American Individualism and Autocracy

My wife and I were talking over lunch about how the world’s autocratic leaders, certain they’ve got everything under control, are suddenly faced with events and forces demolishing their illusions. Xi, for instance, was confidently determined to make himself China’s next Mao. Trump was an irritant who helped him along. But then came Hong Kong and Wuhan’s Coronavirus, and the illusion of a nation bowing to his command was shattered. Australia’s Morrison, a parliamentary autocrat, discovered a nation on fire could undermine more than his environmental and energy policies, it undermined his credibility as a leader. Even such autocratic icons as Putin and Khamenei discovered that an irate public will rise against them. And then there’s Trump’s beloved Bibi, now indicted for multiple crimes that will send him to trial, the new Middle East Plan notwithstanding. Autocracy is a more efficient way to run things in the short run, but it lacks flexibility and dampens creativity. In the long run it’s inefficient and incompetent. Power centralized in one person makes keeping that power the highest priority, defended by paranoid suspicion of potential threats. Everything else is subordinate to staying in power. Autocracy run amok leads to North Korea, Venezuela, Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, Banana Republics, and any number of small country dictatorships.

Trump is a wannabe autocrat. He may not be well educated, his level of ignorance is well documented, but he’s a slick streetwise operator who has punched his way through three years of trying to remake America into a unitary executive where the legislature and courts are subordinate institutions. Floundering as he may, he’s made progress. Unlike his autocratic idols, Trump’s not been faced with national disasters upending well thought out plans. His disasters have been events of his own making, with the almost rational intent of fixing them to illustrate his “stable genius.” It’s not a dumb strategy. Create problems you can appear to fix, then appear to fix them, is far better than waiting to be overcome by unanticipated problems that may demolish your house of cards. Moreover, it can keep people distracted from real problems.

When Trump brings his self generated disasters back to their starting places, claiming victory in the process, his supporters cheer him on. His paranoid suspicion of threats to his power have been easily handled with threatening tweets and rallies fueled by insulting diatribes exciting a fanatical base. In a street smart way, it’s not a bad scheme. But his life long record of failures, corruption and illegalities have trailed him into the White House. His blatant abuse of power and obstruction of justice catalogued in the Mueller Report and Ukrainian Affair may not be disasters of national consequence, but they are conditions that would sink any previous American leader. The question is, has he undermined himself enough to be ousted from office, or lose the next election? I think we all know he won’t be ousted, but with the impeachment evidence stacked against him, can he win another term? He might, and here’s why. A lot of Americans are content with the idea of autocratic leadership exercised by a president with executive authority over the whole of government.

A surprising percentage of the population prefers authoritarian leadership. They favor authoritarian rule in families, work and politics. Old time studies from the 1960s suggested that 60% of the American public preferred authoritarian leadership at home and work. Writing for the Brookings Inst., and citing a March 2018 Voter Study Group report, William Galston suggests 30% of self identified conservatives favor a strong presidency not hampered by a co-equal legislature and judiciary. 40% among those claiming to be economically liberal but culturally conservative prefer an autocratic executive. To be sure, the great majority of Americans, no matter their stripe, favor our traditional democratic system with its checks and balances, but when pressed on specifics the tilt toward authoritarianism is unmistakable. It’s nothing new. It’s always been there. Oligarchs and plutocrats have a long history of taking as much advantage of it as possible. What has kept it in check has been powerful congressional leaders intent on preserving legislative prerogatives, a Supreme Court intent on defending the Constitution, and elected presidents, however authoritarian, who never aspired to autocracy. Nixon may have been the exception, and he was successfully dealt with. But I digress. Back to the voting public.

American individualists don’t like to admit it, but they want to know who’s in charge and what the rules are. They want to know their place in the scheme of things, and they want that place to be honored by others. In other words, they find authoritarian conditions quite comfortable. It works well because bosses prefer to have as much uncontested authority as possible. It gives them the greatest degree of freedom to act as they think best. In an oxymoronic way, American individualism treasures authority. To be as free as possible from restraints that interfere with one’s right to do with as one chooses with what is one’s own is its central tenet, and yet it treasures authority. Think about that for a moment because it proclaims an enormous internal contradiction.

The mantra of American individualism asserts that each person is the master of what is his/her own; each person is the authoritarian ruler of her/his life. Yet many American individualists are more comfortable when subject to authoritarian leadership, but from who? Immediate superiors are always suspect because they’re the ones with authority to impose rules and restraints Americans would rather not have. Government bureaucrats are a close second because they impose restraints through rules, regulations and paperwork that inhibit one’s right to live and act as one wants. Authority worthy of loyalty has to have a place sufficiently remote in the hierarchy to do two things: not be the one directly interfering in one’s right to do as one pleases; and high enough to promise that benefits of freedom and prosperity will be passed down to their level. To whom would those high enough in the hierarchy make such promises? To the social, political and economic groups most capable of meeting the need of the hierarchy’s leadership to stay in power and cement its authority.

The reason large corporations don’t bother making elaborate promises to customers and employees is that senior management knows perfectly well who their primary clientele is. To whom will they make promises? To the people on whom are they dependent to keep their power and authority. Employees? Not likely, not since the unions have been busted. Customers? Nothing a good advertising budget can’t handle. Investors, fund managers and Wall Street analysts? Absolutely.

Political leaders are in a different game. Politicians are not beholden to investors, but to voters, and not all voters: only those capable of keeping them in power or forcing them out. Presidents in particular have the ability, and an honored place in a well understood hierarchy (albeit in conflicting ways by different people) to make promises. To whom will they make them? Apart from generic promises to all, they focus on those they know they must have with them if they are to continue in office.

Trump, the wanna be autocrat, may know nothing about sociological studies of authoritarian leaning voters, but his slick streetwise operator’s gut has not misled him. They are the ones to whom he makes promises, outrageous promises in abundance. He doesn’t actually have to deliver. Claiming victory where there is none is easy to do. Besides, there will always be enough enemies and conditions conspiring against him to take the blame. The failure to deliver simply makes room for more promises, and rallying cries for redoubled effort to defeat the enemies who are thwarting the good life just waiting on the other side. He doesn’t need a majority, not even a plurality. He only needs enough to intimidate the opposition, discourage the greater number of voters, and convince a few others that maybe he isn’t so bad after all.

How long can he get away with it? Possibly through the next election, but the odd thing about the American electorate is they really do believe in the ideals of democracy, justice, and the possibility of achieving the American Dream (whatever that may be). Like 19th century farmers and early 20th century workers, they will rise up against autocratic rule. Like mid 20th century civil rights and anti Vietnam War movements, they will demand justice. National heroes like Washington, Lincoln, King and others will overwhelm the repugnant memory of Trump as the nation seeks to rebuild itself. Trump has already sealed his own destruction. Our problem is we have to suffer through the mess until he’s gone, and that could take a while.

(Footnote: Citizens United has given more power to “investors” to dictate terms to politicians, which is especially easy for them to do in so called safe districts)

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