The destruction of the rule of law, an action essential to establishing an authoritarian or totalitarian state, began long before the arrival of the Trump administration. The George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and implementation of a doctrine of pre-emptive war were war crimes under international law. The federal government’s ongoing wholesale surveillance of the citizenry, another legacy of the Bush administration, mocks our constitutional right to privacy. Assassinating a U.S. citizen under order of the executive branch, as the Obama administration did when it murdered the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, revokes due process. The steady nullification of constitutional rights by judicial fiat—a legal trick that has enabled corporations to buy the electoral system in the name of free speech—has turned politicians from the two ruling parties into amoral tools of corporate power. Lobbyists in Washington and the state capitals write legislation to legalize tax boycotts, destroy regulations and government oversight, pump staggering sums of money into the war machine and accelerate the largest upward transfer of wealth in American history, one that has involved looting the U.S. Treasury of trillions of dollars in the wake of the massive financial fraud that set off the 2008 economic collapse. The ruling elites, by slavishly serving corporate interests, created a system of government that effectively denied the citizen the use of state power. This decades-long disregard by the two major political parties for the rule of law and their distortion of government into a handmaiden for corporations set the stage for Donald Trump’s naked contempt for legality and accountability. It made inevitable our kakistocracy, rule by the worst or most unscrupulous (“kakistocracy” is derived from the Greek words kakistos, meaning worst, and kratos, meaning rule).
Those in the parade of imbeciles, grifters, con artists, conspiracy theorists, racists, Trump family members, charlatans, generals and Christian fascists, all of whom often see power as a way to enrich themselves at the expense of the taxpayer, are too many to list here. They include former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (who blamed “environmental terrorist groups” for the 2018 California wildfires, hired private jets to fly himself around the country and opened public lands for mineral and gas exploitation), former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt (who held lavish dinners with the coal-mining and chemical executives whose companies he then deregulated) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. This moral swamp also contains bizarre, Svengali-like figures darting in and out of the shadows, such as Stephen Miller, Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci and Omarosa Manigault Newman, not to mention paid-off porn stars and mistresses, sleazy lawyers and bungling and corrupt campaign managers.
At the center of this clown court is Trump, who, if the rule of law was in place, would have been impeached on his first day in office for violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause; by violating that prohibition, this chief executive is raking in millions from officials of foreign governments and lobbyists who stay at his hotels and resorts and use his golf courses. Trump not only does not attempt to mask his profiting from his office but in corporate promotional material says that those who stay at his properties may be able to get a photo with the president of the United States. As illustrated by the Robert Mueller report and by Attorney General William Barr’s open contempt for Congress, Trump does not even bother to pay lip service to the requirements of the law or the Constitution.
The mechanisms that once made democracy possible have withered and died. We no longer have elections free of corporate control; real legislative debate; an independent press rooted in verifiable fact that lifts up the voices and concerns of the citizens rather than peddling conspiracy theories such as “Russiagate” or cheerleading for disastrous military interventions and occupations; academic institutions that vigorously examine and critique the nature of power; or diplomacy, negotiation, détente and compromise. Puffed up by self-importance, intoxicated by the ability to wield police and military power, despots and their grotesque courtiers are freed with the collapse of the rule of law to carry out endless vendettas against enemies real and imagined until their own paranoia and fear define the lives of those they subjugate. This is where we have come, not because of Trump, who is the grotesque product of our failed democracy, but because the institutions that were designed to prevent tyranny no longer function.
Trump will eviscerate what little legal restraint remains. The Republican Party, which has been transformed into a Trump personality cult, will not stop him. Neither will the Democratic Party leadership, which thinks Trump will be an easy target in the 2020 presidential election, a foolish mistake similar to the one Hillary Clinton made in the 2016 campaign. That the Democratic Party elites place their hope to regain power in Joe Biden, a goofy male version of Clinton, is yet another example of the colossal failure of the democratic process. It shows how out of touch the ruling elites are with the growing social inequality, economic stagnation, suffering, disempowerment and rage that afflict over half the population.
