Timothy Snyder and Gore Vidal on the American Imperial (“Tyrannical”) Presidency

Timothy Snyder, in the following video, notes that the Presidency of Trump has the earmarks of tyranny.

I agree with what he says, except for his praise of the Constitution. He thinks that the Constitution was designed to prevent tyranny through a division of powers. That may well have been the intention. But the Constitution is flawed in many respects.

Among these flaws, the most egregious one is in having created the office of a President, elected by an electoral college and mass democracy. A better system would have been to have a prime minister nominated and elected by Congress, and even better one would have been a system with two co-equal prime-ministers, nominated by two parties with each minister having veto power over the other, as was the case in ancient Roman Republic with their two consuls. But a still better system would have been to imitate Switzerland and have four political parties nominate a seven-member executive council and cabinet, which would then be confirmed by Congress.

The present system allows persons of low caliber to be elected as Presidents. Worse, once elected Presidents have enormous powers in nominating cabinet posts and federal judges, and they also have great discretionary powers as military commanders-in-chief to declare martial law, and send troops to quell uprisings. For example, the so-called American Civil War, was not a war against a foreign aggressor, but was taken to be a domestic rebellion, which did not require a Congressional declaration of war, but was entirely within the powers of the President. And President Lincoln decided to send troops to the south to squash this “rebellious secession” of the South — a mopping up operation, as it may be called, which cost over 600,000 lives.

Timothy Snyder does not seem to appreciate the fact that the exercise of power which Trump is exhibiting is granted to him by the Constitution, and the mechanism of impeachment is too weak to curtail his abuse of these powers.

The Constitution, as it exists, is geared to making sure that the rich are in control. How so? Well, given mass democracy it will be the rich who will predominate in Congress because of election expenditures. And, let’s not forget, the Senate, as originally established, was to be selected by State legislatures, which themselves would be controlled by the rich, and would elect Senators who were friends of the rich. Furthermore, the Senators were to serve six years which would outlast any temporary political upheavals.

Anyway, several years ago, Gore Vidal gave a very insightful analysis of the existing Imperial Presidency:


I know that it is very difficult to predict with any accuracy about what will happen to humans — there are too many factors to consider. Nonetheless, there are some generalizations which can be made. One is that the sun will burn out is some 4 to 5 billion years. Another is that given finite resources, infinite growth is impossible. It is this last generalization which has been at the horizon of my thinking — made explicit by Thomas Malthus, who in 1789 published an essay noting that resources (specifically food) grow arithmetically, while populations grow exponentially. The conclusion seemed obvious to me: there is a limit to growth. And a report by that name, “The Limits to Growth” was published in 1973, using a computer to take into account various factors. [Here is a documentary about this project:

The criticism was that the predictions failed. This is true. But the claim that there is a limit to growth with finite resources seems to me to be a truism, as does Paul Ehrich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968). Again, the criticism of these books was not that there is a population problem, but a disagreement about the severity of it, and what will take care of this problem.

We are now living in the midst of an ecological crisis, as well as with other possible global collapses. This impending sense of collapse has been analyzed and proclaimed by a host of people. One of them is Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse” (2005). Below is his 2003 TED talk on this subject:

Recently, I came across the compelling documentary film “Prophets of Doom” (2011):

It includes the following six “prophets”:

  • Michael Ruppert (1951-2014): “Confronting Collapse,” “Crossing the Rubicon”
  • Nathan Hagens
  • John Cronin: “The Riverkeepers”
  • James Howard Kunstler: “The Long Emergency,” “Home From Nowhere”
  • Hugo De Garis
  • Robert Gleason: “End of Days”

    Chris Hedges, The Myth of Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies

    Kirkpatrick Sale, The Collapse of 2020, 2020.

  • Critique of Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies”

    I keep reading Karl Popper’s book “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945), and trying to understand his stand on various issues.

    There is much in the views of Karl Popper with which I agree, but there are some fundamental things with which I disagree.

    Let me start with the things I agree with. I agree with his views on Plato and Marx. He thinks of Plato as a totalitarian, and of Marx as admirable in his descriptions and analyses of capitalism of his day, but as totally wrong in his prophesies. I also agree with him on the need of governments to take a “negative utilitarian” stance — meaning that governments should strive to minimize harm, rather than to try to promote a nebulous good or happiness. I also agree with him on the need to be rational, and the need for an open society which allows for free speech (including the right of assembly and protest). I was also impressed by his description of an “abstract” society — very insightful and prophetic.

