Trump's Semi-Loyal Collaborators
Semi-fascism only happens when people and institutions who aren't interested in authoritarianism go along with it anyway.
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1 (a). Semi-Fascist Kind of Life
Jonathan Chait went to the Florida NatCon conference to report on what the anti-anti-authoritarian conservatives are up to.
It’s not super encouraging, tbh.
Here, for instance, is Chait relating what the Best and Brightest conservatives are thinking these days about two of the institutions which resisted Trump’s attempt to overturn democracy:
Major corporations played an important role in civil society’s backlash against Trumpism — declaring boycotts of donations to election deniers, denouncing voting restrictions, and making statements in favor of rights for women and minorities. While liberals often rolled their eyes at these measures, conservatives took them as a deadly threat. Republicans are determined to regain the whip hand and ensure pushback like this never happens again. . . .
The National Conservatives consider the military to be the most important target for political purification. Speaker after speaker lambasted the Pentagon as a hive of social liberalism. “We might be thankful that the generals at the Pentagon are such low-IQ incompetents,” sneered Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter who was fired in 2018 for attending a conference with the founder of an anti-immigration site. “A powerful new ideology, commonly called wokeness, has conquered every institution in American life, including the military,” asserted Dreher. “The woke now control the Democratic Party, the entire federal government, the news media, academia, big tech, Hollywood, most corporate boardrooms, and now even some of our top military leaders,” claimed Scott. “We have to combat wokism in the military,” announced Klingenstein. “One standard I would judge a Republican nominee by: Is he committed to getting woke communism out of the military?”
This idea has gained surprising purchase on the right. The important context for understanding this obsession is the battle over Trump’s decision to clear protesters from Lafayette Square in 2020, after which Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed regret. Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist devoted a lengthy section of her speech to relitigating this episode, which she apparently believes Trump handled entirely appropriately. The idea that famously conservative agencies like the military are infested with communist beliefs, or even progressive ones, is obviously fantastical. The rhetoric about purging woke communists is a pretext to purge anybody who is not a loyal rightist — a point driven home recently when Masters called for firing the entire military leadership and replacing them with “the most conservative colonels.”
You should absolutely read the whole thing. Though I’ve gotta warn you: It’s pretty dark.
Chait’s key insight is something that the #TeamNormal Republicans/conservatives haven’t figured out yet.
By this, I mean a number of different classes of players. Those who tried to be in, but not of, Trump’s party. Those who talk themselves into believing that the real issue in 2022 is . . . school choice. Those took pains to stay Trump Skeptical. Those who are always focused on the skating to the puck of where the “post-Trump future” will be, at some point in the possible future.
Here’s what those individuals and institutions have missed, per Chait:
This is a familiar pattern in disintegrating democracies. Would-be dictators gain crucial support from allies in the political system who may not be committed authoritarians themselves but side with a factional leader who will advance their policy goals at the expense of democracy. The public tends to fixate on the personality of the charismatic authoritarian, but it is the choices of their coalition partners that mostly determine whether they succeed or fail. Political scientist Juan Linz calls these allies “semi-loyal actors,” and sociologist Ivan Ermakoff describes these alliances of convenience as “ideological collusion.”
“Semi-loyal ideological collusion” strikes me as almost precisely correct. The NatCon authoritarian project will succeed—if it succeeds—not because of the weirdos and gimps Chait saw in Florida, but because large swaths of “normal” Republican voters and institutions decide to say one of the following:
“This authoritarian stuff isn’t my cuppa, but at least this movement will get me Policy X.” Or,
“I don’t like the authoritarian stuff, but I hate Democratic Policy Y more.”
When you solve for the variables X and Y, you can get any number of answers (abortion, school choice, student-loan forgiveness, etc.). But at bottom, I’m not sure that either of those responses are really about solving for anything. It’s just motivated reasoning from actors who want to keep calling themselves Republicans or conservatives, no matter what.
