Republican Authoritarianism


Twice last week, Republicans were mumbling in public what I suspect many have been arguing in private for quite some time.

First, Thomas Sowell, in one of his lazy columns of disconnected anecdotes, considers the fate of the country:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.

And then swathing the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, Harvard professor of government and political philosophy (and "manliness" advocate) Harvey Mansfield waxed long and lovingly on the need for a strong executive and "one-man rule" to save the Republic:

Now the rule of law has two defects, each of which suggests the need for one-man rule. The first is that law is always imperfect by being universal, thus an average solution even in the best case, that is inferior to the living intelligence of a wise man on the spot, who can judge particular circumstances. This defect is discussed by Aristotle in the well-known passage in his “Politics” where he considers “whether it is more advantageous to be ruled by the best man or the best laws.”

The other defect is that the law does not know how to make itself obeyed. Law assumes obedience, and as such seems oblivious to resistance to the law by the “governed,” as if it were enough to require criminals to turn themselves in. No, the law must be “enforced,” as we say. There must be police, and the rulers over the police must use energy (Alexander Hamilton’s term) in addition to reason. It is a delusion to believe that governments can have energy without ever resorting to the use of force.

The best source of energy turns out to be the same as the best source of reason — one man. One man, or, to use Machiavelli’s expression, uno solo, will be the greatest source of energy if he regards it as necessary to maintaining his own rule. Such a person will have the greatest incentive to be watchful, and to be both cruel and merciful in correct contrast and proportion. We are talking about Machiavelli’s prince, the man whom in apparently unguarded moments he called a tyrant.

How deep and dark the thoughts of Republicans have become these days! I had never heard of Mansfield until this week (proving that one can lead a deep, fulfilling and very manly life without consulting one of the country’s resident philisophes on the subject), and Thomas Sowell has never impressed me much. Since his columns first caught my eye sometime in the 1980s (I think), he has always struck as a shallow and eager defender of "energetic" government, particular energetic policing and war-making by Republican presidents.

But we should be very grateful that rather than huddle in tiny conventicles mumbling these things to themselves, Sowell and Mansfield have wandered up to the tops of mountains and shouted them to the world.

There is a streak of authoritarianism in Conservatism in the United States, and there always has been. I and others have written at length about it at this web site, and I hope we continue to do so. However, that streak is getting wider, taking over much more of the Conservative Republican soul. This desire to be led, to be ruled, to succumb to "one-man rule," will lead surely lead to dictatorship. It will lead to dictatorship because too many Republicans want it to lead there. They want a führer, and they are not likely to stop until they get one.

One need only look at the current crop of Republican presidential candidates (Ron Paul excluded). All are strong advocates of a vigorous executive, of executive power, privilege and prerogative. Both Giuliani and McCain would make serviceable führers, and I’m certain that is exactly their appeal with the leadership-hungry base of the GOP. (Mitt Romney is more a CEO type, and Republicans already voted for that in 2000. While the party faithful cherish and support their current CEO, I think they are a more than a bit disappointed that he isn’t enough of a leader.)

But this is an old American desire, older than the "War on Terror" and older even, I think, than the Cold War itself. (I’m old enough to remember some cranky old Conservative publication from the early 1980s pining for an American Cincinnatus to take charge of the nation during our near-eternal "wartime" and lead it, selflessly, to victory. This desire is as old as the American presidency itself. It, however, fails to understand that dictatorship is rarely as selfless as they’d like.) But 60 years of nearly endless confrontation and war have sharpened this desire for a dictator, and Conservatism’s ignorance of its own history has left its adherents unable to understand why they want "one-man rule" or what it really means.

And there is this overweening sense of entitlement among Republicans that the presidency is, by rights, theirs. That sense of entitlement dies hard, and itself will likely be rubbed bloody and raw should a Democrat (Hillary Clinton most likely, with Barak Obama in the Dick Cheney seat) get elevated to the presidency in 2008. But because we have invested so much in the presidency, so much power and authority and responsibility, so much of our national identity, and because we Americans have come to view so much relying on the outcome of political processes (including the very survival of our supposed civilization), there will come a day when someone will not want to surrender that office merely because voters said they need to. Or someone will try and take the office despite being told by voters they can’t have it.

"Too much is at stake," they will say.

For a long time I feared the military — whose officer corps have been Republican-occupied territory since sometime in the 1970s — would give its support to any Republican efforts to seize power. Based on what I’ve read, however, the officers of the Army and Marine Corps are much less enchanted with the GOP-run executive and are probably much less likely to assent and support a seizure of power. This is the sole silver lining, however, on an otherwise very dark cloud.

