Autocracy and the Con

I’m not sure what makes this day any different. But I thought I’d begin by linking back to two posts I wrote at the beginning of the Trump Era – one the day after he was elected and the other the day he was inaugurated. I don’t know if you need it. But I think I must need it. In almost everything we do in life we face the constant peril of becoming overwhelmed and blinded by the flurry of contingent events and losing track of the larger story, our true goals, values, what is happening and our place in it.

This may be especially so living in Trump’s America because Trump is a huckster, a con-man. I use these words not as terms of abuse but with their specific meaning. Critics talk about how Trump tries not to dispute facts but undermine the whole idea that there are facts. Attacks on the press, a new conspiracy theory a day, new stories daily that are so ludicrous and unbelievable that saying them seems as much an act of aggression as an effort to convince. This is part of the study of authoritarianism. But it is also the stuff of the con. Con-men convince you to do stupid things or give them your money because they’re distracting you. You’re looking over there when they’re robbing you over here. More than anything else Trump is a con-man because he learned these tricks in business, in literal cons.

I try to remind myself that no one said this would be easy. We entered a national crisis the day Trump became President, perhaps the day he was elected. But recently I’ve been trying to collect my ideas about the larger context which created him or, better to say, allowed him to move to the center of power. There are plenty of domestic explanations. But what Trump is a part of is not simply domestic in character. We live in an era of mounting disorder – vicious as opposed to virtuous cycles – and illiberalism. There are still numerous measures by which the world continues to move toward greater freedom, prosperity, relative peace versus wars, longer lifespans and the eradication of endemic diseases have preyed on billions. (This may still be the deeper narrative in world history.) But at least at this moment, liberalism, democracy and the rule of law seem to be in retreat and have the look of weakness versus more authoritarian and illiberal visions of the future.

Why is this happening? There are at least a handful of meta-explanations for why this is the case. I don’t find any of them altogether satisfying or complete. But for now I have a certain optimism because whatever the roots of our current problems, the slide to degradation rather than improvement, some of the answer must start here, in the United States, if for no other reason than that the United States remains, albeit diminished, the most powerful state on the planet. It is in our hands.

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