Portland Is in Peril

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S1: The following program may contain explicit language.

S2: It’s Tuesday, July 21st, 2020, from Slate’s The Gist. I’m Mike Pesca. President Trump spoke today at the White House briefing room. Perhaps this is a return to his regular press briefings on the not magically going away corona virus. But it wasn’t entirely a returned form because today the president used his perch to say some not insane things.

S1: Early on, he contradicted his usual stance, but even noted the contradiction in, of course, the most forgiving terms.

S3: It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better.

S1: He doesn’t like saying it. He hasn’t before. Now, those were words on a page which clearly indicates someone has prompted him. Someone has advised him to give up the truculence that he normally exhibits in the face of failure. Of course, occasionally Trump would look up from the script and improvise, which is when the misinformation peeked through some cases with children where they don’t even know that they’re ill.

S3: And I guess they’re not very ill because they recover almost immediately.

S1: No children really getting the corona virus really is real. They can really spread it. And even if they’re not terribly affected, it doesn’t mean they’re not affected. This pro mask wearing Trump, he even pulled one out of his pocket, says he wears it. This guy who has now admitted the virus will get worse before it gets better, is a new and welcome Trump, of course, since the president lacks the capacity to really change. And, of course, should he become peeved, he’s going to lash out in unproductive ways and fall back on his tactics of misinformation. But maybe a sustained new tone will, in fact, convince a few members of Mauga nation to actually don a mask, just like Don does, he says. Now, who knows? The diehards have, of course, developed this complex filtering system such that they can tell when Trump is saying something that they shouldn’t believe, that he’s being forced to say it is some sort of tactic. But they also know when he’s giving them the real truth, knowing the difference has become to them almost second nature. It’s pretty much what makes them a diehard, but also what makes tens of thousands of their countrymen literally die hard. On the show today, spiel about Portland. Land of unmarked federal agents and unabated municipal grievance. But first to Anne Applebaum is a writer and journalist whose husband is a member of the European Parliament representing Poland. She’s been witness and warrier to an assault on truth and freedoms from the far right in her country, Poland, in neighboring countries. And now, as she writes in Twilight of Democracy, the seductive law of authoritarianism, she’s worried about it in this country. Anne Applebaum up next.

S4: Anne Applebaum is an intellect, an internationalist. She is a staff writer for The Atlantic. She lives in Poland, where her husband was a politician until politics in Poland turned caustic. And now she is out with an account of what’s going on there. And here it is called Twilight of Democracy, The Seductive Law of Authoritarianism. Hello, and thanks for joining me. Thanks for having me. So I know that you are interested in a lot of things. In your last book was about how the USSR used starvation as a tactic. And so at least part of your intellectual life has been steeped in the habits of dictators and authoritarians. Did it then surprise you to see this country, your somewhat newly adopted country of Poland, turn that way? Or were you more attuned to it than the average person would be?

S5: I may have been more attuned to it, but I was still surprised. So the answer is yes and yes. To be clear, you know, my books are about Stalin ism. They’re about really one of the worst periods in European history. Dictatorships where power was preserved through mass violence and bloodshed and so on. And the kind of the creeping authoritarianism that we’re seeing actually not just in Poland, but all across Europe and the West. And we can even discuss perhaps you could include the United States in this is is a little bit different from that. But but the you know, the impulse to authoritarianism, the impulse to end this, you know, raucous, annoying democracy with its ridiculous rules, you know, to make everything dependent on a single leader or a single party. I mean, that’s something you see across time.

S4: So it’s happening to a stark degree in Poland. It’s happening in Hungary. These are two of the primary countries you write about. But, of course, you also touch on Boris Johnson, who you have a personal relationship with. It’s really interesting. And Marie Le Pen. But I just want to ask you some broad questions. First of all, you know, Poland essentially became a democracy in the 90s and by, say, 2010 or perhaps a little bit after that, their democracy, your democracy was looking quite frail. But if you look at the United States, the last founding father to be president, Monroe, 1825 to 1860, things looked to be falling apart. So I wonder if the lesson is that Poland has failed or that nation democracies often have an early period where things can feel quite tenuous.

