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The Republican Party As Totalitarian State
One of our two major political parties has become an autocracy.
Join me tonight on the Bulwark+ livestream where we’re going to talk about the Republican party and the Big Lie.
It’ll be at 9:00 p.m. and you’ll get a Zoom link in your email this evening.
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1. Workers of the world, unite!
The Republican party is, as of this moment, an autocracy.
Consider: Why has the GOP gone crazy and insisted that the election was “stolen”?
The answer—the only answer—is: Because Donald Trump said so.
What if Trump emerged after the election and said, “Tough loss. Joe Biden put up a good fight. I’ll be back in 2024 to beat him like a drum.” Well, in that situation, there would be no move to overturn the election and no one in the precincts of Conservatism Inc. would be arguing that, ackshually, Donald Trump won by a landslide.
They would not be arguing that because there is no evidence for this argument. None. Absent a command from Trump, no outside observer would have come to this verdict on their own.
But present a command from Trump, this position became mandatory.
This is the definition of autocracy. And once you understand that the GOP itself has become an autocracy, it becomes easy to understand a lot of what’s going on.
I’ve done this before, but I want to remind you of Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless,” which is based around the parable of the greengrocer. The set up is that the greengrocer in a Communist country puts up a sign in his window that reads “Workers of the world, unite!”
Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment's thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life "in harmony with society," as they say. . . .
The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: "I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace." This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer's superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan's real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer's existence. It reflects his vital interests.
This is exactly how we should view the various lawsuits being filed on behalf of President Trump, especially the suit filed by the Texas attorney general.
Why did the Texas AG file his preposterous claim? Is it because he expected it to be successful? Or because he thought it had even a minuscule chance of succeeding?
He filed it for the same reason as the greengrocer. The Texas AG wanted to signal that he was in harmony with his society (which in Texas is synonymous with the Republican party). That he knows what he must do. That he can be depended upon and has the right to be left in place.
And this is why 17 other state attorneys general joined the Texas suit. They were simply putting up signs in their windows, too.
If the Texas AG served elsewhere, in some other capacity—if he was a United States senator, for instance—he would have found some other mode of expression. But he is only a humble state attorney general. So filing this suit was his sign. Workers of the world, unite!
Ted Cruz needed his own sign. Which is why he volunteered to argue the Texas suit before the Supreme Court.
Did anyone ask Cruz to take the case? No. Did Cruz believe there was any chance, whatsoever, that the case would be accepted by the Court? No. But Ted Cruz has eyes to see and ears to hear. He saw everyone else in the party putting up their signs signaling obedience and reliability. And so volunteering to argue the case became his sign.
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2. Subject and Object
Havel explains that the greengrocer putting the sign in his window is both the subject of oppression and an instrument of the oppressive system. He puts the sign up in his window because he has to in order to avoid trouble.
But by putting up their sign, he also contributes to the creation of a panorama of control, which forces the next person to put up her sign, too.
And that’s pretty much what’s going on in the GOP right now.
The actions of the state attorney generals contribute to the panorama which forces congressional Republicans to either stay silent or put up signs of their own.
But maybe the best example of the totalitarianism we’re seeing in the party is how Republicans who say the obvious—that Joe Biden won a free and fair election—are treated. They are not merely seen as having divergent opinions. They are viewed as dissidents. Dangerous people who must be hunted and shunned, opposed and defeated.
And this is because their refusal to conform threatens the foundation of the autocratic power structure. Here’s Havel explaining what happens when the greengrocer takes down his sign:
Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. . . .
The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children's access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him. Most of those who apply these sanctions, however, will not do so from any authentic inner conviction but simply under pressure from conditions, the same conditions that once pressured the greengrocer to display the official slogans. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama, to which belongs an awareness that this is how situations of this sort are dealt with, that this, in fact, is how things are always done, particularly if one is not to become suspect oneself. . . .
Thus the power structure, through the agency of those who carry out the sanctions, those anonymous components of the system, will spew the greengrocer from its mouth. The system, through its alienating presence in people, will punish him for his rebellion. It must do so because the logic of its automatism and self-defense dictate it. The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.
Not much of a reach, is it?
It’s important to understand that this is all new to American politics. We have not been down this road before. And so we should not assume that we know with certainty where it leads.
Maybe the optimistic view is correct: All things are passing. We’ll revert to the Old Republican party soon, just with more constructive populism. These are just the actions of one clownish, cartoonish figure. He didn’t actually succeed, right? Everything is fine.
Or maybe not. Maybe the panorama and the new power structure will outlast Donald Trump and this mode of existence within the Republican party will endure.
And if it does, the consequences will be felt not only by the Republican party.
3. Mystery Drones
This Guardian longread is interesting because it’s a mystery, but also because it hints at the future of asymmetric warfare:
Soon after 9pm on Wednesday 19 December 2018, an airport security officer who had just finished his shift at Gatwick airport was standing at a bus stop on site, waiting to go home, when he saw something strange. He immediately called the Gatwick control centre and reported what he had seen: two drones. One was hovering above a vehicle inside the airport complex, and the other was flying alongside the nearby perimeter fence. The message was relayed to senior management. Unauthorised drone activity is considered a danger to aircraft and passengers because of the risk of collision. Within minutes, Gatwick’s only runway had been closed and all flights were suspended.
Over the next half hour, 20 police and airport security vehicles drove around the airport, lights flashing and sirens blaring, with the intention of scaring whoever was operating the drones. It didn’t work. By 9.30pm, six more sightings had been logged by the Gatwick control centre, five of them from police officers. Inside the airport, thousands of passengers waited to set off on their Christmas holidays. In the sky above, planes circled, waiting to land. Some were at the end of long journeys, and more than a dozen aircraft were soon dangerously low on fuel.
About an hour after the first sighting, Eddie Mitchell, a news photographer, was on his way to the airport to cover the shutdown when he remembered that he had two drones in his car. Fearing that he might come under suspicion, he rang the police: “I said: ‘I’m heading to Gatwick, please don’t think it’s me!’” . . .
By midnight, 58 flights had been diverted or cancelled. But there hadn’t been any drone sightings for an hour, and Gatwick tried to reopen the runway. And then, suddenly, the drones reappeared. “We had the feeling that it was going to last all night,” I was told by a former Gatwick employee who did not want to give her name. She was right: into the next day, every time staff prepared to reopen the runway, more sightings were reported. Staff and police speculated that the drone operator had gained access to the flight radar system, or was somehow listening into police or airport communications.
Some feared the drones were being operated by terrorists. “Drones can be transformed into flying suicide vests,” said David Dunn, a drone expert at Birmingham University. In the previous two years, there had been multiple terror attacks around Europe, including the suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena 18 months earlier, which killed 22 people. It had been reported that Isis had used consumer drones to drop grenades in Iraq. After the failed attempt at reopening, Sussex police alerted the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism unit. “We were under siege,” the former employee told me. The drones seemed to be taunting them. “It started to feel like a national emergency.”