The Authoritarian Right Is Regrouping
In Moscow, Mar-a-Lago, and beyond, desperate men are mobilizing anyone they can to help them regain power.
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Events of the past few weeks in Russia, Brazil, and America show the global right in disarray. But these are not signs of defeat, as liberals might hope; they are the disorderly attempt by antidemocratic forces to stage a recovery.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
Going to Extremes
It’s been a bad year for authoritarians around the world, and November may have been their worst month yet. The Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to disintegrate into a series of disorderly retreats. Brazil’s far-right president was turned out of office. Millions of American voters kept a collection of antidemocratic candidates away from the levers of government.
We might want to see all this as a turning of the tide; my friend, the writer Jonathan V. Last—perhaps the only person capable of more pessimism than I—said this morning that he cannot resist a feeling of hopefulness. I hate to be the voice of caution here, because I want to believe the optimists will be vindicated. And I do think a collective faith in democracy will prevail. But I worry about the danger of complacency.
Over the past week, the global right has shown signs of trying to regroup after taking a hiding everywhere from the ballot box to the battlefield. Some of it seems little more than disorganized thrashing about, such as Jair Bolsonaro’s election challenge in Brazil and Kari Lake’s refusal to concede in Arizona. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is trying out a bolder version of his 2016 and 2020 race-baiting strategies by hosting a dinner for an anti-Semite and a racist—a pathetic and vulgar event that in a better political environment would be treated as yet another disqualification for participation in our public life.
Overseas, the Russians are not giving up in Ukraine, despite reports that they might quit their occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. (A Ukrainian official says there are signs that the Russians are pulling out; the Russians deny it.) I think it is possible that the Russian commanders have pitched a proposal to the Kremlin that they should withdraw as a matter of necessity. It would be a smart diplomatic move and a prudent strategic choice. But Vladimir Putin has demonstrated that he is a terrible strategist, and that he has no intention of ending this war.
Nevertheless, the war is going so poorly that Putin had himself shown on Russian television meeting with the mothers of servicemen he’s sent to their death. These women were likely handpicked and carefully vetted, but it is revealing that Putin felt the need to do this kind of damage control at all. Do not be hopeful, however, that this is a softening of his position: Instead, he is making the point that the Ukrainians, the fellow Slavs he claimed he was seeking to liberate from a Nazi regime, must now be destroyed as recompense for the tears of Russian mothers. His forces are retreating, but they are not going home.
Here in the United States, Trump’s dinner at Mar-a-Lago resembled a lazy Saturday Night Live sketch. Trump was joined by Kanye West, now known as Ye, and Nick Fuentes, one of the many ambitious young grifters on the right who has figured out that performative idiocy—and, in his case, blistering racism—is a lot more fun than working a straight job.
Trump, as he typically does when his overtures to extremists ignite controversy, protested that he had no idea what he had blundered into. The whole business would be laughable were it not a fact that Trump is the de facto boss in the GOP and has long been the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024. Having dinner with a racist agitator is not normally a clever move for an American candidate, but Trump needs new allies, so he’s testing the limits of the public’s tolerance for radical new members of his coalition. Trump doesn’t understand much about politics, so he may not have internalized what happened to Republicans in the midterms. He does, however, possess an innate awareness of where he stands with his fans, and he might realize that he’s worn out his less-extreme supporters. He needs replacements.
The attempt to replenish his base underlies not only Trump’s Early-Bird Racist Dinner but his previous embrace of the QAnon movement. If reasonably sensible people will no longer support him, he must find unreasonable reserves to make up the difference. Like Putin dragooning Russians into his army, Trump is net-fishing a new pool of weirdos and extremists to shore up his ongoing attempt to avenge his loss.
None of this is new. Trump pioneered the political game of saying outrageous things, letting the ensuing scandal burn, doubling and tripling down, and then insisting that being a jerk was an example of bravery and principle. And he got away with it every time, because millions of American voters refused—and still refuse—to hold him accountable. And that is the real danger in this authoritarian retrenchment: that once again, the voters will shrug off actions that would have shocked them even five or 10 years ago.
It is important to ask Republican leaders, including Kevin McCarthy and Trump’s many rivals for the 2024 nomination, why they remain silent. (As The Bulwark’s Amanda Carpenter quipped on Twitter, “When politicians have a perfect opportunity to attack a rival, shouldn't they, uh, take it?”)
These elected officials are quiet because they know their voters, and the tolerance of the GOP base for Trump is, for now at least, deep and resilient. But in the end, it is not the job of Mike Pence or Ron DeSantis to halt Trump’s attempted return to power. That responsibility belongs to Republican voters, who must decide whether they care if Trump is yukking it up in Florida with an anti-Semitic rapper and an odious, racist punk.
We can be relieved, for the moment, that the right is in disarray. But we should not lose sight of the fact that some of the worst people in national and global politics are reorganizing and retrenching. They will be back.
- The man who killed 10 Black people in a shooting at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket last spring pleaded guilty to state charges, including murder and domestic terrorism.
- Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, is erupting for the first time since 1984.
- The crypto bank BlockFi filed for bankruptcy in the latest financial shockwave following the collapse of FTX.
- The Third Rail: David French explains why he’s thankful for defamation lawsuits.
- Up for Debate: Readers tell Conor Friedersdorf what they’re thankful for.
- The Great Game: Sometimes progress is measured in ties, Franklin Foer wrote after Friday’s World Cup match between the U.S. and England.
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Whoops, I Deleted My Life
By Thomas Chatterton Williams
When the ominous warnings started hitting my inbox a few months ago, I tried to ignore them. The emails contained none of the humor or playfulness of the early Gmail ethos. Instead, they were terse and vaguely threatening, seeming to channel the depressing spirit of financial collapse and austerity present everywhere around us. The subject line: “Your Gmail is almost out of storage.” The body, in essence: This is a shakedown—pay us a subscription fee in perpetuity, and we will continue granting you what we once promised would be free access to your own life and memories.
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If you were wondering why there was an outcry about anti-Semitism on Twitter this weekend, it’s because the new Twitter CEO, Elon Musk, fired off an anti-Semitic smear yesterday. A user, Zack Bornstein, tweeted, “[K]inda weird that one dude gets to decide if like a billion of us can communicate or not.” This tweet, according to Bornstein, got a warning from Twitter that it violated their rules against targeted harassment. Many people, understandably finding this laughable, then sent out the exact same tweet, ostensibly as a kind of middle finger to Musk and Twitter.
Among them was Alexander Vindman, the retired Army officer who testified at Trump’s impeachment trial and thus gained the eternal hatred of the Trumpist right. When another Twitter user noted the flood of similar messages, Musk singled out Vindman, tweeting, “Vindman is both puppet & puppeteer. Question is who pulls his strings …?” Vindman is a decorated veteran. He is also a Jew, and Musk not only smeared him as somehow being part of an online campaign (which, one assumes, he could instantly ascertain as Twitter’s boss) but also used a classic anti-Semitic trope to do it. It was a rare achievement even for Musk, who managed to look both incompetent and racist on his own platform—and he’s only been in charge for a month.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.