Glenn Greenwald’s attack on authoritarianism

December 31, 2020 • 10:15 am

Like many disaffected journalists, Glenn Greenwald has found a home on the Substack platform; this after he resigned from The Intercept. Although, like other writers on the site, he charges for access to his essays, for a limited time you can read for free. The piece below was recommended by a reader, and, having read it, I can see where Greenwald is coming from. But he sounds a bit overheated, as well as a bit of a sourpuss, and I don’t think I’ll subscribe. (I may cancel my subscription to Andrew Sullivan’s site, too, if he doesn’t start writing more interesting pieces.)

At any rate, you can click on the screenshot below to read Greenwald’s piece. It will at least make you think.

Greenwald makes several points, which I’ll list in order and show an excerpt for each one (indented).

1.) Donald Trump was never an authoritarian. That is, he never wielded the power that he could have. 

In 2020 alone, Trump had two perfectly crafted opportunities to seize authoritarian power — a global health pandemic and sprawling protests and sustained riots throughout American cities — and yet did virtually nothing to exploit those opportunities. Actual would-be despots such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán quickly seized on the virus to declare martial law, while even prior U.S. presidents, to say nothing of foreign tyrants, have used the pretext of much less civil unrest than what we saw this summer to deploy the military in the streets to pacify their own citizenry.

. . .But early in the pandemic, Trump was criticized, especially by Democrats, for failing to assert the draconian powers he had, such as commandeering the means of industrial production under the Defense Production Act of 1950 . . .  Rejecting demands to exploit a public health pandemic to assert extraordinary powers is not exactly what one expects from a striving dictator.

A similar dynamic prevailed during the sustained protests and riots that erupted after the killing of George Floyd. . . while Trump threatened to deploy [military power] if governors failed to pacify the riots, Trump failed to order anything more than a few isolated, symbolic gestures such as having troops use tear gas to clear out protesters from Lafayette Park for his now-notorious walk to a church, provoking harsh criticism from the right, including Fox News, for failing to use more aggressive force to restore order.

2.) The authoritarian myth was made up by the media to attract clicks, dosh, and attention. 

The hysterical Trump-as-despot script was all melodrama, a ploy for profits and ratings, and, most of all, a potent instrument to distract from the neoliberal ideology that gave rise to Trump in the first place by causing so much wreckage. Positing Trump as a grand aberration from U.S. politics and as the prime author of America’s woes — rather than what he was: a perfectly predictable extension of U.S politics and a symptom of preexisting pathologies — enabled those who have so much blood and economic destruction on their hands not only to evade responsibility for what they did, but to rehabilitate themselves as the guardians of freedom and prosperity and, ultimately, catapult themselves back into power. As of January 20, that is exactly where they will reside.

Note that he segues to his next point:

3.) The Democrats, among them Biden and his administration (he calls them “neoliberals”), as well as previous presidents who waged war without the proper authorities (e.g., Obama), are the real authoritarians. 

. . . as I wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in late 2016, the U.S. Government itself is authoritarian after decades of bipartisan expansion of executive powers justified by a posture of endless war. With rare exception, the lawless and power-abusing acts over the last four years were ones that inhere in the U.S. Government and long preceded Trump, not ones invented by him. To the extent Trump was an authoritarian, he was one in the way that all U.S. presidents have been since the War on Terror began and, more accurately, since the start of the Cold War and advent of the permanent national security state.

The single most revealing episode exposing this narrative fraud was when journalists and political careerists, including former Obama aides, erupted in outrage on social media upon seeing a photo of immigrant children in cages at the border — only to discover that the photo was not from a Trump concentration camp but an Obama-era detention facility (they were unaccompanied children, not ones separated from their families, but “kids in cages” are “kids in cages” from a moral perspective). And tellingly, the single most actually authoritarian Trump-era event is one that has been largely ignored by the U.S. media: namely, the decision to prosecute Julian Assange under espionage laws (but that, too, is an extension of the unprecedented war on journalism unleashed by the Obama DOJ).

4.) The Democrats are further culpable because they’re in league with the large monopolies, like Facebook and Amazon—companies that are really destroying America. (Greenwald goes on and on about this. )

What makes this most menacing of all is that the primary beneficiaries of these rapid changes are Silicon Valley giants, at least three of which — Facebook, Google, and Amazon — are now classic monopolies. That the wealth of their primary owners and executives — Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai — has skyrocketed during the pandemic is well-covered, but far more significant is the unprecedented power these companies exert over the dissemination of information and conduct of political debates, to say nothing of the immense data they possess about our lives by virtue of online surveillance.

Stay-at-home orders, lockdowns and social isolation have meant that we rely on Silicon Valley companies to conduct basic life functions more than ever before. We order online from Amazon rather than shop; we conduct meetings online rather than meet in offices; we use Google constantly to navigate and communicate; we rely on social media more than ever to receive information about the world. And exactly as a weakened population’s dependence on them has increased to unprecedented levels, their wealth and power has reached all new heights, as has their willingness to control and censor information and debate.

That Facebook, Google and Twitter are exerting more and more control over our political expression is hardly contestable. What is most remarkable, and alarming, is that they are not so much grabbing these powers as having them foisted on them, by a public — composed primarily of corporate media outlets and U.S. establishment liberals — who believe that the primary problem of social media is not excessive censorship but insufficient censorship. As Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) told Mark Zuckerberg when four Silicon Valley CEOs appeared before the Senate in October: “The issue is not that the companies before us today is that they’re taking too many posts down. The issue is that they’re leaving too many dangerous posts up.”