    After these agreements, you may wonder what possibly would I disagree with. There are several things: his stance on definitions and “essences,” and, what appears to me to be a disparaging view of nationalism. But here I will not discuss these. The fundamental disagreement which I have with Popper is over his non-critical view of liberal democracy. In other words he approves of mass democracy, with a parliament and a president or a prime minister. And he seems to be nonchalant about the fact that dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler gained power in liberal democracies. Well, it is understandable when some dictator grabs power through a revolution or a military coup. But for liberal democracies to sprout dictators — to use Popper’s favorite method of modus tollens — constitutes a refutation of liberal democracy. But he does not see this. And he does not seem to have the imagination to envision other hypotheses about an acceptable form of democracy. The most glaring omission is that Popper never mentions Switzerland, which is, in my opinion, the best form of liberal mass democracy. The difference between Switzerland and all other forms of liberal democracy is that Switzerland does not place executive power into the hands of one individual, but disperses it among seven co-equal individuals. Furthermore, Popper seems to have no conception of anarchism. He could have cited the anarchism of Nestor Makhno in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War (1918-21), or the anarchism during the Spanish Civil War and Revolution (1936-9). But, he does not.

    Another point. He tries to distinguish “utopian engineering” from “piecemeal engineering.” Put otherwise, he is expressing a faith in social democracy as contrasted with revolution. I find that this distinction is not clear, for the simple reason, that a single piece of legislation could constitute a revolution. For example, according to Crane Brinton, the French Revolution occurred when Louis XVI agreed to the demands of the Third Estate that all three Estates meet together as the National Assembly. Another piece of social engineering — the passing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which freed the slaves, was a revolution. And I can envision that the following other amendments to the U.S. Constitution which would also constitute revolutions. Introducing a Swiss style Federal Council, or an agrarian amendment giving each citizen the right to a chunk of free subsistence land — would both be revolutions.

    The problem with this approach to “piecemeal engineering” revolutions is that it will not work, because of the structure of liberal democracies. They are structurally controlled by the rich, and the rich will never legislate such revolutionary amendments.

    Two questions: (1) What is the best government that money can buy? (2) What kind of government would a bunch of devils choose?

    My answer to (1). Place all power in the hands of one person. But don’t give this person power for life, and don’t make it hereditary. And don’t make this power last too long — four to six years maximum. And ensure that once out of power this person will be assured a prosperous future, such as a nice pension. It is better to have such a leader under democracy because people will have to acknowledge that they have elected him. But in reality, he will have been elected by money which has paid for the media and advertisement.

    My answer to (2). Have a democracy. But by no means give power to one devil in any capacity. If you do, he will kill off all opposition, and enrich himself to the fullest. Minimally, all powers are to be given to at least two devils, with veto power over each other. And perhaps two more devils should monitor all activities of the two in power. Also, the period of their power should be minimal — let’s say six months.

    My answer to (2) was not capricious. It was suggested by the ancient Roman Republican practice of having two consuls with veto power over each other, as well as by the ancient Spartan practice of having two kings with veto power over each other. And the idea of having “monitors” was suggested by the existence of lichtors and ephors. We can view the German Gestapo and the Russian Cheka as an extension of this idea of having such “monitors.”

    My Political Frustrations with the governments of the U.S. and Ukraine

    I live in Chicago. I was born in Poland, but I am an ethnic Ukrainian. Like Noam Chomsky, whom I admire, I am concerned with the state of the world: with the almost certain ecological collapse, with the possibility of nuclear warfare, and with U.S. economic and military imperial hegemony.

    And because the U.S. dominates the world militarily (with nearly a thousand military bases around the world), it is difficult to envision any economic or political changes anywhere without some kind of U.S. acquiescence.

    I also believe that the world is overpopulated. But, because population expansion is in the interest of capitalism, there is no policy of population control, as there was in China. The result is widespread world poverty, widespread conflicts, and ecological collapses.

    I also believe that capitalism has taken total control of the U.S. political machinery, simply because the U.S. Constitution is structurally built for oligarchic control.

    Theoretically, the solution is to have a different U.S. Constitution — perhaps one closer to that of Switzerland. But I do not see any prospects for any such radical change; for two reasons. The first is that amending the U.S. Constitution is very difficult — nearly impossible. The second is that the U.S. Constitution is regarded with the same reverence as any Holy Book — so, criticism is like blasphemy.

    So, as regards the U.S. I am pessimistic, if not a cynic.

    I have more hope for other countries. I regard Switzerland as the best democracy in the world. And my utopian hope is that Ukraine will emulate Switzerland.

    But the prospects of this happening in Ukraine are dismal. Situated on the border with Russia, and having a mixed population of bilingual speakers of Ukrainian and Russian, the recent Presidential and Parliamentary elections have given the Russian-speakers total control of the government.

    Let me explain. First, Ukraine unlike the U.S. is neither federated nor decentralized. All power is concentrated in the President. He nominates the Prime Minister, the Prosecutor, the Minister of Internal Security (the police), the Minister of Defense (the military), the Minister of foreign affairs, and he appoints all the Governors of the 25 Oblasts and of Kyiv. Second, recent parliamentary elections have given the President’s party, an overwhelming majority. Only a few votes are needed from other parties to make amendments to the Constitution.

    The result is that Ukraine has a democratically elected Dictator, who, prior to being elected, was a very successful Russian-speaking comedian on television. (I use the word “dictator” in the sense in which the ancient Roman republic used it, when power was concentrate in the hands of one person, rather than in the hands of two consuls.) How this concentrated power will be used in Ukraine is a total mystery at this stage — with foreboding apprehensions.