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The nightmare totalitarian projects of the 20th have been overthrown or have disintegrated, leaving behind only outdated remnants: North Korea, Cuba. What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites. The United States is of course a very robust democracy.
Yet no human contrivance is tamper-proof, a constitutional democracy least of all. Some features of the American system hugely inhibit the abuse of office: the separation of powers within the federal government; the division of responsibilities between the federal government and the states. Federal agencies pride themselves on their independence; the court system is huge, complex, and resistant to improper influence.
Yet the American system is also perforated by vulnerabilities no less dangerous for being so familiar. Supreme among those vulnerabilities is reliance on the personal qualities of the man or woman who wields the awesome powers of the presidency. A British prime minister can lose power in minutes if he or she forfeits the confidence of the majority in Parliament. The president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit. What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities? Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical.
A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? Congress can subpoena records, question officials, and even impeach them.
Congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president. As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party. Recent presidents enjoying a same-party majority in Congress—Barack Obama in and , George W. Bush from through —usually got their way.
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And congressional oversight might well be performed even less diligently during the Trump administration. The first reason to fear weak diligence is the oddly inverse relationship between President Trump and the congressional Republicans. This time, it will be Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, doing the advancing—and consequently the overlooking. He can—and would—break faith with them in an instant to further his own interests.
Yet here they are, on the verge of achieving everything they have hoped to achieve for years, if not decades. The greatest risk to all their projects and plans is the very same X factor that gave them their opportunity: Donald Trump, and his famously erratic personality. What excites Trump is his approval rating, his wealth, his power. Who doubts Trump would do it? Not Paul Ryan. Not Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. For the first time since the administration of John Tyler in the s, a majority in Congress must worry about their president defecting from them rather than the other way around.
A scandal involving the president could likewise wreck everything that Republican congressional leaders have waited years to accomplish. However deftly they manage everything else, they cannot prevent such a scandal. But there is one thing they can do: their utmost not to find out about it.
Ryan has learned his prudence the hard way. Once unassailable in the party, he suddenly found himself disliked by 45 percent of Republicans. The Senate historically has offered more scope to dissenters than the House. Yet even that institution will find itself under pressure. Ambition will counteract ambition only until ambition discovers that conformity serves its goals better.
Discipline within the congressional ranks will be strictly enforced not only by the party leadership and party donors, but also by the overwhelming influence of Fox News. In both cases, the early indicators seemed to favor the women. Yet in the end it was the men who won, Hannity even more decisively than Trump. Kelly landed on her feet, of course, but Fox learned its lesson: Trump sells; critical coverage does not. From the point of view of the typical Republican member of Congress, Fox remains all-powerful: the single most important source of visibility and affirmation with the voters whom a Republican politician cares about.
He was drowned out by booing, and the following year, he lost his primary with only 29 percent of the vote, a crushing repudiation for an incumbent untouched by any scandal. Fox is reinforced by a carrier fleet of supplementary institutions: super pac s, think tanks, and conservative web and social-media presences, which now include such former pariahs as Breitbart and Alex Jones. So long as the carrier fleet coheres—and unless public opinion turns sharply against the president—oversight of Trump by the Republican congressional majority will very likely be cautious, conditional, and limited.
Donald Trump will not set out to build an authoritarian state. His immediate priority seems likely to be to use the presidency to enrich himself. But as he does so, he will need to protect himself from legal risk. Being Trump, he will also inevitably wish to inflict payback on his critics.
Construction of an apparatus of impunity and revenge will begin haphazardly and opportunistically. But it will accelerate. It will have to. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who often articulates Trumpist ideas more candidly than Trump himself might think prudent, offered a sharp lesson in how difficult it will be to enforce laws against an uncooperative president.
I pardon them if anybody finds them to have behaved against the rules. That statement is true, and it points to a deeper truth: The United States may be a nation of laws, but the proper functioning of the law depends upon the competence and integrity of those charged with executing it. A president determined to thwart the law in order to protect himself and those in his circle has many means to do so.
