The Lone Ranger rides into a little town with his trusty Indian sidekick Tonto. Tonto says, “Kemosabe, something’s not right; it’s too quiet here.” Lone Ranger replies, “Yes, Tonto, I sense the same thing. Let’s dismount.” We all know what’s coming next.
I feel like Tonto these days as we observe President Trump in the White House. Call it a vibe or perhaps an undertone to the daily news. There is something in the air telling me of impending danger to our nation. But yet it’s nothing that I would dare to predict. It’s just a heavy, mournful feeling.
Just as wild animals can telepathically sense impending danger and will move to higher ground or deeper into the forest, we humans need to take seriously the feeling that something is not right. We need to cease the Pollyanish attitude that “this” can’t happen here. It may happen in Argentina, Turkey or Hungary, but surely not here.
Cable newscasters keep using the term “unprecedented” to describe President Trump’s behavior. “Unprecedented” is what history is all about. History is the story of what happened that had never happened before.
As bad as the situation surrounding President Trump has become, my sense is that things are going to get far worse before they get better. American history reminds us of numerous transformative events. Sometimes they’ve come out of the blue (JFK’s assassination, 1961). Sometimes we “know” it’s going to happen, but remain in denial such as the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. More recently: the 2008 financial collapse.
Unfortunately, American history is almost always taught by looking backward from today to how things happened yesterday. We learned, for example, about the birth of our nation and the Founding Fathers’ great wisdom and courage from the perspective of 230 years later. Logically, you think to yourself, “Isn’t it great how great America has become; how everything has worked out despite all the obstacles.” But back in 1775 none of that was guaranteed.
In the little towns of Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775 no one knew that day would be the day the American Revolution would start; the day an unknown militiaman fired the “Shot heard around the world”.
It feels like we are approaching that day . . . a transformative time in America’s history. Consider that we may be witnessing what may become known as the 2ndAmerica Revolution. No, not Minutemen attacking the British Redcoats; not a war, but a profound reckoning and, hopefully, a rediscovery of the values that America was built on.
Right now, however, as we breathe, we are enduring a critical time in our nation’s history. Things that for generations we’ve taken for granted about our Republic (to which we pledge our allegiance) are threatened. Our Congress, as delineated in Article I of the Constitution, has become fratricidal. A 72-year old child who lives in a land of make-believe heads the Executive Branch. His babysitters are, based on Bob Woodward’s interviews, terrified of what Mr. Trump’s next impulse may be. The Attorney-General seems to hang by a thread.
Mr. Trump is consciously undermining the Rule of Law and his Oath of Office. Describers of his character find themselves groping for new adjectives. Regardless of what he is (or why), it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that he lusts toward authoritarian rule, or as much of it as he can grasp. (The word pussy comes to mind here.) I doubt Trump consciously knows this – he lacks the self-awareness – but he has a visceral response that leads him toward authoritarianism.
One noted political scientist describes “authoritarianism’s equilibrium as resting mainly on lies, fear and economic prosperity” [Przeworski]. Another writes that populist authoritarian regimes “are mobilized regimes in which a strong, charismatic, manipulative leader rules through a coalition involving key lower-class groups” [Gasiorowski].
Thus, Donald Trump lies. He disparages the press as the “enemy of the people;” he castigates judges who rule contrary to his wants; he disparages and humiliates anyone less than fully loyal. He debases his own civil service (the “Deep State”). He bloviates upon his superiority and righteousness. He persists in campaigning in front of white working class audiences, while actually doing little for them. Trump praises Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Kim Jong-un because he wants to be like them. And, by praising their character and accomplishments, he justifies (to himself) his imperialistic grab at all the authority he possibly can get.
The President is neither a Republican nor a conservative. The Republican Party is the sheep’s clothing he hides under, and he shifts under this mantle to sustain his base of loyal voters. He is not loyal to Republican credos but, like Svengali, is loyal only to himself while cleverly mouthing the words congressional Republicans want to hear.
There’s no evidence that Trump gives a damn about dealing with immigration, re-building the nation’s infrastructure or strengthening the middle class. If he cared about these things he could easily have done something about them. But he hasn’t because of one practical reason: once he does, he won’t have those drums to beat anymore to rally his believers. Authoritarians need enemies to keep their followers in line. So, of course, Trump finds his enemies everywhere including the press, the FBI, Muslims and anyone who doesn’t look like a Norwegian.
Through 44 presidents Americans have never experienced a president like Trump. We have no reference points: not even Richard Nixon who had some redeeming accomplishments and a conscience at least. That has made it hard for any of us, including reporters, to figure out what Trump is doing. An authoritarian? It is incomprehensible to most of us, understandably.
Trump isn’t going to stop. He feeds off of criticism and chaos. The more, the better. He has cowed most members in his own party who have chosen either to kiss his ring, scurry off into a dark corner, or resign. If Trump becomes a cornered man by the Mueller investigation, expect him not to cave but to usurp even more power and authority. Like a blooded bull, his instinct is to attack and tear down.
The mid-term election may see a Democrat-takeover of the House. No matter how optimistic you may be, Donald Trump will still be Commander in Chief and the so-called leader of the free world.
So what do we do?
We need to vote in November, of course. Democrats capturing the House will stymie Trump’s legislative efforts as scant as they have been. Democrats will initiate legislation that will force the Republican-led Senate to react. My bet is Republicans will start second-guessing and become more cooperative. Trump will become more combative; or he might decide to abandon his Republican supporters and talk like a Democrat: whatever is best for Donald, Donald will do.
What if, like the 2018 election, the polls are wrong and Republicans keep the House? The first Revolution wasn’t won in a day. We hang in there.
Impeachment needs to be pressed. The Republicans who survive the 2018 election will be a chastened lot. Like a termite-ridden house the party has effectively rotted, existing in name only. Without Trump it collapses. The so-called “resistance” inside the White House and the sycophants outside are all that remains at the national level. It has abandoned its classical conservative ideologies that go back to Thomas Jefferson. Impeachment and conviction will, in fact, serve the interests of both conservatives and liberals.
We cannot count on any particular outcomes from the Mueller investigation. Liberals and conservatives, I believe, can find common ground to help America recover from this era of debasement.
In the long term our schools have to do a better job teaching young people the meaning of the Bill of Rights, the 14thAmendment and the essence of the Declaration of Independence. Too many voters simply have no clue of the protections afforded by these key documents, what they mean and the limits on those protections. This is stuff that must be learned in high school. The big lessons of America’s history need far more emphasis in our schools. The scope of ignorance among American voters about these matters is appalling. Too many voters sing the national anthem and think they are patriots.
Finally, let’s thank Donald Trump for one good thing he’s inadvertently done. He’s raised the consciousness of millions of American by awakening them from their peacetime torpor. Women, discriminated minorities and young people have awakened to become politically engaged or run for office. Thanks to Trump, folks are catching on to the fact our democracy and are institutions are not marble edifices of a different era, but a living, breathing organism that has suffered abuse and been taken for granted long enough, and now must be vigilantly nurtured and defended.
There may not be a Paul Revere riding today, but we know the Redcoats are coming and everything – truly everything — is at stake. We have to make our stand. I think the free nations of the world are listening for another shot to be heard around the world.