There was no conceivable justification for such a draconian move. But Cotton’s panicky, premature demand is symbolic of the Republican Party’s transition from tea party libertarianism to Trumpian authoritarianism.
When President Barack Obama was in office, Republicans fulminated against executive orders and government spending. Now, they’ve learned to stop worrying and embrace both at unprecedented levels. (The budget deficit is projected to be $3.8 trillion this year, more than six times higher than when Obama left office.) The rejection of libertarianism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What’s worrying is that the Republican Party has become increasingly hostile toward liberal democracy.
The spur for this development is, of course, President Trump. He proclaims, “I have to the right to do whatever I want as president,” and acts as though he means it. He has spent money on a border wall that Congress hasn’t authorized; locked up immigrant children in cages; blocked immigration from multiple Muslim nations and now (under cover of the coronavirus pandemic) from all nations; purged government watchdogs; and issued an executive order cracking down on social media after Twitter fact-checked him.
When demonstrations swept the country following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Trump acted like a would-be authoritarian: He threatened to have looters shot, demanded that the National Guard “dominate” the streets, and wanted to deploy 10,000 troops. The Pentagon balked at his demands, but security forces did gas peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square so he could stage a photo-op. Scott Walker, the Republican former governor of Wisconsin, could not conceal his admiration: “Hard to imagine any other @POTUS having the guts to walk out of the White House like this.” (Presumably, he is unaware that some previous presidents were actual war heroes.)
Trump claims to be “an ally of all peaceful protesters,” but he is again fulminating against NFL players who would kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality. The truth is, he sees anti-racism protests as a threat no matter what form they take, while expressing sympathy even for violent white supremacists (the “very fine people” in Charlottesville).
Trump blames recent disorder on “ANTIFA & other Wacko groups of Anarchists,” even though there is no evidence that antifa — a loosely knit group of far-left activists — is behind any of it. “Is there a shorter term for anti-anti-fascism?” historian Kevin M. Kruse quips. Yes, there is, and Republicans are increasingly flirting with fascism.
A coterie of power-loving intellectuals has reverse-engineered an entire doctrine — “national conservatism” — to justify their infatuation with the would-be strongman in the Oval Office. Because Trump proclaims himself a nationalist, the Israeli writer Yoram Hazony has written a book to rehabilitate nationalism from the bad reputation it developed after two world wars triggered by extreme nationalism. (He claims that the Nazis weren’t really nationalists, just as Marxist true believers claim the Soviet Union wasn’t really communist.)
Illiberalism is especially strong among some right-wing Catholics. New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari reviles “autonomy-maximizing liberalism” and wants to reorder the public square for “the Highest Good,” while Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule calls on judges to display “a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality.’ ”
The Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban is a hero to the “authoricons” — the authoritarian conservatives. The influential Notre Dame professor Patrick J. Deneen, author of “Why Liberalism Failed,” traveled to Budapest to meet Orban and described his rule as a “model” for American conservatives. The Claremont Review of Books, the leader of what passes for Trumpian thought, ran an essay by journalist Christopher Caldwell praising Orban as “blessed with almost every political gift — brave, shrewd with his enemies and trustworthy with his friends, detail-oriented, hilarious.”
Among Orban’s fans in Washington is Merritt Corrigan, a Trump appointee to the U.S. Agency for International Development. She called Orban “the shining champion of Western civilization” and denounced “liberal democracy” as “a front for the war being waged against us by those who fundamentally despise not only our way of life, but life itself.” That sounds almost sane compared to what right-wing commentator Kurt Schlichter, who has been retweeted by Trump, just wrote: “If the left gets rid of the Trump we have, normal people will turn to the Pinochet we need,” referring to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Cotton — who as an Army lieutenant in 2006 advocated locking up New York Times journalists for reporting on how the government was tracking terror financing — is returning to his authoritarian instincts as he bids to become Trump’s successor. But he will face stiff competition from the likes of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who wants to regulate social media and rejects “a philosophy of . . . unrestricted, unfettered free choice.”
U.S. conservatism has been drifting in an authoritarian direction for a while. Last week’s demonstrations merely made the danger more manifest.