The powers of appointment and removal are another. The president appoints and can remove the commissioner of the IRS. He appoints and can remove the inspectors general who oversee the internal workings of the Cabinet departments and major agencies. He appoints and can remove the 93 U. He appoints and can remove the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, and the head of the criminal division at the Department of Justice.
Yet the hedges may not hold in the future as robustly as they have in the past. But the U. And while the U. Yet in the years ahead, these restraints may also prove less robust than they look. Republicans in Congress have long advocated reforms to expedite the firing of underperforming civil servants. If reform is dramatic and happens in the next two years, however, the balance of power between the political and the professional elements of the federal government will shift, decisively, at precisely the moment when the political elements are most aggressive. It would be a mighty power—and highly useful.
As Donald Trump correctly told reporters and editors from The New York Times on November 22, presidents are not bound by the conflict-of-interest rules that govern everyone else in the executive branch. Presidents from Jimmy Carter onward have balanced this unique exemption with a unique act of disclosure: the voluntary publication of their income-tax returns. At a press conference on January 11, Trump made clear that he will not follow that tradition. His attorney instead insisted that everything the public needs to know is captured by his annual financial-disclosure report, which is required by law for executive-branch employees and from which presidents are not exempt.
They are written with stocks and bonds in mind, to capture mortgage liabilities and deferred executive compensation—not the labyrinthine deals of the Trump Organization and its ramifying networks of partners and brand-licensing affiliates. The truth is in the tax returns, and they will not be forthcoming. Even outright bribe-taking by an elected official is surprisingly difficult to prosecute, and was made harder still by the Supreme Court in , when it overturned, by an 8—0 vote, the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.
McDonnell and his wife had taken valuable gifts of cash and luxury goods from a favor seeker. McDonnell then set up meetings between the favor seeker and state officials who were in a position to help him. The McDonnells had been convicted on a combined 20 counts. The Supreme Court objected, however, that the lower courts had interpreted federal anticorruption law too broadly.
Trump is poised to mingle business and government with an audacity and on a scale more reminiscent of a leader in a post-Soviet republic than anything ever before seen in the United States. A spokesman for the Argentine president denied that the two men had discussed the building on their call. But illegal, post- McDonnell? How many presidentially removable officials would dare even initiate an inquiry?
But as written, this seems to present a number of loopholes. First, the clause applies only to the president himself, not to his family members. Second, it seems to govern benefits only from foreign governments and state-owned enterprises, not from private business entities. If Congress is apprised of an apparent emolument, and declines to do anything about it, does that qualify as consent? Finally, how is this clause enforced?
Could someone take President Trump to court and demand some kind of injunction? Will the courts grant standing? The clause seems to presume an active Congress and a vigilant public. What if those are lacking? It is essential to recognize that Trump will use his position not only to enrich himself; he will enrich plenty of other people too, both the powerful and—sometimes, for public consumption—the relatively powerless. Venezuelan state TV even aired a regular program to showcase weeping recipients of new houses and free appliances.
Americans recently got a preview of their own version of that show as grateful Carrier employees thanked then-President-elect Trump for keeping their jobs in Indiana. Bray, a year-old Carrier employee, told Fortune. A lot of the workers are in shock. It felt like a victory for the little people. Trump will try hard during his presidency to create an atmosphere of personal munificence, in which graft does not matter, because rules and institutions do not matter. He will want to associate economic benefit with personal favor.
He will create personal constituencies, and implicate other people in his corruption. That, over time, is what truly subverts the institutions of democracy and the rule of law. The newly nominated presidential candidate then listed a series of outrages and attacks, especially against police officers. There had been a rise in killings of police in and from the all-time low in —but only back to the level.
