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Amor Mundi: Is He Authoritarian

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Is He Authoritarian

In his first year as President, Donald Trump sent 2,600 tweets and spent parts of 86 days playing golf. Last week we featured an essay by Corey Robin arguing that President Trump was hardly a nefarious autocrat and that he should be seen for what he is, a farcical and weak leader and not, as many argue, as a dangerous authoritarian. Jeffrey C. Isaac takes issue with Robin’s argument.

“Robin claims that Trump looks weak. In the ways that Robin notes, this is obviously true. But as he also knows, there exists no standpoint — independent place from which to observe such things. And it is worth considering whether there are some standpoints, rooted in real experience, from which Trump looks not weak but powerful and frightening by virtue of his power. I wonder if so-called DACA children and their families see Trump and his administration as “weak.” Or women, associated with #MeToo and a range of long-standing groups and causes, women who have experienced sexual harassment and violence or who fear it, and who are distressed that a serial abuser holds the most powerful position in the country. Are African-American youth paying attention to Trump’s supposed weakness when he encourages police to break some heads?

Are there not real constituencies, numbering in the millions of people, who experience the way Trump regularly incites, mobilizes, and enacts racism, sexism, and xenophobia? Can we imagine that they see not “weakness,” but powerful and energizing rhetoric, sometimes linked to actual policy efforts, and sometimes to actual violence, that threatens them?

Does this mean that Trump is a proto-Hitler? No. But does it mean that Trump appears dangerously powerful and powerfully dangerous to many citizens, and that serious political analysis ought to take account of this? Yes….

“Has Trump instituted a new, “authoritarian” regime? No.

Is his Presidency profoundly authoritarian in its approach to the rhetoric and the enactment of political power? Yes.

Does authoritarianism “loom,” as a dark shadow cast upon everything, and as a frightening possibility thus far forestalled by determined forms of political opposition and civic resistance?

Of course it does.

Trump is a distinctly American version of a broader global trend: the rise of authoritarian populist leaders who use new media platforms to attack already eroded forms of party politics and mass communication, attack independent judicial, civil service, and media institutions, and incite populist resentment as a way of building a base of political power.

Trump has thus far been less successful than many other authoritarian populist leaders, because of his own personal defects, because of the relative resilience of American institutions, and also because there has been very strong opposition to his efforts. This opposition has been energized by the very concern that Robin dismisses: that authoritarianism is a looming danger that must be contested.”

Farce, Not Tragedy

Rich Lowry thinks President Trump is a farce, not a tyrant. He argues that those who mobilize to fight an imaginary despot may do more harm to American democracy than the President.

“Trump isn’t a despot. Far from being an autocrat, he’s a weak president susceptible to the views of the last person he’s talked to and so deferential to Congress that he spent all of last year pining for a signing ceremony for literally anything lawmakers could send him on health care or taxes.

At its worst, the Trump White House isn’t sinister; it’s farcical. It’s not Recep Tayyip Erdogan carefully and deliberately creating a one-party state; it’s Trump getting miscued by a TV show into a tweet undermining his administration’s own position on the reauthorization of a surveillance program….

There’s no doubt Trump violates norms that we should want to preserve. The president shouldn’t slam reporters and news organizations by name, call for people in the private sector to be fired, criticize companies or urge that his adversaries be jailed, among other routine provocations.

Trump does not, to say the least, have a deep understanding of our constitutional system, and if he had his druthers, his Justice Department probably would be completely loyal to him personally.

But is he serious enough about this impulse to execute a plan to carry it out and bear the political consequences, even from Republicans? Of course not. So, he stews about his DOJ, and even attacks it as the “deep state,” but Attorney General Jeff Sessions remains in place and special counsel Robert Mueller continues his work.

If Trump’s eruptions don’t speak well of him, they shouldn’t be confused with unconstitutional acts. The first time Trump said he wanted to tighten up libel laws, it was alarming; the second time he said it, it was notable; by about the fifth time he said it — with obviously no intention to follow through — it was clearly an irritable mental tic.