The old forms of political theater and the ruling ideology of neoliberalism that buttressed the ruling elites in the past do not work anymore. Yet, the mind-numbing presidential campaigns, begun two years before the vote and devoid of meaningful content, are once again dominating the airwaves with empty slogans and the posturing by carefully packaged political personalities. This burlesque is anti-politics masquerading as politics. Its disingenuousness, obvious to most of the country, is what made Trump’s crude taunts and ridiculing of the system so attractive to betrayed voters. Trump may be inept, vile and a con artist, but in this system of anti-politics you vote not for what you want, but against those you hate. And the established elites, the Bushes and the Clintons, are loathed far more than Trump by most of the country.
The billions in campaign funds provided to selected candidates by the wealthy and corporations, as the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin wrote, created, before the arrival of Trump on the political landscape, “a pecking order that calibrates, in strictly quantitative and objective terms, whose interests have priority. The amount of corruption that regularly takes place before elections means that corruption is not an anomaly but an essential element in the functioning of managed democracy. The entrenched system of bribery and corruption involves no physical violence, no brown-shirted troopers, no coercion of the political opposition. While the tactics are not those of the Nazis, the end result is the inverted equivalent. Opposition has not been liquidated but rendered feckless.”
Mass culture has for decades been awash in the lies skillfully disseminated by the public relations and advertising industries. These lies appeal to our vanity and insecurities. They are used to sell us products or experiences that promise an unachievable happiness. These forms of manipulation, which confuse how we are made to feel with knowledge, also were adopted by political parties before Trump gained the presidency. “The result,” Wolin wrote in “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Spector of Inverted Totalitarianism,” “has been the pollution of the ecology of politics by the inauthentic politics of misrepresentative government, claiming to be what it is not, compassionate and conservative, god-fearing and moral.”
Armando Iannucci’s movie “The Death of Stalin,” a brilliant black comedy, captures what happens when self-interested narcissists, buffoons and gangsters make the laws and rule a state. Once power is based solely on blind personal loyalty and whim, anything, including wholesale murder, becomes possible. Rights are transformed into privileges that can be instantly revoked. Lies replace truth. Opinions replace facts. History is erased and rewritten. The cult of leadership replaces politics. Paranoia grips a ruling elite that feeds off conspiracy theories, sees mortal enemies everywhere and increasingly lives in a hermetically sealed nonreality-based universe. Force becomes the sole language despots use to communicate to a restive population and the outside world.
Despotic regimes are uninterested in, and often incapable of understanding, nuance, complexity and difference. They perpetuate themselves through constant drama and never-ending crusades against internal and external enemies that are presented as existential threats to the nation. When real enemies cannot be found, they are invented. The persecution of “undesirables” starts with the demonized—immigrants, the undocumented, poor people of color and Muslims, along with those under occupation in the Middle East or socialists in Venezuela—but these “undesirables” are only the beginning. Soon everyone is suspect.
Trump’s capricious and arbitrary decisions to remove those around him from power keep his courtiers constantly on edge. The instability fuels the vicious court intrigues that characterize all despotism. Trump’s inner circle, aware that the only criterion to remain in power is an exaggerated and obsequious personal loyalty acutely attuned to his mercurial moods and temper tantrums, base all decisions on pleasing the despot. This leads to extreme mismanagement and corruption.
The corporate capitalists who hold real power view Trump as an embarrassment. They would prefer to put a more dignified face on the American empire, one like Biden who will do their bidding with the decorum of a traditional president. But they will work with Trump. He has given them huge tax cuts, is slashing what is left of government oversight and regulation and has increased the budgets for internal security and the military. It may be an uncomfortable relationship, as was the relationship between German industrialists and the buffoonish leaders of the Nazi Party, but for the corporate elites it is far preferable to having to deal with a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren. Capitalists, throughout history, have backed fascism to thwart even the most tepid forms of socialism. All the pieces are in place. The hollowing out of our democratic institutions, which cannot be blamed on Trump, makes tyranny inevitable.