Note the implicit call for more censorship. And, finally, there’s this:

The dominant strain of U.S. neoliberalism — the ruling coalition that has now consolidated power again — is authoritarianism. They view those who oppose them and reject their pieties not as adversaries to be engaged but as enemies, domestic terrorists, bigots, extremists and violence-inciters to be fired, censored, and silenced. And they have on their side — beyond the bulk of the corporate media, and the intelligence community, and Wall Street — an unprecedentedly powerful consortium of tech monopolies willing and able to exert greater control over a population that has rarely, if ever, been so divided, drained, deprived and anemic.

Although Greenwald, as far as I know, has been quite critical of Trump, he’s no fan of the Democrats or Biden, either. In this essay he comes off largely as a centrist Republican, wary of too much power inhering in government.  I suppose it’s worth thinking about the economic hegemony of these big media sites, and how they’ve increased income inequality in America, but I find myself strangely unable to resonate with Greenwald’s sky-is-falling narrative. For all I know, he may be right.

Perhaps it’s the other horrors of 2020 (and you can’t deny that even if Trump wasn’t an authoritarian, he had a severe personality disorder), but I somehow can’t get worked up about Facebook or Amazon. That may be my fault, but, after all, we can’t care about everything. For example, much of America is concerned right now with racial rather than economic inequality, and I expect they won’t get excited about this piece, either.

However, I’d be glad to hear what readers have to say. I am absolutely sure that many of you have followed Greenwald more closely than I.

h/t: Will

81 thoughts on “Glenn Greenwald’s attack on authoritarianism

  1. I realized that Greenwald wasn’t worth paying attention to following his completely dishonest attacks on Sam Harris and “militant” atheists.

    I think you’re wrong to characterize his position as “centrist Republican”. He’s one of the leftists who sees the world through a lens that transforms centrist Democrats into plutocrats and sees much of public life as a great Neo-liberal conspiracy. It is very hard to have a political/social conversation with these folk. (My brother is in this camp and it has resulted in an unhappy distance between us.)

    1. Agreed. I’ve been following Greenwald since his days at Salon, then the Guardian, and at the Intercept. I used to enjoy his work but he’s gone off the rails in the past several years. The first chink in his armor was the spat with Harris where he misrepresented Harris by taking his words out of context. He only doubled down when Harris tried to resolve the issue. Greenwald is also a member of the woke left whenever he hears criticism of Islam (it’s bigotry against Muslims). And anytime Russia is criticized his response is: “But the US…”

      He’s really gone looney. Despite all the evidence to the contrary he still harps relentlessly on the Hunter Biden conspiracy.

      1. I didn‘t like how he comported himself during the spat with Sam Harris, but Sam did show later that he is pretty much an uncritical believer of US propaganda. I don‘t judge people totally, and can appreciate Harris work, as well as Greenwald‘s or Chomsky‘s.

        With that said, your characterisation is untrue. Greenwald is certainly not woke, and his criticism of censorship and the Democratic party mainstream should give it away. He‘s on the anti-authoritarian / libertarian left side, which is pretty much always overlooked in the USA. Though it‘s growing in visibility lately. Even though but-the-USA is a typical leftist form of whataboutery, it’s also permissable, since Americans are the most brainwashed population on the planet, perhaps after North Koreans. Introspection or criticism of US military is no feature of the American public, so someone has to wedge it in somewhere. Next budget is like $740 BN — no questioned asked. Worse, Americans see this as their personal interests being pursued.

        The Hunter Biden story is still ongoing and tooical, and it was a scandal how blue media conspired to block it when it first broke. Sketchy, isn’t it? A former Democrat Super PAC communications director acting as a spokesperson for Facebook, announcing their censorship. Hunter Biden is now under federal investigation for possible tax issues, and it’s certainly an open question what qualifies him to be in such positions in Ukraine. Of course, this is selective. Nepotism and cronyism are normal in US politics. So, whatabout Ivanka!?

        1. Media did not run with the Hunter Biden story because they were played right before the election in 2016 with the Comey memo, and the source of the Hunter story was highly suspicious. There’s no conspiracy there.

          1. False. Facebook and Twitter censored and limited the spreading of story, and the reason was not that this leak was false or unfounded — they could not fact check it beforehand. And that’s not even a standard they adhere to elsewhere. No, this was an unprecendented, bleak moment for American democracy and a strong reason to be concerned. Very concerned.

            The tech companies simply choked it, because it could deter people from voting Biden. But that’s the point of democracy, people must be able to inform themselves and if they don’t like what they hear, decide to vote for someone else instead. It’s indeed authoritarian to decide that the masses can’t hear or see some story, because The Corporation has decided that it is detrimental to their candidate.

          2. So, in your mind, what exactly has Hunter Biden done that you are so up in arms about? I suspect you are going to tell us that we don’t know because the deep state successfully suppressed it.

          3. You’ve fallen for Trump’s ploy hook, line, and sinker. We know that the latest HB investigation exists mostly because Trump forced his DOJ into it. Trump has been complaining that the investigation was not announced just before the election precisely because he knows that the announcement itself is all he’s really after. He knows that there’s likely nothing there. Trump throws a smoke bomb and then reminds everyone where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

          4. You are mistaken, I don’t care about Hunter Biden. I did show concern for what happened with a news story. From Variety:

            Facebook on Wednesday identified the Post story as potential misinformation and said it was limiting distribution of the article on its platform. Andy Stone, Facebook’s policy communications director, said in a tweet that the Post story was “eligible to be fact checked by Facebook’s third-party fact checking partners” and that “In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform.” Stone later tweeted that the review was “part of our standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation.”

            Let me draw attention to a few things…

            1) the unique new situation that Facebook was now fact checking a news article for its veracity. They didn’t do it before, they don’t do it now. It was a special favour for Joe Biden. It‘s not a standard procedure to block news articles before they are vetted, and that wouldn‘t be feasible anyway.

