An American Autocracy?

Illiberal Democracy

Acta est fabula, plaudite.” These, according to the Roman historian Suetonius, were the last words of Augustus Caesar: “The play is over, applaud as I exit”. Augustus, of course, was not an actor; he was the first emperor of Rome. Or was he? It is well known to readers of history that Augustus never himself adopted any royal titles. Rather, he chose to style himself as Princeps: “First Citizen”, the first among equals. But the powers he wielded were indeed absolute in quality and imperial in scale. This was the play which Augustus referred to in his last words: the double-act of being a citizen in name and a monarch in reality. He publicly espoused his commitment to the ideals of the Roman Republic, but his actions would lead to the foundation of the Roman Empire.

It would be remarkable in the years previous to imagine that this sort of double-act could be something that an American president was attempting. Of course, many on the left decried the broad powers that President George W. Bush assumed as a wartime president; equally many on the right expressed disgust at President Barack Obama’s use of executive actions to pursue policy objectives. But outside fringe groups, not many viewed these moves as much more than executive overreach. It is well within the mainstream, however, to look at President Donald Trump’s first three weeks as something more strikingly similar to a slide to greater authoritarianism.

First there were the uneconomical use of executive orders: Trump has already signed more in his first two weeks than any previous president within a similar time period. The fact that this happened despite the fact that the Republicans hold majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate points to an impatient businessman-turned president who is unwilling to go through the slow procedures of Washington. The toothless Congress has also refused to pose any obstacle to Trump and his questionable cabinet picks even after serious ethical issues emerged. Trump’s lack of time for constitutional checks and balances on his power can be seen even more clearly after he attacked the judges who halted his travel ban on many Muslim countries. The former reality TV star seems to have also suspended reality entirely, with his administration’s keenness for ‘alternative facts’.

This, then, seems to represent a completely new phenomenon: the autocratic American president, one who was elected by the people (although, perhaps, not with quite as much of the lustre of legitimacy as some have hoped, with Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote) but who seems bent on governing like a dictator. He does not care about ethics, nor even the appearance of ethical behaviour. He is unconcerned about the truth or the appearance of presenting the truth. He is careless with his use of power and willing to denigrate democracy for it. Trump still says, of course, that he is a president whose election was democratic (and whose legitimacy was only furthered by the most ‘yuge’ crowds at his inauguration). But beyond this lip-service to the values of the American republic, Trump’s actions have all run perfectly contrary to the ideals of a liberal democracy. If anything, Trump is travelling down the same road as Augustus did 2000 years earlier: wrapping up his actions in the aura of democratic sanctity while pursuing aims that ran contrary to those of a democratic republic.

Prior to Trump’s swearing-in, American economist Paul Krugman had already written in his column in The New York Times about the parallels between the fall of the Roman republic and present-day America. He wrote:

Here’s what I learned: 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…

…And what happens to the republic as a result? Famously, on paper the transformation of Rome from republic to empire never happened. Officially, imperial Rome was still ruled by a Senate that just happened to defer to the emperor, whose title originally just meant “commander,” on everything that mattered. We may not go down exactly the same route — although are we even sure of that? — but the process of destroying democratic substance while preserving forms is already underway.

Krugman wrote his article when Trump was still just president-elect; he certainly would not have been heartened by Trump’s actions since assuming office. Many agree, however, that Trump seems to be ushering in a new, autocratic stage. The Atlantic’s cover article, ‘How to Build an Autocracy’, paints a dark vision for America’s future. President Trump, so popular because of his populist policies that he finds it unnecessary to campaign much to win-reelection in 2020, now presides over a considerably more illiberal form of democracy where Americans retain most of their existing rights but Congress stands idly by as the first family significantly enriches themselves and the opposition find that they lack much of a voice. An autocracy, in short, has been established with the full consent of American voters.

This was exactly what another writer, Fareed Zakaria, warned about in an article for The Washington Post:

Democracy persists [in many countries], but liberty is under siege. What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today…We are now getting to see what American democracy looks like without any real buffers in the way of sheer populism and demagoguery. The parties have collapsed, Congress has caved, professional groups are largely toothless, the media have been rendered irrelevant.