And with the semi-loyal ideological collusionists onboard, the main body of the movement has progressed to building its new jack version of fusionism. Here’s Chait:
With a handful of exceptions, most of them since exiled from the party, Republicans have mostly chosen ideological collusion as their response to Trump’s violations of democratic norms. It was only when he summoned a mob to ransack the Capitol that his party recoiled in disgust. And even here, their revolt lasted mere days before they reasoned their way back to ignoring him. Trump was a spent force, they told themselves, so there was no point in alienating him or his supporters by impeaching him for his crimes.
Since that crucial decision to go forward together, insurrectionists and all, the thrust of the conservative project has been to build a movement that can blend the party’s traditional small-government conservatives with the Trump cultists, paramilitary organizations, and QAnon adherents. At the ground level, this work has involved the infiltration of the party ranks at every echelon, from poll-watching volunteers to candidates for statewide office, some of whom continue to tout Trump as the true winner of the 2020 election. At the more abstract level, the project is the construction of both a theoretical and a practical framework for the party’s authoritarian-libertarian synthesis.
The final self-deception of the semi-loyal ideological collusionists is that they look at the cultists, the militia guys, the QAnons and somehow construct a frame in which they aren’t allied with these groups. As though the guys praising the Unambomber and pushing for violent revolution and openly talking about flouting the Rule of Law are foreign out-groups.
Ultimately, this is how democracy falls: Self-deception on the part of people and institutions that should—that do—know better.
1 (b). Alex Jones
Charlie mentioned this in Morning Shots, but I want to put it in front of your eyeballs again:
My favorite part of Vance’s statement is the modifier “far.” He’s not just saying that, when you add up all the credits and debits, it turns out that Jones is more “reputable” than Maddow.1 He’s saying that it’s not even close! That any fool can see which of the two is a better news source.
Even Seb Gorka(!) understands what’s going on here.
Really hoping Seb follows this thought to its logical conclusions . . .
Every presidential administration does some good things, even if the administration is terrible. One of the mistakes of our politics is the reflexive belief that if Bad Actor #1 takes Action A, then Action A is, by definition, incorrect.
So it was with Donald Trump’s presidency. Even if you believe that most of what Trump did was dangerous and/or suboptimal, his administration did accomplish a couple good things.
Criminal justice reform with the 2018 First Step Act.
The operation to kill Qasem Soleimani.
Cracking back against the Chinese tech sector by beginning a series of sanctions against Huawei.
In each of these cases, the Trump administration’s course of action wasn’t perfect. You or I might have wished the administration had done things better.2 But directionally, these were all positives.
And here is a sign that the Biden administration is staffed by grownups: They have continued the good policy directions from the previous administration and not reversed them simply because they emanated from Trump.
For instance: Biden’s federal marijuana possession pardons can be seen as an extension of the Trump era criminal justice reform movement. The operation to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri was a continuation of Trump’s (and Obama’s, and Bush’s) policy to hunt down terrorist leaders. And Biden’s export controls against advanced equipment used to make chips is the next logical step in hardening American policy against Chinese expansion, which was begun under Trump.
This is what responsible politics looks like.
And today Axios is reporting that the Biden administration is going to turn the screws even more on Huawei:
The Federal Communications Commission plans to ban all sales of new Huawei and ZTE telecommunications devices in the U.S. — as well as some sales of video surveillance equipment from three other Chinese firms — out of national security concerns, sources with direct knowledge of the private deliberations told Axios. . . .
The move, which marks the first time the FCC has banned electronics equipment on national security grounds, closes a vise on the two Chinese companies that began tightening during the Trump administration.
The Biden administration: Even tougher on China than Trump.
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3. Find Your Bid
One of the best pieces of jailhouse writing I’ve come across.
Shuffling down the blurry corridor in my cheap, prison-issued slippers, also known as “Bruce Lees,” I was eventually handed off to a nearly identically stout, bald guard at E-Unit. He unlocked the heavy door using an old steel key, like a clichéd prison-movie scene. Everyone stared at me, the fresh meat. As he led me through the unit to my cell, down the bleak concrete hallway, it was hard to fully comprehend that this was my new existence, my home for the next seven years.