Not every year will be the best on record. A mistaken belief that crime is spiraling out of control—that terrorists roam at large in America and that police are regularly gunned down—represents a considerable political asset for Donald Trump. Seventy-eight percent of Trump voters believed that crime had worsened during the Obama years. In true police states, surveillance and repression sustain the power of the authorities.
Polarization, not persecution, enables the modern illiberal regime. Whenever Trump stumbles into some kind of trouble, he reacts by picking a divisive fight. That evening, as if on cue, a little posse of oddballs obligingly burned flags for the cameras in front of the Trump International Hotel in New York. Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource. Trump will likely want not to repress it, but to publicize it—and the conservative entertainment-outrage complex will eagerly assist him. Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags; Black Lives Matter demonstrators bearing antipolice slogans—these are the images of the opposition that Trump will wish his supporters to see.
The more offensively the protesters behave, the more pleased Trump will be. Calculated outrage is an old political trick, but nobody in the history of American politics has deployed it as aggressively, as repeatedly, or with such success as Donald Trump. If there is harsh law enforcement by the Trump administration, it will benefit the president not to the extent that it quashes unrest, but to the extent that it enflames more of it, ratifying the apocalyptic vision that haunted his speech at the convention.
I hate them. I would never kill them. I would never do that. But I do hate them. In the early days of the Trump transition, Nic Dawes, a journalist who has worked in South Africa, delivered an ominous warning to the American media about what to expect. The rulers of backsliding democracies resent an independent press, but cannot extinguish it.
Mostly, however, modern strongmen seek merely to discredit journalism as an institution, by denying that such a thing as independent judgment can exist.
All reporting serves an agenda. There is no truth, only competing attempts to grab power. By filling the media space with bizarre inventions and brazen denials, purveyors of fake news hope to mobilize potential supporters with righteous wrath—and to demoralize potential opponents by nurturing the idea that everybody lies and nothing matters. A would-be kleptocrat is actually better served by spreading cynicism than by deceiving followers with false beliefs: Believers can be disillusioned; people who expect to hear only lies can hardly complain when a lie is exposed.
The inculcation of cynicism breaks down the distinction between those forms of media that try their imperfect best to report the truth, and those that purvey falsehoods for reasons of profit or ideology. One story, still supremely disturbing, exemplifies the falsifying method. This outcome evidently gnawed at the president-elect. If true, it would be so serious as to demand a criminal investigation at a minimum, presumably spanning many states. But of course the claim was not true.
Trump had not a smidgen of evidence beyond his own bruised feelings and internet flotsam from flagrantly unreliable sources. Yet once the president-elect lent his prestige to the crazy claim, it became fact for many people. A survey by YouGov found that by December 1, 43 percent of Republicans accepted the claim that millions of people had voted illegally in A clear untruth had suddenly become a contested possibility.
The previous morning, Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary in George W. Twitter, unmediated by the press, has proved an extremely effective communication tool for Trump. The WikiLeaks Task Force recently tweeted—then hastily deleted—a suggestion that it would build a database to track personal and financial information on all verified Twitter accounts, the kind of accounts typically used by journalists at major media organizations.
Even so, it seems unlikely that President Trump will outright send the cameras away. He craves media attention too much. But he and his team are serving notice that a new era in government-media relations is coming, an era in which all criticism is by definition oppositional—and all critics are to be treated as enemies. The lurid mass movements of the 20th century—communist, fascist, and other—have bequeathed to our imaginations an outdated image of what 21st-century authoritarianism might look like.
Whatever else happens, Americans are not going to assemble in parade-ground formations, any more than they will crank a gramophone or dance the turkey trot. In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead. It could apply here too. If people retreat into private life, if critics grow quieter, if cynicism becomes endemic, the corruption will slowly become more brazen, the intimidation of opponents stronger.
