After the inauguration I had intended to have a post a week on the new regime in Washington, with links to good articles I’d read and maybe a thought or two. But that idea went out the window with the daily deluge on my social media news feeds and the websites I follow, and with everyone obsessed and talking about little else. It’s too much. Trying to keep up with the insanity outre-Atlantique plus the wild-and-crazy presidential campaign in France—in which a heretofore unthinkable outcome can no longer be dismissed out of hand—I am, to borrow from my friend Laurie L., mentally exhausted. We’ve gone from No-Drama Obama to drama all the time. It’s the “fog of Trump,” as FP’s David Rothkopf put it: the chaos of the new regime is such that you start to follow one crazy thing Trump said or did and maybe plan to write about it, but then, within the day, there’s some crazy new thing that causes you to forget about the previous one.
Donald Trump is a despicable human being. And any Trump fan who can watch his response to the Ami magazine reporter and remain a fan is equally despicable.
How long can this go on?
Andrew Sullivan, in a great essay in New York magazine last week, “The madness of King Donald,” concluded with this observation
With someone like [Trump] barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.
One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent — and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you — to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves — to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes. This is what I mean by the idea that we are living through an emergency.
Being ruled by a malignant narcissistic megalomaniac—who barges into your consciousness every hour of the day—can lead one to darkly fantasize about him being terminated with extreme prejudice; and one feels justified in this fantasizing when learning that the unhinged ruler has near unilateral power to launch a nuclear war. Intellectual polymath and dear personal friend Adam Shatz described such fantasies in a post on the LRB blog earlier this week. Adam begins by relating a discussion he had in Paris last summer with an American political scientist friend he called Laxminarayan—not his real name—who expressed the hope that the American “Deep State” would intervene to thwart a looming Trump victory. Hmmm, I wonder who that Laxminarayan could be?…
Speaking for myself, I did write before the election about the Deep State—the military, intelligence, and foreign policy establishment part of it—and my conviction that it would pull out the stops to prevent Trump from winning if such looked possible in the final month of the campaign—though I did not think for an instant that this would—let alone should—happen with the committing of a capital crime. I had in mind leaking Trump’s tax returns or damaging information on his dealings with Russia, that sort of thing. This obviously didn’t happen—or, rather, another sector of the Deep State intervened and in favor of Trump—but looks like it could be underway now.
One wishes the Deep State well in its efforts. But these will absolutely not involve assassination. Call me naïve but I consider it inconceivable that even a rogue faction inside the USG would try to commit such an act, as, entre autres, it would be too complicated to successfully pull off, the plotters would all be arrested, and, in the end, administered lethal injections at the USP Terre Haute. Conspiracies do happen but, in countries with a semblance of democracy and a free press, they’re uncovered sooner or later, and usually sooner. Always. (And yes, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone).
For the first two weeks of the new regime I was, along with a few tens of millions of others, in a state of despair. The Jan. 21st march was exhilarating but mass demos don’t, on their own, change a thing. The fact is, Trump is POTUS for the next four years, his top policy advisers in the White House are outright fascists—and that’s not a word I toss around lightly—the extreme right-wing Republican Party is in the driver’s seat—in Washington and the majority of state governments—and the 2018 midterm elections are not going to change that. The Democrats are in a deep hole, as the NYT’s Timothy Egan reminded us the other day. As one knows, the only way Trump can be terminated is via impeachment/conviction or the invoking of Amendment XXV, Section 4. But the Vichy Republicans are not going to do either: not so long as their party base continues to support Trump. His approval rating may be a historically low 40% for a POTUS after a month in office, but that 40% is of the entire adult population, and the only figure that matters to the Vichy Republicans is of their own voters—and for the moment, that one is in the 80-90% approval range. If that number starts to plummet—to François Hollande levels—then they’ll impeach. But not before.
