The republic and the Republicans

As the troubling year of 2016 draws to a close, there are plenty of meditations around in the opinion pages on the dangers ahead, with a Trump presidency and a disaffected electorate. I want to pick just one, and one that I don’t entirely agree with, because I think it illustrates a couple of important points: it’s “How Republics End”, by Paul Krugman in the New York Times.

Krugman’s comparison is with ancient Rome, and his moral is twofold: “Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.”

It’s certainly true that the Roman empire flourished  for centuries under republican forms. But the construction of that facade was a piece of restoration, not a gradual transition from a functioning republican government. Constitutional government had disappeared long before Augustus established the principate in the mid-20s BC – at least since Julius Caesar had made himself dictator for life in 44 BC; it had been tottering probably since Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 BC.

So while republics can be gradually undermined, it’s misleading to think of authoritarianism taking over by stealth. It typically arrives via specific, explicit acts of violence or patent illegality.

Compare the American dystopia of Sinclair Lewis in It Can’t Happen Here. In his introduction to the book, Perry Meisel says it depicts “a slow, altogether believable process whereby the America we all of us know crosses a line that we didn’t realize was there.” But in fact, Lewis shows the transition to be quite short and sharp: president Windrip on his first day in office demands dictatorial powers from Congress, and when they refuse he sends his storm troopers to arrest the dissenters and use lethal force to quell riots.

I still think the chance of that happening under Donald Trump is low, partly because Trump lacks his own military or paramilitary force (unlike Caesar, Hitler and the fictional Windrip). But it’s definitely higher than it’s been in my lifetime, and probably a lot longer.

The other point to make comes with Krugman’s conclusion, which is worth quoting at length:

My question … is why one party’s politicians and officials no longer seem to care about what we used to think were essential American values. And let’s be clear: This is a Republican story, not a case of “both sides do it.”

So what’s driving this story? I don’t think it’s truly ideological. Supposedly free-market politicians are already discovering that crony capitalism is fine as long as it involves the right cronies. It does have to do with class warfare — redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy is a consistent theme of all modern Republican policies. But what directly drives the attack on democracy, I’d argue, is simple careerism on the part of people who are apparatchiks within a system insulated from outside pressures by gerrymandered districts, unshakable partisan loyalty, and lots and lots of plutocratic financial support.

For such people, toeing the party line and defending the party’s rule are all that matters. And if they sometimes seem consumed with rage at anyone who challenges their actions, well, that’s how hacks always respond when called on their hackery.

One thing all of this makes clear is that the sickness of American politics didn’t begin with Donald Trump, any more than the sickness of the Roman Republic began with Caesar. The erosion of democratic foundations has been underway for decades, and there’s no guarantee that we will ever be able to recover.

Many pundits, of course, are determined to keep to the narrative of “both sides do it.” But I think Krugman is right to deny this symmetry; there are irresponsible elements on both sides, but as I’ve said many times, the Republicans have brought their extremists within the tent in a way that the Democrats just haven’t.

He’s also clearly right to deny that there’s some sort of free-market ideology behind the rise of Trumpism. But his alternative explanation of “simple careerism” by “apparatchiks” doesn’t seem to work either, because the soulless nature of the apparatchik really is a phenomenon of both sides. If it’s worse for the Republicans, then that just pushes the question back a stage – why is that so?

Krugman points us to “gerrymandered districts, unshakable partisan loyalty, and … plutocratic financial support.” But there’s nothing inherently Republican about the first two, and even plutocrats show up on the Democrat side as well.

It seems that there’s something else going on. I would suggest that although the conservatives who have (in varying degrees) made their peace with Trump are not free marketeers, a generation of pretending to be has produced in them a special sort of ideological tension. The fact that their ideological position is deeply incoherent – defending imperialism, theocracy and white supremacy while sounding the rhetoric of individual freedom – makes them especially resistant to any questioning of it.

Santayana famously said that fanaticism consists of “redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” For the Republicans, having a set of aims that they are unwilling to admit to, even to themselves, has bred a particularly ruthless fanaticism.

Are there signs of the same sort of thing among the Democrats? There are, but so far they are embryonic by comparison. It’s the Republicans who have got America to the point where we must worry about the future of the republic.

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