Laws intended to ensure accountability or prevent graft or protect civil liberties will be weakened. If the president uses his office to grab billions for himself and his family, his supporters will feel empowered to take millions. If he successfully exerts power to punish enemies, his successors will emulate his methods. The economy will be corrupted too, and with it the larger culture. There are certainly fascistic elements to him: the subdivision of society into categories of friend and foe; the boastful virility and the delight in violence; the vision of life as a struggle for dominance that only some can win, and that others must lose.
To supplement their ranks, companies—sometimes using coercive tactics—recruited poor workers from the American South and even Europe. With few existing settlements to house this new laboring class, the vast majority was housed in coal camps. A Senate report found that around four-fifths of West Virginia miners lived in company-owned coal camps, and more than two-thirds of Kentucky miners, according to Eller.
All of these were privately-owned, privately-governed communities designed to give the mining companies maximum control not merely over mineral resources—but over human ones too. Nada White witnessed the power of the coal camps firsthand. Now in her late 60s, White is a medical assistant who lives with her son, Dustin, outside Charleston, the capital of West Virginia. Her early girlhood was spent with her parents on a farm in the family hollow, tucked up against the belly of Cook Mountain, in southern West Virginia, where ten generations of Cooks had grown up.
Those early days were spent swinging on mountain vines, collecting mollymoochee mushrooms in the spring, and picnicking in the glade where all the Cooks before her were buried. Then it came time to go to school, which was two hours away, longer in winter.
However, the school bus came right to Wharton, a tiny town a few miles away, where her grandparents lived. So White moved in with them. Back in the s, her granddad did the same thing as all the other men in Wharton: he mined coal for Eastern Gas and Fuel. At the edges of Appalachia, mighty factories churned out steel to make Fords and Chevys. One problem with town planning by plutocracy is that the coal camps suffered the ugliness of industrialization—disease, squalor, poverty.
But it did not experience the benefits of a diversified economy and public services that typically accompany industrialization—affordable transportation, easy access to food and markets, job opportunities, newspapers, recreation. Since they were privately owned, the camps enabled mining companies to govern not only production, but services and all means of consumption too: retail, recreation, education, medical care, worship, you name it.
Each town was its own mini-monopoly—a phenomenon embodied in the company store.
Flouting state laws, mine operators forbade miners from shopping anywhere beside the company store. He and the other miners were paid in little metal tokens notched in the middle and stamped with the Eastern logo. Scrip, it was called—and it could only be used in one place: the company store. Workers supplied their own. The scrip system worked because there were no other stores. Those took only the scrip of Bethlehem Steel or Armco or whatever other coal company owned the town. And they were all overpriced. Ordering from the catalogues of Montgomery Ward or Sears was much cheaper than the company store.
But raising hard cash was tricky. There were other dangerous dependencies that were simply facts of life in Wharton. White recalls the day the four company men marched into the house next door, where Fred and Bobbie York lived, emptied all their things into the small soot-specked yard, and left. The Yorks gathered their damp belongings into a borrowed car and left. A week later, a new miner and his family moved in. Where the person took it, or what became of the Yorks, White never heard. There was no other employer. Those who complained found themselves not only jobless but blackballed, leaving them nowhere to work or live.
People kept themselves in line, and quiet, says White. For hundreds of miles in any direction, almost all of the towns were privately owned, privately operated settlements almost all owned by companies like Eastern. There was only the faintest hint of public services—or, even, for that matter, representative government.
These forces were broadly supported by the West Virginia government, which declared martial law four times in the early s to put down miner strikes. Facing a worker revolt that saw thousands of miners join together to oust a particularly brutal sheriff in Logan County, the governor went so far as to dispatch bomber planes. To put it most simply, coal camps were economic institutions built to deny people agency. But there were parallels. In a s US Senate hearing, a Logan County miner named George Echols who had been fired for heading up the local union explained the combination of chronic underpayment, coercion, and violence prevalent in the coal camps.
