The Trump Administration’s drive to undermine American and other Western democracies and embrace Putin’s Russia is a critical piece of an even larger, and more horrifying, blueprint for establishing a neo-fascist global oligarchy. So far, it’s working.
Mainstream American punditry this week is predictably mystified and outraged by Donald Trump’s pilgrimage to a one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin – fresh off doing his best to undermine NATO (especially the regimes of the conservative British and German prime ministers, Theresa May and Angela Merkel), and with new indictments of 12 Russian intelligence officials for their roles in helping throw the American 2016 presidential election to Trump. These things simply aren’t done; you can practically hear the clucking of disapproval.
It’s no particular mystery. And they aren’t nearly outraged enough.
The Plot to Destroy the World’s Democracies
Literally everything Donald Trump has done, both as a presidential candidate and now as president, has worked in service of a specific vision. It is a vision now shared by almost all of the U.S. Republican Party, whose specific issue preferences have always been secondary to their foundational purpose of advancing the interests of the wealthy. And with local variations, it is a vision being advanced with steadily greater effectiveness in most of the world’s democracies.
For as long as humans have organized themselves, there has been a competition for resources between those who have little and those who have plenty and want more. Here as elsewhere, democracy has sought to stabilize this balance, and throughout our history, goals that advance the common good and goals that make the rich richer have been in near-constant conflict. The Gilded Age begat The New Deal begat The Reagan Revolution; earlier, this country fought a terrifyingly brutal civil war over abolition of the economic institution of slavery.
Mostly through an accident of geography, these domestic American dramas have rarely been much influenced by outside forces. That era is over. The current push from the very rich to expand their wealth and power further is global in scope. What Donald Trump is trying to do in the US is what Vladimir Putin already did in Russia, on behalf of the same people: end his country’s experiment in democracy in all but name, consolidate power to himself, and use that power to loot his country’s public resources and give them to global elites. While skimming quite a bit for himself on the side.
Trump is not nearly smart or ruthless enough to think up this vision. But as a media celebrity, lifelong con artist, and insatiable narcissist, he is a near-perfect person to sell the Americanized variation of it to a credulous public.
The rich are always trying to get richer, of course. What makes this different is the scale of their attack on the rest of us. And to explain that requires a bit of context.
A Brief History of Power and Greed
Except for Antarctica, literally every square inch of land on our planet is claimed by one of the world’s 200 or so countries – but this is a relatively recent development. The European nation-state, the standard by which the world has now been divided and sub-divided, is only a few centuries old. Before that, much of the world had only informal borders, or none at all; “nations” were defined by common language and culture, and the expanse of land that nation could control varied wildly over the centuries. Russians, for example, have never controlled much of the known world – but Mongols have.
Similarly, the idea that national rulers – before or after the advent of the European nation-state – should be accountable to those they govern is also a recent invention. It is, in fact, the single reason why the American Revolution, with its then-unthinkably radical declaration that “all men are created equal,” was so globally significant. A decade later, the same sensibilities informed the far more central French Revolution. World Wars One and Two can be understood as a failed attempt by anti-democratic regimes, then in a minority, to reassert their power and relevance. Instead, democracies’ victories spread the the appeal of self-determination, resulting first in the independence of colonial India and then , within the next two decades, the collapse of western colonial rule.
The end of colonialism wasn’t the end, though – it was just a tactical shift, from direct to indirect control. Western economies that had grown wealthy and powerful from centuries of colonial theft found that they could continue their wealth extraction with less local unrest by paying off authoritarian local leaders to do their bidding. International institutions like the IMF and World Bank ensured that even nominally democratic former colonies continued the export most of their wealth to new York, London, and Paris. Ideology aside, this became much of the logic behind the Cold War. American-backed dictators, fortified with American weaponss helped ensure that many of the world’s largest and most ubiquitous companies were American.
Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Two major developments have sparked another, more radical tactical shift: the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of computing power and the Internet.
How We Learn To Stop Worrying and Love the Jackboot
In most of the countries where this project is underway – from the eastern and Ventral European countries already under neo-fascist rule (Poland, Hungary, Austria, Greece, and now Italy) to the Western European countries where this movement has grown dramatically stronger (the UK, France, Germany) to developing countries where democratically elected strongmen are consolidating power (Turkey, Philippines) to countries whose existing authoritarian rule is helping bankroll the poject (Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States), the project of looting individual individual countries is invariably being sold to its unwitting citizens as some form of nationalism. “Make America Great Again,” with its underpinnings of xenophobia and racism, is in this sense fairly typical.
The appeal of these nationalist movements is undeniable. Technology is changing the lives of people at a pace unprecedented in human history. The economic insecurity wrought in most countries by neoliberal and “free trade” policies has amounted to an elaborate, global race to the bottom for most of the world’s seven billion people. One economic estimate is that there’s only enough global wealth to create work than support five billion of us – meaning that in a global cash economy, two billion “surplus” people will always be willing to work for less rather than not work at all. And as wealth continues to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, that “surplus” population invariably rises. That’s not even factoring in the coming, catastrophic environmental changes, for which the global rich are busy building very exclusive arks.
As more and more people are left behind, the appeal to some of governments that can “get things done” and promise stability and a return to past glories isn’t surprising. It’s a cynical PR campaign, for which Donald Trump, who built his personal fortune on marketing, empty promises, and lies, has – as he noted about his meeting with Putin – been preparing all his life.
The irony is that the goal of these movements is the exact opposite of nationalist – it’s to extract wealth from the country, especially its public sectors, and transfer it to a global class of super-rich that can and does move its resources and wealth, instantly and often, with no regard to national boundaries except to avoid the inconveniences of taxation and regulation. The more that governments controlling major economies can be aligned with this vision, the less likely that these elites will need to bother with outposts like Panama, Cayman Islands, or Cyprus. Borders are a control mechanism for the little people.
How Trump Sells Authoritarian Rule
There’s More of Us, and We’re Not Dead Yet
In countries like Russia, Turkey, or the Philippines, post-Cold War democratic norms were never very strong to begin with,and have now utterly collapsed. That is not the situation in the United States.
As susceptible as the US, and especially the Republican Party, is corporate rule and nativist, authoritarian initiatives, there are a number of potentially fatal flaws in Team Trump’s bid to end American democracy – or at minimum, to distort it so badly that the notion of accountability to voters is a sham. As with Trump’s depredations, we are also seeing these flaws unfold in real time:
1) As a would-be authoritarian leader, Trump is cunning and sociopathic enough, but he’s not very bright, he’s impulsive, and he’s narcissistic to the point of self-destructive comedy. When modern American voters decide they want a president “just like me,” whether it’s Reagan, Dubya, or now Trump, what they mostly apparently mean is that they want someone who at least seems to be just as racist, incurious, and bone-stupid as they are.
with Trump, it’s no act. In only a year and a half, he’s burned through countless senior officials who describe him in terms like “fucking moron” and “semi-literate.” A truly smart sociopath could follow Trump’s blueprint with devastating results – but perhaps the voters wouldn’t like him enough to create the kind of opening Trump has seized.
In any event, Donald Trump’s greatest assets in selling his authoritarian policies – his ability to lie endlessly, his “authentic” anger and personal viciousness, his endless repetition of the same phrases, all operating in an alternative universe of history and facts epistiological