David Frum’s article in The Atlantic “How to Build an Autocracy” not surprisingly gained a great deal of attention because of the all too plausible way that it highlighted how the constitutional checks and balances of the US political system can fail, if those whose job is to exercise those checks and balances instead find that conformity to presidential power serves their personal ambitions better. But also because Frum is himself a Republican insider, a former speechwriter for President George w Bush, and has an insider’s insight into the processes.
In particular, Frum shows how strategy of delegitimisation of critical journalism is used to seek to silence dissent. For example Trump’s attempt to shut out CNN for having told the truth, by the staggering accusation that they were the purveyors of fake news.
One story, still supremely disturbing, exemplifies the falsifying method. During November and December, the slow-moving California vote count gradually pushed Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump in the national popular vote further and further: past 1 million, past 1.5 million, past 2 million, past 2.5 million. Trump’s share of the vote would ultimately clock in below Richard Nixon’s in 1960, Al Gore’s in 2000, John Kerry’s in 2004, Gerald Ford’s in 1976, and Mitt Romney’s in 2012—and barely ahead of Michael Dukakis’s in 1988.
This outcome evidently gnawed at the president-elect. On November 27, Trump tweeted that he had in fact “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He followed up that astonishing, and unsubstantiated, statement with an escalating series of tweets and retweets.
It’s hard to do justice to the breathtaking audacity of such a claim. If true, it would be so serious as to demand a criminal investigation at a minimum, presumably spanning many states. But of course the claim was not true. Trump had not a smidgen of evidence beyond his own bruised feelings and internet flotsam from flagrantly unreliable sources. Yet once the president-elect lent his prestige to the crazy claim, it became fact for many people. A survey by YouGov found that by December 1, 43 percent of Republicans accepted the claim that millions of people had voted illegally in 2016.
A clear untruth had suddenly become a contested possibility.
Chillingly, Trump has issued the following hardly veiled threat.
AT A RALLY Grand Rapids, Michigan, in December, Trump got to talking about Vladimir Putin. “And then they said, ‘You know he’s killed reporters,’ ” Trump told the audience. “And I don’t like that. I’m totally against that. By the way, I hate some of these people, but I’d never kill them. I hate them. No, I think, no—these people, honestly—I’ll be honest. I’ll be honest. I would never kill them. I would never do that. Ah, let’s see—nah, no, I wouldn’t. I would never kill them. But I do hate them.”
The significance of the massive outpouring of protest against Trump, both in the USA and internationally, is that that process of democratic engagement itself acts as a counterbalance, that incentivizes those with constitutional power to trim the ambitions of the presidency to exercise those powers. Had the American public been quiescent over the travel ban, had there been no wave of international reaction, then Judge James Robart in Seattle would have been less likely to declare the ban unconstitutional. And of course that action by the courts has itself given wings to the opposition to Trump.
That is why those who equate Trump and Brexit as parallel political phenomena are so wrong (though it is an argument more likely to occur on Social Media than in real life!)
The difficulty that many of us felt who supported the Remain campaign, but who had few illusions about the EU, was that we saw the actually existing Brexit campaign as being dominated by unsavoury rights wingers, and that the arguments for a progressive exit were coming from weaker and more marginal forces, who could not shape events. As such the referendum campaign did unleash a backlash of anti-immigrant sentiment; and the process of Brexit is in the hands of an untrustworthy Conservative government.
But for those of us who had not drunk the EU Koolaid, the EU is not itself inherently progressive, and leaving the EU, while this continues to represent a serious challenge in terms of jobs and employment rights, is still a political event susceptible to multiple outcomes. In the actually existing circumstances of 2016, the forces of the political right did get a boost by the Brexit vote, but that is not necessarily irreversible. Brexit is a political phenomenon which is not necessarily inherently right wing, even if it is most associated with right wing politicians like UKIP. The outcomes, while remaining pregnant with the possibility of disaster, can still be shaped by political and trade union action into something better.
In contrast, notwithstanding the anti-establishment populism which attracted many blue-collar Americans to invest hope in Trump, there is actually no possible progressive dimension to his successful election. Trump is inherently right wing.
Indeed, the foolhardiness of those who equate Trump and Brexit resides in the fact that their position can only weaken the unity of the left. In reality the opposite is the case, the mass movement that is growing against Trump, including the excellent leadership that has come from the Labour Party over this issue, has the potential of reversing the rise of racism that has grown since the referendum.
The tasks of the movement are clear. To argue for the strongest possible protection of jobs and employment rights during the Brexit process. To oppose racism, a task given a boost by the opposition to Trump; and to build and strengthen the unity of the left and the trade unions.