            2) the unique situation that a news story is censored even before it can be checked. It was deemed “potential misinformation”. I don’t know what the fact checkers found out later; it shouldn’t matter. It’s not Facebook’s job to decide what news information someone can see. I’m of course anti-authoritarian; people can decide for themselves what relevance it has to them.

            3) Immediately after the election, a federal investigstion was made public into Hunter Biden regarding taxes. I don’t care about him, maybe the leaks and taxes are unrelated, however, there is now a sudden relevancy, that is reported after the election. That’s really bad. If it turned out that this leak was invented out of thin air, Facebook would be a little bit vindicated (still an authoritarian move). But as it stands, they have blocked a story that is at least not less true than the usual yellow press garbage.

            4) Andy Stone was communications director for the Democrat “House Majority PAC”, which says on their website …

            As the super PAC focused on holding Republicans accountable and helping to hold the newly won Democratic majority in the House, House Majority PAC combines innovative new approaches with time-tested strategies to do battle with Republican outside groups and make a difference.

            And the guy who worked there before now announced Facebook’s help for Joe Biden? To quote Joe Biden: “Come on, man!” Now Facebook has defacto intervened in an election on behalf of a candidate.

            Where do you draw the line, Paul? Will there be a Commitee for Truth at Facebook that “helps” voters to be “guided” to vote the correct candidate, who is best for them?

          5. The Committee for Truth, as you call it, definitely doesn’t belong at Facebook. We still need one though as I’ve pointed out many times. Modern media gives too powerful a megaphone to too many people with dangerous intent. Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater has been updated with new technology. Our criminal justice system needs to catch up.

          6. The Hunter issue comes from many sources, and has been out for years. The laptop thing simply confirmed some of the details.
            They did not run the story because it did not comply with the narrative that they wished to promote.
            Biden is at least as easy a target as Trump. He has a long history of pro-bank/anti-consumer legislation, a history of plagiarism and ridiculous fabrications. His kids, and much of his extended family, have log histories of substance abuse and assorted crimes.

            They simply will not say anything positive about Trump, or anything negative about Biden. However, I suspect he should not expect such treatment to continue.

          7. All of those things have been given as much air-time as they deserve on mainstream media. If we are going to give substance abuse of extended family members more than a mention, we will have no time left for anything else. The plagiarism has been covered in various “history of Biden” features. It’s been covered just fine.

          8. Twitter locked the NY Post’s account for a month leading up to the election. Are you really ok with that?

            Do you think they’d have done that if it was a story (of similar veracity) about one of Trump’s family?

          9. Quite frankly, with the amount of disinformation coming out of Trump and his associates (including the NY Post), I have no problem with any amount of canceling that Facebook gave them. As I have said many times in comments on this site, the only long-term solution for preventing damaging disinformation in media (social and otherwise) is some kind of central authority deciding what is allowed and what is not. Obviously, if implemented badly, it would be a damaging suppression of free speech but I believe that can be avoided. As many have pointed out, not all speech is allowed now. With modern media, especially social media, we have new ways to yell “fire!” in a crowded venue. Our government has to recognize this and develop laws and systems that deal with it.

          10. The Hunter issue comes from many sources …

            Could you link to a couple? I’d be interested in reading more about it.

          11. Scanning these two sources, it pretty much sounds like what I expected. Joe Biden’s relatives have been trying (and sometimes succeeding) in making money off their father name and reputation. It is perhaps unethical for them to have done this but not illegal and, unless Joe Biden was involved, it doesn’t really make Joe Biden look any worse than most politicians. As far as employing his kids in his campaign efforts, that’s not illegal or unethical. It might not be wise but it obviously depends on the kids and their skills. I still haven’t seen anything here that would make me think twice about voting for the guy. It all strikes me as someone’s efforts to take advantage of the “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” fallacy.

          12. I’ve now read both those pieces, Max.

            The Politico piece states “[t]here’s no evidence that Joe Biden used his power inappropriately or took action to benefit his relatives with respect to these ventures.” It cites a single anonymous source for the allegation that Joe Biden’s brother, James, claimed that foreigners would want to invest in the business that he and Joe Biden’s son Hunter were involved in, Paradigm Global Advisors, because of Joe Biden’s position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2006. Other than that, it alleges at most that James and Hunter Biden used Joe Biden’s name, without his knowledge, in their (largely unsuccessful) effort to attract domestic investors for the company.

            The other source, Peter Schweizer, is the author of the thoroughly discredited book Clinton Cash— specifically, it is a summary of an interview Schweizer gave to the Breitbart radio station. I cannot accept Schweizer as a credible source, particularly given that his allegations in the interview summary are based on unsourced innuendo.

            I’m not seeing any there there — certainly nothing to substantiate a claim that Joe Biden has anything remotely analogous to the long history of scams and schemes and grifts that Donald Trump has indisputably spent his career being party to.

    2. Yeah, “centrist Republican” are hardly the first words that come to mind regarding Glenn Greenwald. Although he touts himself as being of the Left, over the last four years, he’s largely been a Trump and Putin apologist (which accounts for his frequent appearances on Fox News over that time period), as well as an avid anti-Zionist.

  2. I agree with Greenwald on Facebook, Google and Twitter. They are so dominant, so powerful, that they need to be regulated — for example by imposing duties of political neutrality on them, and requiring them to adopt public (First Amendment) free-speech standards.

    I don’t care about Bezos et al having that much money, but I do care about them having that much control. It shouldn’t be up to them to decide, for example, whether the Hunter Biden laptop story gets discussed. They came close, in this election, to openly supporting one of the candidates — and most people said, that’s fine with me because I agree about the candidates — but what happens if they decide to be blatantly partisan in future? We can’t just say, that’s ok because they are private companies. They have too much control over information.

