Excerpt - Conservatives Without Conscience, by John Dean
Legitimizing Authoritarian Conservatism:
The Ugly Politics of Fear
If George Bush had not selected Dick Cheney as his running mate in 2000, and if the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had not occurred in 2001, authoritarian conservatism could not have surfaced in the executive branch with its current ferocious sense of purpose. When a president embraces a concept, though, it gains legitimacy throughout the federal establishment, as political appointees—those several thousand men and women who serve at the pleasure of the president, head up various departments and agencies, or work on the White House staff—follow their leader.
Depending on the president (or, in the case of the current administration, the vice president), varying degrees of dissent are tolerated in the decision-making process, but once policy is set, political appointees are expected to carry it out or leave. This is what happens within an authoritarian government.
For example, when Jack Goldsmith (now on the faculty of Harvard Law School) disagreed with the authoritarian policies being issued by the White House—policies calling for the use of torture and directing the National Security Agency to violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by not seeking warrants for electronic surveillance of Americans—he became a marked man. Goldsmith left the Justice Department, as have other high-level attorneys who wanted no part of the administration’s disregard for the rule of law.
As Bush proceeds with his second term, we have had some six years to observe him. It is abundantly clear that he is a mental lightweight with a strong right-wing authoritarian personality, with some troubling politics and policies social dominance tendencies as well. Bush’s leading authorities are “his gut,” his God, and his vice president. . . .
Without terrorism, George W. Bush would have likely been a one-term president; with terrorism as a raison d’être, Bush and Cheney’s authoritarianism has not been questioned seriously enough. . . .
(J)ournalist-turned-blogger Joshua Marshall has a remarkable ability to be among the first to spot developments in Washington, as he did in identifying the authoritarianism of the Bush administration. In analyzing a speech by Al Gore on January 16, 2006,82 addressing the Bush administration’s remarkable abuses of power, Marshall wrote,
The point Gore makes in his speech that I think is most key is the connection between authoritarianism, official secrecy and incompetence. The president’s critics are always accusing him of law-breaking or unconstitutional acts and then also berating the incompetence of his governance. And it’s often treated as, well...he’s power-hungry and incompetent to boot! Imagine that! The point though is that they are directly connected. Authoritarianism and secrecy breed incompetence; the two feed on each other. It’s a vicious cycle. Governments with authoritarian tendencies point to what is in fact their own incompetence as the rationale for giving them yet more power” (italics Marshall’s).
Among the most troubling of the authoritarian and radical tactics being employed by Bush and Cheney are their politics of fear. A favorite gambit of Latin American dictators who run sham democracies, fearmongering has generally been frowned upon in American politics.*
Think of the modern presidents who have governed our nation— Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton—and the various crises they confronted—the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean war, the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis, the war in Vietnam, Iran’s taking of American hostages, the danger to American students in Grenada, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the terrorist bombings at the World Trade Center in 1993, and Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma. None of these presidents resorted to fear in dealing with these situations. None of these presidents made the use of fear a standard procedure or a means of governing (or pursuing office or political goals). To the contrary, all of these presidents sought to avoid preying on the fears of Americans. (It will be noted that Nixon is not included in this list because he did use fear in both his 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns, and he continued to use this tactic once in office.)
Frightening Americans, nonetheless, has become a standard ploy for Bush, Cheney, and their surrogates. They add a fear factor to every course of action they pursue, whether it is their radical foreign policy of preemptive war, their call for tax cuts, their desire to privatize social security, or their implementation of a radical new health care scheme. This fearmongering began with the administration’s political exploitation of the 9/11 tragedy, when it made the fight against terrorists the centerpiece of its presidency. Bush and Cheney launched America’s first preemptive war by claiming it necessary to the fight against terrorism. . . .
Among the few who have spoken out against the politics of fear, no one has done so more forcefully, and with less notice in the mainstream news media, than former vice president Al Gore, who was the keynote speaker at a conference in February 2004 titled “Fear: Its Political Uses and Abuses.” Gore analyzed the administration’s continuous use of fear since 9/11 and expressed grave concern that no one was correcting the misinformation being fed to Americans by Bush and Cheney.
“Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction,” Gore observed. “President Dwight Eisenhower said this: ‘Any who act as if freedom’s defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and troubling politics and policies fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.’ But only fifteen years later,” Gore continued, “when Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, became president, we saw the beginning of a major change in America’s politics. Nixon, in a sense, embodied that spirit of suppression and suspicion and fear that Eisenhower had denounced.”
Getting right to the point, Gore continued, “In many ways, George W. Bush reminds me of Nixon more than any other president.... Like Bush, Nixon understood the political uses and misuses of fear”. . . .
Of course, demagoguery is not new; there have always been and always will be politicians who appeal to emotions rather than reason, because it works. There are, in fact, relatively few people who are truly intimidated by the possibility of terrorist attacks.** Those few who are genuinely frightened, however, help Bush and Cheney. Dr. Jost and his collaborators, in the study reported in Chapter 1, found that fear of terrorism . . . is a useful useful recruiting tool for Republicans.
*For example, President Alberto Fujimori manipulated the people of Peru for electoral gains and to justify authoritarian practices in 2000 by using the threat of terror. “Elitists and dictators have used fear tactics to control their constituencies since the beginning of time,” noted scholar R. D. Davis in “Debunking the Big Lie,” in National Minority Politics (November 30, 1995). Chris Ney and Kelly Creedon, authors with expertise on Latin American politics, wrote that “fear won the election” in El Salvador in 2004, noting, “The rhetoric and tactics mirror those employed by other Latin American right-wing parties, including that of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.”
They conclude with an observation remarkably applicable to American democracy: “The targeted use of fear is a powerful motivator, especially for people who have been traumatized by war, state terrorism, or economic insecurity. The implications for democratic government—whether newly formed or well-established—are deeply disturbing.” Chris Ney and Kelly Creedon, “Preemptive Intervention in El Salvador,” Peacework (May 2004).