S5: So, first of all, Poland’s democracy hasn’t failed yet. Actually, you know, as we speak, there’s just been a presidential election. And although it wasn’t an entirely fair election, it was still hard fought and there’s still an opposition in Poland and so on. So it’s a it’s a it’s a it’s a process. I mean, it’s a kind of decay rather than an end. So I’d like to be careful with that. But second of all, you know, one of the deep arguments of the book is that any democracy can fail. And it’s not to do with how new or old it is, the forces working against democracy, against, you know, politically liberal democracy as we defined it. In other words, it’s not just a democracy in which there aren’t just elections, but there is rule of law. There are neutral institutions that can ensure those elections continue to happen. All those things are, you know, historically speaking, are very fragile. If you look back through history, there aren’t that many democracies that have lasted that long. The United States has been very lucky in a lot of ways. It’s been very prosperous. It’s it’s been protected from enemies. And we don’t have, you know, difficult border problems like polls do or even actually really almost anybody else in Europe does. And so many of the kinds of forces that threaten democracy and have done over the last 100 or 200 years, we haven’t experienced. But democracy is inherently fragile. It requires consensus. It requires an agreement that if your side loses, you will agree to step back and give up power for four years or for six years, whatever the rules are. And that’s, you know, kind of almost goes against human nature. So the the idea that democracy can fail or that it can be challenged shouldn’t be surprising to Americans. But of course, it is, because we have certainly, at least since, you know, since the 20th century, we’ve had this assumption that our as our democracy can only get stronger and better and that it’s unchallenged and so on. But I’m afraid that that that assumption of inevitability, that nothing can harm us and that therefore we can all worry about other things might be catching up with us.

S4: Well, we often to conflate democracy, which is to say the vote with liberal and functioning liberal institutions that protect our rights. So I want to ask you, you could look at Poland and. Generalized to other countries, but to what extent is democracy an enabler of this authoritarianism as opposed to a bulwark against it?

S5: Well, really, the bulwark against authoritarianism is the institutions, because, you know, just having people vote. I mean, you can vote for someone who then says, right, I’m the dictator now. Everybody else is, you know, is abolished or I abolish all politics. And what prevents that from happening is all kinds of other things. So a court system, respect for the rule of law, you know, checks and balances, you know, several sources of power. You know, a president is, you know, different countries have organized this differently. But a president, a prime minister or president at Congress, you know, a free press also. And this is something the founding fathers wrote about in de Tocqueville, wrote about, you know, the habits of democracy. You know, a kind of civic education is very important to maintain democracy. So all these things are necessary in order to prevent democracies from declining. But the point is interesting. You know, the the ancient philosophers, when they wrote about democracy, you know, Aristotle wrote about it as a kind of prelude to tyranny. Oh, you know, if you just let people choose anybody, then the next step is dictatorship. Well, it’s precisely these other things, these institutions, these rules, these norms that prevent that from happening. And it’s very important to preserve that understanding so that we can maintain our democracy. I mean, it’s not just true for Americans, but for everybody who lives in a democracy now.

S4: To what extent do you think that the policies favored and the policies actually that sometimes enacted by I guess in America, they’d be called neo liberals in Poland, the party your husband was in the center right. Those policies failed to deliver, thus opening the door for the appetite to autocracy.

S5: It sort of depends what you mean by that. I mean, first of all, to be clear, my husband still in that party and he’s actually a member of the European Parliament for the party. So he’s still in politics. He’s just not in the he’s on the government anymore. But, you know, one of the you know, one of the puzzles actually about Poland is that if you just look purely at economics, that party or really wasn’t just that party was a it was the Polish transformation over two decades was tremendously successful. I mean, in delivering growth, I mean, not just growth for some elite, but growth for everybody in making the country more prosperous in, you know, pick any measure you want, whether it’s development of infrastructure or funding of health or anything. And this is why Poland is such an important is such an important kind of counter story. They were successful and the country did move ahead and it moved, you know, dramatically became richer over two decades between 1989 and, you know, and the present. Nevertheless, there was a dissatisfaction with it and it proved to be possible to capitalize on that dissatisfaction and to enter for an authoritarian leaning party to win an election. And that’s actually, you know, in a way that’s the crux of my book, is that it’s not you can’t really explain these. We all want to explain these changes just by looking at economics or just by doing some numbers and just by saying, well, if your policy on X or Y had been different, would have been different. And I think the argument is a little bit deeper. I think that there’s always an impulse towards autocracy and there’s very likely always to be a group of people who see it as a road to power. And that can happen in a lot of different countries for different reasons at different times. And none of us are immune to it. And it’s you know, it’s very important to be aware of how it happens. And also what with the appeal of that is, you know, why are people attracted to authoritarianism? Because it’s not it’s not just about economics. It’s about other things, too.

