Friday, March 09, 2007

'It Can Happen Here'

Joe Conason has already had an enviable authorial career. The Hunting of the President (cowritten with Gene Lyons) is really the definitive text on the Clinton impeachment saga and is even still a monument to the kind of skeptical journalism that is, sadly, practiced still in only a few quarters. Big Lies was a similarly worthy addition to the library of texts documenting the voluminous mendacity of movement conservatism.

His most recent -- It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush -- takes Conason to another level: It's a genuinely important book, perhaps the most important to be published this year.

The subject of It Can Happen Here -- an obvious play on the title of Sinclair Lewis' anti-fascist novel It Can't Happen Here (discussed previously at this blog here) -- is the growth of authoritarianism, both among leaders and followers, embodied by the American conservative movement. It has real significance for our national discourse, both for the short and long terms.

As Conason puts it in the book's introduction:
Bolstered by political impunity, especially in a time of war, perhaps any group of politicians would be tempted to abuse power. But this party and these politicians, unchecked by normal democratic constraints, proved to be particularly dangerous. The name for what is wrong with them -- the threat embedded within the Bush administration, the Republican congressional leadership, and the current leaders of the Republican Party -- is authoritarianism.

The most obvious symptoms can be observed in the regime's style, which features an almost casual contempt for democratic and lawful norms; an expanding appetite for executive control at the expense of constitutional balances; a reckless impulse to corrupt national institutions with partisan ideology; and an ugly tendency to smear dissent as disloyalty. The most troubling effects are matters of substance, including the suspension of traditional legal rights for certain citizens; the imposition of secrecy and the inhibition of the free flow of information; the extension of domestic spying without legal sanction or warrant; the promotion of torture and other barbaric practices, in defiance of American and international law; and the collusion of government and party with corporate interests and religious fundamentalists.

These issues have been raised before, most notably by John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience, which for all of its virtues also fell somewhat short in fully confronting the implications of the depths that it plumbed -- particularly in recognizing the fascist shape of the shadows within those depths.

Conason, as the book's title suggest, does not shy away from this discussion but confronts it directly -- observing that George W. Bush's campaign for the presidency and subsequent reign has more than a passing resemblance to Buzz Windrip's. Lewis's famous aphorism -- "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross" -- is in fact reflected in the entire appeal of the modern conservative movement. Whereas Dean believes that fascism is a long ways from manifesting itself in America, Conason recognizes unflinchingly that fascist elements long latent in the American psyche are coming increasingly to the fore.

He explores the trends enabling these elements in subsequent chapters: the unprecedented power grab of the executive branch under Bush, the willing complaisance of the corporate mainstream media as an administration mouthpiece, the unholy marriage between the corporatist and religious right, the Nixonian viciousness at play in the administration's radical theories about executive power.

All of these subjects have been explored in some depth on an individual basis previously (see, for example, Glenn Greenwald's superb How Would a Patriot Act?), though even in these areas Conason brings a great deal of fresh reportage to the table here, notably in exploring the roles played by neoconservatives such as Leo Strauss and Michael Ledeen in transforming the conservative movement and its agenda. Where It Can Happen Here excels, however, is in wrapping these threads together into a cogent portrait of an American body politic in real danger of being overwhelmed by the worst of human nature.

What sets Conason's book apart particularly is its initial focus on an aspect of conservative rule under Bush that has gotten all too little attention from his peers in the press and among the pundits -- namely, the effects of a state of perpetual war, as now exists in the form of the "war on terror," on democratic institutions and subsequently on the ability of democracy itself to survive. James Madison's warning -- "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare" -- rings with a specially ominous note in this context. Most of the first chapter, titled "The 'Post-9/11 Worldview' of Karl Rove," explores not just the Machiavellian motivations for those in power to encourage a constant state of national fearfulness, but also considers its broader effects on the mental and political state of the nation.

It should be noted that this aspect of Conason's text, which predicates much of the argument that follows, has been conveniently overlooked almost entirely by his critics, including Jacob Heilbrunn's review in the New York Times which dismisses It Can Happen Here as needlessly alarmist:
It's also the case that Conason's alarmism inadvertently buys into Bush and Cheney's own hokum by attributing a kind of implacable and infallible power to the administration. Whatever its intentions, however, the hallmark of the administration hasn't turned out to be Machiavellian cunning but sheer ineptitude. Rather like the American cold warriors who insisted that the Soviet Union was vying for world domination even as it was going poof in the late 1980s, Conason seems reluctant to recognize that the conservative movement has been heading toward collapse. Far from consolidating a right-wing dictatorship, Bush's actual political legacy may well turn out to be resuscitating American liberalism.

Heilbrunn, a noted neoconservative himself, is like nearly every supposed "serious thinker" on the right side of the political aisle these days -- so eager to escape the contagious necrotic effects of George W. Bush's political agenda that he concocts a kind of reinvented history that paints Bush as simply incompetent and not so Machiavellian, as though the two traits were somehow mutually exclusive when in fact they were deeply symbiotic in creating the Bush malaise. It's what Digby calls the "incompetence dodge":
Incompetence has nothing to do with it. In fact, they are quite competent at doing exactly what they want to do --- gain power, do whatever they want for a few years, lose office, harrass Democrats rinse, repeat.

The seemingly twinned notions that Bush was insufficiently conservative or failed to carry out the neocon agenda to every jot and tittle are simply, purely, 180-degree revisionist nonsense. At every turn, Bush adhered to conservative-movement dogma, shaped by neoconservatives, in nearly every regard. Likewise, the concomitant claim that Bush has somehow killed the conservative movement -- which, despite these easy characterizations, actually has a continual ability to come back from the dead that would make Freddie Krueger proud -- seems to have emerged from a Bizarro Universe oblivious to the reality that Bush's Iraq "surge" and his executive-branch power grab are simply proceeding apace, as though the 2006 election had no meaning whatsoever.

What Heilbrunn's review reflects, moreover, is one of the key points of Conason's warning -- namely, the complicity of the major mainstream media, particularly organs like the New York Times, in enabling the metastasis of the authoritarian cult called the conservative movement. Rather than employing someone not from a sector singled out for criticism in the book -- a description that does not fit the neoconservative Heilbrunn -- the Times' review section picked someone almost certain to deal the book a negative review. I suppose this represents an improvement of sorts -- neither The Hunting of the President nor Big Lies were deemed worthy of review in the Times, which in the case of the former particularly reflected the overpowering arrogance of the "Paper of Record."

The media's complicity lies mainly in ignoring the deeper implications of the nature of conservative rule in America. Fortunately, there are still reporters like Joe Conason out there doing the jobs we're all supposed to be doing.

Joe Conason will be signing books tonight at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (17171 Bothell Way NE), beginning at 6:30 p.m.

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