The Story that Really Mattered This Year

Will American democracy survive the Trump presidency? The jury is still out on that, but things are looking up.


Ever since the Electoral College named Donald Trump president, news (some of his making and some not) has been coming at us like water from a fire hose — indictments, injunctions, special election upsets, gaffes, natural disasters, high-ranking people getting fired or resigning under pressure, insults to our allies, mass shootings, lies, government shutdowns, outrages against common decency (like ripping kids from their parents and putting them in cages), or the spectacle of an American president repeating the propaganda of foreign autocrats like Mohammad bin Salman, Kim Jong-Un, or Vladimir Putin.

All year, as I write my weekly summaries of the news, I’ve been complaining about it. (Tiresomely, I’ve decided, having just reviewed a year’s worth of Monday Morning teasers.) There is too much to process. Week after week, developments that might have been the Story of the Year in any other administration — the wide-ranging corruption of Scott Pruitt, say — nearly slip my mind. “Oh yeah,” I remind myself. “That happened too.” We get worn out by it. How many cabinet or top White House posts are vacant now due to scandal or protest or insufficient toadying? I’ve lost track.

But since November 6, 2016, one story has stood above all the others. Day-to-day, and even week-to-week, it was easy to lose sight of, but it was always there, sometimes in the background of whatever stories were getting attention. The unanswered question: Will American democracy get through this?

In recent years, authoritarian populism like Trump’s has been corrupting democracies around the world, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the original rise of fascism in the 20s and 30s. (I’ve been trying to cover that in the abstract, by reviewing books like How Democracies Die and The Road to Unfreedom. Recent posts have also been influenced by Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, though I haven’t gotten around to writing about that book explicitly yet.) Trumpists claim that “fascism” is an unfair exaggeration, but the key components are there:

  • idealization of a vague past whose restoration would make the country “great again”;
  • assault on the institutions that try to establish a common basis of truth: science, the courts, experts within academia or the government, and the press;
  • elevation of a leader whose word and power replaces those sources of truth;
  • constant lying by that leader, to the point that lies become loyalty tests and expressions of power: How ridiculous a statement, or how self-contradictory a series of statements, will followers repeat with conviction?
  • identity politics focused not on the powerless and oppressed, but on the powerful and favored, with constant emphasis given to the grievances (some real, but most imagined) of whites, of men, of Christians, of the native-born, of the wealthy, and of all those who simply want to be left alone to enjoy their privileged places in the world;
  • glorification of the leader’s decisiveness, and his unwillingness to be bound by convention, propriety, morality, his own word, or even the Constitution.

And yet, this is America. We have the rule of law and a Constitution that has stood the test of time. We have long traditions of independent courts, independent law enforcement, and a free press. Could we really go the way of failed democracies like Russia and Turkey and Hungary?

It was a real question at the end of 2016, and it still hasn’t been decisively answered. That’s a good thing: At the end of 2016, there was reason to fear that it might be decisively answered by now.

2017. To me, the big story of 2017 was that Trumpian fascism did not prove to be popular.

It might have. Trump took office in the middle of an economic upturn that Obama had never been given credit for, and at a time of relative peace. He had a compliant Congress that would repeat his talking points, harass those who challenged him, refuse to investigate obvious corruption, and pass tax cuts and spending increases without worrying about the resulting budget deficits.

He had chosen his victims and scapegoats well: Muslims, immigrants of color, and refugees. Would the rest of the American people care if they suffered, or be energized by the sheer cruelty of it all? If police were once again unleashed to hassle (or occasionally even kill in cold blood) the non-white poor with no oversight or repercussions, would white Christian citizens react with horror, or gratitude? Would Americans care about the planetary environment they handed off to their children and grandchildren, or would they be happy to ignore all that in an fossil-fuel-burning orgy of après moi le déluge?