S4: So I wanted to ask you about your personal positioning and all of this. I note that the American version of the book is Twilight of Democracy, subtitled The Seductive Law of Authoritarianism in the U.K. It seems to have been printed as twilight of democracy. The failure of politics and the parting of friends and listeners should know that the book has a chapter, the very first chapter and one of the last chapters. These book ended parties. Literally you throw a party and in the 90s, in the 90s, the people who came maybe represented hopeful myths about Poland becoming a democracy. And since then, it’s splintered and friends not only parted, but some of them won’t speak to you, and some of them are exactly forces of authoritarianism. And the second party is sort of the social gathering with people who are now within the the veil of acceptability. What about your own role in this? Did you make any mistakes? Not in terms of just taking your eyes off what was important in terms of institutions and guarding institutions. But did you make any mistakes with, I don’t know, policies you favored how you. Favorite them. Friends that you kept at the time. Not seeing the flaws of some friends, you are at least pretty friendly with Boris Johnson.

S5: It’s funny, I thought you were going to say, did you make the mistake by choosing the wrong friends? And actually, one reviewer of the book has already written. Like, how could she have all these terrible friends? So I mean that to be honest, that was the that was the original starting point of the book is I thought, OK, I better investigate my life. OK. So how did I know these people who did I think they were. What happened to them? What happened to me? What mistakes did we all make along the way? And the and the and the. The book started it was actually originally a piece in the Atlantic, but the book started as a kind of investigation into exactly that. So. So, yes, Chris, I made mistakes. And I think, you know, probably my biggest mistake and I think it’s one shared by lots of people. Was this what we started talking about a minute ago? Was this feeling of inevitability, you know, that, OK, we won in 1989, communism fell. Now we’re all heading in the right direction. And now it’s just gonna be like that. And so we don’t have to worry very much about making sure our institutions are all working or making sure that people know that we’ve communicated well. You know, we you know, we’ve made all these assumptions that that there was a an inevitable direction of politics. And that was a huge mistake. There’s no nothing is inevitable. No democracy can be assured that it’s forever. You know, no political system has a guarantee that it lasts for, you know, all political systems. And eventually, you know, at some point they will all end. And the question is when and, you know, how do we keep them alive or how do we reform them to be something better while we still can. So, you know, I mean, you know, the book kind of begins with the declaration that I made this mistake or that I had this misunderstanding. And then I try and I try and piece it together. And I you know, the idea of using parties, I mean, in a way, it’s just a kind of metaphor. It was it was who was one group of political allies in 1999, which is when the first party took place. And who are the political allies in twenty nineteen, which is when the second party takes place. And the you know, the the book is an explanation of why everybody shifted and moved around.

S4: Right. I’m figure Boris Johnson and you get into you in the book, you detail much of your relationship and how you at least found him interesting. And he is he’s an interesting person. If we use that term value neutral. Oh, and then the point with Johnson is, for many years we all knew he was colorful in his descriptions of what the EU was doing. Maybe the word that we would use now is more like dishonest. But my question is this. What’s more important, correctly assessing the character of people, or is it keeping your eye on the institutions? Because to me, if the institutions didn’t shift to the point where Boris Johnson could see an opportunity to exploit Brexit, he never would have. And we could still always put Boris Johnson in this box of, you know, acceptable somewhat madman figure. But because of where he is on the Brexit question, it becomes different. So what’s the important point that we as people don’t make misjudgments about someone’s character? Or is the important point that knowing that humans are fallible and their character can take them in different directions, that we really adhere to the institutions to make sure things don’t go so haywire in our institutions that some people might go over the edge.

