The Slow-Burning Fire
Many people are worrying about an impending coup. If you have been having that feeling, then it’s time to re-orient yourself.
The coup is already happening; in fact, it started a few decades ago, and has been moving along like a slow-burning Reichstag fire. Trump may simply be hurrying its pace somewhat, making the mythical frog in boiling water a little more aware of what’s happening. But the point that many are missing is that Trump is not the threat; he’s trying to ride the threat, but the real danger is the ongoing conservative redefinition of our country. If we allow conservatives to hold Trump as separate and at a distance rather than recognizing that he is simply taking control of their vehicle, we invite even more disaster.
This has been happening in the Supreme Court, as the right wing of that establishment has been slowly rewriting the constitution and the standards for legal reinterpretation. The Second Amendment is now legally something completely different from what it was originally intended; corporations are now enshrined constitutionally as super-citizens, their money granted the exalted status of “free speech.” In the name of “Originalism,” the original shape of the constitution is being rewritten. The standards for that reshaping have been defined by Scalia and his fellow travelers as nothing less than the camel’s nose under the tent; for example, Scalia established that all one needs to deny the existence of the separation of church and state is to point out that it has been done on a regular basis, so the original intent is no longer relevant. For a new legal precedent to be set, all you need to do is point to a violation of an existing principle. Every time this happens, the context and details are too complex for popular consumption, so it just gets normalized that much more easily.
This has been happening in the Executive, which over the years has eroded from a bastion of leadership to little more than a figurehead, with the real power being behind the throne—all while the office gains more and more power. It’s not who gets elected as much as who is pulling the levers; do you think that Trump is writing any of those executive orders and memoranda? People like Bannon are the real power, like Cheney and Rumsfeld were for Bush, as they and a similar crowd were for Reagan. An actor, a dunce, and a carnival madman—the precedent has been set that the office holder doesn’t even need to be smart, just likable. Meanwhile, the powers behind him move to make the office all the more powerful, presiding over an ever more dominant intelligence establishment that bows to their rule, and a military grown to gross proportions.
This has been happening in Congress, where conservatives have made hyper-partisanship, obstruction, control by monied interests, and disdain for facts the new normal. Having moved in virtual lockstep, Republicans have shown that as long as they are in power, the other party is irrelevant and to be ignored, while as long as they are out of power, monolithic obstructionism is the norm. They openly flagellate themselves before powerful billionaires for favor and backing. More significantly, democracy itself has been reshaped; through radical redistricting and pervasive voter suppression have allowed a smaller and smaller minority to maintain power and control over the legislatures at the federal and most state levels. Not just in the presidency, but also in Congress, almost as a norm now, Democrats get more votes, but Republicans win the elections. Over the past 25 years, both Republican presidents lost the popular vote, and for some time now, Republicans in the House have gained fewer votes than Democrats, despite maintaining a lock on the majority in power.
This has been happening in the media, as we slowly saw the likes of Murrow, Cronkite, Woodward & Bernstein, and so many other legends fall into distant memory. The change started with the rise of the angry popular punditry, which gave way to the advent of Fox News, which in turn presided over the rise of Internet right-wing media empire, which defines for so many what is “real.” All have, for decades now, eschewed the principles of objectivity and even adherence to fact, and have normalized the practice of calling bias and propaganda “news.” The now-prevalent “fake news” is hardly new. In the 80’s, the conservative economic media somehow allowed the bizarrely nonsensical “Laffer Curve” to somehow gain respect; back in the 90’s, Rush Limbaugh made everyone believe that trickle-down worked because Reagan cut taxes and doubled revenues (neither one fully true, and the implied conclusion absolutely false). Such myths and misnomers started to become the norm. The conservative Narrative now holds sway over “truthiness.” Anti-war liberals became soldier-haters, spitting on returning vets, despite nothing of the sort ever having happened; the Narrative is so powerful, it creates whole episodes and events that never happened and the people remember it as if they saw it happen themselves, like crowds of Muslim immigrants cheering 9/11 on rooftops in New Jersey. We have new definitions of classes: the wealthy are job creators, while unions are corrupt; Christians, whites, and men are persecuted, while minorities, gays, and women demand “special privileges” forced by political correctness. Late-term abortions, Feminazis, welfare queens, violently rampaging immigrants stealing our jobs—all mythical, but all now accepted by most as either fact, or something close to it.
This has been happening in education, with a public education under attack by those who favor privatization, greater reach of religious schools, and who despise the concept of critical thinking. A colleague at my university was shocked the other day when an American student proclaimed that college was overblown because “we need more workers, not thinkers.” Remember back when Rick Santorum called Obama a “snob” for wanting everyone to have a shot at higher education? He said the same thing—we need more people who work with their hands, more garbage collectors and carpenters. Critical thinking, he told us, is just something that erodes our religious solidarity. We’re slowly being deprived of a solid educational system, as fewer and fewer of our citizens are even capable of critical thinking.
This has been happening in our bedrock principles, as we see them torn down one by one. The freedom of the press is under particular fire now, after having been weakened by a sustained cultural assault over the decades. We now accept the doctrine of First Strike, which was once unthinkable. We accept the policy of torture more and more. We know that the government routinely violates our Fourth Amendment rights, monitoring us and reading our correspondence, and we simply accept it as a given. Walls against religious establishment crumble, removing the only institutional protection we have against actual, not imagined persecution of religious and philosophical minorities, as we see our Muslim citizens slowly becoming second-class citizens or worse. We see less and less the principles of Democracy practiced, fewer and fewer of the true concerns of the founders respected.
This has been happening in politics in general, as money has shamelessly come to control every aspect of government, and not only corruption but even foreign intervention has become normalized—every time it happens and is not quashed, it becomes something that we just accept and live with.
Trump and those behind him did not start this. All they did was step on the gas. So much so that the whole ungainly structure is rocking and buckling somewhat, but nevertheless is rushing along in another surge, not quite as radical as the one following 9/11, but radical nonetheless.
The path to dictatorship has been slowly blazed over the last generation, as a new reality takes form. The question is not whether it is happening, but rather whether we will recognize it, like the mythical frog in boiling water, and have the power to overcome the sheer force of all of those who have been sold on the idea that it’s what makes America great again.
Perhaps Trump is a blessing in disguise; it’s possible that he’ll make it far more clear how far our system has been compromised.
However, it is just as likely that conservatives will use Trump as a way to claim that since the system is broken, it must be reshaped even more, pushing us even closer to a real dictatorship, just one that we are even less aware of.
And that is the real take-away: Trump may be vying for the position of dictator, but he’s not the real threat. The patiently constructed conservative push to reshape our country, led by the Republican Party, pushed by the right-wing media, directed via the Narrative—that’s the threat. Not Trump.
The greatest blunder we could make would be to fail to tie what Trump is doing directly and irrevocably to the Republican Party and the conservative movement in general.