    1. “I don’t care about Bezos et al having that much money, but I do care about them having that much control.”

      Well said. Bezos really is a self-made billionaire. The man enacted an idea nobody thought could ever get off the ground and grew it into one of the most far-reaching corporations in history. But the power that comes with such a platform needs to be regulated.

      1. I would add that, Bezos and the others probably care little for political power. There focus is on the business of making money. Probably it is compulsive with them. In most cases it would not matter if they were distributing packages, or selling worthless elixir. The goal, as in Monopoly is to win the most dosh.

      2. Bezos worked long and hard to get Amazon off the ground; Zuck was a smart kid who figured out how to monetize someone else’s site, and that was simply men “rating” pix of women for their attractiveness.

      3. I care very much about Bezos having that much money. As far as I am concerned, the mere fact that anyone controls a billion dollars says that the marginal tax rate is not high enough.

      4. There is no such thing as “self-made” rich people. They use public goods all the time, in practically every stage of their way, and in every move their corporation makes. Progressive tax should reach near 100% — money should be treated like a smoke that always rises to the top, accumulates at the ceilling and should be terminated by the state as a tax siphon (and then pumped in fresh at the bottom).

        Moreover, richnesses that obscene are only achieved by coercing workers to sell their labour and lifetime under value. That’s not done by Bezos alone, it’s generally the case. Poor people have no chance, for if they don’t take the poor deal, they might end with none, and that means that their well-being and survival is threatened (which is the driver of this coercive scheme). This is hardly the much-touted freedom that usually causes libertarians to cream their pants (libertarians are of course typically feudalists, with the twist that they imagine they could become a lord thanks to their own ingenuity, if only the state, (((they))), regulations, lizard people etc wouldn’t hold them back).

    2. I really don’t think these billionaires or their companies really want the evil control that is attributed to them. They only want to make a profit. I have no problem if the Feds want to pursue them from an unfair competition perspective but not as destroyers of society.

      The problem of misinformation and disinformation on social media is a tough nut to crack. No one knows how to solve it so blaming these companies for not having done so is totally unfair. Those that want to blame them are, in effect, saying because they make a profit from carrying this bad information, they must be inflicting it on us on purpose. It should be obvious from recent political battles that there is no easy solution. Whatever simple rules they come up with will be gamed to advantage by competing advertisers. A complicated system will be seen as opaque and manipulated for profit. Even if there were an easy solution, it would have to be imposed by the Feds for it to be fair to all competitors in the social media and internet advertising spaces. Government needs to come up with a solution and impose it on the companies. They need to get started on it and stop playing the blame game.

  3. I note that quite a few on the regressive left, who cheered on Greenwald when he was smearing atheists, humanists, and liberals as racist extremists a few years ago, have now fallen out of love with him.

    Genuine humanists, liberals, and skeptics were warning you about Greenwald years ago…but they didn’t listen.

    These days, Greenwald seems to share a space very close to the Grayzone group of war crime deniers and cranks. Glad I saw through him right from the off.

  4. Glenn Greenwald has done more to bridge the political divide in my home than any other journalist (Greenwald is decidedly Leftist). With the notable exception of Israel, I find myself agreeing often with Greenwald—something I thought impossible during the Greenwald-Harris fracas.

  5. Greenwald is doing the same thing as the right wing- making up his own facts. I see this piece as little more than conspiracy theories. I would laugh but it is just sad.

    Meanwhile, I am reading Obama’s “A Promised Land” and I am enjoying it.

  6. The writing is certainly miles wide – covering many important topics. After being exhausted by the breadth, a question occurs to me : what, precisely, is the – or at least one – problem, and how is it defined? I am not getting it. It should condense into a few sentences, to make headway into the problem. Because, in order to solve problems, and important first step is to define and describe the problem.

  7. “In this essay he comes off largely as a centrist Republican, wary of too much power inhering in government.”

    One gets the feeling over the years that Greenwald doesn’t like government power unless the government is enacting his political will, in which case it’s perfectly acceptable to him.

    The man has lied about so many issues over the years that I can no longer read anything he writes and take it seriously as a statement of some kind of coherent ideology. Even though I agree that the media largely manufactured the idea of Trump as a despot — rather than the incompetent buffoon he really is — and that Silicon Valley tech is helping the Democrats, I don’t think Greenwald cares for any of the correct reasons. He doesn’t care that power is being increasingly centralized in the hands of a few; he only cares that those few don’t agree with him about everything.

    1. It’s his incompetent buffoonery that keeps Trump from being a despot. He has no grand national vision — no Lebensraum, if you will — and has not a thimble’s worth of knowledge of how government actually works, no idea how to work the levers and buttons of real national power. His only tool is personal intimidation and, like most bullies, he’s a paper tiger when anyone calls his bluff. His only personal interests are self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement — in claiming credit for everything, accepting responsibility for nothing.

      The real authoritarian threat is that someone smarter, less clownish, and with greater designs on political power will come along to take Trump’s place. First-term Missouri US senator Josh Hawley is one to keep a wary eye on. He’s making a play right now for Trump’s base by cynically insisting on a congressional vote on Trump’s risible, last-ditch autogolpe effort to overturn the final counting of electoral votes on Capitol Hill on January 6th.

      1. I agree with you but I don’t see Trump easily replaced. He’s a unique individual with a sort of perverse charisma. I also think that while he still has many of his supporters behind him now, his image will be increasingly trashed in the coming years by criminal investigations and the uncovering of how truly bad his four years were. My hope is that this will gradually kill the urge to back someone like Trump again for at least a generation.

