The four-decade-long assault on our democratic institutions by corporations has left them weak and largely dysfunctional. These institutions, which surrendered their efficacy and credibility to serve corporate interests, should have been our firewall. Instead, they are tottering under the onslaught.
Labor unions are a spent force. The press is corporatized and distrusted. Universities have been purged of dissidents and independent scholars who criticize neoliberalism and decry the decay of democratic institutions and political parties. Public broadcasting and the arts have been defunded and left on life support. The courts have been stacked with judges whose legal careers were spent serving corporate power, a trend in appointments that continued under Barack Obama. Money has replaced the vote, which is how someone as unqualified as Betsy DeVos can buy herself a Cabinet seat. And the Democratic Party, rather than sever its ties to Wall Street and corporations, is naively waiting in the wings to profit from a Trump debacle.
“The biggest asset Trump has is the decadent, clueless, narcissistic, corporate-indentured, war-mongering Democratic Party,” Ralph Nader said when I reached him by phone in Washington. “If the Democratic strategy is waiting for Godot, waiting for Trump to implode, we are in trouble. And just about everything you say about the Democrats you can say about the AFL-CIO. They don’t control the train.”
The loss of credibility by democratic institutions has thrust the country into an existential as well as economic crisis. The courts, universities and press are no longer trusted by tens of millions of Americans who correctly see them as organs of the corporate elites. These institutions are traditionally the mechanisms by which a society is able to unmask the lies of the powerful, critique ruling ideologies and promote justice. Because Americans have been bitterly betrayed by their institutions, the Trump regime can attack the press as the “opposition party,” threaten to cut off university funding, taunt a federal jurist as a “so-called judge” and denounce a court order as “outrageous.”
The decay of democratic institutions is the prerequisite for the rise of authoritarian or fascist regimes. This decay has given credibility to a pathological liar. The Trump administration, according to an Emerson College poll, is considered by 49 percent of registered voters to be truthful while the media are considered truthful by only 39 percent of registered voters. Once American democratic institutions no longer function, reality becomes whatever absurdity the White House issues.
Most of the rules of democracy are unwritten. These rules determine public comportment and ensure respect for democratic norms, procedures and institutions. President Trump has, to the delight of his supporters, rejected this political and cultural etiquette.
Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” noted that when democratic institutions collapse it is “easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which have become pious banalities.” The chatter of the liberal ruling elites about our democracy is itself an absurdity. “Vulgarity with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories,” she wrote, infects political discourse. This vulgarity is “mistaken for courage and a new style of life.”
“He is destroying one code of behavior after another,” Nader said of Trump. “He is so far getting away with it and not paying a price. He is breaking standards of behavior – what he says about women, commercializing the White House, I am the law.”
Nader said he does not think the Republican Party will turn against Trump or consider impeachment unless his presidency appears to threaten its chances of retaining power in the 2018 elections. Nader sees the Democratic Party as too “decadent and incompetent” to mount a serious challenge to Trump. Hope, he said, comes from the numerous protests that have been mounted in the streets, at town halls held by members of Congress and at flash points such as Standing Rock. It may also come from the 2.5 million civil servants within the federal government if a significant number refuse to cooperate with Trump’s authoritarianism.
“The new president is clearly aware of the power wielded by civil servants, who swear an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, not to any president or administration,” Maria J. Stephan, the co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works,” writes in The Washington Post. “One of Trump’s first acts as president was a sweeping federal hiring freeze affecting all new and existing positions except those related to the military, national security and public safety. Even before Trump’s inauguration, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives reinstated an obscure 1876 rule that would allow Congress to slash the salaries of individual federal workers. This was a clear warning to those serving in government to keep their heads down. Trump’s high-profile firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates, who refused to follow the president’s immigration ban, sent shock waves through the bureaucracy.”
A sustained, nationwide popular uprising of nonviolent obstruction and noncooperation is the only weapon left to save the republic. The elites will respond once they become afraid. If we do not make them afraid we will fail.
