BrooklynFans Of Books: On Possible Authoritarianism In The U.S.

As the Trump administration advances in its second year, there are fears that authoritarianism could come to the United States.

Cass R. Sunstein’s Can It Happen Here? and Madeleine Albright’s Fascism look at the ways President Donald Trump could increase his power.

Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism In America

Edited By Cass R. Sunstein

Dey Street Books, paperback, $17.99

“So: Can it happen here?” asks Cass R. Sunstein. “My own summary of this book: Absolutely. It has happened before. It will happen again. To many Americans, something like it is happening now.”

Sunstein, an acclaimed Harvard legal scholar who serves in the Obama administration, collects essays from more than a dozen of the nation’s top thinkers on the subject of authoritarianism in Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism In America.

This thought-provoking collection from America’s leading legal and political minds put forth lessons from history; track how democracies crumble; explore the way propaganda works; and locate the role of our various national institutions in the modern political landscape.

Some essays specifically address President Donald Trump. For example, a few contributors write about the administration’s approach to immigration policy; Duncan Watts warns against Trump’s refusal to engage with scientific expertise; Geoffrey Stone describes Trump as “a president who understands nothing of our history or of the necessary conditions of our democracy.”

The discussions reach well beyond our contemporary political moment, with the focus on “big and enduring questions” about authoritarianism, including:

  • Is a powerful central government a threat to liberty – or a safeguard against it?

Tyler Cowen and others argue that the vast bureaucracy of our federal government prevents the rise of a fascist regime, a blessing and a curse in Cowen’s view as it means we are therefore likely “stuck with some of the less efficient features of modern social democracies.” Citing the Federalist Papers (“enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm”), Bruce Ackerman urges Congress to consider limitations on unilateral presidential power.

  • What is the relationship between populism and authoritarianism?

Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt explore far-right populism and how perceived threats can activate an authoritarian dynamic. “This is no momentary madness. It is a perpetual feature of human societies: a latent pool of need that lurks just below the surface.” Their ultimate conclusion is “authoritarians are highly reactive and highly malleable…This is to say, the current state we find ourselves in can easily be made much worse, or much better, by how we come together and respond to this now in terms of attending to people’s needs for oneness and sameness; for identity, cohesion, and belonging; for pride and honor; and for institutions and leaders they can respect.”

  • What do we mean by “authoritarianism”?

Cass Sunstein observes that when most people think of authoritarianism, they imagine Nazi Germany, but it’s important to remember that “nations that fall far short of full-scale authoritarianism can and certainly do engage in practices that violate the principles of free and self-governing societies, and that would make authoritarian nations proud.” David Straus notes, “if it happens here, it won’t happen here all at once.” Instead, there could be a slow degradation of liberal democratic norms over time, with each individual act stretching the law only a tiny bit. Noah Feldman concludes that fascism will not happen here, but there will occur tranformations of our political institutions and practices, and therefore we must “remain vigilant, even mildly paranoid, about the risks of democratic reversal.”

Fascism: A Warning

By Madeleine Albright

Harper, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, $27.99

Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state, gives a personal and urgent examination of Fascism in the twentieth century and how its legacy shapes today’s world.

The twentieth century was defined by the clash between democracy and Fascism, a struggle that created uncertainty about the survival of human freedom and left millions dead. Given the horrors of that experience, one might expect the world to reject the spiritual successors to Hitler and Mussolini should they arise in our era.

In Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright draws on her experiences as a child in war-torn Europe and her distinguished career as a diplomat to question that assumption.

A Fascist, Albright observes, “is someone who claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use violence and whatever other means are necessary to achieve the goals he or she might have.”

Fascism, as she shows, not only endured through the twentieth century, but now presents a more virulent threat to peace and justice than at any time since the end of World War II. The momentum toward democracy that swept the world when the Berlin Wall fell has gone into reverse.

The United States, which historically championed the free world, is led by a president who exacerbates division and heaps scorn on democratic institutions. In many countries, economic, technological, and cultural factors are weakening the political center and empowering the extremes of right and left. Contemporary leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un are employing many of the tactics used by Fascists in the 1920s and 30s.

Albright writes, “Why has the United States – at least temporarily – abdicated its leadership in world affairs? And why, this far into the twenty-first century, are we once again talking about Fascism?

“One reason, frankly, is Donald Trump. If we think of Fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab.

“To the political class of Washington, D.C. – Republican, Democrat, and independent alike – the election of Trump was so startling that it would have caused an old-time silent film comedian to clench his hat with both hands, yank it over his ears, leap in the air, and land flat on his back. The United States has had flawed presidents before; in fact, we have never had any other kind, but we have not had a chief executive in the modern era whose statements and actions are so at odds with democratic ideals.

“From the early stages of his campaign and right into the Oval Office, Donald Trump has spoken harshly about the institutions and principles that make up the foundation of open government. In the process, he has systematically degraded political discourse in the United States, shown an astonishing disregard for facts, libeled his predecessors, threatened to ‘lock up’ political rivals, referred to mainstream journalists as ‘the enemy of the American people,’ spread falsehoods about the integrity of the U.S. electoral process, touted mindlessly nationalistic economic and trade policies, vilified immigrants and the countries from which they come, and nurtured a paranoid bigotry toward the followers of one of the world’s foremost religions.”

Fascism: A Warning is a book for the current moment that will have a relevance to all times. Albright’s call to arms teaches us the lessons we must understand and the questions we must answer if we are to save ourselves from repeating the tragic errors of the past.

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