      2. “His only personal interests are self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement…”

        That’s exactly right, and why I disagree with the characterization of him as even a wannabe despot who was just too incompetent to pull off being one. He never really gave a shit about controlling the country or its people, or even about policy. It was all just about his brand and celebrity. Greenwald is right to point out the many easy opportunities he had to act like an authoritarian but chose to pass up. Furthermore…

        “The real authoritarian threat is that someone smarter, less clownish, and with greater designs on political power will come along to take Trump’s place.”

        This is why the characterization of Trump as a despot is actually dangerous. The media, Democrats, and Left wing have been banging that drum for four years now, and even people like me — someone who has never voted for anyone but a Democrat in his entire life — don’t buy it. The danger is that when you tell a lie so often that people start to disregard it, they’ll disregard it when it’s finally true. When that actual despot does come a-knockin’, we may have long exhausted people with the words and ideas required to fight him/her. They’ll just tune it out. “Here we go again,” they’ll say, “painting their political opponents as authoritarians.” It’s the classic “boy who cried wolf.”

        Beyond my promise to myself many years ago that I would always try to tell and fight for the truth even when it was inconvenient to my political positions, the above is one of the top reasons I believe that it’s important to be truthful, and why I’ll often push back against what I perceive to be mischaracterizations or lies about even my most ardent political opponents and their views. Lie often enough and nobody will believe you when you finally have something crucial to tell them.

        An anecdote from Christmas Eve: I was with my family (we all got COVID rests in the prior two days so we could be together). My sister-in-law brought up how hot it was outside and then said, “but global warming is just a conspiracy,” sarcastically of course. I couldn’t help myself from pointing out that she was committing the same mistake people on the conspiracy side make: a spell of unseasonable weather is not evidence of global warming. Long-term trends, measurements of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the higher amount of heat being trapped by them, etc. are the evidence that global warming is real. Everyone was upset with me for pointing this out (even though we just had an unseasonably cold week just a week prior, accompanied by a snowstorm bigger than all of those combined last season). They were upset because I wasn’t supporting the narrative, not because I was stating a fact that should have nothing to do with the narrative. But using such fallavies allows the other side to use them too.

        1. Trump’s impulses are authoritarian. (They are certainly not small “d” democratic.) He has a well-established affinity for strongmen leaders across the globe. I’m sure he would, if he could, have himself declared president-for-life if he could accomplish it with the stroke of a sharpie. He takes pleasure in the accoutrements of power, including the ability to steal with impunity.

          What he lacks is any avidity or aptitude or vision for exercising governmental power for its own sake.

          1. I simply can’t agree to that. Someone with “authoritarian impulses” would have used the many clear opportunities for authoritarian measures. It’s not as if he didn’t know that he could use the National Guard during the country-wide protests, but he didn’t. It’s not as if he didn’t know that he could go much further in expanding his powers during the pandemic, but he didn’t. He was being told about these opportunities from every media outlet and likely every advisor for months, but he never seized them.

            I don’t think he had any impulses beyond “me me me.” An authoritarian needs to have a desire for more power and, by extension, more responsibility. I get the feeling that Trump didn’t want more power because it would lead to more responsibility.

          2. I always thought that his main goal was that he desired to be saluted and addressed as “Mr. President”.
            An authoritarian would try to expand the authority of government, by definition. He would expand the surveillance state. He would renew the Patriot Act.

          3. Jesus, Trump gassed peaceful protestors so he could waddle across Lafayette Park accompanied by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff dressed in a camouflage uniform so he could pose in front of a church for a photo-op with a prop bible — that ain’t authoritarian enough for you?

            What’s he gotta do, pose with his chin jutting out on the balcony above the Piazza Venezia?

          4. What would you call Trump’s efforts to pressure his attorney general into indicting his opponent and his predecessor right before the last election if not “authoritarian”?

            What would you call his efforts to browbeat Republican governors, secretaries of state, state legislators, and election certifiers (and now congresspersons) into overturning the legitimate results of a US presidential election?

            Being a selfish, malignant narcissist and an authoritarian are hardly mutually exclusive. As history demonstrates, they often go hand-in-hand.

          5. “gassed peaceful protesters” is a good example. People throwing bricks at cops are described as peaceful, if such a description can be used to discredit Trump. From the Park Service Police-
            “On Monday, June 1, the USPP worked with the United States Secret Service to have temporary fencing installed inside Lafayette Park. At approximately 6:33 pm, violent protestors on H Street NW began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids. The protestors also climbed onto a historic building at the north end of Lafayette Park that was destroyed by arson days prior. Intelligence had revealed calls for violence against the police, and officers found caches of glass bottles, baseball bats and metal poles hidden along the street.

            To curtail the violence that was underway, the USPP, following established policy, issued three warnings over a loudspeaker to alert demonstrators on H Street to evacuate the area. Horse mounted patrol, Civil Disturbance Units and additional personnel were used to clear the area. As many of the protestors became more combative, continued to throw projectiles, and attempted to grab officers’ weapons, officers then employed the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls. No tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park. Subsequently, the fence was installed.”

            To be absolutely clear- I don’t like Trump. I did not vote for him, and still think of him as behaving how poor people imagine tycoons behave. But it should not be necessary to resort to falsehood or exaggeration to discredit him or anyone else. That is the root of the issue, at least for me. The media should treat all politicians with the same measure of skepticism.

          6. “The media should treat all politicians with the same measure of skepticism.”

            I disagree. The amount of skepticism should be proportional to the amount of lying they do.

