Friday, December 13, 2019

We may have a president above the law. If he is acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial, grieve, America, for the death of democracy.

The presidency of Donald Trump is itself “an instance of the X/AntiX formula. For a given agency X, pick as its leader someone who is fiercely antiX. Then sit back and watch the carnage.” As applied at the level of the president, those who would destroy our democracy (X) have picked Trump (the AntiX) to destroy it.

Author William Gibson and columnist Michelle Goldberg consider various responses to the possible death of democracy.

From today’s blog about the interview with science fiction author William Gibson:

"Every so often—and I bet a lot of people do this but don’t mention it—I have an experience unique in my life, of going, ‘This is so bad—could this possibly be real?’ ” he said, laughing. “Because it really looks very dire. If we were merely looking at the possible collapse of democracy in the United States of America—that’s pretty fucked. But if we’re looking at the collapse of democracy in the United States of America within the context of our failure to do anything that means shit about global warming over the next decade … I don’t know.”

Grief is one possible response to a “collapse of democracy.” Democracy Grief Is Real opines Michelle Goldberg at the New York Times. Seeing what Trump is doing to America, many find it hard to fight off despair. (h/t Sherry, our Roving Reporter)

The despair felt by climate scientists and environmentalists watching helplessly as something precious and irreplaceable is destroyed is sometimes described as “climate grief.” Those who pay close attention to the ecological calamity that civilization is inflicting upon itself frequently describe feelings of rage, anxiety and bottomless loss, all of which are amplified by the right’s willful denial. The young activist Greta Thunberg, Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, has described falling into a deep depression after grasping the ramifications of climate change and the utter refusal of people in power to rise to the occasion: “If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before?”

Lately, I think I’m experiencing democracy grief. For anyone who was, like me, born after the civil rights movement finally made democracy in America real, liberal democracy has always been part of the climate, as easy to take for granted as clean air or the changing of the seasons. When I contemplate the sort of illiberal oligarchy that would await my children should Donald Trump win another term, the scale of the loss feels so vast that I can barely process it.

After Trump’s election, a number of historians and political scientists rushed out with books explaining, as one title put it, “How Democracies Die.” In the years since, it’s breathtaking how much is dead already. Though the president will almost certainly be impeached for extorting Ukraine to aid his re-election, he is equally certain to be acquitted in the Senate, a tacit confirmation that he is, indeed, above the law. His attorney general is a shameless partisan enforcer. Professional civil servants are purged, replaced by apparatchiks. The courts are filling up with young, hard-right ideologues. One recently confirmed judge, 40-year-old Steven Menashi, has written approvingly of ethnonationalism.

In “How Democracies Die,” Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard describe how, in failing democracies, “the referees of the democratic game were brought over to the government’s side, providing the incumbent with both a shield against constitutional challenges and a powerful — and ‘legal’ — weapon with which to assault its opponents.” This is happening before our eyes.

The entire Trump presidency has been marked, for many of us who are part of the plurality that despises it, by anxiety and anger. But lately I’ve noticed, and not just in myself, a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression. You can see it online, in the self-protective cynicism of liberals announcing on Twitter that Trump is going to win re-election. In The Washington Post, Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a Never Trump conservative, described his spiritual struggle against feelings of political desperation: “Sustaining this type of distressed uncertainty for long periods, I can attest, is like putting arsenic in your saltshaker.”

Goldberg then recounts her interviews with those who experience that stress and grief.

Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans are often incredulous seeing the party of Ronald Reagan allied with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but the truth is, there’s no reason they should be in conflict. The enmity between America and Russia was ideological. First it was liberal democracy versus communism. Then it was liberal democracy versus authoritarian kleptocracy.

But Trump’s political movement is pro-authoritarian and pro-oligarch. It has no interest in preserving pluralism, free and fair elections or any version of the rule of law that applies to the powerful as well as the powerless. It’s contemptuous of the notion of America as a lofty idea rather than a blood-and-soil nation. Russia, which has long wanted to prove that liberal democracy is a hypocritical sham, is the natural friend of the Trumpist Republican Party, just as it’s an ally and benefactor of the far right Rassemblement National in France and the Lega Nord in Italy.

The nemeses of the Trumpist movement are liberals — in both the classical and American sense of the world — not America’s traditional geopolitical foes. This is something new in our lifetime. Despite right-wing persecution fantasies about Obama, we’ve never before had a president that treats half the country like enemies, subjecting it to an unending barrage of dehumanization and hostile propaganda. Opponents in a liberal political system share at least some overlapping language. They have some shared values to orient debates. With those things gone, words lose their meaning and political exchange becomes impossible and irrelevant.

Thus we have a total breakdown in epistemological solidarity. In the impeachment committee hearings, Republicans insist with a straight face that Trump was deeply concerned about corruption in Ukraine. Republican Senators like Ted Cruz of Texas, who is smart enough to know better, repeat Russian propaganda accusing Ukraine of interfering in the 2016 election. The Department of Justice’s Inspector General report refutes years of Republican deep state conspiracy theories about an F.B.I. plot to subvert Trump’s campaign, and it makes no difference whatsoever to the promoters of those theories, who pronounce themselves totally vindicated.

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