Some of the alarm about Trump is over fairly normal expressions of democratic politics. It’s a natural dynamic that special-prosecutor investigations become partisan war zones. Anyone appalled by the attacks of Trump allies on Mueller should acquaint themselves with what James Carville and Paul Begala said about Kenneth Starr.

The irony is that those who believe Trump is a budding despot are themselves violating important norms. It’s hard to imagine Trump doing anything as remotely undemocratic as the Electoral College coup some heretofore serious people on the left advocated after his 2016 victory.

Josef Stalin wouldn’t tolerate any of this agitation. Donald Trump rages against it, stirs it and enjoys it, one news cycle at a time.”

Who Is Not A Neoliberal?

Wendy Brown asks the uncomfortable question.

“I would invert the question to ask who is not a neoliberal today. A governing rationality like neoliberalism organizes and constructs a great deal of conduct and a great many values without appearing to do so. It produces “reality principles” by which we live without thinking about them. Thus, almost everyone in workplaces, social media presentations, educational institutions, non-profits, the arts, and more is governed by neoliberal norms. It’s quite hard to escape neoliberal rationality, including for those who imagine that they are radically critical of it. Consider, for example, how many left intellectuals use their social media profiles—Twitter, Facebook, etc.—not to build the Revolution, but to promote their books, speaking gigs, and ideas in order to boost their market value. This has become so ubiquitous that we hardly notice it.”

A Proposal For Reform

Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter have issued a report, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America.” They argue that the duopoly of competition between two parties is failing the country. As they point out, there is nothing in the Constitution that requires there to be two parties. Indeed, the Founders did not write the Constitution with the expectation that two parties would come to dominate the political scene. For Gehl and Porter, the two-party system is doing what it is intended to do—benefitting the parties and their primary funders. They argue in their exhaustive report that we need to rethink the way our political system operates and they propose solutions.

““Many Americans now understand that, no matter whom we elect—and we’re always hoping for that next great candidate—political outcomes seem to get worse. And some of the most capable people we have elected to public office have quit out of frustration because they have no impact.

One thing has become abundantly clear: Our political system will not be self-correcting. The problems are systemic and structural, involving multiple factors that are self-reinforcing. This means that the only way to reform the system is with a set of steps to change the industry structure and the rules that underpin it and, therefore, shift the very nature of political competition. We need to move from today’s unhealthy competition to healthy competition that holds elected officials accountable for delivering the desired outcomes in politics: solutions, action, and broad-based consensus.

We admit to a bias that moderate, compromise-oriented politicians have an important value in crafting and delivering solutions to the nation’s problems. We are not suggesting, however, that moderates are the only valuable kind of elected official. Historically, transformational changes in the U.S. have often begun at the fringes—in decidedly non-moderate camps.

Eventually, however, change must be enacted by a majority in democratically-elected legislative bodies. It is here that bipartisan, pro-problem-solving, consensus-seeking moderates are crucial for delivering practical solutions, and it is precisely this genre of elected officials that our current political competition has rendered almost extinct. We believe reinvigorating electoral opportunities for the rational middle must be a central premise of political reform.”

Gehl and Porter make a number of recommendations. Their first one is to move from winner take all elections to nonpartisan top-four primaries.

“Institute nonpartisan top-four primaries. As we have seen, the current partisan primary system is perhaps the single most powerful obstacle to achieving outcomes for the common good. Instead, states should move to a single primary ballot for all candidates, no matter what their affiliation, and open up primaries to all voters, not just registered party voters. The top four vote-getters from such a single non-partisan ballot would advance to the general election, instead of one winner from each duopoly party. This incentivizes all candidates to present themselves to a general electorate, not just appeal to a small cadre of party-partisan voters. … Here’s how ranked-choice voting works: In a four- candidate general election, the voter would have the choice to rank candidates in order of preference, from first choice to last choice. If no candidate receives a majority in the first round, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated and voters who liked that candidate the best have their ballots instantly counted for their second choice. This process repeats until one candidate reaches a majority and wins. (See https://www. for a quick video that explains ranked-choice voting.)