Much has changed since the s. As federal labor laws improved the job security and wages of miners, rising electricity demand in the s pulled the coal industry out of a postwar lull. Soaring oil prices resulting from the formation of OPEC a decade later spurred another coal boom. That fatalistic approach to community planning seems to have played out in the coalfields. Through the coal slump of the s and early s, companies razed thousands of coal camp homes to cut their tax burden.
Though some companies sold their land holdings, it was often to other big companies—not residents.
Others continued charging existing occupants rent, refusing to sell. As of , of the 10 largest landowners in West Virginia, none is headquartered in the state, according to a study by historian Lou Martin and economists at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. In six counties, the top ten landowners control at least half of private land. He also boasts a fortune invested in several Kentucky coal mines, timberlands in West Virginia, and a resort that has catered to coal barons for more than a century and now fetes the New Orleans Saints.
This pattern of land ownership and extractive institutions, the legacy of policies set centuries ago—set the stage for a new way of passing on the costs of cheap coal to the public. Instead, companies pass those costs on to the public. For one, there are the costs to human safety. Strip-mining and mountaintop removal have been linked with cataclysmic floods that, a few times a decade, destroy tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars in property.
The worst floods have killed dozens or even scores of residents. Though few today have heard of it, one of the ghastliest industrial disasters in US history took place in a coal camp-specked hollow in Logan County called Buffalo Creek. One rainy February morning in , a dam holding million gallons of coal waste gave out, sending a to foot tsunami of black gunk ripping through the hollow, according to Everything in Its Path, a study of the disaster by Kai Erikson, a Yale sociologist. Raw coal must be bathed of impurities before being burned. Then the extractive institutions swung into action.
In , the federal government finally weighed in. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was supposed to require that mined land be restored to something approximating its original shape. Coal companies instantly saw their opportunity, as Ron Eller recounts in his modern history of Appalachia, Uneven Ground. What if the now-flattened mountaintops they were creating could be pitched to government officials as a way to attract outside factories and create more jobs? Almost overnight, strip-mining underwent a hypertrophic mutation, as mining companies turned to blowing up mountain peaks and deploying hulking, story machines to claw open coal seams below, replacing verdant ridges with moonscape mesas of lifelessness.
The land area of southern West Virginia scarred by active mountaintop removal leapt more than threefold between and and has stayed steady since then, according to GIS analysis by SkyTruth, an environmental nonprofit. Today, the biggest mine sites exceed the island of Manhattan in size.
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It is impossible to restore the land to its former state. The scale of environmental carnage is possible, at least in part, because of the land-grab legacy: corporate control of enormous land parcels has meant residents lack the legal clout to object. Since mineral rights legally trumped surface rights, corporate ownership let coal companies clear cut forests for mine supports, build roads and railroad spurs, pollute and divert streams—all without having to pay taxes on the land they defaced, as Erikson explains.
Strip-mining, however, pushed this bait-and-switch to a whole new level. Mineral rights let coal companies tear off mountaintops—ruining the land permanently—to get at the coal beneath it. Then there are the costs that come with trying to find some higher and better use. Few have panned out. It still suffered from low wages, low productivity and over-reliance on branch plants.
Mingo County recently unveiled a new airport on one such dusty tableland; its major industrial park, which sits on a former mine site, remains mostly empty. Coal creates economic activity for a period of time but not development. It creates employment for some, wealth for a few, and sucks oxygen out of the room for the other people.
Reversing Inequality: Unleashing the Transformative Potential of an Equitable Economy
They require far less labor than underground mines. Nowadays, taxpayers subsidize the coal industry directly too. As it happens, that is what finally convinced Mullins to leave coal mining behind. In the mids, a freak fire burned down his home. He and his family lost everything. But they gained a modest homeowners insurance check and some good advice—that maybe they should see the fire as an opportunity instead of a tragedy. It took him about a month to quit his mining job. A year later, he and his family moved just outside of central Appalachian Kentucky, where he attended Berea College and finally got his degree.
