re. foreign policy, but obviously the culture wars negatives are setting off the steam valves

      4. diptherio

        Well, commencement speeches are kind of known for being fluffy pablum, full of sound and buzzwords, signifying nothing…so maybe he was just trying to stick to genre conventions?

        What I found odd was his use of the term “right-wing authoritarianism,” which has a very particular meaning, without any mention of Democratic leadership or policies. As Altemeyer makes clear in his book, ‘right-wing authoritarianism’ is by no means solely a phenomenon of the political right. What we have in Hilary and her supporters is the best example of a truly American right-wing authoritarianism. Consider Altemeyer’s description:

        Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want–which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal.

        Sound like anyone we know? Hint: it ain’t the Donald…

      5. hemeantwell

        One positive feature of the article is that his indicators of authoritarian potential largely refer to features of the neoliberal state that Trump will inherit if elected. That’s a refreshing change from analyses, like Chris Hedges’, that offer mug shots of Trump supporters on a “hate” binge.

        1. reslez

          They built an authoritarian palace and an authoritarian throne
          They built an authoritarian courtier state and a foppish, steno media
          They made a police force that shoots whoever won’t obey and raised the military to infallible heroes
          They got absolutely everything ready for a man to wear the crown
          Now they’re stunned, stunned when someone sits down in the chair

          Donald is a transitional figure. Worse is what comes after

    3. sleepy

      To the author’s credit, I will say he made the point that whatever authoritarianism Trump is thought to represent it was pre-existing in government way before Trump arrived. I think that is an important observation of the bipartisan consensus.

      It will certainly remain unchanged at least, or more likely, increase under Clinton. I think the same if Trump is elected as well.

    4. Jim Adamson

      As a Canadian, I am all too aware of the analogy of Canada as a mouse in bed with an elephant, which gets pneumonia whenever the elephant sneezes. WW1 introduced income tax & Versailles treaty reparations to pay for it. The cost of reparations (make Germany pay!) led to National Socialism and WW2, which was financed by Victory Bonds and rationing. Bush et al introduced the Global War on Terrorism, which it was intended to make the Iraqis pay for. Now Trump wants to “Make America Great Again” and find someone else to pay for it. He has nominated Mexico, the as yet unborn & China. The neo-cons of the 1% (Trump’s peers) are always about “…other peoples money…” and never, ever agreeable to reducing their own wealth. Because their wealth is their proof positive that they are among the chosen elect, and “worth it”, whereas the rest of us plebians are obviously disposable losers. 150 years ago, at the time of the creation of the Canadian nation state, the USA was caricatured as Sam Slick, the shyster snake oil salesman. Trump is simply the latest version the long & honorable tradition of American greatness achieved by making someone, (anyone!) else pay.

  2. Greg T

    I’ll follow that up with Madame Hillary’s response:
    – yeah, climate change is happening, but we’re not going to do anything about it because it would disadvantage too many of our donors- er, industries. Besides, it would open the Artic for drilling!
    – Israeli settlements are a great thing. Just keep them on the down low, okay Bibi?
    -we should torture more people. Maybe that pigs blood stuff is a little over the top.
    – Mexican immigrants are not all rapists. Let’s deport a bunch of them anyway, but not too many that it chokes off our supply of cheap labor.
    – we have to allow Middle Eastern Muslims in. Our policies are destroying states in the Middle East and lord knows, when I’m elected, the destruction of states will continue apace. Our European vassals- er, partners are pissed that the refugee flow is disproportionately impacting them. We have to keep up appearances, you know.
    – if you beat the protester up, I’ll condemn it publicly, but give the thumbs up in private. We can’t have too many of those Occupy slime infesting this great country of ours

    1. Benedict@Large

      To your last point, I noticed that the Big Dog was banging the “Bernie’s people are violent” meme at bit more of late. This is a very important idea to set up before Philadelphia, so that the TV viewing public understands that all those water cannons against grandma really were necessary.

    1. jrs

      The problem is how so many people even here have really truly been brainwashed at some deep level to believe they must vote including in every race I guess, so therefore they must see lesser evils everywhere.

      But the truth is you don’t have to vote, you can stay home watching honey-boo-boo (more amusing than Trump) and snorting coke while having an orgy. (I imagine this is how people imagine the “irresponsibility” of those who don’t vote). Such is being a far better citizen then voting for Hills or Trump at least. Or you can just choose not to vote the top of the ticket or vote 3rd party because neither are acceptable. But until the primaries are over you can choose Sanders if you want.

  3. really?

    just reading the opening, it’s odd that he leaves out the “coup” in Brazil-maybe the most relevant in that they circumvented voters entirely, so far.

