It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush

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9780312379308: It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush
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For the first time since the Nixon era, Americans have reason to doubt the future of democracy. Today, to an unprecedented degree, big government conspires with big business and big evangelism, while civil liberties are diminished and war is promoted by taxpayer-funded ideologues, raving pundits, and religious zealots. Could we be headed toward an age of authoritarianism?

It Can Happen Here, is a compelling, impassioned, yet rational and fact-based look at the state of the nation by bestselling political journalist Joe Conason shows how and why the former Bush administration and the neoconservative right have wrenched America away from its founding principles---and pushed us toward a never-ending series of foreign wars.

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About the Author:

Joe Conason writes weekly columns for Salon.com and The New York Observer. He is the bestselling author of Big Lies, The Raw Deal, and, with Gene Lyons, The Hunting of the President. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Harper's, The Nation, and many other publications. He also serves as director of the Nation Institute Investigative Fund.

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Chapter One Madison’s warning, delivered during the early years of the American Republic in a congressional debate over presidential powers, has been vindicated many times since then. For reasons that the fourth president could not possibly have foreseen, his observation may be even more urgent now. And when he further observed that war empowers the nation’s chief executive with “all the means of seducing the minds . . . of the people,” he seemed to anticipate how a modern president might be tempted to exploit a state of “continual warfare”—such as an indefinitely extended “war on terror,” also known as “the long war”—to secure political domination. In American history, authoritarian excess has often accompanied war (or the fear of war), from the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by Madison’s political opponents to Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of habeas corpus; from the Red Scare of World War I to the internment of Japanese in World War II; from Joseph McCarthy’s depredations at the beginning of the cold war to Richard Nixon’s abuses during the war in Vietnam. Those wartime encroachments eventually receded, owing to the end of hostilities or the vitality of democratic resistance. But what would happen in a nation beset by continual warfare? How will liberty and democracy survive what the Pentagon and the president predict will be decades of a long war against terror? In literature, too, war has been depicted as the precondition for dictatorship. Two of the twentieth century’s most celebrated authors imagined totalitarian societies in which permanent warfare could become the most effective instrument of control. In their very different novels about societies without freedom, Sinclair Lewis and George Orwell portrayed politicians who misled their countries into aggressive military conflict for ulterior motives. The central fact of life in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a perpetual and perplexing battle among three superstates, which may or may not be waged largely for the sake of brainwashing and subduing their own peoples. The action takes place in London, and Orwell’s masterpiece is not only a denunciation of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism, but a warning about what all modern societies were in danger of becoming. More than a decade earlier, Lewis satirically depicted the exploitation of the same bloody means to achieve a nefarious end in It Can’t Happen Here—a story set in the United States. He imagined an elected dictatorship fabricating bogus provocations that would allow America to wage a preemptive war against Mexico. The author of this plan is a presidential adviser who bears a startling resemblance to a certain contemporary figure in attitude, influence, and proximity to the president. It is this crafty, ruthless adviser, Lee Sarason, the creator of President Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who first articulates how and why war will prove indispensable to the new regime. Holding forth in a cabinet meeting, Sarason “demanded that, in order to bring and hold all elements in the country together by that useful Patriotism which always appears upon threat of an outside attack, the government immediately arrange to be insulted and menaced in a well-planned series of deplorable ‘incidents’ on the Mexican border, and declare war on Mexico as soon as America showed that it was getting hot and patriotic enough.” Sarason’s scheme elicits an enthusiastic response from Hector Macgoblin, the secretary of education and public relations, a burly boxing fan and nationalistic bully with multiple doctoral degrees (a character who could have been based on radio blowhard William Bennett, the former drug czar and education secretary). He points out that in the past “governments had merely let themselves slide into war,” but that “in this age of deliberate, planned propaganda, a really modern government . . . must figure out what brand of war they had to sell and plan the