The United States is much better off without Michael Flynn serving as national security adviser. But no one should be cheering the way he was brought down.
The whole episode is evidence of the precipitous and ongoing collapse of America’s democratic institutions — not a sign of their resiliency. Flynn’s ouster was a soft coup (or political assassination) engineered by anonymous intelligence community bureaucrats. The results might be salutary, but this isn’t the way a liberal democracy is supposed to function.
Normally intercepts of U.S. officials and citizens are some of the most tightly held government secrets. This is for good reason. Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do.
The GOP Congress is not going to be able to ignore an escalating war within the Executive branch. Nor can they discount the possibility of characters like Flynn engaging in their own freelance retaliatory schemes.
And, you know, there’s also our system of constitutional government, that old thing, which gives Congress the responsibility for dealing with corruption and other lawbreaking by the Executive.
This is very much the kind of thing I’ve been worrying about. The danger posed by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon not that they’re wicked fascist masterminds who always think ten steps ahead, but that they have no interest in democratic governance and outright despise classic liberal values. When people like this are put in power, they create conditions that reinforce their worldview–chaos, controversy, scheming and deceit, ruthless struggles for power, and a fascination with the politics of personal drama: who’s getting whipped, who’s the king’s favorite, who’s the traitor or enemy du jour. As Millman put it in an earlier column:
Radicals in power are another story. Because they see crisis where non-radicals see only problems, the first thing a radical in power needs to do is align the general perception with his or her own. And the best way to do that is to precipitate a crisis. In terms of normal perception, that means doing one’s job badly, even catastrophically badly.
In this manner, the atmosphere of crisis makes it impossible to hold a regime accountable, because disaster is assumed to be inevitable and therefore cannot be blamed on the regime. Instead, the regime may take credit for the fact that it was prescient enough to see the disaster coming, and for having thought through its implications in advance. Indeed, it may even wind up taking credit for the disaster itself, as being a necessary precursor to something better. Chaos becomes a prerequisite for order. Failure becomes a prerequisite for success. War becomes a prerequisite for peace.
You can call that fascism if you want. I think the label’s an awkward fit. The more important point is that we Americans have been raised on a cartoon vision of autocratic rule: the invincible totalitarian state, penetrating into all facets of life, exercising punitive control over each thought and deed. The arch-Tory tyrants of V for Vendetta, the robo-regulators of the Matrix, the jackbooted, gray-tunicked imperators of a thousand lesser entertainments. And of course the ur-police state of 1984.
We associate these fears with the Nazi regime, the iconic dark sister of Western civilization. The Nazis are like us, but on Think-Like-an-Evil-Person day: industrialized, technocratic, media-obsessed, militaristic, superstitious about the glories of science, ambivalent toward the finer things of high European culture. But they turn every one of our values upside down. They’re the perfect villains for American bravado: a fiendishly entrancing dark side to our triumphal light side. Like orcs, like rabid dogs, they have to be put down: by the sword, by the gun, by the fist if necessary.
The way we think about failed states owes more, I think, to the Soviet menace and the lingering legacy of the Cold War. The deep American fear of someone–some meddling official–telling you what to think. In 1984, the entire society becomes an organ of thought control, bearing down with invincible weight on one man’s soul. Cast as a study of totalitarianism, the novel is rather a tragic celebration of individual conscience, the story of one man against the world. In the end, it takes all the power of the world to crush that man–interest from the highest levels of power, years of dedicated attention from state agencies, elaborate schemes worthy of Satan, torments out of Dante, weeks of high-tech torture and institutional manipulation. Latent in the novel’s dismal prognostications is an ego-gratifying message. Look what it takes to brainwash one Western man.
This is the narcissistic fantasy we’ve returned to over and over in the years since the rise of Stalin, an intellectual complement to our investment in military supremacy: the story of an all-powerful state trying (and in most tellings of the tale, failing) to change one person’s mind. But typical failed states don’t work like that at all. They’re places of crumbing inefficiency and constant inconvenience. The governments are scenes of perpetual squalid drama. They have news organs, but not very good ones, cultural industries, but not robust ones, educational systems rotted with nonsense. They host plenty of active dissidents who are perfectly free to think their own thoughts, but usually incapable of making meaningful changes. They churn with misinformation, rumor, hearsay, scandal, official pronouncements that no one trusts, propaganda that only sometimes works; they breed cynicism and disinterest more often than conformity. Browbeaten by constant untrustworthy assertions, people become suspicious toward all ideas. The apparatus of the police state uses its power not to eliminate every scrap of dissent, but to crush effective resistance.
There are exceptions, like North Korea. But most undemocratic states look more like Thailand, Iran, Pakistan, Guatemala, or even China. They bumble along in a state of mild disorder, topheavy with corruption, prone to monumental projects contrasted with daily inefficiency, clouded with an internal climate of lies and mistrust, veering between democratic gestures and retreats into paranoid autocracy, characterized by a catch-as-catch-can mentality. Not what we would call free, but not an Orwellian nightmare, either.
I see Donald Trump’s presidency dragging us toward an American version of that misery, one in which the government is mostly a scene of murky battles between rival factions (in some cases, rival ethnic factions, with America’s majority tribe, as in Kenya, feverishly clutching at power), widespread corruption and a lack of public spirit accompany a popular fascination with trashtalking gossip and gaudy media (as in India), the abuses of mercenary capitalism are abetted by the abuses of a national surveillance state (as in China), and the national leader is a cultish, often buffoonish figure whose popularity jumps and dips with weekly sensations in the tabloid press (as in–where to start?–the Philippines?). Not Stalin’s Russia–not even Putin’s Russia–and certainly not Nazi Germany. But not the nation most American adults remember.
Of course, these trends have been underway for a long time, and in some ways America did look like this during the nineteenth century. But does anyone want to repeat the nineteenth century? We still have freedom of the press, we still have something like a public square, we still have our faltering liberal values. But Donald Trump’s presidency is creating the conditions where only something like Donald Trump’s presidency will be viable: a corrupt and ruinous state ruling over a cynical and tribalized populace, in which constant disorder empowers any group (the military, the executive) that can bring a semblance of order, and people are always looking for a new great leader to save them from depredations of the current great leader. Lovely.