Evisceration of Freedom: Surgical Authoritarianism

America in self-flagellation, though seemingly at the apex of power and virtue in the world, supinely bows to the Maximum Leader, less out of guilt, than out of the need for authoritarian submission, a desire for oneness with, here, Trump to conquer fears about the future, and in need of protection. The attachment is unhealthy; democratic governance inevitably suffers. America is facing a crisis, watching, even participating in, the postponement, weakening, or elimination of regulations affecting health standards, safety, environmental quality, social programs benefiting the poor and disadvantaged, in sum, the dismantlement of the structure and practice of societal welfare in its positive dimensions of public service. The basest instincts of humankind have come to the surface. Self-flagellation is merely a nervous twitch, knowing, if not fully consciously, the wrongs being committed on practically an hourly basis to oneself and one’s fellow citizens, nevertheless refusing to change the direction of the polity—a direction on track for the realization of fascism.

There must be comfort in certainty of rectitude, of tapping into the power of those, beginning with Trump, whose prepotency in the social structure invites—draws in—the alienated who want desperately to belong, but also the opportunist seeking a step up the ladder of success. Trump did not single-handedly win a presidential election, and then, in six weeks thus far as president, compile a record of guerrilla warfare against government, all the more striking in that the military-factor had become greatly magnified. This leaves a militaristic spirit drawing sustenance from resentments—to be covered over—because structure and equality had long parted company, and a complementary spirit of nihilism, which translates into the propensity for war, the expectation of international tension, and un-sublimated dreams of hegemony.

But if not single-handed in accounting for his electoral triumph, we must face the reality of the society that elected him, and that to this moment does not, Democratic and even progressive organized party and groups, question an ascending neo-fascist (moving toward consummation) political movement legitimated through office establishing itself in power. The strategy at this still early stage I would call, for now, pointillistic fascism, not as in abstract art, but rather as the concrete placement of, already, hundreds of efforts, points of contact, to hold back or rescind the regulatory function per se of government.

The formula is, strike a thousand blows on the microcosmic level against government intervention (again, absent the military) wherever it can be found, like California’s regulation of tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide, then creating a cumulative build-up to foster a regulation-free environment resulting in a qualitative change better conducive to business consolidation, profit-taking, immunity from prosecution for antisocial deeds and their consequences, and, perhaps indirectly (though not for Trump and the coterie surrounding him), strong encouragement of the military.

It is the seemingly minor violations of human freedom that fail to grab our attention, on which Trump is banking to start the fuller dismantlement of government, but the sheer volume of activity on the lines of non-enforcement, delay, abrogation—using Executive power, instead of turning to Congress—of specific regulation in a myriad of fields that explains what I mean by descriptive characterization of surgical: incisive cutting away or neutralizing of regulation, point-by-point, a pock-marked political-economic landscape, where once guardianship by government was thought a moral obligation fulfilling its purpose. Now, regulation is a hated word in ever-widening circles, whether a propagandistic assault on the senses or the long-term historical cultivation of false consciousness predicated on variations of what was once termed (late 19th century) the Gospel of Wealth.

The anticipated result of Trump’s early strategy is movement from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, beyond a regulation-free social order that, contrary to his pronouncements, objectively leads to social differentiation in terms of wealth, class, and power. Only when the macrocosmic or systemic level is reached, can Reaction be assumed and militarism, amply funded and with ineffectual domestic resistance, be taken for granted as the desirable state of existence.

My point, however, on seemingly minor violations of human freedom requires brief elaboration. They, as in a pointillistic spreadsheet, even when violations are still inchoate, decisively count for the future of a society and coalesce with others. Minor ultimately become major instances of totalitarian abuse, yet at first barely discernible in the larger schema, then, like a spreading cancer, are integrated with the social system as a whole. These violations (we’ll see examples below, e.g., the deregulated tailpipe emissions) contribute to a wider context of authoritarianism.

