Authority vs. Authoritarianism

So I was thinking about the difference between authority figures and authoritarian figures. Well, for starters, authoritarian figures live in constant fear of not getting, having, keeping, or of losing authority. Their validity has to come from outside, requiring cooperation—willingly or fearfully—from those who are subservient. Authority figures, on the other hand, derive their validity from elements of themselves, their character, knowledge, expertise and skills, their choice of how, when, where, and on whose behalf to exercise that authority. Their validity must come from within themselves to be authentically actionable.

We’ve been told repeatedly that we have three grownups on watch, circling the madness that stalks the White House corridors these days. But all along we were uneasy about so many powerful positions traditionally held by civilians suddenly being held by generals, some of whom are even still on active duty. The Framers intended civilians to control the military—not the reverse.

But hey, they were at least grownups, we were told. They might not to be able to stop Trump from launching WW III at North Korea but they could at least keep him from invading Mexico or Venezuela. It’s impossible for us to know just how much Trump is changing them, and we see no evidence that they’re changing him. Or is it that all along they weren’t the grownups in the room? Is it that they were just more archconservatives, this time sporting uniforms and commanding armies of the third largest (after China and India) military force on earth, and the most powerful?

Case in point: retired four-star Marine General James Mattis, the man Trump named defense secretary because he liked the general’s nickname. “Mad Dog Mattis” is known for memorable quotes, like “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” While rising through the ranks, Mattis also earned the nickname “Warrior Monk” because he never married or had children, though that nickname didn’t appeal to Trump. Mattis has been traveling the world a lot and when in Washington hiding manfully at the DOD, tactically but tactfully disagreeing with Trump on almost everything. He might be one of those mythical grownups. How long Mattis can pull this off is another question.

National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster, who needed a waiver to serve Trump’s regime since he is still on active US Army duty, clashed frequently with Trump earlier this year. Yet as Trump’s first disastrous foray abroad began, McMaster co-authored an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, which included this passage: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” That’s a dog-eat-dog, alpha-male perception of all foreign policy as survival of the fittest (which is not, by the way, an accurate definition of evolution). But it is the essence of Trumpism, and it was validated by his new national security advisor—who, after all, had been quickly hustled into the job to replace fired, rabid US Army Lt. General Michael Flynn, currently under investigation for everything from arranging meetings between the Russians and the Trump campaign to having plotted the kidnapping of a Turkish political refugee in US asylum to not having registered as a Turkish foreign agent himself, and lots more. But back to McMaster, whose decorated military career won him a reputation for being outspoken, for speaking truth to power. Yet he immediately shot down allegations that Trump had done anything wrong in welcoming the Russian ambassador and Foreign Minister into the Oval Office with no American press present. McMaster claimed, “At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed” during that meeting, and he attributed such reports to fake news. That was a lie. Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, stepped forward, very ticked off, to announce otherwise.

And lately we’ve been treated to the real John Kelly, the four-star Marine general Trump first chose for Homeland Security director, then shifted to being White House chief of staff. At first, he seemed to be making a difference: Sebastian Gorka bit the dust. Steve Bannon huffed off. But then Kelly waded into the disastrous exchange between a totally unempathetic Trump and the military widow Myesha Johnson, in what was supposed to have been a condolence call. Kelly told Trump what to say, but apparently neglected to tutor him on how to say it. Or maybe he tried, but even a empathetic tone was beyond Trump’s capacity. Either way, Trump was sure to blame him. So Kelly held a rushed press conference to demonstrate his fealty and defend his boss. But in doing so, Kelly revealed deep similarities between the two men. When he spoke of the loss of his own son in war, he seemed almost human. But soon, in a manner shadowed by sexism and racism, he had no difficulty deploying completely false information to impugn the motives of Representative Frederica Wilson, Democratic congresswoman from Florida, and he disrespectfully contradicted the widow about what she herself had heard Trump say. He then lost focus and began wandering through a public lamentation for the lost days of yesteryear, when Women were “held sacred,” along with Life (there goes abortion-rights), Religion (there goes the Framers’ secular society), and Gold-Star Families (no cognitive dissonance about ignoring the sanctity of life in creating Gold-Star families, you understand). He has yet to apologize for his embarassing and offensive behavior to these two women.

Leave aside the fact that his boss trash talks all four of those “sacred” things. Leave aside the reality that when women were being held “sacred” everyone thought it was just normal life that we were battered, raped, harassed, prostituted, denied the vote, denied equal access to jobs and professions and sports, equal pay, education, denied the right to keep our own names if married, denied the right to control our own reproductive lives—and not believed. Not believed when we cried out in our sacred voices. Kelly’s pedestal put women where he didn’t have to look us in the eye. So the general can take his “sacred” and shove it where the moon don’t shine.