S5: So that’s a complicated question. I mean, you know, if Boris Johnson had stayed all of his life, as you say, is a colorful, amusing newspaper columnist, which is what he was when I was friends with him 20 years ago. Would you have thought he was such a terrible person? I mean, he was he’s he’s genuinely funny. He wrote funny articles. He was very, very good on TV, especially kind of quiz show type programs. He was extremely good at making after dinner speeches and amusing, you know, large rooms of people. I’ve heard him do it, you know, more than once. And in that capacity, would you have thought he was, you know, he had done anything particularly bad? I mean, no. I mean, so so you’re right. I mean, the moment when people started judging him differently was when he took advantage of something that he, I think, personally had doubts about, which was this great Brexit debate and turned it into a path to gain power. And then once he had power, he didn’t quite know what to do with it, although that’s another that’s another question. And so once he became Machiavellian, once he turned in that direction, he became a different kind of person. So, you know, he and you have to judge him in a in a in a different way. I mean, he’s now a historical figure. And you’re going. He’s gonna have to be judged by what he did or didn’t do to to Great Britain, but I think you’re your deeper point is that, you know, yes, ultimately you want all of your institutions to be kind of personality, you know, protected. In other words, you would like it to be the case that whoever becomes prime minister or whoever becomes president can’t wreck the system. You know, they can’t destroy it. They can’t undermine it. They can’t, you know, wreck the institutions. And, you know, the definition of a of a of a strong political system is one in which the institutions are the norms or the or the people or that, you know, the press or whatever it is, can hold people to account and make sure that whoever is in power doesn’t record.

S4: Anne Applebaum is the author of Twilight of Democracy The Seductive Law of Authoritarianism. Thank you so much. Thank you.

S1: And now the spiel. Federal agents in Portland are snatching up protesters without identifying themselves, shoving them into unmarked vehicles and detaining them. Several news sources have reported Donald Trump seems to think this shameful violation of our social compact and perhaps law is so effective. He casually mentions bringing it to several other cities. Local officials in Portland, like Mayor Ted Wheeler, claim that the 50 plus straight days of protests that federal agents have reacted to were winding down already until acting Homeland Security head Chad Wolf deployed his forces.

S6: Mayor Wheeler alleges presidential politics are at play or needed strategy out of Trump’s White House to use federal troops to bolster his sagging polling data. And it is an absolute abuse of federal law enforcement officials. And what is the impact it’s having on our streets is as we were starting to see things de-escalate their actions, particularly last Saturday, that every night since has actually ratcheted up the tension on our streets. And it’s caused more people, not fewer people, to come downtown to demonstrate on that, seemingly all of Portland degrees.

S1: But that is the only thing they agree on. In fact, all of the Oregon congressional delegation and all elected officials statewide are decrying the federal government’s overreaction to the 50 plus days of sometimes violent, sometimes destructive protest. But I thought it would be interesting to take a step back and look at those 50 plus days of protest and ask, why are they going on? What’s local government doing about it? On that same video conference that I just played, the clip of the mayor from a local TV news reporter noted the presence of a relatively small but persistent band of protesters who have not been dissuaded.

S7: What I’m asking is how do we get the streets of Portland back to Portlanders? This is a small group in comparison to city population. How do we get it back where we don’t have fences up where people can feel safe? Once again, being downtown.

S6: We get rid of the feds, number two. We contain and de-escalate the situation. Number three, we clean up downtown. Number four, we open up for business. That’s the plan.

S1: Not everyone is onboard with the plan. And to understand why the mayor is not powerless, but power challenged to do much about it. You have to understand a little bit about Portland’s unusual government structure. There are four commissioners on Portland’s city council. Three now, actually, because one recently died of cancer. Portland is what’s known as a weak mayor system. The mayor is just a little bit more powerful than all the other commissioners. And each commissioner is in charge of a different city agency or many different agencies. So the mayor is in charge of the police. Another commissioner might be in charge of the Department of Public Works. The police in Portland have been beset by problems, perhaps not more than other cities, but certainly to the dissatisfaction of the other Portland commissioners. One of them, Joanne Hardisty, has called for the mayor to give her control of the department, which seems crazy to any other city. But in Portland, that is something that could be possible. Should the mayor agree he, in fact, declined. Hardesty, who has long been an advocate for police reform, led a charge to partially defund the police, which her fellow commissioner, Chloe, you dallies supported. In fact, you dallies supported defunding to the police to such an extent that you, Darly, actually voted against the budget, saying the cuts didn’t go far enough. But this prompted Hardisty, a former Oregon state representative and head of the NAACP, to call out your Darly for, quote, performative allies ship Ude Ali’s background, according to her official government bio. Is bookseller, publisher, writer and activist hardest? His bio is Navy veteran, community leader and activist and the third commissioner on the city council. Is Amanda Freda’s is her Wikipedia page. She’s a retired registered psychiatric nurse and politician before being elected to Portland City Council. Fritz was known as a neighborhood activist and critic of City Hall. All of these politicians, as politicians do at times, have fought with each other, have criticized each other and criticize the mayor. Here’s Hardisty objecting to words the mayor said at a council meeting last year.

