The Age of Constitutional Coups
Paul Street / CounterPunch
(September 13, 2019) — The contemporary global neofascistic right has become adept at seizing power through legal and parliamentary coups that do not involve military units dramatically taking over government headquarters and radio and television and rounding up opponents.
Turkey’s Elective Dictatorship
In 2017, in the wake of a failed military putsch the previous year, Turkey’s prime minister Recep Erdogan held what the British journalist Patrick Cockburn rightly calls “a blatantly rigged referendum which marginalized parliament and gave him dictatorial powers.”
Erdogan won a narrow majority that “was only achieved late on election night when the head of the electoral board overseeing the election decided that votes not stamped as legally valid, numbering as many as 1.5 million, would be counted as valid.” Erdogan then implemented a national educational curriculum that devalued secular liberal ideas and science and emphasized religious and “national values.”
Erdogan is entrenched in power beneath the guise of popular support and legal approval. He seized on an attempted classic military coup as what Cockburn describes as a “heaven-sent opportunity to install an elective dictatorship in which subsequent elections and the real distribution of power could be pre-determined by control of the media, judiciary, civil service…and outright electoral fraud.”
Making Hungary Great Again
Hungary’s neo-fascist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and immigrant-bashing strongman prime minister Victor Orban advocates using a strong and openly “illiberal” state to invigorate “the national community” and “cultural heritage” along with church and family. He cites authoritarian states like Turkey, India, Singapore, Russia, and China as his role models. Constitutional changes implemented under his leadership in 2011 rolled back civil liberties, consolidated legislative and executive power, limited free speech, and weakened the nation’s judiciary.
Orban never led a military coup to seize power. His reactionary populist Fidesz party swept into parliamentary power on a wave of anti-Muslim and anti-immigration sentiment in 2010, winning enough seats for him to dilute the democratic content of the nation’s constitution. He advanced an interesting slogan for his campaign: “Make Hungary Great Again.”
Poland: “Hatred of the Outsider”
Poland’s neofascist president Andrzej Duda was elected on an anti-immigrant platform in 2015. His far-right Law and Justice Party has been crippling the nation’s Constitution and judicial authority ever since. Last year he signed a bill advanced by his far-right Law and Justice Party that makes it a crime to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi atrocities. The ruling party shamelessly airs nationalist propaganda on television and radio while suppressing opposition media.
Duda is widely understood to be the puppet of senior crypto-fascist parliamentary strongman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head and founder of the ruling party. As Chris Hedges noted three years ago, Kaczynski “governs Poland like a private fiefdom. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and President Andrzej Duda are political puppets. Kaczynski, reclusive and morbid, is referred to with fear or reverence as ‘the Chairman.’ His words, and his obsessions, are law” — and backed by “11 intelligence agencies— [established] to crush dissent.”
The authoritarians running Poland stand atop a party and movement that are, like its counterparts in Hungary and elsewhere, “rabidly xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic and homophobic” and that “demonize[s] immigrants and brand[s] internal dissent as treason. … They seek their identity in a terrifying new nationalism…coupled with a right-wing Catholicism. They preach hatred of the outsider and glorification of obedient and ‘true’ patriots” (Hedges).
As in Hungary, the fascistic party in Polish power achieved and sustains its authoritarian power through outwardly legal and parliamentary means, no military coup required.
Duda recently announced on Polsat TV that he will officially announce a rapid new national election date for this fall. He said he wants to block a lengthy campaign as to prevent “political clashes.”
Brazil: A Judicial-Parliamentary Coup in Two Stages
Brazil is another example. That giant, environmentally critical nation’s recently elected and corrupt, fascist, and eco-exterminist President Jair Bolsonaro came to power not through a military coup but rather through a judicial-parliamentary one that occurred in two phases.
In the first stage, the Brazilian Senate suspended and them impeached the nation’s democratically elected but highly unpopular president Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party. Rousseff was removed from office in connection with a corruption scandal in which she was not involved – this as even her enemies admitted that she was one of the few Brazilian politicians to refuse bribes.
The second stage came with Brazil’s right-wing Supreme Court upholding of the conviction of Brazil’s highly popular former president Lula da Silva’s conviction for corruption despite an egregious lack of credible evidence. The decision was meant to prevent Lula from participating in the 2018 presidential election, which he easily would have won. The “case” against Lula was “a clear attempt to prevent a return of Workers’ Party government.” As Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) Co-Director Mike Weisbrot explained in The New York Times in January of 2018: :
“… Brazil’s rightwing knows that it wouldn’t stand a chance against Lula in this year’s elections, just as it twice lost elections to Lula before, and then twice more to Dilma. So, as with Dilma, they are using other means to keep him out of office…This latest move to circumvent democratic process and keep a popular candidate out of office is another serious blow to Brazil’s democratic institutions….