“The resiliency of democratic institutions has been encouraging – the courts, the protests,” Nader said. “Trump boomerangs himself. He personally outrages people around the country based on race, gender, class, geography, his lies, his false statements, his narcissism, his lack of knowledge, his flippancy and his morbid desire to respond to slurs with tweets. He is not a smart autocrat. He weakens himself daily. He allows the opposition to have more effect than it ordinarily would.”
“Most dictatorial heads of state deal with abstract ideologies – the fatherland and so forth,” Nader went on. “He doesn’t do much of that. He attacks personally, low on the sensuality ladder. You are a fake. You are a loser. You are a crook. You are a liar. This arouses people more, especially when he does this based on gender, race and religion. The best thing going for the democratic awakening is Donald Trump.”
Nader said that Trump will, however, be able to consolidate power if we suffer another catastrophic terrorist attack or there is a financial meltdown. Dictatorial regimes need a crisis, either real or manufactured, to justify total suspension of civil liberties and assuming uncontested control.
“If there is a stateless terrorist attack on the U.S. he is capable of concentrating a lot of power in the White House against the courts and against Congress,” Nader warned. “He will scapegoat the people opposed to him. … This will weaken any resistance and opposition.”
The tension between the Trump White House and segments of the establishment, including the courts, the intelligence community and the State Department, has been misconstrued as evidence that the elites will remove Trump from power. If the elites can work out a relationship with the Trump regime to maximize profits and protect their personal and class interests they will gladly endure the embarrassment of having a demagogue in the Oval Office.
The corporate state, or deep state, also has no commitment to democracy. Its forces hollowed out democratic institutions to render them impotent. The difference between corporate power and the Trump regime is that corporate power sought to maintain the fiction of democracy, including the polite, public deference paid to bankrupt democratic institutions. Trump has obliterated this deference. He has plunged political discourse into the gutter. Trump is not destroying democratic institutions. They were destroyed before he took office.
Even the most virulent fascist regimes built shaky alliances with traditional conservative and business elites, who often considered the fascists gauche and crude.
“We have never known an ideologically pure fascist regime,” writes Robert O. Paxton in “The Anatomy of Fascism.” “Indeed, the thing hardly seems possible. Each generation of scholars of fascism has noted that the regimes rested upon some kind of pact or alliance between the fascist party and powerful conservative forces. In the early 1940s the social democratic refugee Franz Neumann argued in his classic Behemoth that a ‘cartel’ of party, industry, army, and bureaucracy ruled Nazi Germany, held together only by ‘profit, power, prestige, and especially fear.’ ”
Fascist and authoritarian regimes are ruled by multiple centers of power that are often in competition with each other and openly antagonistic. These regimes, as Paxton writes, replicate the “leadership principle” so that it “cascades down through the social and political pyramid, creating a host of petty Führers and Duces in a state of Hobbesian war of all against all.”
The little führers and duces are always buffoonish. Such strutting demagogues appalled liberal elites in the 1930s. The German novelist Thomas Mann wrote in his diary two months after the Nazis came to power that he had witnessed a revolution “without underlying ideas, against ideas, against everything nobler, better, decent, against freedom, truth and justice.” He lamented that the “common scum” had taken power “accompanied by vast rejoicing on the part of the masses.” The business elites in Germany may not have liked this “scum,” but they were willing to work with them. And our business elites will do likewise now.
Trump, a product of the billionaire class, will accommodate these corporate interests, along with the war machine, to build a mutually acceptable alliance. The lackeys in Congress and the courts, puppets of corporations, will, I expect, mostly be submissive. And if Trump is impeached, the reactionary forces that are cementing into place authoritarianism will find a champion in Vice President Mike Pence, who is feverishly placing members of the Christian right throughout the federal government.
“Pence is the perfect president for the Republican leaders who control Congress,” Nader said. “He is right out of central casting. He looks the part. He talks the part. He acts the part. He has experienced the part. They would not mind if Trump in a fit quit, or had to resign.”
We are in the twilight stages of the rolling corporate coup d’état begun four decades ago. We do not have much left to work with. We cannot trust our elites. We cannot trust our institutions. We must mobilize to carry out repeated and sustained mass actions. Waiting for the establishment to decapitate Trump and restore democracy would be collective suicide.