In the 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid state developed a Total Strategy to combat the array of global interests seeking to bring an end to its system of state segregation. Increasingly, power clustered in the hands of intelligence bodies which pursued clandestine operations inside and outside of the country, in the military which waged war in Namibia and Angola while conducting raids in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and in the police forces that were unleashed on townships across the country as the country’s increasingly dictatorial leadership dispensed with even the fiction of constitutionalism.
Onlookers evoked the rising power of a national security state by describing these newly empowered actors as the Securocrats. The Securocrats were those individuals embedded in ‘national security’ institutions who increasingly dominated decision-making, discourse, and state power in South Africa. They gradually eclipsed or blended into more representative party and parliamentary structures.
Today, in the United States, we are turning to a similar category of Securocrats for the salvation of our democracy.
In less than four months in office, Donald Trump has repeatedly launched unconstitutional attacks on the rights of Americans and migrants (fortunately beaten back by the courts), expressed contempt for the judicial system, hostility toward the free press, and impatience with the role accorded to representative institutions. The president’s advisors have colluded with foreign governments, lied about their collusion, and sought to cover up their collusion.
The president has fired those investigating the extent of and his knowledge of this collusion after attempting to derail their investigations, and lied about the rationale for their firing. He has failed to prevent his compromised attorney general from interfering in investigations. He has offered sensitive intelligence to governments which are avowedly hostile toward democratic institutions, international norms, and human rights. The president’s private properties and businesses are in conflict with his public duties.
The president has claimed to possess secret tapes, has demanded personal loyalty from public servants, and has engaged in the most transparent kind of nepotism, offering extraordinarily wide briefs and responsibilities to his grossly unqualified daughter and son-in-law.
Thus far, the most shocking revelations and the most grievous blows against Trump’s credibility have been delivered by American securocrats. James Comey, the FBI head dispatched to what Trump must have imagined would be oblivion, has used his networks to make public Trump’s threatening blandishments and efforts to halt investigations into his inner circle.
James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, was more direct. “I think as well,” Clapper said, having discussed Russian efforts to alter the election outcome, “our institutions are under assault internally.” Clapper clarified that in his mind, the internal threat came from the president himself, drawing praise from a wide spectrum of commentators.
Comey and Clapper will be central to any effort to impeach Trump. And such an effort should come sooner rather than later. Each week, the president inflicts new damage on our institutions, while his poisonous alliance with the Republican Party relentlessly rolls back financial, medical, legal, environmental, privacy, and welfare protections that benefit the majority of the public.
But what does it mean, that Securocrats like Comey and Clapper, and others who will emerge from the shadows, or lob their assaults from dark corners, will be the people who--if anyone does--bring Trump down?
In the first place, it suggests that there is some combination of power and will lacking in Congress, the body which should have been taking the lead in demanding or extracting these and other pieces of evidence from the recesses of our security state. The nihilism and partisanship of the Republican Party have rendered its members incapable of participating in good-faith governance. It implicates the media which failed to do much serious investigation during the primary and general elections. But it also says something about the power wielded by the Securocrats.
Remember, these are not nice people, or people with any sense of or respect for strong, public, democratic institutions. Comey’s “gee, shucks, did I really do that?” routine shouldn’t mask his calculated effort to damage one presidential candidate to the advantage of another (which is different from saying that all of Clinton’s woes can be ascribed to his meddling). His agency has a rich history of violating civil rights and advocating for the curtailment of civil liberties in the name of security.
James Clapper lied under oath to senators in one of many efforts to evade oversight of the intrusive spying programs he oversaw. These were not off-the-cuff lies, but calculated, premeditated, and repeated efforts to elude democratic accountability. Clapper also advocated for the removal of congressional scrutiny from the illicit, murderous, and self-defeating program of extrajudicial murder by drones that has persisted across three administrations.
The national security apparatus Comey and Clapper had starring roles in managing let itself be turned into an arm of crusading neoconservatives to take the country to war in Iraq, an event which I think is at the heart of Hillary Clinton’s repeated failures to seek higher office. The Securocrats have relentlessly infringed on civil liberties in the post-9/11 era, in part because the alternative would be a long, hard look at the broken and self-destructive foreign policy consensus they ensure is replicated down the years across administrations of both parties.
The Securocrats have consistently behaved as though the public interest is an annoyance to be dispensed with, Congress is an adversary to be evaded, and the very idea of accountability represents a dire threat to national security--better interpreted as their hold on our imaginations and those of elected policymakers.
Between the war in Iraq, the NSA spying scandals, the drone killings, and the other privacy invasions associated with the Patriot Act, the Securocrats have generated enormous distrust in government and in public institutions. That mistrust has spilled over from the national security apparatus to other fields of government, and is used to attack the principle of taxpaying, the existence of regulations, the sanctity of citizenship, and the very idea of a public interest and public sphere. The cynical paternalism of the Securocrats, therefore, bears very real (if not sole) responsibility for the rise of a fascist right and the ascendance of Donald Trump.
On the one hand, I am rooting for these people to do everything they can to bring down a man and an administration who represent a deadly threat to our democracy, perhaps the worst our country has confronted for many, many decades. But I am afraid that even if they are successful, it isn’t just the Trump administration that will leave deep scars on our country. It will be the manner in which the Securocrats might have proven to be our salvation.
We will see scrutiny of their methods melt away if they generate a “win” for democracy against the fascist Trump. We will see the securitization of our election process, and the Securocrats will make calls about how and when we vote. We might see the Securocrats become arbiters of our democracy. We will see Securocrats’ status enhanced at the expense of elected representatives, which will change the balance of power between the Securocrats and those charged with overseeing their activities. We might very well see an increased willingness of Securocrats to wield their access to state secrets and sometimes ill-gotten information to sway elections.
While Donald Trump needs to be wrenched from office, I fear that the source of his greatest frustration and potential downfall bodes ill for our country and democracy in the future.