          7. @Max Blancke:

            Just to be clear: Are you contending that the people against whom the CS gas, riot gear, and military attack helicopters were deployed on June 1, 2020 (which included at least one clergy member from St. John’s Episcopal church and numerous journalists) were then themselves engaged in violent activity warranting the use of such force? (Because that violence was perpetrated by other people at an earlier time in a vicinity nearby would NOT justify the use of such force — would, to the contrary, constitute an infringement of those people’s First Amendment right of peaceable assembly.)

            And are you contending that the use of such force was unrelated to Trump’s stroll to get get a bible-clutching photo op — or that it was appropriate for him to take that photo-op stroll accompanied by a uniformed chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the Secretary of Defense, and the Attorney General, among other high-ranking administration members (because, as I assume you know, both Gen. Mark Milley and then-SecDef Mark Esper later disavowed their roles in this fiasco)?

            Also, subsequently released emails have cast some doubt on the accuracy and completeness of the information in the Park Service report you allude to.

          8. I certainly will not claim that everyone present was engaged in illegal activity. However, the presence of some peaceful protesters does not preclude the use of non-lethal means of crowd dispersal.
            It used to be that a peaceful protest was one in which none of the participants were engaged in violence or vandalism. Lately, protests where participants engage in arson, looting and assault are classified as “mostly peaceful”. I suppose the metric used is what percentage of the protesters engage in that violence, and probably also the percentage of time those perpetrating it engage in actual violence.
            By that measure, the Titanic was only engaged in sinking for three out of the more than 70 hours spent on it’s maiden voyage. So approximately 96 percent uneventful.

            An unarmed UH-72 Lakota medical evacuation helicopter is not the same as an “attack helicopter”. Those sorts of fanciful embellishments are added not to accurately describe the events, but to elicit an emotional response.

            Perhaps I am overly sensitive to such things. I mostly found that kind of reporting in the USSR a humorous counterpoint to what I was used to in the US. Now, Soviet-style reporting is the norm here. It is not even just a leftist thing. Nobody seems interested in conveying objective facts.

          9. Also, to be clear: I’m not saying that Trump hasn’t been dangerous. He may be the most dangerous and damaging President in history. I just don’t see that damage as largely having come from authoritarian measures.

      3. Trump’s other tool is marketing, which he is skillful at. His capture of enormous quantities of free media coverage enabled him to beat all other Republican candidates in 2016 plus Hillary. But otherwise you nailed it. And the electoral vote counting process is one of the weak points of our democracy. We will be spared on January 6th because the Democrats control the House, making the result a foregone conclusion, which deters the less-loony Republicans from joining in with the putsch.

        Trump may present no real threat of successful authoritarian power grab. But that doesn’t mean our institutions will keep us safe in the future.

        1. I expect some surprises on January 6th. There are just too many GOP politicians eager to participate in the attempted coup if the expectation is certain defeat. Defeat helps Trump, as he will use the fact that so many in Congress objected to the electoral college count to bolster his claim that the election was stolen from him by powerful forces arrayed against him. Still, being part of that defeat really doesn’t help those politicians. I worry they have something planned that goes beyond a simply losing a vote.

  8. As you say, Greenwald is no fan of the Democrats either. He is primarily a fan of Greenwald. Although
    clever, he is dishonest, as he displayed in his attacks on Sam Harris for “Islamophobia”. Denouncing the authoritarianism of the Democratic Party because it was so nasty as to conduct a cold war against the USSR is old hat on what might be called the far Left. This posture is formulaic at Counterpunch, often combined there with a strange, almost touching regression to a 1936ish frente popular mood of solidarity with the peace-loving and progressive Soviet Union.

    Greenwald’s point about Trump—that he isn’t a real Fascist—has been obvious from the start.
    Trump’s ambitions are fascist—as his many lawsuits to reverse election results demonstrate—but his
    competence at achieving this end is on a par with his abilities to manage a public health crisis, create
    profitable casinos in Atlantic City, or write his own books.

  9. I think Greenwald misunderstands the ‘Trump Situation’. There was a genuine danger of a spectacular and horrifying authoritarianism with his ascent, given the resources he had at his disposal. Luckily Trump’s ignorance even more vast than his stupidity. A guy who thinks there were planes during the civil war, that Spain should build a wall “on the Sahara border”, or wants to nuke a hurricane is not going to be a fiendishly competent military strategist,

    Most likely, although I shudder even writing this, his attention span and basic intelligence is too limited to even be capable of typing in the nuclear codes.

  10. I would have trouble attempting to label him anything specifically. Different for sure and sometimes just wrong. Labeling Trump is a good example of Greenwald having problems with his thinking. He states that Trump is not an authoritarian because he did not take action when the pandemic arrived. Trump did not take control or action because he is incompetent and has nothing to do with being authoritarian. He has followed deep republican ideas that the federal government can’t do anything and he proves it everyday. Just let the states make up their own rules and regulation on the pandemic. I have golfing to do. I have companies to run with Trump’d name on them and have no time for this crap. In the mean time he has nearly destroyed the justice department, the state department the military, and many other agencies he does not like. How does one person do all of this and not be an authoritarian? Greenwald only sees what he wants to see and that is why he is so wrong. I can’t see wasting time with someone so narrow.

    1. Maybe what Greenwald needs is to look up what authoritarian means. You know, a definition. A nepotistic authoritarian like Trump fits right in. Lets see – rejects political plurality, using strong central powers to preserve political status quo. Reduction in the rule of law and democratic voting. Greenwald needs a dictionary among other things.

  11. Well, along with Sullivan I’m adding Greenwald to my don’t-bother list. Trump is obviously authoritarian, just to the extend he cares only about himself. He’s just really bad at it (as he is at everything), and we are all paying for it, perhaps even more than if he were a competent authoritarian. And that Greenwald puts the Assange prosecution above Trump’s all-out assault on “fake” mainstream media, entrenching the 40 % of the country that no longer follow it, and question the outcome of the most rigorous election in history- ridiculous.

