It's crucial not to view America as somehow immune to authoritarianism.
“And it’s important to maintain this panoramic view of the situation in order to understand things and in order to understand what lies behind all of this. But we’ve seen shocking attacks on the institutional structure during the Obama and Trump eras and I want to use this piece to discuss those attacks.”
“So you don’t need to break the law in order to destroy democracy—you can destroy democracy without doing anything illegal.”
“So we can expect the ‘trial run’ to inspire further efforts—we see no remorse and no apologies, but instead we see rationalizations and open support.”
There’s an ongoing attack on America’s institutional structure—the outcome is precarious and unclear and uncertain.
The current crisis traces back to the neoliberal attack on the population; the GOP’s need to mobilize votes for an unpopular neoliberal legislative agenda; and massive corporate propaganda going way back before the neoliberal attack even began.
And it’s important to maintain this panoramic view of the situation in order to understand things and in order to understand what lies behind all of this. But we’ve seen shocking attacks on the institutional structure during the Obama and Trump eras and I want to use this piece to discuss those attacks.
The Obama Era
We saw—during the Obama era—a perfectly legal and very serious attack on democracy.
It’s important for everyone to understand that democracy depends on trust and on good faith and on various norms—it’s not like the Constitution contains magical legal guardrails that somehow magically guarantee that the system will function. Chomsky gives an excellent articulation of this point in a 2020 interview—I took these notes:
“As far as the government is concerned, we’re seeing something pretty interesting.”
“Parliamentary democracy has been around for 350 years, starting in England in 1689 with the so-called Glorious Revolution, when sovereignty was transferred from the royalty to the parliament.”
“about a century later” we saw the “beginnings of parliamentary democracy in the United States”
“Parliamentary democracy is not just based on laws and constitutions.”
“In fact, the British constitution is maybe a dozen words.”
“It’s based on trust and good faith, the assumption that people will act like human beings.”
Mitch McConnell is “in many ways the real evil genius of this administration, dedicated to destroying democracy long before Trump”
McConnell has been explicit about his desire to undermine the “good faith and trust in the interchange” that parliamentary democracy is based in
the Senate is the “so-called world’s greatest deliberative body”—it’s been “reduced to passing legislation that will enrich the very rich, empowering the corporate sector, and making judicial appointments to stack the judiciary with young, ultraright, mostly incompetent justices who can ensure for a generation that no matter what the public wants, they’ll be able to block it”
“It’s a deep hatred of democracy and fear of democracy. That’s not unusual among the elites; they don’t like democracy for obvious reasons. But this is something special.”
There’s a really important 2013 essay from Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein that describes the perfectly legal and very serious attack that we saw during the Obama era—I took these notes on the essay:
“The framers designed a constitutional system in which the government would play a vigorous role in securing the liberty and well-being of a large and diverse population.”
“They built a political system around a number of key elements, including debate and deliberation, divided powers competing with one another, regular order in the legislative process, and avenues to limit and punish corruption.”
“America in recent years has struggled to adhere to each of these principles, leading to a crisis of governability and legitimacy.”
“The roots of this problem are twofold.”
“The first is a serious mismatch between our political parties, which have become as polarized and vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a separation-of-powers governing system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act.”
“The second is the asymmetric character of the polarization. The Republican Party has become a radical insurgency—ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
“Securing the common good in the face of these developments will require structural changes but also an informed and strategically focused citizenry.”
there’s a “level of dysfunction in American political institutions and processes that is dangerous to the fundamental legitimacy of decisions made by policy-makers, not to mention the ability of those policy-makers to act at all”
“Some in the media think it is biased or unprofessional to discuss the many manifestations of our asymmetric polarization. We think it is simply a matter of collecting the evidence and telling the truth.”
“The best we can hope for is a more tempered Republican Party willing to do business (that is, deliberate, negotiate, and compromise without hostage-taking or brinksmanship) with their Democratic counterparts.”
“Over the long haul, both political parties in the United States need to depolarize to some degree.”
“The parties may maintain clear differences in philosophy and policy, to be sure, but they must also cultivate enough agreement on major issues to permit the government to work as designed.”
“The parties must also serve an electorate that shares a common vision and common facts, even with sharp differences in philosophy, lifestyles, and backgrounds.”
“Despite the obstacles, we must think big about changing the structures and the culture of our partisan government and populace; the stakes are high.”
Norman Ornstein, a political scientist specializing in congressional matters at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, told me that he has known every Senate Majority Leader in the past fifty years, and that McConnell “will go down in history as one of the most significant people in destroying the fundamentals of our constitutional democracy.” He continued, “There isn’t anyone remotely close. There’s nobody as corrupt, in terms of violating the norms of government.”
And I took these notes on the piece:
“Under McConnell’s leadership, as the Washington Post’s Paul Kane wrote recently, the chamber that calls itself the world’s greatest deliberative body has become, ‘by almost every measure,’ the ‘least deliberative in the modern era.’”
“Longtime lawmakers in both parties say that the Senate is broken. In February, seventy former senators signed a bipartisan letter decrying the institution for not ‘fulfilling its constitutional duties.’”
“Dick Durbin, of Illinois, who has been in the Senate for twenty-four years and is now the second-in-command in the Democratic leadership, told me that, under McConnell, ‘the Senate has deteriorated to the point where there is no debate whatsoever—he’s dismantled the Senate brick by brick.’”