Trump in this respect can be seen to be running wild, firing off executive orders the moment an opportunity for rescindment or the like arises. His lack of restraint (already the rollback of regulations approaches one hundred) appears like a willy-nilly exercise of power when in reality the first six weeks in power have resulted in a concerted, premeditated harm and malevolence greater than at the beginning of any previous presidency.

He is methodical; his actions are well planned, calculated to come together in a unified framework. Ideas, including those generated by Bannon and a small group of advisers, and subjoined to the exercise of power, enable Trump to realize his own long-term antiradicalism and contempt for the truth and restraint of any kind on his dystopian vision of class relations and capital accumulation. The result to date: America, this early in his administration (when precedents are created), can be found on the doorstep of fascism.

Testimony to Trump’s neo-fascistic outlook, and that of his close advisers and Cabinet appointments, need not dwell on the obvious, the addition to an already humongous military budget and the round-up of undocumented immigrants for deportation, for I believe it is the multiplicity of small points on the authoritarian compass that better reveals the potentiality of what is transpiring for long-term totalitarianism now emerging. Examples abound in Eric Lipton and Benyamin Applebaum’s New York Times article, “Leashes Come Off Wall Street, Gun Sellers, Miners and More.” 3-5-17. (The article also appeared under various titles, depending on its location in the paper.) Immediately we see a photograph of the National Rifle Association convention this past May in Louisville. The caption reads: “The gun-rights group lobbied [successfully it turns out] against a rule that would have effectively prevented most people with disabling mental illnesses from purchasing firearms.” The foot in the door, other measures such as affecting lead-based bullets (no longer banned) came under review, a similar narrative for breaking open the regulatory framework the length and breadth of society.

As for example, that of the carbon-dioxide emitting tailpipes, we see no end to the process of deregulation. Government is being brought to a standstill. Coral Davenport, writing in The Times, “Trump to Undo Vehicle Rules That Curb Global Warming,” 3-3, (roll-back our operative term), states: “The Trump administration is expected to begin rolling back stringent federal regulations on vehicle pollution that contributes to global warming…. [A joint announcement is expected from EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and transportation secretary Elaine Chao this week.] The regulatory rollback on vehicle pollution will relax restrictions on tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and [significantly] will not require action by Congress.”

Davenport adds, “The E.P.A. will also begin legal proceedings to revoke a waiver for California that was allowing the state to enforce the tougher tailpipe standards for its citizens.” What’s wrong with America? Has the country gone berserk in eliminating more stringent protective standards for its people? Capitalism has thrown America to the wolves. The tail (automakers) wags the dog (the nation), the former complaining that producing a greater proportion of electric and hybrid models, and reaching higher fuel-efficiency standards, constitutes, particularly for the larger automakers, “technical requirements too burdensome.”

The examples of regulatory dismantlement pile one on top of another in never ceasing flow. Hence, “Verizon and AT&T will not,” Lipton and Applebaum write, “have to take ‘reasonable measures’ to ensure that their customers’ Social Security numbers, web browsing history and other personal information are not stolen or accidentally released.” So much for privacy. Nor another case in point, “Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase will not be punished, at least for now, for not collecting extra money from customers to cover potential losses from certain kinds of high-risk trades that helped unleash the 2008 financial crisis.” It all gets perhaps worse and certainly more voluminous: “more than 90 regulations that federal agencies and the Republican-controlled Congress have delayed, suspended or reversed,” tallied by The Times, in this short time, echoing Bannon’s much-quoted boast of “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” an epithet of course in these circles.

The writers note, without exaggeration: “The emerging effort—dozens of additional rules could be eliminated in the coming weeks—represents one of the most significant shifts in regulatory policy in recent decades.” My take: Government by stealth. Although Trump, Bannon, and company are hardly innocent bystanders to these developments, one must not overlook the (agreeable) role of outside—truly inside—pressure: “In many cases, records show that the changes came after appeals by corporate lobbyists and trade association executives, who see a potentially historic opportunity to lower compliance costs and drive up profits. {Not all is abstract ideology] Slashing regulations, they argue, will unleash economic growth.”
This is the hidden history of American capitalist development brought now up to date and perhaps extended: “On a near daily basis, regulated industries are now sending in specific requests to the Trump administration for more rollbacks, including recent appeals from 17 automakers to rescind an agreement to increase mileage standards for their fleets, and another from pharmaceutical industry figures to reverse a new rule that tightens scrutiny over the marketing of prescription drugs for unapproved uses.”

