Authoritarianism for dummies

So this week, the president of the United States formally declared a “national emergency” on an indisputably bullshit basis, with no real pretense that it is anything except an attempt to do an end-run around Congress’s very clear refusal to pay for a ridiculous campaign prop (which the president has continually insisted will be paid for by Mexico).

To the extent that constitutionality is an objective standard, this seems to be unconstitutional. The fact that the president did so anyway has at last brought a plain statement from one authority that “this is a constitutional crisis.”

This is certainly serious. Among other things, I feel like if ever national political drama demands notice even in this occasional personal chronicle, it’s this week. I have of course already called members of congress. (Have been doing so for some weeks, in fact, as this fake “emergency” has been toyed with openly since last year.)

This is also absurdly stupid.

This situation is stupid and absurd and ridiculous in multiple ways. But of all the conceivable reasons for a leap toward authoritarianism, like this, the fact that it should take place for this reason is just historically stupid. It is also real, and seriously wrong, but monumentally stupid.

Think of it this way:

Imagine that, late in the Roman Republic, Caesar promises the plebians that he will make Gaul build a colossal statue of Jupiter, and pay for it. Then, after Gaul very effectively declines any part in this farce, Caesar tries bullying the Roman Senate into funding the statue which he claims will be paid for by Gaul. The Senate, too, even in its decadence and dysfunction, very clearly refuses to vote money for Caesar’s campaign promise.

So finally, Caesar crosses the Rubicon in blatantly illegitimate violation of the constitution, to steal money for a giant useless totem which was from the very beginning totally a con, but took on a life of its own because this Caesar is an intellectually lazy oaf.

This really seems to me like a valid allegory for what’s happening.

Petty, absurdly small-minded grifters are still entirely capable of being very dangerous authoritarians—and of remaining petty, absurdly small-minded grifters all the while.


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