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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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Drowning by Nikko Macaspac https://unsplash.com/@nikkotations
Storm clouds by Paul Zoetemeijer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands https://unsplash.com/@paul_1865
Black hole/vortex by Ivan Vranić, Stremc, Croatia https://www.flickr.com/photos/66906256@N06/
Ink drawing by Philippe Tolet paintings, Brussels, Belgium https://www.flickr.com/photos/123820535@N02/
Legal pads by Nick Fedele https://www.flickr.com/photos/nf4000/
U.S. Capitol by Bruce DeTorrres, Key Biscayne, Florida https://www.flickr.com/photos/brucedetorres/
Harbor lights by Louis Vest, Houston, Texas https://www.flickr.com/photos/oneeighteen/22943709664/sizes/s/