S8: And so I am really disappointed, Mayor, that you would take the opportunity to take a pot shot, OK? OK, so I want to keep this to the budget discussion that Commissioner Daley. I do apologize. I do apologize, Commissioner. Have. Not to me. I’m turning to you. And if you’d stop. INTERRUPTING me, commissioner, I could get to it. I apologize to you, too. But here’s here’s the deal.

S1: One gets the impression that might have been the most civil of city council meeting has ever been because members of the public routinely hijack meetings, screaming at their activist commissioners to engage in more activism, which the commissioners try to explain. We are. But this screaming doesn’t help. Here’s an example of that. As Commissioner Fritze tried to address a typically impassioned crowd.

S8: I’m not coming to city council chambers because they are afraid of being abused.

S9: Sit down. Yes. This is your warning. If you continue to guess, Rob.

S1: You will be removed and Commissioner Dalli was asked about such outbursts by KGW Channel eight News.

S10: I wouldn’t say that that is quiet become the norm. But it is rambunctious group of mostly regulars that have come on a near weekly basis.

S1: She was then asked by the interviewer, Laurel Porter, how does that all make you feel?

S10: After that, people stood up. They held signs. They booed. Somebody called you a traitor? I mean, that must have been hard. I the the names don’t bother me as much as just the extremely hostile environment.

S1: Forget it, Chloe. It’s Portland. But is it Portland? Is it something about the nature of the people of Portland? The what was the word raucous, rambunctious city where all voices must be heard and activism is prized? Or is it a consequence of stalking? A very powerful city council with critics and self-described critics of the establishment. If everyone’s anti-establishment, maybe it’s hard to establish anything that’s lasting. I don’t know. I do think the structure of the city council is not functional. It doesn’t work. Well, apparently, much of the Portland political class agrees. Here is Mingus Maps, a political science professor and candidate for city council running for Chloe Abdali seat. Interviewed on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

S11: Portland has a unique form of government where each member of city council is not only a policymaker who votes on decisions and city council, but also is a head of a city bureau or two. And so what that means is that instead of having one mayor and four members of city council and practice, Portland has or mayors each with each kind of running their own fiefdoms, often they don’t work together for all sorts of crazy or irrationalities that are built into the system. For example, the city’s crime prevention program is in civic life. On the other hand, the police bureau is a completely different bureau. So if you want to get crime prevention and the police bureau to work together, you have to find a lot of structural opposition there. And I think anytime you try to you’ve ever interacted with city government, just come away with feeling that something is wrong here. Probably you can ultimately it act to our antiquated structure.

S5: If I may just interrupt here. This is there’s never since I’ve been watching Portland politics. There’s never been a time when so many people who are currently elected and running for office are all saying the same thing. There seems to be a nearly universal acceptance of everything you’ve just said.

S1: So that’s the background. That’s the context. That’s a bunch of interesting stuff that I think you should know. What we’re seeing in Portland is absolutely a horrific policy by the Trump administration and federal overreach. But to some extent, the background conditions can be explained by a screwy structure that few other cities have during good times. Obama time say. Portland was the city of Portlandia and the feminist bookstore and pretending Kyle McGlocklin was mayor. But while a malignant malefactor is in the White House, quirky disagreements turn into bruising struggles and dysfunction is exposed as less goofy and more dire. And Kyle McGlocklin isn’t pretending to be mayor to some extent. The actual mayor is, but also so are a few of the commissioners. And listen, I want to be humble. I am sure people who intimately know Portland will hear what I’ve just said and disagree with aspects of the assessment. I do. Almost 3000 miles away. And I’m not going to say I definitely nailed all the nuance. But I do want to pursue and I will continue to pursue questions of what is going on in Portland, what is going on in some of America’s other cities like, say, Minneapolis, because we’re going to talk about structural racism and structural change via the government. Let’s really understand these structures of government to understand municipalities. And understanding means we engage in something other than a true but limited analysis that Donald Trump always makes everything worse. He does try to the question I’m after is, what are the forces in place that give him the opening to do so?

S2: And that’s it for Today Show, Margaret Kelly and Daniel Shrader produced the gist, the Lisa Montgomery is the executive producer of Slate podcasts. Does it hurt their feelings when Mike demands clip’s be edited at a frantic pace? It does. You know it does. The gist most episodes by the end, would like to put a bow on it. Today we put a bird on it.

S1: Adepero, do approve and thanks for listening.