23 July 2020

Power, love, and endurance

How do tyrants begin?

Last week I linked to Roger E. Olson's blog post entitled "The Untold Story of How Hitler Came to Power in Germany." This week he followed that up with a brief but pointed description of street-level authoritarianism in this post: "How Would It Begin? The Early Signs of Totalitarianism."

If you thought this new post might refer to the controversial federal intervention in our city of Portland, Oregon, Olson confirms this in the comment section. It may seem off-scale to compare the brutality of the U.S. federal response to the Portland demonstrations and disorders with the ruthless violence of the "disappearance" era in Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador. If so, try also comparing those actions with the USA's long-standing "city on a hill" mythology -- not that this shining exceptionalism ever shielded all of us equally. In any case, the most powerful word in Olson's title might be begin.

The Portland situation, and its possible sequels in Missouri, New Mexico, and Illinois, have taken over more and more space in news sites and social media in the last few days. Portland's first-hand coverage divides fairly neatly into two classifications: "I was there, and federal forces attacked peaceful demonstrators," and "I was there, and those violent demonstrators are vandalizing, burning, and looting." I really don't doubt that both statements can be true. The life of a city in an extremely tense and polarized time of history can include very assertive nonviolent protest -- and, given the stakes involved (an end to white nationalism and police terrorism, at long last), this isn't surprising. Vandalism, petty arson, and other crimes are also part of an urban ecosystem under stress, whether we like it or not. Sometimes these actions may be riding on the edge of the nonviolent demonstrations, and sometimes they might just be opportunistic.

The issue is NOT which side is exaggerating or minimizing more than the other side; it's whether the community (government and civil society) has the resources to deal with the situation. If they do not, their next step is to call for help from the state government. Federal properties have their own security forces, which are expected to coordinate closely with city and state. The current spectacle of unilateral and highly irregular federal intervention under the leadership of political interim appointees beholden to Donald Trump, is scandalous, anti-democratic, and unacceptable.

Origin of photo on right.
Why are tyrants their own worst enemies?

About three weeks ago, Eastern Orthodox educator John Mark Reynolds posted an article entitled "Why do tyrants always behave stupidly?"

I don't know that Reynolds is asserting that Donald Trump is a tyrant; the observations in his essay cover a range of historical situations. However, I believe that his arguments are useful tools to examine Trump's actions. -- And, in particular, Trump's re-election campaign.

Reynolds:  "Most tyrants ride a wave of popular support." Trump's populist and white-nationalist messages proved persuasive to a critical mass of voters in 2016. Now that it's 2020, it's not yet correct to apply the label "tyrant" to Trump, but I'd like to suggest some alarming hints:
  • documented admiration for other countries' authoritarians
  • frequent references and links to white supremacy, the Confederacy, and other links to the ancient tyrannies of slavery, nativism, and Jim Crow
  • numerous extravagant personal claims in most public appearances
  • a stream of top-down decisions bypassing or overriding Cabinet-level and congressional advice
  • dismissal or reassignment of whistleblowers, ambassadors, inspectors general, witnesses in the impeachment investigation
  • acceptance or active solicitation of foreign help for his political benefit
  • unprecedented willingness to vilify or defend people who are being investigated for crimes or misconduct, depending on the politics of the situation
  • -- and to use his power to pardon or commute sentences as political acts
  • inability to separate presidential occasions from campaign events
  • adopting traditional tyrannical habits -- military parades, appointing relatives to high positions, leveraging the perks of office for personal gain.
Reynolds: "The reaction to tyranny is always, justifiably, fierce." Every single item on this list of hints has provoked growing alarm and fierce reactions from his critics. One concrete result was Trump's impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives, followed by acquittal by the Senate on the strength of his party's majority. Another apparent result is his declining percentage of support in polls of voting-age citizens.

How does this list fit Reynolds's description of a tyrant's career?
If perfect love casts out all fear, the will to power in the tyrant casts out all love. He ends up surrounded by transactional figures: people who work for treats, money, rewards, power. He knows this and slowly all the old loyalists are purged by his doubts. The tyrant has wanted power and if clever or lucky, gains power, but can only keep that power by increasingly counter-productive means. When the “new” might have come to the office with moderates in charge, he jails the moderates. When the “new” might have swept into office with some checks and balances on the radicals, he jails these leaders. Finally, the opposition becomes so radicalized, the government so dependent on mere power, that the tyrant falls.
Trump doesn't fit this path perfectly. There are those whom he might like to "lock up" or restrain, one way or another, but, so far, he can't. Mary Trump and John Bolton were, after all, able to publish their books. Marie Yovanovitch and Alexander Vindmann were unjustly forced out of their jobs, but with their lives and honor intact.

How would we heal from a would-be tyrant?

The cost to the country of Trump's tyrannical tendencies have been serious. The first, and most dramatic, costs are represented by the dead and injured victims of his inability to admit to and learn from errors. He assumed that the coronavirus was a danger to his political fortunes and criminally downplayed its threat as a public health catastrophe -- and wasted months on incompetent improvisations, denials, boasts, and blame games.

More generally, the Trump administration has put us in critical danger of losing the important boundary between the normal operations of government and the personal fortunes of those at the top. In turn, as Reynolds warns, the opposition has also become radicalized. We now have an awful and growing separation between Trump's critics and his defenders -- a separation that Trump would rather exploit than heal.

Trump has good reason to fear for his future. His response is to raise up a specter of enemies -- China, liberals, urban terrorists, militant atheists -- who would make the USA a living hell if not for his decisive leadership. (And please pay no attention to the lack of decisive leadership when it was actually needed: to organize a robust response to the novel coronavirus.)

Reynolds leads me to believe that Trump's distorted priorities and his sheer incompetence will ultimately lead to his defeat. But what's to stop Trump's radicalized opposition, or another more polite version of Trumpism, from taking over and becoming equally destructive? After all, according to Reynolds, "No government is so good that it cannot be monstrous."

For Christians, and for all of us who put our stock in love rather than power, I believe Reynolds's advice is sound: completely recalibrate what it means to "win" and "lose" in politics, loving and engaging with our enemies on the level of our values, trusting and praying that to endure on that basis means to prevail in the long run. But, as he concludes, above all this is a matter for daily prayer. 

I was not planning to write about Donald Trump this evening. However, again this evening, a few miles from here, the demonstrations for #BlackLivesMatter have started. It was difficult to witness the street battles between Palestinian young people and Israeli soldiers in Hebron last fall, and it is just as difficult to see something similar happening here. In Hebron, the soldiers' very presence provided the occasion for clashes that, in turn, "proved" the need for the soldiers. It's a formula that the president is no doubt counting on to provide visuals for his re-election campaign.

I want to write about something other than Trump. Next week, I hope I can.

Friday PS: Timothy Snyder on the baby fascists in Portland.

"All mamas were summoned when George Floyd called for his mama": Portland's Wall of Moms

Pendle Hill's hybrid worship experiment, and the technology that supports it. (Thanks to Quaker Ranter for the link.)

Kristina Stoeckl on the end of post-Soviet religion.

Hard news: Quaker leader, pastor, author, medical missionary, theological educator, and my Friends United Meeting colleague Mary Glenn Hadley has died. 

Sofia Lemons reflects on Micah 6:8.

This is what I need at the end of a difficult day... Jimmy Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt, "The Pleasure's All Mine."

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