On Inauguration Day, none of that was clear, and even it hindsight it was a disturbingly close call: About 40% of the public has welcomed Trumpism, to the point that no development or revelation can move them. It could have been 50% or more.

2018. But even if Americans would tell pollsters they disapproved, would they vote? Or would they be confused or bamboozled or discouraged by dark fantasies of invading caravans? Could Democrats once again be played off against each other, so that they failed to unite behind any less-than-perfect candidate? Could anti-Trump women be cowed by the enraged male privilege of Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham? (Herodotus tells how similar tactics put down a Scythian slave revolt. The slaves repulsed an initial assault by their masters, who then came up with the following plan: “Now therefore to me it seems good that we leave spears and bows and that each one take his horse-whip and so go up close to them: for so long as they saw us with arms in our hands, they thought themselves equal to us and of equal birth; but when they shall see that we have whips instead of arms, they will perceive that they are our slaves, and having acknowledged this they will not await our onset.” Just so, Kavanaugh’s foaming outrage replaced any attempt at contrition, compassion, or fact-based defense: Now you’ve made Daddy angry.)

In retrospect, all that might seem absurd. But a year ago it did not, at least to me. Certainly there were red states where things played out that way and incumbent Democratic senators lost, sometimes by large margins.

And even if a majority wanted to vote against Trump’s party, would it be enough to overcome voter suppression and gerrymandering? In Georgia, suppression of the black vote worked, and a white Republican secretary of state oversaw his own elevation to the governorship. Gerrymandering also did its job: A record-setting Democratic popular vote (nationally, a nearly 10 million vote margin, or 8.6%) resulted in a mere 235-199 House majority, smaller than the 241-194 majority that a far narrower Republican margin (1.4 million votes, or 1.1%) produced in 2016.

What if? Imagine if 2018 had come out otherwise. What if the electorate, or at least enough of the electorate to maintain unified Republican control of Congress, had endorsed what they’ve seen these last two years? What if Democrats had won the national House popular vote by only 5% or so, and it hadn’t been enough to gain control?

Then the gloves would be off. Any restraint wary Republicans had exercised on Trump would vanish. Fire Bob Mueller and purge non-Trumpists from the FBI. Finish gutting the Voting Rights Act, so that elections can become mere formalities, like the empty rituals of a faith no one really believes any more. Round up immigrants en masse and drop them on the other side of the Wall without hearings. Openly defy any courts that say all this is forbidden by laws or treaties or the Constitution. Why not? Who’s going to stop it?

Laws can say whatever they want, but if no one is motivated or empowered to enforce them, what do they matter? That’s the essence of Putinesque fascism. Revoke freedom of the press? Why bother, when troublesome reporters can simply be killed and the murders will forever remain unsolved? Why bother, when persistently annoying networks and newspapers can be bankrupted and bought out by your cronies? Disband opposing political parties? Why go to all that trouble, when their backers can be convicted of corruption, and their candidates can be killed or induced to leave the country?

That’s the track we would be moving down, if voters hadn’t come out in large enough numbers to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives. We could still wind up on that track. But it’s a lot less likely now.

What the House can do. By itself, of course, the House can’t end this crisis of democracy. It can’t pass laws by itself, and the executive branch is still in charge of enforcing them. Even the impeachment process requires a Senate supermajority.

But the House can guarantee that any further subversion of democracy happens in full public view. If the new Attorney General suppresses the Mueller Report, the House can subpoena it. It can draw attention to the Trump family’s violation of the Constitution’s Emolument Clause, as well as the rampant corruption on the lower levels of this administration. Public hearings can bring to light the human rights abuses and violations of law happening on our southern border, and make administration officials respond with something more than doubletalk.

The executive branch, particularly at its lower levels, is still full of people who are committed to the missions of their departments and agencies. (This is the kernel of truth behind all those “Deep State” conspiracy theories.) People at the EPA still want to protect the environment, in spite of the instructions they receive from the top. People in the Justice Department still want to enforce the laws. People at the State Department still believe in diplomacy and treaties and international law. People at the CIA still want American policy to be based on facts. People at the Pentagon still resist seeing America dominated by Putin or other foreign leaders, no matter what kompromat they have on the president or how much revenue they generate for The Trump Organization.