“After Barack Obama was elected in 2008, McConnell used the filibuster to block a record number of bills and nominations supported by the Administration. As Majority Leader, he has control over the chamber’s schedule, and he keeps bills and nominations he opposes from even coming up for consideration.”
So you don’t need to break the law in order to destroy democracy—you can destroy democracy without doing anything illegal.
The Trump Era
I remember being worried on 6 January 2021 about whether it was OK to refer to the attack as an “insurrection”—my friend told me that this was completely irresponsible terminology from CNN. Nobody knew what to think—what was the appropriate term for this attack?
And isn’t it just perfect that my anecdote involves me and my friend looking at CNN’s coverage and wondering about what the right journalistic approach was? CNN is—although they’re starting to commit to some actual journalism—the ultimate example of a media that’s far too partisan and compromised and low-quality to be able to check and combat and counter the legal and illegal attacks on democracy that come from the “radical insurgency”.
We now know that even the word “insurrection” is far too mild—this was a coup attempt and those who doubt it should watch the first hearing and the second hearing and the third hearing. My friend told me the following about the coup attempt:
Pretty brazen. My guess is that nothing will rock the faithful, even explicit instructions signed by Trump to hang Pence and kill every official who allowed votes against him, with a video recording.
I sympathize with people who suspect that this might be a partisan attack on Trump and are worried about that—any sane and serious and thoughtful person would have worries on that front. But I don’t understand people who say: “I refuse to even look at the evidence and think for myself and make up my own mind.”
I have written, as you said, Chairman Thompson, that today, almost two years after that fateful day in January 2021, that still Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy. That’s not because of what happened on January 6th. It’s because, to this very day, the former president, his allies, and supporters pledge that, in the presidential election of 2024, if the former president or his anointed successor as the Republican Party presidential candidate were to lose that election, that they would attempt to overturn that 2024 election in the same way that they attempted to overturn the 2020 election, but succeed in 2024 where they failed in 2020. I don’t speak those words lightly.
The GOP has not ejected coup-supporters and coup-defenders from its ranks—it’s actually quite the opposite:
I took these notes on the second 17 June 2022 piece:
“the immediate danger to American democracy stems from the fact that the Republican party is justifying all this, remains united behind the man responsible, and, worst of all, actually wants to put him back in power”
“This is what the Republican party is: the very few voices siding against Trumpism are being shunned and ostracized, and most Republicans are united in their quest to install authoritarian rule by a reactionary minority.”
the coup attempt was a “trial run for the next presidential election in 2024”—J. Michael Luttig testified to this
“They are working hard at the state level to get themselves in a position to execute that blueprint more effectively.”
“They have escalated their election subversion efforts into an all-out assault on state election systems.”
“Republican-led state legislatures are re-writing the rules so that they will have more influence on future elections.”
“Local officials who defended the democratic process are being harassed, purged from election commissions, and replaced with loyal Trumpists.”
“how are the people the hearings present as Team Normal, as standing up to Trump’s coup attempt, dealing with all this?”
“Take Bill Barr: he’s on record saying he would vote for Trump in 2024.”
“In his testimony for the committee as well as in his book, Barr has left no doubt that he believes Trump is either willfully pushing treasonous conspiracy theories or is completely detached from reality—yet Barr is still willing to help put him back in the White House.”
“Barr’s ability to rationalize this astonishing balancing act is the main reason I am skeptical that the hearings, by focusing narrowly on Trump, could succeed at turning Republicans away from him.”
“We need to acknowledge that that’s where Republicans are: they either subscribe to the big lie outright; or they feel queasy about the specifics of the big lie, but consider Democratic governance illegitimate nonetheless; or, at the very least, they think anything is justified to defeat ‘the left’.”
“The committee needs to communicate this unsettling reality to the American people, because that, in Judge Luttig’s words, is the ‘clear and present danger to American democracy.’”
“Even if it initially failed, that’s how Trump’s coup attempt might still succeed.”
So we can expect the “trial run” to inspire further efforts—we see no remorse and no apologies, but instead we see rationalizations and open support.
There shouldn’t be any debate about whether there was a coup attempt—in a healthy society, people would watch the first hearing and the second hearing and the third hearing and would do the following:
(1) look at the evidence
(2) weigh the issue of whether the committee has a partisan bias
(3) weigh the issue of whether any of the witnesses have a partisan bias
(4) think for themselves
(5) make up their own mind
The problem is that the spheres of inquiry and thought and research have become so polluted and distorted and warped that this process almost never takes place. We should keep in mind the sorts of beliefs that people have these days—I took the following notes on a 25 April 2022 piece:
“the attack on Disney has gone far beyond financial reprisal”
“Suddenly, Mickey Mouse is part of a vast conspiracy”
“If this seems crazy—which it is—it’s also increasingly the Republican norm.”
“I don’t think political reporting has caught up with how thoroughly QAnonized the G.O.P. has become.”
“As I mentioned the other day, roughly half of Republicans believe that ‘top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings.’”
“Here’s an even more impressive number: 66 percent of Republicans buy into ‘white replacement theory,’ agreeing wholly or partly with the claim that ‘the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate with voters from poorer countries around the world.’”
“the fight over Disney is actually a symptom of a much broader and more troubling development: the QAnonization and Orbanization of one of America’s major political parties”
So it’s hard to imagine how people who—somehow—actually believe bizarre and unhinged and strange QAnon stuff are going to—somehow—be able to honestly examine evidence that doesn’t align with their ideology.