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How Republics End

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Paul Krugman

Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
Many people are reacting to the rise of Trumpism and nativist movements in Europe by reading history specifically, the history of the 1930s. And they are right to do so. It takes willful blindness not to see the parallels between the rise of fascism and our current political nightmare.

But the 30s isnt the only era with lessons to teach us. Lately Ive been reading a lot about the ancient world. Initially, I have to admit, I was doing it for entertainment and as a refuge from news that gets worse with each passing day. But I couldnt help noticing the contemporary resonances of some Roman history specifically, the tale of how the Roman Republic fell.

Heres what I learned: Republican institutions dont protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.

On the first point: Roman politics involved fierce competition among ambitious men. But for centuries that competition was constrained by some seemingly unbreakable rules. Heres what Adrian Goldsworthys In the Name of Rome says: However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his and his familys reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power.

America used to be like that, with prominent senators declaring that we must stop partisan politics at the waters edge. But now we have a president-elect who openly asked Russia to help smear his opponent, and all indications are that the bulk of his party was and is just fine with that. (A new poll shows that Republican approval of Vladimir Putin has surged even though or, more likely, precisely because it has become clear that Russian intervention played an important role in the U.S. election.) Winning domestic political struggles is all that matters, the good of the republic be damned.

And what happens to the republic as a result? Famously, on paper the transformation of Rome from republic to empire never happened. Officially, imperial Rome was still ruled by a Senate that just happened to defer to the emperor, whose title originally just meant commander, on everything that mattered. We may not go down exactly the same route although are we even sure of that? but the process of destroying democratic substance while preserving forms is already underway.

Consider what just happened in North Carolina. The voters made a clear choice, electing a Democratic governor. The Republican legislature didnt openly overturn the result not this time, anyway but it effectively stripped the governors office of power, ensuring that the will of the voters wouldnt actually matter.

Combine this sort of thing with continuing efforts to disenfranchise or at least discourage voting by minority groups, and you have the potential making of a de facto one-party state: one that maintains the fiction of democracy, but has rigged the game so that the other side can never win.

Why is this happening? Im not asking why white working-class voters support politicians whose policies will hurt them Ill be coming back to that issue in future columns. My question, instead, is why one partys politicians and officials no longer seem to care about what we used to think were essential American values. And lets be clear: This is a Republican story, not a case of both sides do it.

So whats driving this story? I dont think its truly ideological. Supposedly free-market politicians are already discovering that crony capitalism is fine as long as it involves the right cronies. It does have to do with class warfare redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy is a consistent theme of all modern Republican policies. But what directly drives the attack on democracy, Id argue, is simple careerism on the part of people who are apparatchiks within a system insulated from outside pressures by gerrymandered districts, unshakable partisan loyalty, and lots and lots of plutocratic financial support.

For such people, toeing the party line and defending the partys rule are all that matters. And if they sometimes seem consumed with rage at anyone who challenges their actions, well, thats how hacks always respond when called on their hackery.

One thing all of this makes clear is that the sickness of American politics didnt begin with Donald Trump, any more than the sickness of the Roman Republic began with Caesar. The erosion of democratic foundations has been underway for decades, and theres no guarantee that we will ever be able to recover.

But if there is any hope of redemption, it will have to begin with a clear recognition of how bad things are. American democracy is very much on the edge.



Donald Trump: Kremlin Employee of the Month?

Nicholas Kristof JAN. 14, 2017

The humor writer Andy Borowitz recently joked that Donald Trump had been named the Kremlins employee of the month. I giggled at that, and then winced. Its painful even to joke about.

Some of the most explosive reports about America in the last few days appeared in Israeli newspapers. They suggested that American intelligence officials had warned Israel to be careful about sharing classified information with the Trump White House, for fear that it would be given to Russia.

American intelligence officials reportedly cautioned that Vladimir Putin might have leverages of pressure to extort Trump. That presumably was a reference to the hanky-panky recounted in the dossier alleging that Moscow compromised Trump by filming him cavorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel.

Perhaps more troubling are suggestions of collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Trump strongly denies all this, the dossier has zero public evidence behind it, and it should be treated with skepticism. But it reflects an unprecedented uncertainty: There is a disorienting kernel of doubt about whether we can fully trust the man who will occupy the Oval Office.

So is our new president a Russian poodle?

Heres what we know. The dossier was gathered by a former British MI6 spy, Christopher Steele. A onetime British ambassador to Russia described Steele as a very competent professional operator who would not make things up.

Still, the dossier began as opposition research funded by people looking for dirt on Trump, and for weeks it has been in the hands of news organizations (including The Times), the F.B.I., politicians and others, and no one has been able to prove its allegations. Perhaps the closest: The BBC suggested that the head of an East European intelligence agency was aware of the material and that C.I.A. officers investigating the issue provided details including that there was more than one tape.

Look, its poetic justice that Donald Trump, who for years falsely bellowed that President Obama was born abroad, is now caught in similarly unsubstantiated rumors. So Democrats have a right to chortle. But they should remain skeptical.

This isnt fake news of the kind fabricated by Macedonian websites, but its both plausible and completely unsubstantiated. Unlike Trumps claims that Obama was foreign-born, even after the president produced his birth certificate, this hasnt been disproved or discredited, and it was regarded as credible enough to brief the president and president-elect about. This occupies a murky middle ground: Maybe its true and maybe not.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has announced an investigation of Russian election meddling, and other Senate Republicans seem intent on pursuing the issue as well. Thats good: Democrats have little credibility investigating Trump, so it makes sense for Republicans to lead on this.

In the meantime, lets put aside sexual blackmail and focus on what is undisputed: Trump praises Putin, criticizes NATO and downplays Russian war crimes and its attempts to steal our election.

In contrast, Trump compares the American intelligence community to Nazis, suggesting it was behind the leaking of the dossier. Its astonishing to see a president-elect in effect hug the Russians while giving his own team the finger, creating a chasm between the White House and the intelligence community.

Its extraordinarily serious, said Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel to the C.I.A. Ive never seen anything like this. He said that the C.I.A. was buoyed by the nomination of Mike Pompeo to lead it, but that morale and effectiveness would suffer if the rift with the Trump White House continued.

Its also indisputable that Trump has appointed people soft on Russia. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the new national security adviser, took money in 2015 from RT, the Russian propaganda front, and sat next to Putin at an RT dinner. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state nominee, is one of the American executives friendliest to Putin.

For months, there have been indications of bizarre ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow, including the Russian governments assertion in November that it maintained contacts with Trumps immediate entourage. The F.B.I. investigated Trumps Russia ties over the summer and fall, and reportedly sought approval to monitor his aides suspected of improper contacts with Russian officials.

So whats going on?

The most important question is simply why our president-elect has been so determined to side with Russia undermining his own intelligence community as he does so. Perhaps its a genuine if naïve attempt to reset relations. But, oops, new presidents have tried that before, and it fails each time.

The Trump view is so far from the foreign policy mainstream that inevitably there will be darker theories offered for the softness toward Russia. These involve financial ties with Moscow, since Trump refuses to release his tax statements, or the kind of sordid blackmail alleged in the dossier.

Such rumors may well be wrong and unfair but they persist. They damage Trump, the intelligence community and the United States itself, and the best disinfectant will be transparency. That means congressional inquiries, led by Republicans, and a continued F.B.I. investigation.

We cant afford even the perception that our president is the Kremlins man in Washington.


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