The temptation is to look away, if just for a while. After all we have been through—fire and flood, pestilence, wars gone wrong, the savage persistence of hunger and homelessness, the slaughter of children in school hallways, the huddled masses repelled at our border, the daily ravings of a would-be dictator who is neither gone nor forgotten—we can be excused for wanting to lose ourselves in the sudden turning of the season and its poems, the music of the heavens, the antics of children and kittens and clouds.
The quotidian as succor, relief, our very salvation.
But peril lies that way. The pernicious forces of evil that begat an insurrection with its *“foul spirit”* of extremism mere months ago still bestride our land, endlessly recounting a settled election, creating barriers to future voting, empowering partisan state legislatures to overturn elections at their pleasure.
These gathering clouds are neither vaporous nor benign, but full of dark storming portent, ready to rain down vipers bent on suffocating, one cherished breath of liberty after another, the very foundations of the country that we assumed would always opt, in the end, for freedom and reason.
As if it were a birthright.
** The words are George W. Bush’s, from his speech in Pennsylvania commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9-11: “Violent extremists at home and abroad are children of the same foul spirit.”
I use perhaps overwrought biblical language above for one reason: because as bad as things were from 2016 through November 3, 2020, as all the worse they became on January 6, 2021, I see no obvious, sufficient counterweight to the growing—and by my lights, wholly rational—fear that all the carnage and chaos of those times were a mere dress rehearsal for what is still to come.
And this time, it might well result in a far more shattering triumph of anti-democratic forces that will have sufficiently infiltrated our electoral institutions and maintained support from better prepared militias and obsequious legislators to achieve their goal of negating the electoral process and installing their indefatigable lunatic leader for a second term.
Which would, for all practical purposes, mean the downfall of our democracy amidst a state of likely civil war.
And then, barely around a corner that is not all that blind for those with eyes willing to see: 2024, and another round of ‘American carnage’ undreamt of by even our most far-sighted, astute Founders.
Street fighting, prisoner roundups, show trials, occasional public executions and long-term martial law. The step-by-step withering of democratic norms and civil discourse having finally achieved critical mass, the dominos would fall after we have grown too weary of their relentless onslaught to sound any further alarms.
And now, let’s try this on as the coup de grace: After the Godfather-whose-ring-must-be-kissed has expelled his last breath of bellicosity: President Donald Trump, Jr.—for as many more terms as he can bear.
I so wish I were overstating the threat, suggesting as it does the previously unimaginable. But when the election was finally called for Joe Biden last November 7, how were you imagining you’d spend your day on January 6?
In my heart of hearts, I believe we are consistently understating the threat posed by the Trump cult, simply not able or willing to keep up with the stream of events and invective that have made this year more dangerous than last, and will make 2022 worse again still.
And then, barely around a corner that is not all that blind for those with eyes willing to see: 2024, and another round of *“American carnage”* undreamt of by even our most far-sighted, astute Founders.
Perhaps we should turn at this point to someone with a cooler, more analytical frame of mind?
** The words are Donald Trump’s, from his 2016 inaugural address, depicting his stance on the dismal state of the nation under previous presidents: “The American carnage stops right here, right now.”
Robert Kagan was previously featured here in June, 2019, for his book, “The Jungle Grows Back,” which addressed the perils of America’s withdrawal from the world. A historian, think tanker, and Republican Party foreign policy adviser until he left the party in protest of its devolution under candidate Trump in 2016, he penned a piece for the “Washington Post” last week entitled, “Our Constitutional Crisis Is Already Here,” which landed like a tactical nuclear bomb on the doorstep of our domestic political life.
I wish Mr. Kagan were less alarmed than I am about the dangers facing us.
I wish, with his vast historical perspective, he could offer words of comfort, telling us we have been here before, our Constitution is nimble, and our people more good-hearted and sensible than not.
That we stand strong and able to cast off bad actors of bad faith with a determined bow to the firmly entrenched institutions that have been tested and bent severely in the past but never broken—not in 1776 nor 1861, 1929 nor 1941, 2001 nor 2020.
But when we consider the stakes for our country, if a fire department’s loudest, most urgent warnings are for a 5-alarm fire, Kagan’s measured, systematically reasoned analysis of our current political circumstance would seem to suggest doubling or tripling that warning, and quadrupling the volume of its bells.
