Despots don’t govern citizens – they rule over a mob. Living under despotism, people revert to the herd instinct and look for a savior to solve their problems. Citizens are made by a strong, effective democratic state in which impartial, predictable systems, not some charismatic duce, hero or czar, regulate their lives.
Over the past four decades, since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Americans systematically and deliberately weakened their state in the service of a twisted libertarian ideology. Donald J. Trump is a culmination of this process – a loudmouth demagogue in whom half of US population placed their hopes of righting everything they think is wrong with their lives. Depending on their particular peeve, they want him to bring back blue-collar jobs, kick out immigrants, restore white domination, lock up Hillary Clinton or, in view of the miracle-working mob mentality, achieve everything at once – Make America Great Again.
Trump supporters not only ignore his cavalier attitude to long-established institutions of American government but want him to smash them. In a recent poll, half of Republicans said they were open to postponing the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, the other half of the American electorate look to a different savior. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is supposed to be gathering evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians agents to subvert the 2016 election. They dream of a different sort of miraculous scenario, in which Trump is found guilty and removed from office, the assemblage of crooks, monsters and misfits he raised to national prominence are disgraced and the great America of old is restored.
Even as Trump, growing increasingly unhinged and incoherent, threatens to unleash a nuclear holocaust, there is still no way for the dysfunctional government in Washington to rein him in. All his opponents can do is urge Mueller to hurry up. Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, cheer him on. Like any banana republic despot, he can do no wrong as far as they are concerned, and is always right.
This is exactly why Russians, the great practitioners of despotism, have always hoped for a good czar to improve their lives and punish the evildoers who rob and oppress them. Soviet leaders since Stalin have been keenly aware of the “lock her up” yearnings of their subjects: every new despot in the Kremlin starts out by blaming his immediate predecessor for all of the country’s problems.
It is highly indicative of the level to which the United States has descended that its president remains an unabashed admirer of Russia’s Vladimir Putin while exchanging bombastic threats with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.
Those countries had very little or no experience with democracy. Americans, on the other hand, may be the only democratic nation in history to commit suicide by purposefully dismantling their own state.
The United States was founded on the concept of limited government. Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers also made sure that it would have an efficient government and a strong state. The federal government proved its mettle by presiding over a continent-wide expansion, a Civil War and Reconstruction. It spearheaded America’s emergence as a leading world power. It guided the country to victory in two World Wars and the Cold War, and built history’s most successful international economic and political system.
Most importantly, it made all Americans into citizens. For over two hundred years American citizens could afford neither to know nor care who their president was, confident that the system, not some kind of savior, will protect their rights and liberties.
Even without its global responsibilities – which it took on in order to ensure its own military security and economic prosperity – America’s federal government would have had to respond to the mind-boggling complexity of its economy and society. A complex civilization requires extensive government involvement.
Instead, the United States embraced a libertarian ideology which regards the government as an enemy. Taxation is viewed as highway robbery and government bureaucracy as incompetent parasites eager to keep a finger in every pie. This new American ideology was succinctly summed up by Grover Norquist, the founder of anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform: “I don’t want to abolish the government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in a bathtub.”
This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, since disdain for the government resulted in bad governance. The government continued to expand as more and more problems at home and abroad had to be addressed, but since no politician would take the responsibility for expanding the government, it happened in the haphazard, ad-hoc manner exacerbating waste and duplication that are always present in the public sector. Built without any plan or system, the government became increasingly expensive and inefficient.
The government was also starved of funds and talent. Gross debt as percentage of GDP grew from some 30% in 1980 to over 100% now, as spending kept increasing but taxes could not be raised. Congress has been cutting government services, meaning that taxpayers got even less for their money and many ordinary citizens began to wonder why they were paying taxes at all. Not surprisingly, the best and the brightest no longer wanted to work in the public sector, not only because salaries were low but because prestige of serving the nation was gone as well. No one ever wants to start a career in a shrinking, universally despised field.
The past eight years have been marked by the deliberate obstruction of government business. The Republicans started it for political reasons but now both parties seem to have lost their ability to govern at all. Not only can Congress pass no legislation, but it is impotent to change anything in the way the government is run.
The country can’t even defend itself, despite a defense budget that nearly matches what the rest of the world spends on its military. Special counsel Mueller is not only supposed to save the world from Trump but to protect the United States from the cyber warfare unleashed on it by Putin.
In a dysfunctional system no part can function properly. Consider the case of Mikhail Lesin, Putin’s propaganda chief who died in Washington in November 2015. It took nearly a year for his death to be ruled an accident and a similar amount of time after that for some FBI agents to leak that he had been beaten to death with a baseball bat just before he was due to meet with Justice Department officials. If the US government can’t protect its star witness in a one-mile radius from the FBI headquarters, what are the survival prospects of anyone who can help Mueller nail Trump?
Even if Mueller starts out as a paragon of courage, integrity and efficiency, what are the chances of him resisting the pressures that will be put on him – to go slow, to dig not too deep, not to widen his probe? Only a strong state with strong institutions can protect investigators who dare to look into the shady dealings of the powerful, which Washington currently lacks.
If Mueller is not fired – which is a big if – his investigation will end up convicting and jailing a few accidental actors and protecting the real culprits.
The libertarian ideology drew inspiration from Russian-born Alisa Zinovyevna Rozenbaum, better known as Ayn Rand. She considered herself a patriotic naturalized American and even believed it her duty to help the FBI uncover communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era. Ironically, she ended up causing more damage to the United States than any communist in Hollywood or at an American university, since the self-inflicted weakening of the American state has all but closed the book on the American Century.