    Greenwald seems intent on missing what’s important, or perhaps consciously trying to misdirect us. Why would I listen to him any further?

  12. GG’s dismissal of the danger Trump represented is foolishly blasé. We have just seen a concerted attempt by Trump, his lawyers, and Republican Party politicians at state and federal level to reverse the clear result of a presidential election by fraudulently discounting millions of votes. Many hundreds of people in positions of political power showed themselves willing to go along with this criminal attempt to stage a coup. The fact that Trump doesn’t do anything serious with the power he craves does not diminish from the danger of that situation one iota.

    1. Determinism-knows how many were quite willing to follow him, no matter how vile, crazy or plain disinterested he seemed to be. That he wasn’t motivated enough to do so, doesn’t diminish that fact.

  13. But he [Greenwald] sounds a bit overheated …

    Maybe that accounts for his sweaty, shifty vibe in person (as well-captured in his portrayal by Zachary Quinto in the Oliver Stone film Snowden). I used to read Greenwald’s bl*g regularly in its early days, and rather enjoyed his take, until he got caught defending himself with sock-puppet accounts, including in his own comments section, then put forward an elaborate lie trying to cover his ass.

    Since then, I usually read his pieces only on the recommendation from someone I respect that’s it’s of particular interest, as is the case here.

    1. Holy crap. I never saw the story about Greenwald using sock-puppet accounts to defend himself. That’s pathetic. What kind of person can do such a thing and still call himself a “journalist” with any smidgen of sincerity? Well, I guess a person as consistently pretentious, defensive, and lacking in humor as Greenwald. Using sock-puppet accounts also makes him seem terribly vain.

    2. I hadn’t heard of the sock-puppet accounts either. Johan Hari’s career imploded for doing that, and he had a lot more to offer than Greenwald. I wonder how the latter has tefloned his way out?

  14. I think that Greenwald is wrong, Trump is an authoritarian, but fortunately for us he is uninvolved not interested in spending time on the details of governing. If he had been smarter and more involved, we would be in a much worse situation.

  15. I’ve gotten through GG’s points one and two and will say that on point 1 — that T was never an authoritarian because he didn’t seize control when he’s had the opportunity – he leaves off Trump’s ongoing attempts to steal the election. A very authoritarian thing to do.
    On point 2, that the media made up “the authoritarian myth”… No they didn’t. The things T did to weaken our country and our democracy are things that he did, and they were big things, and the media reported on it. T was always in trouble because he was always doing troubling things. What is the alternative – that what he did wasn’t a big deal, or that he didn’t really do it?

  16. Greenwald strikes me as a bomb-thrower journalist who struggles to find appropriate targets. As soon as Trump starts to fade, he targets Democrats and social media. Everything is blown up out of proportion. He seems only to be destructive rather than constructive. Some journalists can make this work but it takes patience and discipline that Greenwald sorely lacks. You have to wait until an important subject arises that is not receiving enough attention and then shine a spotlight on it or come at it with an interesting take. With Greenwald’s need for attention, he can’t wait for any of that. He finds the nearest target and lets rip.

    1. Yes, bomb thrower, flame thrower and not much thought to it. When he says the democrats conducted wars without authority he is right but Obama did not start those wars, Bush did. True Obama never did much about ending any of them but the guy who lied his way into them takes no credit? It would be like blaming Nixon for Vietnam. Not that he is not in for more than his share but he did not get us there.

    2. I disagee. We know the extent of the American surveillance state, which was of course exposed by Snowden. That cannot be underestimated. Think of the massive, highly personal data, geotracking, health data, search engine results, browsing histories, who you called, who you meet — basically everything. This sits on servers and can be accessed by NSA and others. People are very casual for teams of people to sift through your drawers and observe your every move, and criminally neglient considering this danger it poses to every democratic system.

      Now, Silicon Valley big tech companies are also openly well intertwined with it, too, which you can look up by seeing the revolving door and interactions with the government. This is why the free speech debate is long off tracks, where Facebook and Co are treated as private cooperations — they are synchronized with government and party interests and that’s why there is now a 1st Amendment issue.

      For instance, Facebook censorship of the Hunter Biden leaks prior to the election was announced by a former communications director of a Democrat Super PAC, who became a spokesperson of Facebook. The optics alone are really bad.

      It’s interesting how many comments go straight ad hominem, as if Greenwald’s arguments are irrelevant. He’s right, Trump did not play strongman, which surprised me too. I remember that I expected him to use the pandemic to go full authoritarian leader, and that his re-election was almost certain since Americans traditionally rally around their leader in a crisis.

      1. I take the “surveillance state”, as you call it, for granted. This comes with modern digital life and I don’t see any way to avoid it. It’s like the invention of the sword. We don’t attempt to disinvent it but make most uses of it illegal.

        I am mostly ok with Snowden’s revelations but I’ll admit to not knowing the details of whether he hurt innocent people. As I understand it, Greenwald didn’t contribute much to this but was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

        As far as I can tell, Hunter Biden hasn’t done anything wrong so I don’t know about any “leaks” or their suppression. No one would know much about Hunter Biden at all if Trump hadn’t tried to make him into a monster in order to hurt Joe Biden.

        I think Trump played as much a strongman as he could get away with. If there weren’t restraints on his actions, I am confident he would order his political enemies rounded up and jailed, if not executed. I have no respect for the many of his defenders who, when presented with Trump’s latest abuse of power which was thwarted, simply say, “See, the system worked.” This is going to happen again on January 6th when Trump attempts to have everyone’s votes thrown out so he can stay in power. He’ll fail but not for lack of trying. Our Constitution was barely good enough to contain him. If the Republicans had a majority in both houses of Congress, we would have Trump in power forever.

