Winning Chess, Winning Politics02-05-2020
By Roger Berkowitz
Garry Kasparov argues that those who oppose President Trump from all sides need to come together to defeat him. He warns that, “As much as opposing ideologues may hate each other, there is no one they despise more than those who try to make peace between them.” Witnessing the rise of radicalism on all sides, he writes, “Rage and polarization are the lifeblood of any radical movement, and compromise means obsolescence and death.” And he concludes that “In such an environment, ideology inevitably becomes less important than tribal identity, power for the sake of power.” For Kasparov, the most important thing to recognize now is the danger posed by not believing that the autocratic tendencies of the moment are real. It is true that President Trump, while he clearly acted wrongly, has not torn up the Constitution and has not crossed certain lines. At this point, the Trump presidency is not yet a disaster and there is still time to “relegate it as a terrible mistake.” But for Kasparov, the reelection of the President “would validate his political methods and have a long-lasting impact on American and the world.” Not to recognize that is an evasion of a deeper reality.
After three years of his increasingly disgraceful behavior, Trump’s critics still seem to believe there are lines he will not cross in order to protect himself and his power. This is a common mistake, and a natural one. A disregard for anything but oneself is a type of evil superpower in politics (and business). It allows such people to constantly surprise their rivals by doing what others find unthinkable. Every time I hear someone say, “But Trump would never do x,” I recall all the times we were told by tut-tutting Western pundits that surely Putin would never jail his opposition, would never return to the presidency, would never invade Ukraine, etc. He would and he did.
Laws are only as strong as the character of the people charged with enforcing them. They cannot be applied selectively, or you soon find yourself in the cynical world encapsulated in the words of the Peruvian military leader and politician Óscar Benavides, “For my friends everything, for my enemies the law.” A few days after Trump’s inauguration, I said in an interview that Americans were about to find out how much their government was based on traditions and the honor system. What happens when a president ignores those things? What happens when the executive declines to hold press briefings, and simply doesn’t fill leading positions in the vital government departments, appointing yes-men as acting heads who are often untested and unvetted?
Unallocated power accrues upwards, reducing accountability and transparency. It’s a slow-motion coup of attrition, largely invisible, with unpredictable and far-reaching effects.
Typical officials and bureaucrats expand their dominions by adding subordinates and creating new departments and agencies. Autocrats require total loyalty, so the circle of confidants inevitably shrinks both in size and in quality. In the resulting vacuum, no one can hear the whistleblower’s whistle, assuming there’s anyone left to blow it.