He opens with this:
“The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves. The warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial. But about these things there should be no doubt…”
He then goes on to list and discuss those “things,” which include, first, the absolute certainty that Trump will be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee.
Second, that “Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary.”
We have always known about that “by whatever means necessary” plank, have we not? When has Trump done any less than fight as dirtily as he has to for as long as he can, breaking laws if he can, abjuring any and all moral codes and civil modes precisely because he can? (Because he has no conscience, no anchor in human warmth or regard for any other person or cause who is not himself.)
In Trump World, if he can, he will, and if that means stealing the presidency and declaring himself Ruler-for-Life, he most certainly will. All he needs is enough willing accomplices who have been cowed, endowed or battered sufficiently to do his bidding, and in this, he is a masterful talent, preying ruthlessly upon human weakness and fear and the loss of nerve that goes along with them.
And he has taken to perpetrating these grave offenses against our republic not in the shadows anymore, but out in the light of day, welcoming six-point plans and continuing to emit such a torrent of outrageous lies (“We won in a landslide, the recounts proved it!”), that we can’t even respond anymore, can’t keep up, can’t bring ourselves to think about it seriously enough to even bother with a contrary word.
Exhausting, isn’t it? Can’t we just move on?
And therein lies the great danger.
Kagan goes on:
“As has so often been the case in other countries where fascist leaders arise, their would-be opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement at this charismatic authoritarian. They have followed the standard model of appeasement, which always begins with underestimation. The political and intellectual establishments in both parties have been underestimating Trump since he emerged on the scene in 2015. They underestimated the extent of his popularity and the strength of his hold on his followers; they underestimated his ability to take control of the Republican Party; and then they underestimated how far he was willing to go to retain power.”
As a consequence, we are underestimating the acute degree of danger we are in as we head into another election year in which Congress may well flip over to Republican control. That would mean Trump’s foot soldiers, who now dominate all but a tiny fraction of the party, could do his bidding with their own investigations, their further dismantling of election safeguards and voting rights, their continued setting of neighbor upon neighbor with cash awards for vigilantism.
And if Trump were to take control two years later, unleashed, no more “adults” brought in to serve as ballast, all his cabinet and staff true believers this time, their sole purpose to do his bidding in the tidy little autocracy of his empire, the damage would not be fleeting, nor his reprisals against those he perceives as enemies less than severe.
By any means necessary.
It can’t happen here? We are so far beyond that now proven whimsical hope.
“The Republican Party today is a zombie party. Its leaders go through the motions of governing in pursuit of traditional Republican goals, wrestling over infrastructure spending and foreign policy, even as real power in the party has leached away to Trump. From the uneasy and sometimes contentious partnership during Trump’s four years in office, the party’s main if not sole purpose today is as the willing enabler of Trump’s efforts to game the electoral system to ensure his return to power.”
Our perhaps clearest ever indication of just how inured we have become to the shock and terrible awe begat by Trumpian transgression: Last week’s publication of Trump attorney John Eastman’s “Six-Point Memo,” dated January 4, 2021. It provided a handy blueprint whereby Vice President Mike Pence could negate the electors of seven states and throw the election to the House of Representatives, which, voting by state delegations with Republicans controlling 26 of them, would declare Trump president.
When Eastman ran this scenario by Republican Senators Mike Lee and Lindsey Graham and former Vice-President Dan Quayle, they all dismissed it as lunacy and blatantly illegal, but that didn’t stop Trump or his attorneys then, and it has not stopped them since. At that point, the physical assault and coup attempt was all they had left, so it proceeded apace two days later. (Which Graham and Lee and many other Republicans at first deplored, but soon walked back, presumably in the service of “party unity,” party apparently taking precedence over country.)
Can we, have we yet at all, appreciated the severity, the horrific transgression this memo represented against all we hold dear? Two months after an exhaustively recounted and recertified election, a president and his attorneys engaged in a criminal conspiracy to disenfranchise millions of voters, overturn the election, and reinstall him as president.
And when news of this is revealed almost nine months later, it causes barely a ripple in the media, Washington D.C. yawns, and life goes on with the chief architect of that conspiracy still attracting the support of some 45% of the population.
None of this is normal, nor reflective of a democracy intent on maintaining robust resistance to sinking into the ash heap of failed states that litter human history.
What to do? What must we do? Well, Democrats can yell and warn and implore, as I am doing here. We must demand, ongoingly (call or write your House member today), that the select committee currently investigating the insurrection move with all deliberate speed and aggressiveness to bring those responsible to heel, whomever they may be.