  17. Keep in mind that it was Eric Holder, attorney general under Obama, who in 2013 declared that the banks at the heart of the 2008 financial crisis were too “systemically important” to prosecute.

    In essence, the financial immisaration of millions by financial institutions (including rating agencies), and their government enablers, went unpunished. Greenwald is right in his disdain for neo-liberalism, whose belief in financial deregulation is a critical component of its ideology. (Don’t forget that the fun started under Clinton with the merger of Travelers and Citi… the delight of Sandy Weil.)

    Here is a measure of the harm: Prior to the financial crisis, a saver could get a 4 or 5% return on a certificate of deposit, representing fairly risk-free return. What do you get now? That percentage difference represents a transfer from savers to equity holders, a big prop for equity speculators.

    Glad to see Greenwald’s skepticism and writing.

  18. I haven’t read Greenwald in ages, so the only place his name comes up is discussions like this one. As was true for others, nothing in this discussion inclines me to take another look at Greenwald. It seems like typical Greenwald style that he would redefine authoritarianism so he can apply it to the Democrats – clever covering for lazy. Nothing anyone says here suggests to me that it is worthwhile to spend time on him. There are plenty of others worth reading.

  19. Odd that demanding votes cast for your opponent in a presidential election be thrown out so you can win doesn’t seem to rise to the level of “Real Authoritarian” for Greenwald.

    And the “draconian powers” Democrats wanted Trump to invoke under the Defense Production act…was to manufacture PPE and ventilators.

    1. I think, somehow, Greenwald has managed to write an entire article without a single honest, good-faith argument in it anywhere. It ticks all the boxes for Trump apologia and anti-Democratic talking points, and it’s shot through with hypocrisy and skewed arguments.

      As you say, the fundamental contention that Trump is not an authoritarian is just absurd on the face of it. He’s as authoritarian as they come – it’s just that in Trump’s case the American political system, its mainstream media and his inability to reach the requisite level of popularity constrained his ability to act on those impulses. Nevertheless, authoritarianism is in his very bones.
      And the reason other authoritarian dictators took those extra steps that Greenwald talks about is because they calculated that they would get away with it. Trump knew he wouldn’t. It’s all set out quite brilliantly in the book How Democracies Die – certain criteria need to be met before the transition to an authoritarianism can take place, and as hard as he pushed – and Trump pushed very, very hard – Trump never met them. Greenwald should be on his knees thanking the American systems that just about held Trump in check, not pretending that Biden – Biden! – is somehow a bigger threat.

      I say one thing for Trump: he has at least drawn a very definite line in the sand, and it’s been salutary seeing how many ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’ have lurched over it with barely any hesitation.

      And I think PCC’s description of Greenwald’s political proclivities was pretty accurate. He’d never admit it, but he’s essentially a Republican now.

  20. So, in a nutshell his argument is that Donald Trump is no authoritarian, because instead of acting to constrain COVID he tried to sweep it under the rug and failed, and instead of successfully initiating martial law he only managed to tear gas a few protests here and there; while Democrats are the real authoritarians because they want to use the Defense Production Act to manufacture medical supplies?

    Mmm hmm.

  21. Thanks for posting this. The idea that Trump has ever been a “dictator” was always completely ridiculous. During the Covid crisis, he left all the decision power making to the states. It was the LOCAL GOVERNORS who then became dictators as they illegally usurped the powers of the state legislators, making laws which then were successfully challenged in court which put a moratorium on evictions and collections of back rent, closed down businesses and forced bars/restaurants/boutiques to close permanently, and illegally restricted our civil liberties. The funny thing was that VERY FEW PEOPLE complained about these things, and almost no one fought back or exercised “civil disobedience.” Ironically, if Trump HAD TAKEN POWER, and exercised martial law, the restrictions that we had might have been more moderate.

    Still, over his term he has a long documented history of DE-regulation, and in fact, he softened some of the harsh policies towards children at the border which were enacted under Obama. (My guess is that Melania had something to do with this.) I’ve always said that in this country, the goverment is beholden to big business, and it’s the big corporations who are going to infringe upon our freedoms first.

  22. X, I think you misunderstand what a dictator is. Most dictators over the past century have not been psychopathic sinister geniuses micromanaging their citizens’ lives according to some far-reaching grand plan. They’ve mostly either been ambitious military officers telling themselves they’re bringing order to countries with very weak civil institutions and a weak sense of civic empowerment among their citizens; or they’ve been vain narcissists who have risen to the top through an instinctive ability to manipulate those around them. What unites both types is an intolerance of opposition and a willingness to use whatever tools are to hand to undermine or eliminate it. In countries like Guatemala or Zaire a cowed populace could more easily be threatened physically, whereas in the US the available tools are going to be more limited. Trump has exactly the same instincts for crushing dissent as Carlos Castillo Armas or Joseph Mobutu, but the tools he has to hand are social media and attack-dog news outlets, sycophantic senators and representatives, teams of lawyers, and often compliant judges he has appointed himself, rather than army units brandishing machine guns and machetes. If the law enforcement process in the US were not separated from executive power, we would certainly have seen him use it to lock up his opponents or worse. And the election showed that the US constitution has just *barely* been resilient enough to stop such a man succeeding in a naked, unvarnished attempt to stage a coup to stay in power. And you think he’s not acting like a dictator? He’s certainly giving it a damn good try.

    1. Despite repeated attempts to post the above as a reply to comment 24, WordPress insisted on making it comment 25. Please imagine it continuing the thread above.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *