America's institutions can preserve liberty, but they're also pretty good at destroying it

As trumpism metastasizes, I've taken some comfort in the American system of checks and balances, especially the independent judiciary and the strong Constitutional tradition, which lets impact litigators like EFF and ACLU leverage the courts to overturn the executive branch; I've seen this work many times with EFF and other civil liberties organizations.

But as Corey Robin (previously), author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea reminds us, the darkest actions in America's darkest years were undertaken with the cooperation of American institutions, not in spite of them. Slavery and Jim Crow weren't accomplished by shredding the Constitution, but by interpreting it. The internment camps of WWII, the murder of trade unionists, were all accomplished through America's institutions, "often with the collusion of some of the most esteemed voices of liberty in the country."

Robin isn't saying that these institutions can't be put to good use, but rather that it's up to us to make them do yeoman service. We're aided in this by the fact that Trump and Bannon don't seem to understand how useful institutions could be to their program, and so they're deliberately making enemies of the intelligence agencies and administrative branch.

This is a country that in the last half-century has managed to undo some of the precious achievements of liberal civilization — the ban and revulsion against torture, the prohibition on preventive war, the right to organize, the skepticism of the imperial executive — through lawyers, genteel men of the Senate with their august traditions and practices, and the Supreme Court.

When it comes to the most terrible kinds of repression and violence, Fear, American Style has worked because it has given so many players a piece of the pie. The most prized elements of American constitutionalism — shared and fragmented power, compromise and consent, dispersed authority — are the very things that have animated and underwritten Fear, American Style.

Insofar as Trump and Bannon believe that we need authoritarian strongman politics in order to achieve their ultra-revanchist aims, they don’t understand American politics. When it comes to American revanchism, that kind of strongman politics is almost entirely superfluous. Indeed, it’s pure surplus. And may be well counterproductive to what they and their constituents truly want.

Fear, American Style [Corey Robin/Jacobin]

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