Who knew what, when, and what have they been hiding about what they knew and how they might have aided or covered up the effort to overthrow our government?
“A coup attempt that goes unpunished is a training exercise,” observed longtime Republican operative Rick Wilson on Charlie Sykes’s anti-Trump “The Bulwark” podcast last week.
But as the wheels of justice grind on ever so slowly, with almost total Republican resistance to even an investigation (blessings upon you, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger), Trump & Co. are busy making heroes and martyrs out of the seditionists who attacked and killed police officers and fashioned nooses into which they hoped to put the necks of Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi—for starters.
Truly, Democrats are limited in what they can do to right this giant lumbering ship that has taken on so much water and betrayed such porousness in these extraordinary times. That’s because nothing of Trump’s heinous and traitorous behavior makes a dent in the idolatry he enjoys among the Republican faithful, most of whom would abandon the party in a heartbeat upon his word.
Democrats have no chance of prying them loose; that, if it were to come at all, would have to come from Republicans themselves. Yet who but a tiny handful have displayed any appetite for standing up and proclaiming the emperor’s nakedness, his unfitness to serve, his instigation of the egregious, un-American attack on our electoral process that caused the entire world to look on in horror and alarm?
Sure, Democrats may well win the electoral battle for the presidency again in 2024, but there is a good and growing chance they could lose the war of actually attaining the office. And then what?
It’s an open question that will best be answered by what Republican legislators and state officials across the land do and plan and assent to between now and then—and how they respond if the Democratic nominee wins on election night but a locked and loaded Republican Party apparatus starts a shooting war, literal or figurative, to try overturning it yet again.
I wish I were more sanguine about the prospects of avoiding any such conflict, or for the forces of decency to emerge triumphant in the end. But right now, all the fire alarms are clanging, at numbers right off the charts, and I think we had better not cover our ears.
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As one who views the anti-democratic actions or sympathies through a historical lens, I see hope. My reasons are varied. First, nearly all the nations that allowed autocratic measures to control the direction of their political, social and economic thought were those who were historically undemocratic. Russia had its tsars. Rome and China had emperors and dynasties. Germany had Kaisers. Second, our courts, even those that leaned Republican, dismissed all of Trump’s post-election lawsuits. Third, in states like Arizona and Georgia, Republican election officials found no evidence of widespread election fraud. Fourth, our nation possesses safeguards that many nations lack. For instance, General Milley, Trump’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would not have obeyed his boss’s unconstitutional actions. It didn’t work for Lt. Calley at Mai Lai, and Milley understood it wouldn’t work for him, either. Fifth, movements like McCarthyism have lost their momentum and influence when the “golden idol” is actually buried. I don’t wish death on Trump, but… And, only once (Grover Cleveland) has a defeated President been re-elected, an historical precedent that doesn’t bode well for Trump. However, I do consider voter restriction laws, attacks on an election’s validity, gerrymandering and the electoral college as real threats to our democracy. Perhaps the most objective proof of this is the electoral college, the process which determines who becomes the next POTUS. California, the most populous state (approximately 40 million) has 55 (now 53) electoral votes. The 15 least populated states have half the population of California but two more electoral votes. It’s inherently undemocratic. Finally, I do agree wholeheartedly with your assessment that a dismissal of the Trump’s evil rests primarily, if not solely, on the shoulders of the Republican Party.
Thanks for putting these thoughts together, Robert. I certainly do want what you say to be true and suspect it very well might be, but I have a couple of fears & caveats I want to sort out here, with your helpful prompting.
One is that as you know, Trump’s people in virtually every state party have been tireless in trying to censure, remove, or hound out of office every Republican official who won’t embrace MAGA/Stop the Steal. So yes, “Republican election officials found no evidence of widespread election fraud” in many states last year, but will those officials still be around in 2024, or will they have been replaced by Trump toadies with fidelity to no one but him? It looks like a great effort has been made to assure the latter, but we shall see where it winds up.
Great point about the historical lack of democracy hampering efforts to democratize the likes of Russia & China, but my concern is that once a country begins slipping down toward autocracy, it’s still a serious struggle to climb back up out of it. It took Germany losing a calamitous war for that to happen for them; let’s hope our road won’t be as difficult, given we aren’t there yet by any means (though the danger signs are clear).