He now runs his own public relations firm aimed at bridging political and cultural divides surrounding Appalachian issues. Greater economic opportunity was part of why they left. His biggest concern about staying, however, was their two kids. Eroded by dwindling budgets, local schools were even worse than when Mullins had attended them. Mountaintop removal sites and underground mines engirdle Clintwood, creating untold volumes of toxic waste buried in unnamed patches of ground.
The backyard creek that ran past his house did so increasingly in Technicolor hues. That impetus to leave gained new urgency, however, when a public health scientist named Michael Hendryx began publishing his research. Blowing off a mountaintop releases naturally occurring poisons like arsenic, selenium, lead, and manganese. These poisons then seep into streams and groundwater.
Meanwhile, the blasting fogs the air with a toxic cocktail of dust that settles on roofs and windows in the valleys below, and cakes the lining of lungs.
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The displaced soil and vegetation from mountaintop removal is plowed into valleys, creating enormous detritus piles and choking off waterways. Between and , mining operations buried some miles of rivers and streams, according to the EPA. And since —when the George W. For a decade now, peer-reviewed research produced by Hendryx, now a professor of applied health science at Indiana University, exposed a consistent link between mountaintop removal and a broad range of health problems and rising mortality rates.
According to his research, since —when amendments to the US Clean Air Act inadvertently stoked the growth of mountaintop removal registration required —parts of central Appalachia with mountaintop removal have had about 1, extra deaths per year, adjusting for age, smoking habits, and other factors. These findings are ominous because birth defect rates are unusually sensitive to exposure to toxic chemicals, even though the specific mechanisms are little understood.
Gas stop fare of buffalo wings and pepperoni rolls are the quick meal options available to most. And economically battered central Appalachia leads the pack. By , the combined mortality rate from these deaths was nearly 95 per , in central Appalachia, versus 49 per , in non-Appalachian US. Cancer claimed lives per , in the region, around a third more than the US as a whole. Central Appalachia lost 11, years of potential life. This may have something to do with the economic precariousness that is a fact of life in central Appalachia.
And the economic realities of the region mean that a sense of community, which might alleviate the effects of stress, is hard to come by. Marlene Spaulding grew up in a Kentucky town called Beauty during the s. The town was once known as Himlerville—the home of the first cooperative coal-mining company in the country. The houses in Himlerville were nice. Each had two fireplaces, gas and electricity, a tub and shower, and a vegetable garden, among other amenities.
Miners could choose to buy their home or even build their own. Himlerville had a library, an auditorium, a modern school open 10 months out of the year, a local newspaper, as well as commercial developments that included a bank, a hotel and a bake shop. The company and the town prospered throughout most of the s. But in , private capitalists bought its assets. They renamed it Beauty a few years later. By the time Spaulding was growing up in the town, life in Beauty was hard. Her biological mother was 14 when she gave birth to Spaulding and her twin sister, and a local family adopted the girls.
Her adoptive mom came from a family with 18 children, her adoptive dad had 12 siblings. By her count, there are only two members of her extended family who have never been to prison. Drugs were a big problem. Back then, they let prisoners out on furlough over the weekends. Her brother would usually run off with his friends.
Spaulding recalls awakening one night to her mom calming her as policemen filed into her room to search for her brother under her bed. After a life spent shuttling in and out of prison, her brother died of cancer when he was But her childhood could have been much worse. The two met up at the local Dairy Queen, where she learned that her biological sister had drug problems and was essentially homeless. At that moment, she happened to live eerily close by—beneath a bridge on the Tug River that Spaulding could see from her office window.
Long before the rest of the nation noticed, the opioid crisis took root in central Appalachia. Of course, injuries abound and surgery is common, leading to prescriptions for heavy-duty painkillers. To keep injured miners working—and from claiming disability insurance—some companies had doctors prescribing pain drugs on the job. Ask central Appalachian residents about addiction, and people will just as casually mention waitresses or hospital workers who dose themselves to keep their jobs.