In truth, this is Corporate Anarchism, under the watchful and solicitous eye of the Trump administration. One can speak here of capitalism on a roll, or capitalism’s rape of America—your choice, or both. Here is Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce: “’After a relentless, regulatory onslaught that loaded unprecedented burdens on businesses and the economy, relief is finally on the way.’” As the writers observe, ”The regulatory retrenchment is unfolding on multiple fronts.”

And relief certainly is on the way: “Congress, with Mr. Trump’s approval, has erased three Obama-era rules in the last month, lifting regulations relating to coal mines and oil and gas exploration, as well as the sale of guns to the mentally ill.” “More than 25 additional rules” are in the pipeline, “with the House having already voted to eliminate nearly half of them.” Nor is Trump quiescent in the matter: he “has separately signed executive orders directing agencies to pursue the reversal of other rules, including a requirement that financial advisers act in the interest of their clients, and a rule aimed at protecting drinking water from pollution.”

We are, from these and other examples, staring in the face of political evil. One must confront the large changes contemplated, as in mounting a full-scale deportation affecting millions, or building the continent-wide wall to control immigration, but while looking at the big examples one must not ignore the executive and congressional pinpricks, actions in which the scalpel is cutting away more specific regulations as seen above. These latter are making their way forward to structural prominence, and by accretion, are coming to define a New Order.

It is as though the wall and deportation are diversions, so as to allow detailed movement on so many other fronts. The reporters again: “New White House appointees at agencies,” as, e.g., the FCC, SEC, Interior, and EPA, “have also personally intervened in recent weeks to block, delay or start the process to nullify other rules, such as a requirement that corporations publish tallies comparing chief executive pay with average employee wages.” Nothing is too large or too small to toss into the antiregulatory hopper.

Trump means business—literally: The administration “has also imposed a broad regulatory freeze, instructing agencies to delay the adoption of any rules not already in effect, and to consider whether those rules should be targeted for elimination.” Lipton-Applebaum continue this paradigm of Executive usurpation, in which the object is to strike regulations, but also strengthen the role and powers of the presidency within all of government: “And, through yet more executive orders [the obvious by-passing or downgrading of Congress in what remains essentially the center of gravity in the law-making process], it [the administration] has set up barriers to enact any new regulations—such as a requirement that for each new rule, at least two others must be identified for repeal—and ordered every federal agency to create a team of employees to look for more rules that can be eliminated.”

Trump turns the popular adage about the power of positive thinking on its head, negativity a reigning premise in the operation and organization of the state in its moral obligation to serve the needs of the people. The meanness and pettiness of the new Washington is not unlike what Reagan’s administration, the reporters remind us, had earlier attempted to accomplish; it “tried to rescind a rule requiring airbags in passenger vehicles.”

Lastly, for the antiregulatory examples come at a faster rate, once started, than can be counted, they write: “The administration started its campaign against regulation on the afternoon of Inauguration Day, with a memo from Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, instructing agencies to halt work on new regulations and to delay putting completed regulations into effect.” One wonders how much Americans were and are aware of the frank make-over of the government and how far this has proceeded. We seem to have created our own Iron Curtain penning us in, as well as keeping others out. That Iron Curtain appears to be fast descending.

Government is practically brought to a standstill, from the standpoint of its transformative and ameliorative functions. There are delays as a result of the order, which includes “a measure intended to prevent potentially toxic formaldehyde exposure in homes caused by certain furniture products,” becoming operable. The Trump inner circle is a menace not only to good government, but government per se: creeping, before galloping, fascism.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.