Because I’m not so sure Republicans need the active support or even passive assent of much of the military anymore. Especially its officers. They will have the legions of "private contractors," the Blackwaters and the CACIs, currently at war in Iraq, to act as their Freikorps in the event they decide to seize power. Who or what is Blackwater loyal to? And while the Army officer may have a very Conservative Republican sense of duty, that sense of duty usually also involved the nation and its principles, and not just a certain party’s leaders. I don’t think we can say the same of the militias — um, sorry, private contractors. Do Blackwater soldiers swear an oath of allegiance or loyalty to a constitution or a government? Or do many — most? — Blackwater "men at arms" swear their loyalty to a junk ideology which includes a kind-of cultural conservatism that believes in "order" brutally and efficiently administered by whatever "authority" shares those values? (I dare you to imagine Blackwater in service to a future Hillary Clinton or Barak Obama administration…) Besides, I doubt men sign up to fight in private armies because they want to help people.

But another future risk are Iraq veterans themselves, many of whom have served (and will serve) multiple tours in Iraq. Much of the political and social instability of the 1920s and 1930s was caused by soldiers unable to adjust to life outside the trench and the battlefield. Ordinary life, the life of family, church and commerce, no longer had the allure that the camaraderie of the military unit had, and no longer provided as noble a purpose. Fascism owed much to these soldiers, who not only provided its muscle but also instilled in European fascism its reason for being — creating a regimented society united in purpose in which all belonged (or could be made to belong). I’m not saying Iraq veterans will pose this kind of threat to American democracy, but some could. What will many think when they don’t get parades or thanks of a grateful nation for years of miserable and life-threatening service? Unlike Vietnam vets, these men (and women) go to Iraq and come back (and go, and come back, and go, and so on…) in coherent military units, rather than as atomized individuals. Some, maybe many, will miss that sense of belonging, the daily fighting for life that makes mundane human existence pointless and unbearable. In the 1920s, Fascism promised, and tried to deliver, a cure for that.

Republicans are also advancing their own "stabbed in the back" myth to explain away the "defeat" of Iraq and Afghanistan. Dinesh D’Souza is only the latest to advance the notion that the "Cultural Left" is somehow responsible for the loss, and I expect that between the traitorous media, Democrats, university professors and whatnot, the Right will eagerly deflect any responsibility for the war or the very real nature of the defeat of American arms. But calling someone a traitor, labeling whole swaths of fellow-citizens as responsible for defeat, these are words that logically lead to consequences, they demand action. Why only fight an enemy abroad when that very same enemy needs to be fought at home? I think they are words and ideas that Republicans and Conservatives will eventually demand be acted upon. They can only do that if they control the state. George W. Bush clearly has not been the man to take that war that seriously. But I fear someone will.

I don’t yet know in what circumstances the Right might try to seize power in this country. I can imagine the outcry from Conservatives and Republicans following a major terror attack eight months or a year into a Hillary Clinton administration. If we get the mutterings of Sowell in the midst of a Republican presidency, can you imagine how hoarse some will scream, and how blunt they would wear the nibs of their pens down, how they would thrash their keyboards? I suspect there would be a demand to topple President Hillary Clinton and install a junta of some kind, and the pressure might be great. The good news is that Republicans would likely fail in any attempt to seize power under those conditions, if only because they will not likely have enough of the military on their side. The bad news, however, is two-fold. First, failure to seize power will not leave them as completely defeated as actually seizing and wielding power, and subsequently failing would (America is too big to be ruled by a dictator, and "one-man rule" in this way would probably fall apart in a few years). Whiny, self-righteous Rightists would linger and organize for another attempt.

Second and worse, however, is what a Democrat administration would do in the face of a failed attempt to topple it. I’m not sure how much of law enforcement and the military would follow orders, but attached as they are to state power, police and soldiers would — at least many of them — likely follow orders, even if (maybe especially if) those orders involve the mass arrest and detention of Americans. Whiny, self-righteous Right-wingers could actually claim something resembling a moral high ground under such circumstances. What could then follow would be a slow unraveling of the country and a descent into political violence and insurgency.

The upside of this is that secession would finally be a real option.

Am I being overly pessimistic? I don’t want to be. But I don’t know. Our Conservative friends are oft reminding us, words have consequences, and the words many use to describe their fellow citizens are intemperate, alarmist and angry. As I pondered whether the Queen of Denmark could use another loyal subject, a very good friend cautions me in my pessimism that there is another way, that we do not need to emulate those who have wandered down the path of dictatorship because some (or many) very vocal and active people wanted it. The French avoided fascism in the 1930s and later military rule during the Algerian War, so it is possible, despite facing as many discontents and discontented as we do, to avoid this fate.

But as energetic Conservatives constantly and vociferously remind us, we are not French. We should take them at their word.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.