It is far too early to tell, but at the moment it seems that wheels appear to be coming off an attempted authoritarian takeover of our government by the most venal and incompetent president in our history. If American democracy survives the onslaught of this Russian-backed sedition, we need to resist the temptation to overly congratulate ourselves and celebrate the strengths of our Constitutional protections. Yes, it's worth celebrating that we live to fight another day. But we need to double-down on reinforcing the structures and mores that make America truly great. We need not to only recognize America's strengths, but embrace the fragility that makes America what it is.
A quick story...
In 1993 (yes, I'm a vintage American), I worked for a communications firm that had deep political ties to the Clinton Administration. We had business with the Special Olympics in D.C. and my boss at the time thought it would be great if we could arrange a personal visit to the White House. "We can do that?," I exclaimed. Sure enough, the next morning we're walking through the metal detectors in the West Wing on our way to the Rose Garden to see the president and First Lady as they took off on Marine One to Camp David. As many a photo op shows, there is always a line of spectators who rim the Rose Garden to see the President take off. I thought we'd be there, and it was a privilege just to be that close. Little did I know that my boss had enough clout to get us into a personal receiving line where we would have more than five minutes, personally, to meet with both Bill and Hillary Clinton. I won't get into the specifics of those conversations, only because I was too overwhelmed to really remember them, except to say that both, especially Hillary, had the unique ability to make you feel that for the time that you are together, you are the only person they'd ever met. Had she been able to connect like that in a campaign setting, she'd have been our president, hands-down. But I digress...
The rest of the morning was spent on an intimate tour of the West Wing. The Oval Office. The War Room. The blue press briefing room. The nerve center of the Executive Branch. And here's the thing that some have written about but rarely emphasize: It's small. Despite the cinematic grandeur of the Oval Office, it pales in comparison to the office suites of most Fortune 500 CEO's. The War Room is a small-medium-sized conference room in most corporate settings and while the Press Room looks expansive in the movies, it's tight and confined.
That's because it's the People's House. A workspace for a temp job given to citizens, not royalty, who want to serve their country. Again, by no means, an original thought. But the one thing I did take away was how fragile our government is and how easy it might be for a narcissistic psychopath to subvert it and co-opt its power. The only reason we don't change leaders by sacking the White House and parading into the streets with our former leader's head on a pole is because we choose not to. The rights and privileges we have are conferred solely by consent and compromise, not by some overarching monarchic power that dictates who gets what. That's our strength, but also our vulnerability to thugs like Trump and ideologues like Bannon, Hannity, Limbaugh and Moscow Mitch. They know it's fragile and that we are complacent. They also know that with a continuous diet of fear and blame, it can be pushed over.
Which makes this period of time so critical in our history and why the most encouraging event for our democracy was when millions took to the streets over George Floyd. The miracle of it is that it seems to actually be working as a platform for tangible change and social awareness. I have a hunch why BLM seems to be sticking when other movements flamed out. It's because at heart, the vast majority of Americans are reasonable and committed to each other. The BLM movement has been careful and disciplined to not resonate as the 2020 version of the Black Panthers. There are no firebrand leaders like Eldridge Cleaver or Louis Farrakhan whipping up extremism and hatred. BLM's ask is simple, powerful and universal: Equal justice under the law. It's as fundamentally American as it gets.
The other reason is the steady, daily does of sensational madness and hatred coming out of the White House and the GOP that's reached a critical mass. We're exhausted. Tired of the show. In a state of battered disbelief that the President of the United States can support a crackpot "doctor" who claims that alien DNA is a thing and that the root of sickness is demon sperm. We're sick of the drip, drip, drip of meanness, blame, corruption and gaslighting that oozes into our news cycles. There was no question that George Floyd embodied everything about our polarities and choice about what kind of people we are and want to be. The protests are a primal scream against the bigotry, the literal crushing of individual freedom under the knee of power run amok. Against the murderous consequences of simply being black that has been a cancer in this country since its founding. That, coupled with a blatantly cruel, racist administration and Senate majority, our people, thankfully are choosing a path of justice. It's not over yet, but it's encouraging that more the two-thirds of us say "enough." The question is whether two-thirds of us will show up and say "enough" at the ballot box.
We're living in a collapsing tripod of tragedy, each leg of which is shakily holding up the other in an increasingly futile attempt at restoring "normal." The first leg is the virus: Today's USA Covid casualty count is 4.56M cases with 154,000 known deaths. If we take experts at Johns Hopkins and the CDC at their word (not a given these days pending which tribe you're a member of)), the real count is more like 50 million cases, a 10X increase due to the homicidal failure of our Federal leadership (sic) to institute aggressive test and trace policies, nationwide. Twenty-one of our 50 states are reeling from record case loads, overwhelming resource-impoverished hospitals and emergency rooms. Deaths are climbing by the day. Left in its current state, the virus is projected to claim about 800,000 US citizens by the end of the year.