Leave all that for the moment aside, and listen for the real message Kelly sent: that the daylight we had wistfully hoped for and assumed might glimmer between him and his commander in chief doesn’t exist. Kelly revealed himself to be just another 1950s working-class white male, a zealous social conservative with an ignorant suspicion of pluralism but iron loyalty to his god and his guns.

Masha Gessen, who has experienced totalitarianism and written insightfully about it, penned a compelling piece in The New Yorker, analyzing Kelly’s language in that press conference, noting the ominous resonance of pre-military-coup semantics. We should read her warning, and at the very least escalate our vigilance. It would be a grave mistake to project maturity onto Kelly and for that matter any of “my generals,” as Trump calls them, out of misplaced gratitude that they appear saner than he is. Ultimately, these men have been trained to obey his orders, and so far, though they might be trying to influence him toward better policies, they are the ones obeying.

But then there’s this. A dear friend and long-time political sister, Dr. Kathleen Berry, author of germinal books on prostitution as a core feminist issue as well as the definitive biography of Susan B Anthony, lives in Santa Rosa, California, and was evacuated during the catastrophic wildfires. She told me about Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano. The shelters in Santa Rosa were safe but the large migrant-worker population in that agricultural region feared going to shelters because many are undocumented, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents would be waiting to arrest and deport them. (You’ll recall that ICE, virtually alone among the Federal agencies, loves Trump. ICE also loves the notorious Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio, pardoned by Trump for having violated immigrants’ civil rights. ICE agents have said they feel “unleashed at last” around such men—unlike the gutsy bureaucrats in other government agencies who’ve been diligently whistle-blowing and conscientiously leaking information about what the Trumpists are doing to destroy our government.) To avoid the dreaded ICE, the migrant workers instead trudged a considerable distance to the beach to flee the fire. When the county learned that the migrants were heading to the shore rather than the shelters, the Sheriff’s office sent out an area alert to reassure migrants that they would be safe from deportation in his shelters. ICE was furious.

But he wasn’t finished. He then took on ICE again, this time for rushing to judgement in accusing a man named Jesus Gonzales of starting the firestorm. Gonzales was already under arrest for the minor offense of sleeping in the park beside a separate, small fire for warmth, but ICE ordered the Sheriff to hold him 48 hours past his scheduled release time. Since the detainer had not been signed by a judge, the Sheriff’s office would not legally honor it. ICE agents were livid. Here are some ringing excerpts from Rob Giordano’s public area alert titled “Response to Misinformation About a Suspected Arsonist.”

“The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a press release that was inaccurate, inflammatory, and damages the relationship we have with our community. . . . We don’t know if these fires were arson or caused by another source. There is no indication that Gonzales had anything to do with these fires and it appears highly unlikely. . . . ICE attacked this Sheriff’s office in the midst of the largest natural disaster this county has ever experienced. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated. Many have lost their homes and 23 people have died from this firestorm. ICE’s misleading statement stirs fear in some of our community members who are already exhausted and scared. Please be assured I will do everything to protect this community. That includes working with ICE cooperatively but within our policy and the law. Despite ICE’s misleading statement we will continue to protect and serve our community members with the strength and compassion they deserve. I hope to end this senseless public confrontation with these facts so that I may focus on the fire recovery.”

Wow. That is a demonstration of authentic authority.

Facts. Not biased, unfounded accusations. No fear of speaking truth to power. No testosterone-poisoned embarrassment about speaking with compassion. Principled, protective concern for the entire community, pride in its diversity, and an awareness of who is most vulnerable and why. And focus—on getting the job done.

It turns out that Sheriff Rob Giordano started his law enforcement career with the Pittsburg Police Department in 1989. In 1996 he became a deputy sheriff with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, working for years as a domestic violence/sexual assault detective before being promoted to sergeant, then working as domestic violence/sexual assault unit supervisor. I can’t help but wonder if those years working with female survivors taught him what he seems to practice: taught him how to listen, taught him about suffering, taught him to believe victims’ stories—whether they’re female sexual-assault victims or beaten wives or undocumented migrants trapped between deportation and burning alive.

That’s the difference between authority, even when it’s wearing a uniform, and authoritarianism, even when it’s not. Wouldn’t Sheriff Rob Giordano make a great Director of Homeland Security?

But now news breaks of the Trump campaign’s having requested Russian hacks of Hillary’s email from Wikileaks—another link in wanna-be-authoritarian collusion. And just now more news breaks: of the first Grand Jury criminal indictment being handed down through the Special Counsel’s investigation: an act of authority.

It’s accelerating, my friends. Hold hands, hold tight. We’re on our way.