At times, all those people can feel alone and surrounded. Why resist? Why not go along or take an early retirement and let the administration do whatever it wants? The election told them they are not alone, that the country is resisting as well. And the House can give them a bastion of support, as well as a place to tell their stories to the resisting majority. If a crisis comes, and they start receiving drastic unconstitutional orders, they are much less likely to carry them out, now that they know that the electorate and at least one branch of government is behind them.

What’s more, the 2018 election puts the question to Republicans who have to run in 2020: The American Republic might be in trouble, but it hasn’t failed yet. You still have to face the voters, and so does Trump. Maybe it’s time to start looking beyond this administration, to the party you will have to rebuild after Trump is gone.

It’s not over yet. As we saw in the aftermath of the election, not everyone got the voters’ message or was willing to accept it. In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republican leaders in the legislature have insulated themselves against the electorate through gerrymandering, so that large majorities voting for Democratic control were unable to achieve it. The statewide offices can’t be gerrymandered, but Democrats who win them can be disempowered. And so, to that extent, democracy is thwarted.

It’s not just Trump. There is a rising anti-democratic spirit in the Republican Party as a whole, which David Frum summed up like this:

If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.

The myth of massive voter fraud has no evidence behind it, but conservatives believe it because it provides an excuse to ignore unfavorable election results. If there is a conservative coup someday, it will be justified by a claim that an election was stolen and they only lost due to fake votes.

Republicans still control the White House and the Senate. Attempting to take them back in 2020, Democrats will again run a hazardous gauntlet: Can we stay united? Can we convince reluctant voters to turn out? Can we ignore disinformation and manufactured crises? Can we overcome the electoral-college advantage that has given popular-vote-losing Republicans the presidency twice in the last five elections? Can we win by margins that convince Republicans to drop their flirtation with fascism?

What the midterm elections gave American democracy was a chance to survive, not a final victory.

The damage done. Even a massive 2020 victory won’t automatically set everything right again. The flood of Trump/McConnell judges will be making absurd rulings and blocking progressive change for decades to come. It will be a very long time before America’s traditional allies regard us as trustworthy partners again. The tax-cut giveaway to corporations and the rich will be hard to reverse.

Worse, the time we have lost in fighting climate change can’t be reclaimed. The carbon emitted can’t be recaptured. The wells dug, power plants constructed, and pipelines built will be long-term features of our energy landscape.

But worst of all, I think, is the long-term damage done to democracy itself. One-third of the electorate now buys into a worldview that blames its problems on Muslims and Mexicans, distrusts any attempt to establish objective truth, and won’t believe any vote that doesn’t come out in its favor. Standards of decency and truthfulness will be hard to restore. Partisan, ethnic, racial, and class divides have deepened. Even if we somehow manage to restore trustworthiness to government, will the American people trust it? There will be times of crisis in the future, when Americans will need to unite behind their leaders and move forward in together. It will be difficult, even if in the meantime we have managed to elect wise and honest people.

This election was a major step, but there are many steps to come before we are out of the woods.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments

  • Betty Farber  On December 31, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    I look forward each week to your wise and thoughtful comments.

  • Jeff R.  On December 31, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    I just visited the Madison, WI State Capitol. There are large, tiled images of “Justice” and “Liberty” on its vaulted ceilings overlooking those areas where Wisconsinites and others came to sing and protest the workings of the Republican Walker Administration and its cronies. I both hope (and fear) that one of, if not, the main story of 2019-2020 is the preservation of the peaceful transition of power. Wisconsin (with perhaps NC a close second) seem to be the laboratories where experiments are underway to continue to cling to power in spite of the will of the people. Issues of governance (gerrymandering for one) will be key as well. So, I agree with your assessment of 2018 and hope we continue to see the continued “perfecting” of our Democracy this coming year.