With ranked-choice voting, citizens can vote for the candidate they like the best without worrying that their vote will help elect the candidate they like least. Thus, ranked-choice voting eliminates the “spoiler” argument. Under this system, candidates no longer focus exclusively on securing first-choice support, because broader support may be necessary to win. This encourages a focus on the issues and reduces incentives for negative campaigning, because candidates must avoid alienating other voters whose second- and third-place support they may need. Candidates in this system are less likely to run scorched-earth campaigns. Like nonpartisan primaries, ranked-choice voting is also no longer just an idea. Maine became the first state to adopt this reform in a November 2016 ballot initiative.”

Talking About Female Sexual Pleasure

In the wake of the anonymous accusations against Aziz Ansari, Samantha Hill argues we need to move beyond the focus on power-politics and have more nuanced conversations about female sexual pleasure.

“Bad sex” has become a kind of mythical experience we know happens, yet rarely discuss. It is a judgment we cast after the fact, referring to encounters that are not pleasurable. This “bad sex” happens for a number of reasons, and sometimes blurs the lines of what we call consent. Women feel obligated, motivated by shame and guilt, they are afraid of what will happen if they say no, they are physically unable to leave a space that they don’t want to be in, or they think it will just be easier if they get it over with, and so let it happen. These negotiations are a losing proposition. And if we as women give into the pressure and demands that tell us this is just “bad sex” then we are letting guys continue thinking that what they’re doing is okay. And the sad reality is that it might actually be okay for them, as we see in Aziz’s text reply. He did not know what he was doing, in multiple senses.

Which is the other issue we have to talk about, to begin to answer these questions. Men and women experience sex differently. (This is to say nothing of queer sex.) The reality is that as many as 1 in 3 women don’t have orgasms during sex. Up to 80% of women are unable to reach climax through vaginal penetration alone. And according to a recent study “While 85 percent of men thought their partner had an orgasm during their most recent episode of sex, only 64 percent of women reported having an orgasm.” In large part because, sex lasts 5.4 minutes on average, and women, on average, take 20 minutes to orgasm. And women are more likely to orgasm if they engage in a variety of sexual acts and positions, which requires more time. This is not difficult math.

Instead of talking directly about female pleasure, though, we keep ending up in conversations about power-politics. The bureaucratic language of power imbalances and consent makes this a conversation about equality, recognition, and politics, instead of how women can assert themselves in the bedroom to have experiences they want to have. Many would like this conversation to reshape the way that we think about equality and power distribution between men and women. And while these are important conversations to have, I think we need to take the politics out of sex for a while and focus on communication, pleasure, and desire. We need more narratives about positive sexual encounters (maybe even ones that blur lines). Conversations that exist beyond the spirals of political debate, and free us to think about how we communicate pleasure and desire during intimate moments.”

The Russian Twitterverse

On Friday, as the US government was shutting down, Twitter released a report detailing the ways in which it was used by Russian intelligence to influence the 2016 Presidential election. Peter Singer argues that the impact of Russian influence was significant.  (h/t Allison Stanger)

In many ways, the numbers were striking. Looking back, Twitter officials said, they had found a cluster of 3,814 accounts that were “a propaganda effort by a Russian government-linked organization known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).” These were supplemented by a broader project of 50,258 automated accounts — bots — which spread the messaging further. In total, 677,775 people in the United States followed one of these accounts or retweeted or liked a Tweet from these accounts during the election period. Twitter also gave examples of the messaging, which ranged from efforts to support Donald Trump’s election to not-so-ironic attempts to undermine the credibility of former FBI Director Comey and those investigating the very same Russian influence operations.

Twitter, however, played the impact down. Its report said, for example, that the accounts represented “two one-hundredths of a percent (0.016%) of the total accounts on Twitter at the time.” One can expect that this will become a talking point both for the firm and those who want to underplay the Russian operations.

Social media, though, is about scale and networking, and this combination means that, in actuality, the numbers are far worse than they seem. To begin, the algorithms that underscore social media can be gamed, as everyone from teens to ISIS to Russian trolls have figured out. As long as they are working in synchronization, a relatively small number of accounts can help steer trends and launch hashtags that then other eyes are drawn to, not so ironically by more automated accounts.