In short, illiberal democracy is on the cusp of a triumph in the United States. The republican form of government seems to indeed be more fragile than what many once thought.

The Means to an End

While the decline of the American republic is most certainly noteworthy news, what is of even greater significance is the ends to which President Trump intends to use his newfound powers for. Augustus’s publicly recorded last words, after all, were “I found Rome a city of clay but left it a city of marble”; he exercised his de facto royal powers for  the development of the empire, and Rome was much strengthened and healed after the ravages of civil war. But, beyond the slogan of making America great again, what does Trump want to do?

Trump and Bannon
Trump and Bannon

It may very well be that Trump, who has never demonstrated much interest in any area of policy, does not have much of an idea about the specifics of his policy objectives. It could also very well be that Trump’s move towards authoritarianism is not an intentioned assault on American democracy but rather the mere result of his character defects and the product of a business executive suddenly having to run the Washington bureaucracy. The executive orders that he signs are simply the fruits of his desire to fulfil his campaign promises.

But if Trump is not intentional in his methods, and unconcerned about the goals beyond self-promotion, there must be someone who is concerned. It has been widely suspected that the man who is truly running the show is Stephen Bannon, the former chief of Breitbart, a media outlet that frequently espouses alt-right views. Bannon is very well known for how he once said: “I’m a Leninist…Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Dark words, indeed, especially considering that Bannon is now the White House chief strategist who Trump (unintentionally, some have claimed) has now placed on the White House National Security Council. And the deeper one delves into Bannon’s beliefs, the more striking it seems to get. Politico recently published an article about the thinkers who have had great influence on Bannon, whom it is claimed is “the most well-read person in Washington”. Politico discovered that:

Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years—a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history.

If Bannon is so firm in his belief that huge change is needed and that the current political order in the United States must be destroyed, the chaos that he has initiated in the White House are signs that he is beginning to act on his beliefs.

Bannon’s worldview is also detailed in a Vox article about a speech he gave at Vatican City. In summary, Bannon seems to believe that there are three main crises that are happening in the world. Firstly, there is an economic crisis, where economic anxiety is fuelling populist revolts (such as Trump’s own campaign). Secondly, Bannon says that only Judeo-Christian leaders could be good capitalist leaders, and that the secular and Muslim worlds are destroying Judeo-Christian ideals; therefore, there is a crisis in the Judeo-Christian Western world. Finally, he also sees a crisis in the growth of radical Islamic terrorism and the rise of ISIS.

TIME cover

With these beliefs in mind, it is much less difficult to understand the motivation behind Trump’s executive orders, especially when it is considered that the media has reported Bannon was the driving force behind most of them. If Bannon believes that Muslim values can destroy Western Judeo-Christian ones, it is understandable that he would request the imposition of a Muslim ban. If Bannon thinks that there was an economic golden age that can be returned to, the de-regulation of industries and the re-building of American industries are policies that he would obviously support. But whatever Bannon’s intentions are, the methods that he has used- the building of an all-powerful executive that is tearing down America’s constitutional checks and balances, and the permanent loss of trust in the presidency as a result of the blurring the lines between fact and fiction- may perhaps leave a far greater legacy than any of Trump’s undoable executive orders.

Currently, with Trump’s presidency still so young, it is difficult to speculate on how things will go. Many in the media have been quick to write about ‘President Bannon’. But reports of a power struggle in the West Wing between the Republican establishment, led by Chief of Staff and former GOP chairman Reince Priebus and Bannon’s cohort of insurgents, show that Bannon is hardly firmly in control of power.

What this shows to the rest of the world, however, is that change has indeed arrived in the United States. Formerly, America was a global power whose leadership in the world was backed by its predictability. Now, however, unpredictability reigns as an autocratic president and a revolutionary adviser takes its reins. Augustus found Rome a city of clay and left it one of marble. Perhaps Trump has found America  a shining city upon a hill and may choose to leave it darker and more divided than ever before.

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