But you wouldn't know it by the reaction in DC. Louis Gohmert, Congressman from Texas and one of the leading Alex Jones, Fox-addled troglodytes of the GOP caucus. He wandered this district and the Capitol without a mask lo these many months and, my whiskers and paws, wouldn't you know that he came down with Covid? In his infinite wisdom, he blames mask-wearing for becoming infected. Worse, he insisted that his staff not only show up physically for work at the Capitol, but not wear masks at any time. And Gohmert's and Trump's enablers in the GOP, Fox and the Alt-Right lunasphere are extolling the virtues of hydrochloroquine, alien DNA and Demon sperm with straight faces.
The second leg is the economy. By anyone's estimation and objective measure, it's worse than the Depression of the 1930s: 50 million unemployed, hundreds of thousands of small businesses permanently lost and fully 1/3 of our GDP down the drain in a single quarter. You wouldn't know this by watching the stock market take off to Pluto the last three months, or housing prices firm up in the face of potentially millions of mortgage defaults coming in the Fall.
The third and final leg should be the most sturdy but is the most precarious. The aggressive and specific assault on our democracy and the rule of law. There is so much here and all of it tied to the re-election of the first foreign agent and traitor to occupy the White House. National troops sent into US cities. Voter suppression. Demonization, tear gassing and clubbing of US citizens exercising the First Amendment rights. A president, not only refusing to say if he will honor the results of a legitimate election, but advocating for overthrowing one of the most fundamental Constitutional principles and delaying voting day. Eight unaccountable phone calls to Vladimir Putin in two weeks. Bill Barr stonewalling the Congressional Judiciary Committee, basically telling them to "pound sand" when being rightfully accused of enabling Trump's autocratic putsch.
We are a nation being savaged by elected anarchists, who's boldness and gall overwhelms people who cherish institutions. due process, compromise and common interest--the things that have made America great throughout its history. And they're not the ones with spray paint defacing the courthouse in Portland. They sit in the halls of the US Congress, in state legislators, in the blogosphere and run rampant and unchecked on Facebook. We have tolerated, nurtured and promoted the kind of ignorant rage-based anarchy that has germinated tyranny throughout history. We reap what we have sown.
Tom Nichols, a columnist for USA Today gets it exactly right:
"We long ago became a narcissistic nation whose citizens believe they can become competent in almost any subject by watching enough television and spending enough time on the internet. But I was certain that a true national crisis — a war, a depression, or yes, a pandemic — would snap people back to reality.I was wrong to be so optimistic."
"There is no one more responsible for this particular moment than President Donald Trump, but all he has done is play to a gallery whose seats were already full by the time he ran for office. Trump appealed to a powerful sense of narcissistic grievance among millions of Americans, nurturing it and feeding it. An entire claque of enablers joined in, knowing there was plenty of money to be made feeding this self-centered, anti-social nihilism."
And gets to the crux of the situation we face today:
"Americans who are now driving the pandemic are not sudden skeptics about masks or distancing or expert opinion because of street protests. Some of them reject expertise because of the previous “failures” of experts. This is always one of the reflexive explanations for the refusal to listen to the educated and experienced. Expert failures are real and happen every day, but the people who sullenly refuse to wear a mask during a pandemic are not doing so because the United States failed to find Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or because the housing market crashed in 2008.
Rather, they are doing so because they see endangering others as empowerment, a way of telling people whom they believe look down on them that no one, no matter how smart or accomplished, can tell them what to do. For these people, our national motto is not “In God We Trust” or “E Pluribus Unum,” but rather: “You’re Not the Boss of Me.”
There is a lot written these days about total cultural collapse, which for many especially in the media who have spent the past three and a half years ardently tried to normalize the abnormal, seemed hyperbolic even a year ago. They, and our elected representatives, gave these people a pass, hewing to tradition and ignoring the possibility that Trump and the GOP really meant what they said. That what looked like treason, might actually be treason. Remember the excuse, "don't listen to what he says?" The message has been loud and clear, from Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, Beck and Breitbart. Tear it down. All of it. The wrecking ball is swinging hard, knocking the legs out of what has always been an enlightened and fragile relationship between people and power. We'll just have to see which, if any, of the pillars of our society are left standing.