  • orionblair  On December 31, 2018 at 1:40 pm

    This comment on inequality speaks to our future challenges. George Parker wrote this in Foreign Affairs, not sure how long ago.

    Inequality creates a lopsided economy, which leaves the rich with so much money that they can binge on speculation, and leaves the middle class without enough money to buy the things they think they deserve.

    Inequality makes it harder to imagine the lives of others – which is one reason why the fate of over 14 million more or less of permanently unemployed Americans leaves so little impression in the country’s political and media capitals.

    Inequality corrodes trust among fellow citizens, making it seem as if the game is rigged.

    Inequality provokes a generalized anger that finds targets where it can – immigrants, foreign countries, American elites, government in all forms – and it rewards demagogues while discrediting reformers.

    Inequality saps the will to conceive of ambitious solutions to large collective problems, because those problems no longer seem very collective.

    • Rick Rubin  On January 2, 2019 at 10:55 pm

      And inequality is used by the ruling class to keep us divided and fighting amongst ourselves. Don’t need to worry then about the peasantry, eh what!

  • Rick Rubin  On January 2, 2019 at 10:49 pm

    The list of fascistic indicators pretty much says it all. This president and his republican enablers (lower case intentional) are moe than capable of driving the wheels of governance into the ditch. They seem hell bent on doing so and it is my fervent desire that the safe guards of the Constitiution and Bill of Rights will allow us to get through this period if not unscathed at least the wiser for it.

  • jh  On January 4, 2019 at 7:25 pm

    At some point, the democrats need to learn from the republicans. Republican smear tactics work. Benghazi witch hunts work. One of the things that I really want the Democrat congress to do is start investigating these things. I’ve never wanted Trump to be removed from office. Better the incompetent orange devil than Pence, the socially acceptable devil. But Trump is good for liberals. He energizes the liberal base and inhibits the conservative base. I want the never trumpers to grow in size.

    Part of the problem is that conservative media is largely unregulated and allowed to lie incessantly. Unlike the liberals, who were lucky enough in the divorce to get the fact checking institutions, conservatives have the alt-right and breitbart. It’s time to attack that weak structure. Conservative pundits aren’t bound to the same standards that their liberal counterparts often are. They can goal shift their stories. But it’s a serious thing to claim a crime was committed. I’d like if democrats started investigations into the crimes that conservative pundits claim were committed. Sure, the conservative pundit will cry “witch hunt”. But a democrat can easily retort (rather snarkily) – “You’re the one who claimed that there was something criminal about the Uranium One sale. Where’s the evidence? Where’s the smoking gun?” Right now, there are no consequences to incessant lying. I hope there were. I understand that this is a dangerous precedent. But as long as conservative media is allowed to create an alt-universe, we’re going to have a problem with Trumpism. I have faith that the liberal counterparts will be more prudent in their claims. (and anonymous sources can be protected. There are ways to protect them that we should take full advantage of.)

  • P Yamada  On January 7, 2019 at 1:14 pm

    D not think Frum is anything but a right wing nut. See what he is up to regarding pot legalization here: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/12/20/marijuana-regulate-it-man/

Trackbacks

  • By The Yearly Sift 2018 | The Weekly Sift on December 31, 2018 at 10:38 am

    […] We dodged that bullet. Democracy is far from out of the woods — it won’t be until Trump is safely out of office, and maybe not even then — but we’re still on a path that has a hope of emerging from the woods. I make that case in more detail in the featured post “The Story that Really Mattered This Year“. […]

  • […] The Story that Really Mattered […]

  • By online marketing psychology on August 17, 2019 at 7:58 am

    online marketing psychology

    The Story that Really Mattered This Year | The Weekly Sift

Leave a Reply to Jeff R. Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: