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  1. How to Build an Autocracy
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The hills have been grazed to destruction. The desertification of our uplands, in common with most of our wildlife losses, has nothing to do with population pressure and everything to do with farming. You could argue that an intensification of farming is a response to rising population pressure: the need to produce more food has caused greater damage to wildlife.

But this is where the madness kicks in: much of the habitat destruction for which farm policies are responsible has little or nothing to do with producing food. The uplands of Britain are astonishingly unproductive. But, astonishingly, by value Wales imports seven times as much meat as it exports. Six thousand years of nutrient stripping and erosion have left our hills so infertile that their productivity is miniscule. Even relatively small numbers of livestock can now keep the hills denuded. Without subsidies, almost all hill-farming would cease.

That's not something I'm calling for, but I do believe it's time we began to challenge the system and its outcomes. Among them is a policy that's almost comically irrational and destructive. The major funding that farmers receive is called the single farm payment , which is money given by European taxpayers to people who own land. It's a term straight out of Among the compulsory standards in the GAEC rules is "avoiding the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land".

What this means is that if farmers want their money they must stop wild plants from returning. They don't have to produce anything: to keep animals or to grow crops there. They merely have to prevent more than a handful of trees or shrubs from surviving, which they can do by towing cutting gear over the land. If they want to expand the area eligible for this subsidy, and therefore make more money, they must get their tractors out and start clearing vegetation. From my kayak in Cardigan Bay I have often watched a sight that Neolithic fishermen would have witnessed: towers of smoke rising from the hills as the farmers burn tracts of gorse and trees in order to claim more public money.

The single farm payment is a perfectly designed scheme for maximum ecological destruction. A survey by the Grasslands Trust documents the destruction of rich and rare wildlife habitats all over Europe as a result of the GAEC rules: wooded meadows in Sweden, limestone pavements in Estonia, coastal scrublands in Corsica. In Germany, pastures are disqualified from subsidies by the presence of small areas of reeds. In Bulgaria, the existence of a single stem of dog rose has rendered land ineligible. In Scotland farmers have been told that yellow flag irises, which for centuries have gilded the fields of the west coast, could be classed as "encroaching vegetation", invalidating their subsidy claims.

The effect of these rules has been to promote the frenzied clearance of habitats. The system ensures that farmers seek out the remaining corners of land where wildlife still resides, and destroy them. The Republicans held both houses of Congress that November, and Trump loyalists shouldered aside the pre-Trump leadership. The business community learned its lesson early. The media have grown noticeably more friendly to Trump as well. Meanwhile, social media circulate ever-wilder rumors. Rather than deal with digital thugs, young people increasingly drift to less political media like Snapchat and Instagram.

Trump-critical media do continue to find elite audiences. Their investigations still win Pulitzer Prizes; their reporters accept invitations to anxious conferences about corruption, digital-journalism standards, the end of nato , and the rise of populist authoritarianism. Yet somehow all of this earnest effort feels less and less relevant to American politics.

President Trump communicates with the people directly via his Twitter account, ushering his supporters toward favorable information at Fox News or Breitbart. Despite the hand-wringing, the country has in many ways changed much less than some feared or hoped four years ago. The predicted wave of mass deportations of illegal immigrants never materialized. A large illegal workforce remains in the country, with the tacit understanding that so long as these immigrants avoid politics, keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, nobody will look very hard for them.

African Americans, young people, and the recently naturalized encounter increasing difficulties casting a vote in most states. But for all the talk of the rollback of rights, corporate America still seeks diversity in employment. Same-sex marriage remains the law of the land. When has politics not been a dirty business? When have the rich and powerful not mostly gotten their way? The smart thing to do is tune out the political yammer, mind your own business, enjoy a relatively prosperous time, and leave the questions to the troublemakers. Checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism.

Everything imagined above—and everything described below—is possible only if many people other than Donald Trump agree to permit it. It can all be stopped, if individual citizens and public officials make the right choices. Other paths remain open. It is up to Americans to decide which one the country will follow. No society, not even one as rich and fortunate as the United States has been, is guaranteed a successful future. They lived in a world in which authoritarian rule was the norm, in which rulers habitually claimed the powers and assets of the state as their own personal property.

The exercise of political power is different today than it was then—but perhaps not so different as we might imagine. Within many of the remaining democracies, the quality of governance has deteriorated. What has happened in Hungary since offers an example—and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country. The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits.

If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy.

These remain open and more or less free—at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair.

How to Build an Autocracy

Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews. Outside the Islamic world, the 21st century is not an era of ideology. The grand utopian visions of the 19th century have passed out of fashion.

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. 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.

Kids Gone Wild - The New York Times

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.

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