  4. bob k

    Engelhardt doesn’t discuss the very real possibilities for civil war in the US. No one can predict the future but its not hard to imagine the ways this could come down.

    Estimates put the number of firearms at between 200 and 300 million. That poses a real problem for an authoritative government. My son works in a CostCo in Manhattan. He knows an African American who owns a collection of assault rifles. Why? Because he wants to be ready in case the authorities come for them. Add to that the street gangs in the inner cities, armed to the teeth. It’s not hard to imagine the gangs uniting to protect their communities against assault. and make no mistake they will fight to the end in street to street battles.

    Add to that the white militias in the rural hinterlands. Any attempts to disarm them will be bloodbaths too.

    Who knows? The ruling class may just bunker down in their fortresses and let the masses have what’s left, in which case things will unravel into competing territories fighting for the scraps.

    I’m just guessing on a few things that stand out. But never forget that the America was built on violence and most likely will be brought down the same way. Sorry to go all Carson McCormick on you, but the evil empire will go out with a bang not a whimper.

    Oh and did I mention world war and foreign invasions? My bad.

  5. DJG

    I’m not sure that the comment by Engelhardt is too defuse: What he notes, though, is that the national decline is tied to empire and the national-security state. Reminds me of Eisenhower.

    This “speech” is a good antidote to chirpy ideas of American exceptionalism and the strong conviction that a stagnant U.S.A. is going to solve existential problems like climate change. The U.S.A. is likely to be more like China in the Ming Dynasty, around 1500. The growth and innovation stopped. No one is sure why. China had been ahead of the West in almost every regard. Then China stagnated.

    Imagine a stagnating country with nuclear weapons and an overwrought fear of its rivals.

    1. DJG

      On the other hand, I have some trouble with the “unnameable” business. More appeals to ineffability. “Beyond words,” as the bromide goes on Facebook.

      The words are decline, stagnation, Waiting for the Barbarians, loss of the democratic (small D) mindset, convenience undermining the inconvenience of being a person who shows mature dependence.

    2. bob k

      My understanding is China reached a perfect equilibrium in market supply and demand across a large area. There was no inherent need to advance the means of production. For more read “Adam Smith in Beijing.’

  6. EoinW

    Yes indeed Trump is a symptom of the problem. The problem is a western society which embraces its own propaganda and ignores reality. Trump’s arrival marks the first truth seeking step Americans have taken in some time. It is the early stages of a process in which the populous gradually begins to question all the lies and to look for reality again. Not an easy process as we have generations of social conditioning working against it. Also human nature to shy away from uncomfortable truths unless forced to acknowledge them.

    Trump’s election will continue the process. Clinton’s election will put this process on hold for four more years. That is, drive it underground because the MSM will have the excuse to bury the truth once more. I’m not sure America has the luxury of four more years. If matters hit critical mass during that period then there will be no release valve for it and things could explode, to everyone’s harm. At least Trump will keep the discussion – no matter how politically incorrect – public. People talking is always a better thing than just exploding.

    I’d be interested to know how far along the process Europe is. We know where the Quisling political elites stand but are average Europeans as willfully ignorant as Americans? I suspect Britons would be different from continental Europeans. I do know that in Canada – even though Canada matters to no one outside it(and shouldn’t matter) – the public is as brainwashed as ever and loving every minute of it. Not sure if that’s due to a better social safety net or a real estate bubble which still hasn’t popped. Thus I can admire Americans for trying to get to where they need to be. Trump, for all his numerous faults, has been the big reason some issues are finally going public. To my mind, a vote for Clinton in November is a vote to silence the dialogue.

    1. JEHR

      I take exception to the idea that Canadians are brainwashed and “loving it.” We are still making political changes through voting and getting rid of Harper in an election shows that Canadians were not entirely brainwashed by Harper’s ideology. However, I do worry that we will forget to hold the new Prime Minister to account just because he seems better than what we had before him. If he passes TPP, that will be enough for me to want an alternative kind of leadership pronto.

  7. Charles S.

    It appears Tom that America is now the clueless – simply enjoying the free bread at the circus…!

  8. Benedict@Large

    It seems to me that it would have been far easier (and far more accurate) to write an article called “How Hillary Clinton Reveals the March of American Authoritarianism”. Is Engelhardt seriously suggesting that a clown with offensive jokes is a greater threat to the world than someone with a track record of military and non-military aggression that spans four continents?