selling campaign consciously.” That scenario will seem startlingly contemporary to anyone who remembers the campaign to sell the invasion of Iraq—including the role of Karl Rove and the White House Iraq Group. That infamous selling campaign was announced in September 2002 by White House chief of staff Andrew Card, who breezily explained the administration’s timing to the press. “From a marketing point of view,” quipped Card, a former auto industry lobbyist, “you don’t introduce new products in August.” Now, more than four years later, most of that product’s regretful buyers have been left wondering what the sellers were actually selling. By now everyone knows that the purposes proclaimed by the Bush administration at the time of the invasion—to rid Iraq of actual and potential weapons of mass destruction—were fraudulent. Moreover, everyone also knows that during the months leading up to the invasion, the president and his closest advisers were aware that the alleged facts justifying war “had been fixed,” as the British intelligence chief noted in the famous “Downing Street memo” of July 2002. Some analysts believed that the objective of the war was to gain control of Iraqi oil, although Saddam Hussein had always been willing to sell petroleum to the West at the world price. Others suggested that Iraq was an easy target for the assertion of U.S. military force at a critical moment. And still others insisted that invading Iraq was merely the first stage of a broader plan to remake the Middle East by force that had long been mulled by neoconservative ideologues. The decision to go to war probably reflects all those elements, but the question of its timing remains. Why introduce this controversial “new product” in September 2002, only weeks before the midterm elections? Why call for a congressional vote authorizing the use of military force against Iraq that autumn? With that demand, Bush reversed the path his father had taken in preparation for the Gulf War in 1990, asking Congress for authorization only after the U.N. Security Council acted first. Several months earlier, Karl Rove had hinted at the real reason for the rush to war. For this architect of conservative power, with his ambition to inaugurate a generation or more of Republican political domination, the second year of George W. Bush’s first term was a critical and dangerous time. He needed to win the midterm elections, against the historical odds—and nothing would unify the country behind the presidential party like the force of war. Rove, the powerful “Mayberry Machiavelli” who merged policy with politics in the Bush White House, had closely monitored the effect of war on the domestic political fortunes of his patrons. In 1991, he had observed the first President Bush’s popularity rocket upward during the first Gulf War. A decade later he had watched as the approval ratings of his boss, the second President Bush, reached even more impressive heights as he commanded the overthrow of the Taliban. Yet he could also recall how the popularity of the first President Bush plunged after the Gulf War troops came home—and he had measured the ratings of the second President Bush as they dwindled almost thirty points between September 2001 and August 2002. That is why Bush and Rove departed so radically from the conduct of past wartime presidencies, which struggled to bring the entire nation together against the enemy. Using war to cement Republican political domination means dividing, not uniting. ... Karl Rove rarely indulges any urge to speak publicly. He knows his own limitations and tends to remain in cloistered offices and back rooms, quite distant from the dangerous limelight. Yet although he is neither an inspiring nor a charismatic speaker, he understands the power of a simple message that is repeated again and again. On the few occasions over the past several years when he has spoken out, Rove has struck a single chord with growing intensity. His message could be summarized in this way: America is at war. It is a war that will continue indefinitely. Republicans and conservatives possess the moral strength to fight and win, while Democrats and liberals do not. Therefore, the survival of the nation requires that the Republican Party maintain a monopoly of power. To Rove this simple equation represents “the post-9/11 worldview.” In his world, it is the only valid worldview. He may not fully believe every word of it; in fact, he knows from his own experience that its characterization of Democrats and liberals is false, but that scarcely matters. For him the equation is true in a much deeper sense, because it served Rove’s self-appointed mission of establishing Republican hegemony. The first indication that Rove planned to turn the war on terror into an assault on the loyal opposition came during January 2002, in a speech to the winter conference of the Republican National Committee in Austin, Texas. With President George W. Bush riding a powerful wave of public support and bipartisan unity, his chief political strategist had returned to Texas to discuss the upcoming midterm congressional elections with party leaders. Only months earlier, on the steps of the Capitol, the nation’s elected representatives, from the most liberal Democrats to the most conservative Republicans, had promised to stand with the president against the terrorists who had destroyed the World Trade Center ...

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