Finally, I’m not so sure about the Calley-Milley comparison. Mass murder of the Calley type was clearly prohibited by the conventions of war and our own military code, but it’s less clear, isn’t it, that the U.S. president doesn’t retain ultimate legal authority to bomb countries to smithereens? (Scary as that reality is, especially with a clearly unbalanced—but not certifiably insane?—commander in chief.) So strictly from a legal/ protocol/sense, much as I agreed with Milley’s sentiments, was he on solid ground making the preparations he was?
Thoughts on that and whatever else?
I’ll try to answer each of your questions paragraph by paragraph.
We agree that the Republican Party has introduced “Stop the Steal” in every state, even the blue ones. However, in the Democratic controlled legislatures, those attempts will be fruitless. As for the election officials being around in 2024, you have a valid point there. Trump will undoubtedly campaign for a “Stop the Steal” advocate, a maneuver which probably would unseat the more ethical, old school Republicans.
A democratic country falling prey to its fascist/authoritarian past is few and far between. Even countries like England and France, who were ruled for centuries by monarchs, once democratic measures were established and accepted for more than a century, authoritarianism didn’t rear its ugly head again.
Lastly, the Calley-Millen comparison is a complicated one. Generals are subordinate to a President (e.g. Truman v. MacArthur in Korean War) as it should be, but disobeying an order that is clearly illegal and endangers the welfare of the country under certain conditions can be justified. Some generals have stated publicly that they would resign before carrying out an illegal order, whether it be wartime or not. Last November, Gen Hyten, a top nuclear weapons commander, stated he would push back against any last-minute effort by Trump to order an unwarranted nuclear weapons’ directive. He said, “I provide advice to the President. He’ll tell me what to do, and if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m gonna say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ Guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works.” Milley echoed a similar sentiment just before the January 6th insurrection.
We live in a dangerous place today. Our internal divisions are too deep. Racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, anger and hatred have saturated our society to unprecedented peacetime levels. It’s scary.
Well this is fun, so back across the net to you, Björn!
So neither England nor France have ever descended back into authoritarianism, but the key issue there, seems to me, is, Have they ever endured a figure like Trump, with clear authoritarian tendencies who managed to wrangle ahold of the country for four years and do thus-far incalculable damage to its democratic norms? I know Boris Johnson does his level best to sound populist themes, but he is a pale Trump imitation at best. The closest parallel I know and keep reading about is Hitler’s rise in the 20s-30s, and how most German officials thought they could rein him in as necessary—even as one democratic plank after another kept falling, “minor” though many of them might have been. You know, the “First they came for the Gypsies” theme, until they finally came for everyone’s freedom.
That president-generals issue on warmaking is indeed a complicated one. Big question is whether a first strike by a president is clearly illegal—has that ever been definitively answered, especially if his intelligence people are telling him/her that an adversary is/may be planning one of their own? What’s almost laughable, though, is that the Constitution specifically vests Congress with the sole power to declare war, which every modern prez since Truman has mostly ignored under the cover of a “police action.” Major police force we’ve had going here for a long time now!
The commentary from you both was an excellent addendum. Since I’m more F than T, personality-wise, I’m going to lean positive in this whole thing. I can’t marshall the facts and adroitly project likely outcomes as you two did. But, I know that everything is always hardest at the transition and it seems clear our country and society is at a crossroad. Which way will it break? Any number of measurements will tell you the world is a better place than it’s ever been. At the risk of being perceived as one who’s head either resides where the sun don’t shine or where the kiddies build their castles, I’m going to side, with great caution, along side those who say this storm will be weathered. I hope so for my kids more than myself. But I am boarding up the windows for the mid-terms and going forward.
The bully (Trump’s minions) will always be more powerful than his/her victim (intellectual Democrats). On the playground the kid who is the pusher will laugh at your vain attempts to say your parents wouldn’t approve. Time and time Bill Maher and other commentators have begged Democrats to fight back but to no avail. Same as telling Hilary she should campaign in Wisconsin and the rust belt. No they love us Dems in the rust belt, no need to fight for those votes. Democrats are fuzzy thinkers, intellectual tinkerers, and champions at calling foul. A sports example might be useful here. In baseball, every at bat, every inning, every pitch counts, not the end. Democrats must have the same mentality and fight and scratch every minute, every hour, every day with ferocity not lackadaisical hopeful meandering to save democracy from the gathering fascist storm. From me, lifelong DEMOCRAT.