“It’s the second in a one-two punch, the first being the unconstitutional impeachment and removal of elected president Dilma Rousseff in 2016 for something that had been done by previous administrations and was not even a crime….Democracy and the rule of law are eroding rapidly in Brazil, and Lula’s pending imprisonment has hastened this deterioration.”
The leading beneficiary of Lula’s incarceration was the Satanic eco-exterminist Bolsonaro, who was “democratically elected” with the nation’s favorite politician safely behind bars last October. While he is an unabashed fan of the military coup that overthrew Brazil’s elected government in 1964, Bolsonaro has seized power in legal and parliamentary-judicial ways, no military junta required. He is currently trying to Make Brazil Great Again through Geocide: by escalating the capitalist agro-industrial destruction of the Amazon Rain Forest, on which the planet depends for oxygen and carbon absorption.
Then there’s the deplorable neofascist Donald Trump and his right-wing government, protected by white-nationalist control of the U.S. Senate and the much of the federal judiciary. Trump is a friend, admirer an ally of his fellow environmental criminal Bolsonaro. He is friendly also with Duda, and Orban along with other authoritarian heads of state (including nominally communist leaders) the world over.
An aspiring fascist strongman who is only half-joking when he quips about wanting to be president-for-life and who says that any attempts to remove him from office could spark violence from his loyal “tough guys” (cops, soldiers, and “bikers”), the demented Twitter addict Donito Assolini likes to demonize his opponents and critics (and the media in general) as “radical Left enemies of the people” and dastardly foes of “America.”
He turns truth upside down and twists reality on an epic scale and regular basis. He tells his hate-filled Amerikaner supporters “don’t believe what you see and hear” – that is, to take all their information from he Chosen One and his right-wing political and media friends.
The widely loathed racist, sexist, sadist, Nativist, and malignant narcissist Trump received votes from just a quarter of U.S. adults in 2016. Having lost the popular election by three million tallies to the highly unpopular Hillary Clinton, he owes his installation and continued presence in the White House largely to the anti-democratic Electoral College and to the absurdly un-representative apportionment of the U.S. Senate. Both these fully legal constitutional mechanisms wildly exaggerate the political voice of the nation’s most racist, backwards, rural and right-wing regions.
Also contributing to Trump’s victory: technically legal racist voter suppression in Republican-controlled battleground states; the appointed-for-life Supreme Court’s determination that wealthy corporations and individuals can squelch the political influence of the non-wealthy majority; the stupidity, elitism, and cringing neoliberal corporatism of the dismal, dollar-drenched 2016 Clinton campaign.
The right-wing composition of the presidentially appointed and Senate-approved Supreme Court and broader federal bench have helped Trump enact policies that are widely opposed by the populace. Along the way, the extreme partisan gerrymandering of the House of Representatives, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, permitted Trump to pass a plutocratic tax cut that was rejected by most of the population in December of 2017.
The ridiculously right-wing composition of the preposterously rural- and white-weighted U.S. Senate (where the predominantly Republican and rural, 94% white state of Wyoming, home to less than 600,000 people, has the same number of representatives as the liberal-Democratic and 38% white state of California, home to 40 million) combines with the veto power of the presidency to mean that none of numerous liberal and progressive federal policies supported by most Americans have the slightest chance of becoming law.
The Senate’s constitutionally enabled right-wing composition, far to the starboard side of national policy opinion and party identification, means that Trump cannot be removed through the impeachment process. So what if he has committed numerous felonies and constitutional violations in office? Removal requites a two-thirds vote in the US Senate under the Constitution.
At the outer reaches of authoritarian but fully constitutional farcicality, it is technically irrelevant under the American system that 70 percent of the population reasonably supports banning the sale and possession of military-style assault weapons, lethal tools of mass destruction that are periodically used by maniacs to mow down innocent mass-shooting victims.
The notion of changing the U.S. Constitution to overcome such democracy deficits is fantastic given the harsh limits the Constitution’s Article V puts on “We the People’s” ability to amend the nation’s excessively venerated and explicitly and purposefully authoritarian constitution.
As the nation transitions into full-on immersion in its latest absurdly prolonged super-expensive big money-major party-corporate media(ted)-candidate-centered presidential electoral extravaganza, it is worth bearing in mind that the United States does not select its presidents on basis of a democratic popular vote.
The nation’s Senate apportionment regime pollutes the ridiculous democracy-flunking Electoral College, wherein a state’s number of votes (Electors) equals its number of House members (which diverges with total population) plus its number of Senators (always two). These Electors trump the national popular vote. U.S. presidents are elected by getting 270 Electoral College votes. And in all but a few states, those Electoral votes are awarded on an all-or-nothing first-past-the-post basis to the candidate with the most votes in each state.