Even more importantly, the numbers Twitter provided only show a limited story of the actual reach of this Russian effort to divide and reshape American politics.

To begin, it only covers the IRA related numbers, which was only one node in the Russian effort. Nor does it reveal how many actually viewed the efforts of this subset or their impact by percentage of tweets or views on a per-topic basis, which would flesh out the actual impact — not just on the election, but on issues within it.

As an illustration, the Twitter account of Trump surrogate-turned-National Security Advisor-turned-confessed liar Gen. Michael Flynn, followed at least five of these documented Russian influence ops accounts, pushing out their messaging to all his almost two hundred-thousand followers at least 25 times. Similarly, @Ten_GOP, which called itself the “Unofficial Twitter account of Tennessee Republicans,” but was actually a Russian account, was followed by over 100,000 people. Its messages echoed out to potentially millions via retweets from influential figures like Donald Trump Jr. and Kellyanne Conway, who each have over two million followers. Indeed, on Election Day 2016, it was the seventh-most-retweeted account  of the entire network.”

Persuading Americans

David Bromwich is one of eight authors that Harpers tasked with writing about how, or if, persuasion of others is still possible in American democracy. He reminds us that a Constitution is nothing “if not a system for managing disagreement and convergence, a system that leaves open the possibility of conflict without everlasting bitterness and reproach.” But that means that citizens in a Constitutional Republic must learn a certain humility even as they seek to persuade others of their rightness. We must, Bromwich argues, relearn the American practice of arguing, persuading, and debating. (Harpers paywall)

“If, without demagoguery, you want to bring national sentiment to your side, you must first demonstrate that you respect the citizens of the nation. The road to honest persuasion passes through conciliation, and this requires an initial presumption of goodwill. Opponents must be recognized as people who are not vicious by nature, even as they are warned candidly about the wrongs they may commit. Lincoln, in his speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, confessed that he hated slavery for the “monstrous injustice” of the institution, but the same speech allowed that the Southern people “are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.”

The trust of democracy is that if you give reasons honestly and your reasons pass the test of serving the public good, the voters will master your argument and come to approve it. But that depends on an initial trust that persuasion can sometimes occur, a thing that is surprisingly hard to prove. We know that people come to think in ways they had never thought before, but the cause of such a shift may be a religious conversion, an intense friendship, anything rather than a conscious decision arrived at through argument. All we can say is that something has changed in someone’s beliefs; how it happened remains mysterious to a degree. Still, a generous trust in the efficacy of persuasion is essential to the social contract in a system of self-government. The anxiety that many Americans feel today — it is a detectable irritant in half the op-eds published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal — comes from a suspicion that we have lost our trust in the possibility of persuasion. Have Americans stopped trying to debate one another?”

The Unpersuaded

The New York Times has claimed to be part of the resistance to President Trump. The coverage is decidedly anti-Trump. And yet, some readers of the Times remain Trump supporters. This past week the Times dedicated its Editorial page to opinions by some of its subscribers who support President Trump. Why, the Times wondered, were these readers not persuaded? It is worth reading the first-hand accounts of those NY Times readers who remain unpersuaded by the resistance.  

I voted against Hillary Clinton more than I voted for Donald Trump. That said, President Trump has exceeded my wildest expectations. Yes, he is embarrassing. Yes, he picks unnecessary fights. But he also pushed tax reform through, has largely defeated ISIS in Iraq, has named a number of solid conservative judges, has prioritized American citizens over illegal immigrants, has gotten us out of several bad international agreements, has removed a number of wasteful regulations, is putting real pressure on North Korea and Iran, has reined in a number of out-of-control agencies, and so on and so on.

I loved George W. Bush, but he failed on policy over and over again. If it takes putting up with Mr. Trump’s brash ways to see things get done, that is a deal I’m willing to accept. To be honest, I’m not sure he would have accomplished what he has so far without being an unrelenting public bully.”

Posted on 21 January 2018 | 8:00 am

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