    1. EndOfTheWorld

      Right, Trump is a big-mouth, in-your-face, confrontational real-life Archie Bunker. In short, he’s the quintessential (white male) New Yorker of his generation. I haven’t seen any evidence that he’s done anything violent. All the opposition research that’s been done against him hasn’t really uncovered anything substantial. He’s had girl friends but has never been accused of rape, lip-biting, or exposing himself like Bill Clinton. He never had to settle a sexual harassment case out of court for $800,000 like Bill Clinton.

      1. JEHR

        EOTW, according to John Oliver, Trump has had 3,500 lawsuits over three decades. Nice Presidential material there!

        1. EndOfTheWorld

          OK, what do you want from me? The good candidate is Bernie Sanders, the only candidate I ever donated any money ($9) to in my life. If I can vote for him I will. If not, I will vote against HRC. I am a naturally optimistic person and hope that The Donald will “grow” in his new job.

      2. EndOfTheWorld

        And now, the tell-all secret service agent claims that Hill was physically violent with Bill, smashing a vase in his eye and giving him a bruise.

        1. Ivy

          And now, the tell-all secret service agent claims that Hill was physically violent with Bill, smashing a vase in his eye and giving him a bruise.

          But was that a Ming Vase (pronounce as vahhhzzz)? That would portend an ill outcome for Killary.

    2. Jim Haygood

      Engelhardt probably had some atavistic instinct that the D party is marginally less authoritarian than the R party.

      As if you could get any more authoritarian than 0zero, who’s killed four U.S. citizens by executive drone assassination.

      But he found it impossible to make that case, so he punted by focusing on one of the two War Party candidates. Earth to Tom — there is only one War Party.

  9. tgs

    Englehardt has always been a perceptive critic of our empire. But I agree that this piece is too impressionistic. Ok, so, Trump is one of many in an increasingly crowded room. But why is the room so crowded? Why is nationalism on the rise in Europe? And what exactly is the relationship between that phenomenon and the American empire?

    He also indulges in some lazy thinking – Putin is not an autocrat. He is the ‘decider’ as GWBush used to say. The Russia scholar, Stephen Cohen, has been trying to debunk the myth of Putin the autocrat in his many discussion on the John Batchelor show. There is open debate in the Russian media about many of Putin’s policies – not private debate in some central committee room, but in the print and broadcast media. Cohen has been warning recently that the real opposition to Putin in Russia is not from ‘western liberals’ but from those who feel that Putin is too defensive and weak in the face of provocations from NATO and the US.

  10. Jay M

    Bit disappointing that Englehardt seems to paraphrase the McCain gas station meme about Russia. Certainly not a “Russia firster” or Putin acolyte, but is being relentlessly dismissive of the country like the rest of the foreign policy elite really productive?

  11. Ping

    My husband is Canadian and views the Trump candidicy with incredulous horror as seems to be the Canadian consensus.

    Although torn about the lesser evil, i am extemely repulsed by the Clinton manipulations at every level and await revelations about the connections between the Clinton Foundation, SOS office and private server. If HRC is not indicted, that will be an infuriating glaring example of corrupt cover up as most anyone else would be strung up for a fraction of those crimes.

    And I get so tired of the uninformed who wax nostalgic about the good old days of Bill Clintons economy when in reality he was just plan lucky to be out of office before what he set in motion collapsed…..NAFTA and Glass-Seagelll repeal the huge gift to Wall Street and Rubin cabal.

    Although I think Donald Trump is reckless narcissist (and perhaps subconsciously does not want the constraints of the presidency and thus the gratuitious shooting himself in the foot) and would likely do 180 degree turns on many populist positions once elected, some of his taboo breaching opinions have been refreshing.

    *Shooting down Jeb’s rehabilitation of Bush name with revisionist history ‘my brother kept us safe’ was priceless.

    *And why should the US pay to protect Europe (NATO) and elsewhere.

    *Calling out the trade deals.

    The American public can’t access affordable health care and education because we are told we must ‘lead the world’ militarily according to HRC when most countries understand our ‘leadership’ now means plunder and dominance.

    As an interesting aside, I notice that the Peterson Institute, obscessed with eliminating social security and medicare as we know it, has stopped running TV ads ‘fix the debt’ and dems seem to realize how angry the population is and for now the ‘grand compromise’ seems off the table. Thank you Bernie and spoiler Trump

  12. washunate

    Yves, I like your intro to the piece.

    …virus of right-wing authoritarianism…

    Here’s where I quibble a bit with Engelhardt. To me, the left-right continuum itself has little contemporary meaning. Authoritarianism is its own dimension, quite apart from left/right. The bipartisan embrace of centralization of power is the defining characteristic of our era. If we’re not willing to call out the warmongers and Constitution bashers on the ‘left’ as being part of the overall system, then we’re enabling the continued functioning of that system.