The total popular vote beyond a winning majority or plurality in a state is irrelevant. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would get no more Electoral College votes for beating Trump 90%-10% in a high-turnout race in California than they would for beating him 50.2% to 49.8% in a low-turnout race there. This is openly absurd from a democratic perspective.
Since most states are either reliably Democratic (especially those where urban and minority voters make a large share of the electorate) or reliably Republican (especially those where rural and white voters are more highly represented), the presidential campaign tends to focus almost completely on a relatively small number of contested and therefore “battleground” states.
The 2020 presidential election will be wildly over-focused on just ten of the nation’s fifty states — ten states that together contain one third of the United States’ population: Arizona, Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire.
The Democratic presidential primary race might be the closest thing to a national presidential race, but it is absurdly time-staggered in ways that grant ridiculously out-sized weight to early Caucus and primary states Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and now California. In this and other ways — factor in openly plutocratic campaign finance, corporate ownership of the media, racist voter suppression, the absence of a simple direct national popular vote, and the absurdly long and expensive nature of the process — and the whole endless quadrennial spectacular is quite the authoritarian fiasco.
No military coup was required to put the neofascist madman Trump in the world’s most powerful office. Strange as it sounds to say, however, military action of some kind may be required to remove him from office if he loses on the next holy, absurdly time-staggered once-every-4-years day when the Constitution says “We the People” get our “input” on executive branch policy by choosing between presidential candidates typically selected in advance by the nation’s constitutionally protected but unelected dictatorship of money. From the beginning of his presidency, Trump has been setting the stage for the claim that a re-election vote that doesn’t go his way must be fraudulent. He is a strong candidate to refuse to accept defeat.
Thankfully, Trump is a deeply unimpressive and widely unpopular president, too lacking in competence and maturity to garner majority support. He is too venal, stupid, childish, and personally corrupt, viewing politics almost solely through the lens of self-gratification and personal enrichment, to be a disciplined and heartfelt champion of fascist ideology and politics.
The United States may not be so fortunate the next time its constitutional and capitalist order — buttressed by a persistently inauthentic, Wall Street- and Council on Foreign Relations-captive party (the Democrats) — hands the presidency to an authoritarian white nationalist.
(The original American constitutional coup was the Constitution itself, drafted and passed by slaveowners, merchant capitalists and other elite actors for whom democracy was the last thing desired in the young American republic. It is quite entertaining to try to describe the U.S. Electoral College system to people from other countries. It is easier to explain the rules of baseball and almost as bad as trying to describe the nation’s tax code and campaign finance laws.)
A recent effort to consolidate right-wing power through undemocratic but constitutional means – no military deployments required – is underway (and perhaps being foiled) in Britain, which prides itself as the birthplace of so-called parliamentary democracy.
The nation’s openly ridiculous Conservative Party (“Tory”) prime minister (PM) Boris Johnson has tried to prevent the United Kingdom’s Parliament from blocking his effort to force the UK out of the European Union (EU) without any remotely reasonable and negotiated terms of separation by October 31st. Johnson attempted to drive a battering ram through Britain’s curiously still unwritten constitution by extending Parliament’s annual “prorogation” (suspension) to five weeks in order to reduce the amount of time available to the opposition to block a no-deal “Brexit.”
Right before the extended prorogation, however, opposition “MPs” (Members of Parliament), mainly Labour Party representatives, joined with Conservative “Remainer” MPs to pass a bill extending the Brexit deadline to January of 2020 unless Parliament approves a deal with the EU by October 19th. In classic authoritarian fashion, Johnson kicked Remainers out of the Conservative Party.
Johnson has declared that he would rather be found “dead in a ditch” than abide by this law and negotiate an extension with the EU. Refusal to do so could open him up for impeachment and imprisonment.
Some close observers speculate that Johnson will avoid these dire penalties by agreeing to abide by the bill and then resigning as a matter of “principle.” He would hope to bring home a new Conservative majority in new national elections triggered by his resignation.
Scotland’s top court has recently ruled that Johnson’s prorogation was illegal and the case is expected to go the UK’s Supreme Court.
The chaotic authoritarian Johnson holds the PM position despite never having won a national popular election. Under the UK’s unwritten rules, he was granted Britain’s top job on basis of Conservative Party member votes alone after his predecessor and fellow Conservative Teresa May resigned in frustration over her inability to act on the UK-wide Brexit referendum vote of June 2016.
The referendum, pushed by the far-right nationalist Neal Farage, was part of a neofascistic, immigrant-bashing soft-coup strategy. “Many in Britain are now springing to the defense of parliament and elected representatives,” the left British commentator Patrick Cockburn wrote last week, “but they should have sprung a bit earlier” since “Brexit was always a vehicle where the hard right could take over the government.”