Once the guard was gone, a few guys cornered me in my cell and demanded to see my paperwork, the documents new arrivals receive, which detail their criminal charges — prison’s version of a welcoming party, which shows up mostly just to find out if you’re a pedophile. This task is usually carried out by a group of guys from one’s hometown, which is easy to learn since the last three digits of your ID number indicate which district court handled your case — a kind of proxy for geography — information that, along with your name, is printed on the front of your shirt for everyone to see.
The welcome party’s request to see your paperwork isn’t exactly a friendly one, and of course there’s a natural urge to resist. But refusing to show it is as good as admitting to being a child molester, so everyone just hands it over. Luckily for me, the crime I’d committed had gotten quite a bit of media coverage, so right off the bat one of the guys recognized me. “Oh, dang, you’re one of them art robbers!” he blurted out, chuckling in a high-pitched tone — and just like that, the interrogation was over. I was accepted into the community. In their words, it was because I was famous, but more importantly not a pedophile. . . .
Most new guys just end up lying in bed on their first day; the bunk becomes a sanctuary, a safe space where they hide from others, as well as a new reality — as if you could just go to sleep and one day wake up and suddenly everything will be back to normal. After watching me lie in bed all day, my celly — a skinny, middle-aged dude from Detroit — tried to offer some words of encouragement.
“Man, you gotta get a bid,” he said.
“You know — a bid. It’s how you do your time.” . . .
It was all about how you did your time, like finding a hobby or hustle to get you through your bit. For many guys, it was about winning, no matter what the endeavor was. Others just wanted to make money. Some guys used it simply as a way to occupy their minds. For everyone, though, it was all about escaping the slog of captivity. My celly told me he bid off a lot of things, but mostly just gambling — although he did like to dabble in some prison hooch from time to time. He said if I could find this thing — this sense of purpose — it would make all the difference in my life. Without it, he said, my sentence would feel like an endless misery. “Do the time,” he said. “Don’t let the time do you.”
All across the compound, there were countless ways of bidding, from gambling to religion, education to gang life, sex, art, and prison jobs (the average prisoner only made about 10 to 50 cents per hour). Sports were a popular way to bid. . . .
Weightlifting seemed to be the most popular form of bidding. All day long you heard grunts and clashing iron coming from a covered corner of the yard, what we called the weight pile. It was a chaotic scene of unchecked alpha where you saw some pretty strange things, such as when one guy got so aroused while bench-pressing that he prematurely ejaculated in his sweatpants. He acted surprised when it happened, moaning in ecstatic bewilderment before slamming down the weight bar and running away in humiliation. . . .
Sometimes, perhaps inevitably, certain bids overlapped, propped up by their own sub-economies. Some guys bid off of gambling on the games — basketball, softball, soccer — while others sold food to the crowd. Cooking homemade (in other words, cell-made) food was probably the most common form of bidding. To do this, the cell chefs would often rely on overpriced commissary items, which they would use to concoct elaborate rice bowls, burritos, even pizzas, using just a microwave and simple ingredients like packaged meats, ramen noodles, and seasoning salt. . . .
My own bidding was heavily influenced by being incarcerated with Warren and Spencer. The three of us had been close friends since our early teens, when we started playing club soccer together in Kentucky. From the start, we all just clicked. Even at a young age, Spencer was already a gifted artist, and Warren a well-read thinker with political aspirations. Over the years, we encouraged each other to reject our Southern conservative upbringings for a more subversive approach to life, which may have had something to do with why we all ended up in federal prison together.
That last line is an instant classic. Read the whole thing.
And wtf does he mean by “reputable”? Because just objectively, Jones is not as “reputable” as Maddow. In fact, Vance’s entire point in this tweet is that Jones is better than his reputation.
I’m not just griping reflexively: The First Step Act could have gone a bit further. Trump’s response to the Iranian retaliation—in which he callously dismissed injuries to American soldiers—was bad. The Huawei sanctions—like the attempts to separate TikTok from Byte Dance—could have been more organized.