  13. GlobalMisanthrope

    I find the alarm regarding Trump increasingly tedious. His success isn’t revelatory of anything unless you’ve had your head [in the sand] for 50 years. I mean, honest to gawd, just where in the hell did anybody think the road we’ve been on lead?

    We rewarded the Republicans’ stealing of the presidency with a second term for Bush. We then rewarded the Democrats’ boundless treachery with a second term for Obama. So of course they serve up Clinton. Why not?

    I don’t know what to say to anyone who finds Trump more revealing and alarming than that.

  14. Anonymous

    Unbelievable that so many people in this comment section who allegedly care about economic equality are apologizing and probably voting for Trump. Turns my stomach.

    1. washunate

      On behalf of rabble-rousers, troublemakers, punk slackers, idealists, romantics, and impractical unicorn rainbow fairy believing tree huggers everywhere, I apologize that questioning authority disgusts you so much.
      If you would care to use a slightly less generic pseudonym, we might be able to engage a longer and more intellectually robust discussion on the proper role of the national security state and the enablement thereof by Democratic leaders, pundits, and academics. But my guess is you won’t even address tegnost’s question, let alone actually defending the rather bipartisan policy of interventionism that defines the American foreign policy establishment.

  15. Min

    Is there a better metaphor for the spread of authoritarianism than that of a contagious disease? Perhaps not. But there are a lot of people who are predisposed to the disease, who have authoritarian personalities.

    After WWII there was a burning question for many people. How could seemingly ordinary people become vicious Fascists, even becoming concentration camp guards and mass murderers? At the Nuremberg trials, just following orders was not an acceptable defense, although a lot of those who just followed orders were not brought to trial. As we have seen at Abu Ghraib, things can quickly go beyond just following orders. Yet those who commit those atrocities are not monsters, but “normals”. The Stanford “prison” experiment and the Milgram obedience experiments showed us how close to the surface our inhumanity is, even in ordinary Americans, not just those evil Fascists. An Esquire article in February, 1970, about Milgram asked, “If Hitler asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, would you?”

    Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich wrote “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” in 1933 and regarded Fascism as a communicable disease. He attributed it to sexual repression, which is probably wrong, but the disease metaphor does seem apt. An early version of the psychological test for authoritarian personality called it the F-scale, the F standing for Fascism. I have noted in online discussions that when I bring up authoritarian personalities among Trump’s followers, I have met objections that his followers are normal. But that is the point. And one reason why authoritarianism spreads easily. In his book, Reich identified the family as a major institution underlying the authoritarian state. (See the Wikipedia article about the book for a quote.) Again, that is a bit extreme, but it fits with Lakoff’s view of the strict father model of the family versus the nurturant mother model. In Europe the strict father family was traditional, and perhaps Reich took it as **the** model of the family.

    It also seems to be the case that people who do not have authoritarian personalities can exhibit authoritarianism under stress, which perhaps explains why authoritarian political movements gain adherents in times of war and economic hardship.

    1. ADG

      The really interesting thing about the Milgram experiments was the chasm it revealed between people’s projections of their own behaviour in the face of authority and the way they really behave when confronted with such a situation.

      This can’t possibly be a new observation as it was clearly appreciated all the way back in classical times (“You will deny me three times before the cock crows.”), yet even academic philosophers and psychologists fared no better than laypeople in anticipating the outcome.

      Why, then, is our civilization so badly askew in its perception of basic human nature?

      In the 1970s there was a live teleplay starring none other than William Shatner as a thinly fictionalized version of Stanley Milgram. The very first scene depicts this little-publicised aspect of the experiments, followed by a scene where Milgram conducts a straw poll of his colleagues, who presented with the teaching game scenario in purely hypothetical terms unanimously predict that the virtually all the “teachers” would refuse to continue.

      Oddly though, this aspect is not revisited later on in the play, and in fact it ends with a rather heavy-handed attack on the ethics of the experiment, rebuking Milgram for his supposed hypocrisy in supposedly trying to impeach the morals of ordinary people for cooperating with an unethical experiment despite having conducted such an experiment himself. The failure of prediction, however, was a factual observation, not a moral one, and so essentially immune to such charges of hypocrisy.

      Would it be paranoid to observe that if for some reason one expected some part of a TV production to prove unaccountably unpopular with the executive suite, one might arrange to do the production live and put as much of the relevant material as possible at the very beginning, thereby minimizing the opportunity on the part of higher-ups to have it removed before getting to air?

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