Beneath claims of noble, patriotic, and democratic intent, hard Brexiters aim to strip social and environmental protections, deport migrants, and link the UK more closely to the arch-neoliberal United States (even to the point of opening up Britain’s cherished National Health Service to America-led corporate privatization) in the name of what Johnson calls a “robust market economy.”
Hard Brexit opponents, including Conservative Remainers, have been denounced by Johnson, Farage, and other rightists as “traitors” to the glorious British homeland, enemies of the project of Making Britain Great Again.
Boris is not experiencing authoritarian success on the model of Erdogan, Orban, Duda/Kaczynski, Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Vladimir Putin, and Trump. The Brexit referendum was not binding on Parliament and passed by a narrow margin (52% to 48%) it could not likely sustain three years later. The British majority has never backed a chaotic, No Deal Brexit (most of the United Kingdom’s citizens are apparently “traitors”).
Johnson is backed by just 35 percent of the population, the nation’s equivalent to Trump’s base: its most nativist, rural, small-town and reactionary voters. On top of this, Johnson has been repeatedly and rapidly stymied again and again by Parliament and by British courts, one of which has recently ruled that his decision to suspend the parliament for more than a month was unlawful.
The British Westminster system, bizarre though it may be, is a tough nut for Bombastic Boris and his fellow authoritarian nationalists to crack. He could still have a future at 10 Downing Street despite all his frenzied nonsense, however. In a democracy, no head of state ought to hold their office with support from just a third of the population should hold power.
Under the British order, it is conceivable that Johnson will continue to the hold his job after new national elections are held next year. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition party, Labor, has failed to articulate a clear or consistent position against the right-wing Brexit power-grab. He has been viciously and absurdly demonized as an arch-radical and an anti-Semite in British media.
The prolonged Brexit drama could well continue without resolution into a new “hung parliament” government in which no specific party or coalition holds a majority. The buffoonish Johnson could still preside following an election sparked by his resignation.
The Yankee republic has nothing on its old colonial master when it comes to democracy-disabling constitutional madness.
It’s all pretty absurd, like something out of Monty Python, but then so is the distinct possibility of the abject moral and intellectual idiot and climate-denier Donald Magic Sharpie Trump coming back for a second term to join hands with his fellow western hemispheric eco-fascist Bolsonaro to finish off prospects for a decent future by accelerating the transformation of planet Earth into a Greenhouse Gas Chamber. (I guess that’s not so much absurd as apocalyptic. Call it constitutional Ecocide.)
It would help if some voters were less pathetic. No small part of the hot nativist messes currently stewing in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 10 Downing can be blamed on all those “moderate” and squeamish pants-soilers who whine that Sanders and Corbyn are scary radical leftists. These stinky-trousered namby pambies cower behind corrupt neoliberal fake progressives like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Pete McKinsey Butiggieg and then wonder why the right-wing kicks their ass.
The John Bolton departure: watch for liberal RussiaGaters to blame it on the Kremlin (“lol,” as the kids type) and, conversely, for red-brownish Trumpenlefty dunce-cap wearers to take it as proof that the orange fascistic atrocity a great man of peace (lol again).
This is how bad the whole liberal Trump derangement syndrome is now: the blood-soaked Neocon Iraq Invasion architect and frothing war monger John Bolton gets touted as some kind of champion of human decency on CNN and MSNBC. It’s that pathetic over the on “liberal” television.
What, no minute of silence for the millions of Iraqis who were senselessly murdered, maimed, tortured, and traumatized by the American Empire after Washington absurdly linked 9/11 to Baghdad? No minute of silence for the masses of Afghans who had nothing whatsoever to do with the jetliner attacks but were killed, maimed, tortured, and swept away by Uncle Sam?
Absurdly asking “why oh why do they hate us?” the United States gave people in the Middle East and Southwest Asia reasons to hate it even more passionately than they already and quite understandably did. Never Forget? Indeed. There are no words that can begin to adequately capture the criminality and shame of how U.S. policymakers and their military servants seized on the 9/11 jetliner attacks as an opportunity to end and ruin millions of lives in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
There’s nothing even remotely surprising about the orange monstrosity turning away Bahamian hurricane/climate refugees. The tangerine dumpsterfire’s Nativist racism is normalized and hardly merits more than passing mention and commentary anymore. What else is new?
Every time I glance at horse race coverage on CNN or MSDNC, it’s just Warren who threatens the right-wing dementia victim Joe Biden. It’s as if Sanders doesn’t exist. Even Andrew “golden chain” Yang gets more love. I recently read a front-page New York Times piece that ended by calling Berndog’s Single Payer demand “dogmatic.”
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