À propos, a Facebook friend, writing on a comments thread on Trump’s unhinged press conference, had this observation
I think it is extremely important to realize that there are many, many voters in the rural areas who think that Trump is doing a perfectly fine job and who never see anything of the news apart from bits and bobs on Fox News or hear from Limbaugh and Hannity on the radio. (I know these people, I talk to these people, I take them seriously.) I say this because…his confidence and TV-tested delivery appeal to millions of voters, and when excerpted and framed by right-wing news outlets, he looks just fine to those people…
And those people don’t give a shit what liberals, Democrats, and Never Trump Republicans like David Brooks think. And their ranks go well beyond hicks in the sticks. Perusing the comments threads of two of my right-leaning, anti-Trump Facebook friends—well-known journalists on that side of the political spectrum, so with several thousand fans, almost all with some kind of university diploma (which is obvious from randomly checking their profiles)—one is left sans voix. To get an idea, take a look at the comments that follow this essay by the well-known conservative-libertarian legal scholar Richard Epstein, in which he calls on Trump to resign. Note that Epstein’s piece was posted on the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas forum, not some loopy website in the alt-right fachosphère. Breathtaking.
NYT journalist Josh Katz had a bone-chilling post earlier this week on The Upshot page, informing us that “Older judges and vacant seats give Trump huge power to shape American courts.” If Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer don’t make it to 2021, the boulevard will be clear for the Republicans to abrogate the Voting Rights Act, destroy the labor movement, dismantle what remains of the welfare state, and deal multiple body blows to constituencies in the Democratic Party base. One-party Republican rule will be locked in for decades. And America will, in effect, cease to be a democracy.
While this apocalyptic scenario is entirely realistic, I have become somewhat less pessimistic of late that it will come to pass. Everyone who didn’t vote for the idiot has been impressed with and gratified by the mass resistance to the new regime. As the very smart and always interesting Yascha Mounk, who teaches in the government department at Harvard, put it in one of his recent columns in Slate
Since Trump got elected, one of my great fears has been that most American citizens might cling to a false sense of security, brought on by decades of prosperity and stability, while the president slowly and surely subverts our democracy. But between Trump’s spectacular assault on democratic norms and the furious response it has already unleashed, I no longer worry about a quiet death. The American republic won’t go down without putting up a hell of a fight.
A third of the American electorate may be fine being ruled by a dictator but the other two-thirds are not fine with it at all. America’s new opposition is robust and will only become more so. It will fight to the bitter end. And then there’s institutional resistance from the states (on this, see, e.g., the article in Politico on how New York’s attorney general Eric Schneiderman “is emerging as the leader of the Trump resistance.”). And the media, not to mention late-night comedy, will not let Trump go.
In this respect, America cannot be compared to other polities in the Western world where liberal democracy is under assault or has collapsed in the past. Cf. Italy in the 1920s and the Weimar Republic: neither Italy nor Germany had had a long tradition of liberal democracy at the time they descended into dictatorship. The Vichy regime in France could have never happened without the German occupation. Victor Orbán’s Hungary and Poland under the PiS today: neither of these countries had known liberal democracy before the 1990s. Ditto for Russia and Turkey. Moreover, the four aforementioned countries witnessed the decimation of their elites—the multiethnic forces vives of their societies, who would have otherwise constituted the pillars of a liberal order—in the course of the 20th century: by war, genocide, emigration, and/or decades of totalitarian rule. America’s cosmopolitan, liberally minded cultural and intellectual elites are intact. And they’re not going anywhere.
Another cause for relative optimism—or at least not sinking into deep pessimism—is the sheer incompetence of the Trump White House. Trump apart, take the case of Stephen Bannon, who’s seen as some kind of evil genius, who has everything figured out, including the resistance to Trump, which is said to be but another pièce maîtresse in his grand strategy. GMAB! Bannon is a crackpot and a crank. Were it not for the fact that he does, for the moment, hold some institutional power, he would be viewed as a laughable joke. On this, see the post by the Brookings Institution’s Quinta Jurecic on the Lawfare blog, “Bannon in Washington: A report on the incompetence of evil.” And when you’ve read that, check out LA Weekly film critic April Wolfe on “The story behind Steve Bannon’s hilariously terrible movie about the horrors of climate science.” What a nutcase.
The upshot: there is no way a cabal of far right kooks, even ensconced in the White House, will cause the “system” to come crashing down or be able to impose their will. The American republic will survive them.
If one missed it, see the must-read interview with Garry Kasparov in Vox last week. Kasparov, who knows something about life in an authoritarian regime, has pertinent advice for resisting Trump. Entre autres, make him look like a loser and before his fan base. If that image takes hold in l’Amérique profonde, he’s toast.
À la prochaine.