It will come as no surprise that I agree with Paul Krugman: the current Republican party is an active threat to American liberal democracy. Those who are troubled by the drift of their party find themselves marginalized, are willing to look the other way to secure policy victories, or are captive to their Redcap base and the kleptocratic authoritarian demagogue who pulls its strings. This was all too predictable. When the center-right nurtures right-wing extremism, it often finds itself riding the tiger. When the center-right allies with fascists and other right-wing extremists, it dances with a devil that would like nothing more than to purge its enablers.
For example, in Austria, the once-center-right-now-further-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has allowed its post-fascist coalition party, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) to take over Austria’s intelligence services. Some western countries have halted intelligence-sharing arrangements with Austira, as the FPÖ is explicitly aligned with Russia. More broadly:
Austria, a NATO partner, isn’t the only country that’s causing alarm to Western spy chiefs amid the rise of Kremlin-friendly populist parties across Europe. In March, VOA reported U.S. security agencies were assessing what intelligence could be shared with Italian counterparts following the formation in Rome of a coalition government featuring the right-wing Lega and anti-establishment Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S). Like the Freedom Party, Italy’s Lega has a formal cooperation pact with United Russia.
One has to wonder why any non-fascist government would tolerate the extreme right taking control over their intelligence services. History suggests that never ends well.
The answer, of course, is by placing parochial policy preferences, short-term power, and the desire to defeat the “other side” ahead of the prudent defense of democratic institutions—no matter how frayed or imperfect they may be. These calculations drive many in the GOP who “know better” when it comes to Trump. A different combination of them convinced some members of the progressive left to sit out 2016, or to actively oppose Clinton. These are all terrible bets.
As Kent Harrington writes at Project Syndicate:
Trump has simply ignored the laws – including laws governing the US intelligence services – that he swore faithfully to execute. Eleven former CIA directors and deputy directors, as well as 70 former senior CIA officers (including me), said as much last week, criticizing the unprecedented revocation as political coercion and accusing Trump of misusing presidential powers, damaging national security, and threatening current and former officials’ right of free speech. As if to underscore the point, White House spokespeople say that Trump intends to order more revocations, including a former national security adviser and deputy attorney general, as well as former directors of national intelligence, the CIA and the National Security Agency.
The hit list is no coincidence. Those in the crosshairs have overseen intelligence collection and analysis that informed the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, including possible collusion with Trump’s presidential campaign. With attacks on the intelligence and law enforcement communities playing well among his supporters, Trump could well double down on this demagoguery. But his willingness to use his presidential powers as a blatantly partisan political weapon breaks ground that no American should want him to tread.
Washington is not Vienna, but the parallels deserve close attention nonetheless. Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community and its former leaders are unprecedented, and it would be naive not to consider their impact, not only on the current intelligence leadership but also on the rank-and-file officers that do the difficult and often dangerous work of intelligence gathering and analysis. That is why it is so important to adhere to the laws that empower (and constrain) intelligence agencies and that underpin the political independence and integrity of their officers.
Events in Austria should be a warning. For democracies to thrive, government must be transparent as well as publicly accountable. When it comes to overseeing intelligence agencies pledged to protect their sources and methods, the challenges are obvious. But so, too, are the threats, including to the democratic process itself, when politicians violate rather than respect the rules that govern their intelligence services’ integrity.
In the final analysis, Brennan isn’t the only victim of Trump’s unwarranted and vindictive action. So are all Americans when national leaders put their own interests above those of the country and corrupt the political system they are sworn to defend.
As the “legitimacy cascade” for the extreme right continues across the West, and the taboos that once prevented them from achieving power evaporate, it becomes ever more pressing for the left, the center-left, and the center-right to step up and defend political liberalism. Right now, they are mostly failing.