Sunday, October 18, 2020


Last week, Ross Douthat assured us that Donald Trump doesn't have it in him to be a full-blown authoritarian, even if he manages to win (or steal) a second term. In response, I expressed skepticism, as did Jonathan Chait. This week, is Douthat is back to tell us again that we shouldn't fear a totalitarian Trump, but but it might be reasonable to fear a totalitarian Facebook and Twitter.
Let me try to elaborate on what [the] right is seeing. The initial promise of the internet era was radical decentralization, but instead over the last 20 years, America’s major cultural institutions have become consolidated, with more influence in the hands of fewer institutions. The decline of newsprint has made a few national newspapers ever more influential, the most-trafficked portions of the internet have fallen under the effective control of a small group of giant tech companies, and the patterns of meritocracy have ensured that the people staffing these institutions are drawn from the same self-reproducing professional class....

Over the same period, in reaction to social atomization, economic disappointment and conspicuous elite failure, the younger members of the liberal upper class have become radicalized, embracing a new progressive orthodoxy that’s hard to distill but easy to recognize and that really is deployed to threaten careers when the unconvinced step out of line.

And then finally, Trump’s mendacious presidency and the spread of online conspiracy theories has encouraged liberals in a belief that the only way to safeguard democracy is for this consolidated establishment to become more aggressive in its attempts at cultural control....
According to Douthat, "the most-trafficked portions of the internet have fallen under the effective control of a small group of giant tech companies," and when you combine that with rampant left-wing radicalization and cancel culture, the potential for a complete silencing of right-wing thought is very real -- never mind the fact that Mark Zuckerberg, who runs the most influential tech giant, regularly dines with right-wing influencers such as Ben Shapiro, whose site, the Daily Wire, has extraordinarily high engagement numbers on Facebook by a couple of different measures, as do a number of other sites on the right. Never mind the fact that the Murdoch media empire continues to have vast influence over America's political dialogue, with the result that the New York Post stories about Hunter Biden that Facebook and Twitter tried to downplay this week were widely discussed. And never mind the fact that somehow approximately 42% of America is still in thrall to Trumpism, as well as old-fashioned Fox/talk radio/corporatist/evangelical/NRA conservatism -- these folks are getting their ideas from somewhere. Douthat clearly confuses the effect social media giants and media consolidation have on elite political conversation with the effect they have on political conservation in America as a whole.

Douthat acknowledges that conservative fears are probably exaggerated -- after all, Republicans might lose the White House and the Senate this year, but they could well win them back soon. Still, he writes:
But having offered these doubts about the diagnosis, let me stress that the mix of elite consolidation and radicalization that conservatives fear is entirely real — and its reality is one reason among many to recognize that no, even in a second term a hapless bully like Trump will not become a dictator and the Republican Party will not establish permanent one-party rule.
What is he saying? That if the 2020 election goes Trump and Mitch McConnell's way, or is steerd to them by a 6-3 Supreme Court, they'll be prevented from disenfranchising more Democratic voters, tossing more laws and norms into the garbage, and arresting and jailing political opponents because radical-left Facebook and Twitter will block a few posts and tweets?

I agree with Douthat that Trump might not have the brains or the focus to become America's Viktor Orban. But I don't feel as sanguine about McConnell or the Federalist Society judges he and Trump have installed. And I'm struggling to understand how a few Twitter and Facebook bans are going to prevent the raw exercise of government power.

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