In the United States, as in much of the world,democracy is in peril. Regarding the state of the American republic, one need only glance at the Twitter feed of President Donald J. Trump to see how. And if that doesn’t convince, just have a look at what’s going on in the state legislatures of Wisconsin and Michigan, where Republican lawmakers have convened extraordinary lame-duck sessions to clip the wings of incoming Democratic governors and executive branch leaders just ahead of their inaugurations. (More on this from my colleague, Paul Waldman, here.)
Going into this week, there was little doubt that today would be a tough day for the president, what with James Comey, the former FBI director fired from that position by Trump, testifying on the Hill, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller expected to drop sentencing memos destined to shed light on aspects of his investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and any involvement by the Trump campaign. So the torrent of tweets from a clearly unhinged Trump was perhaps to be expected.
The early morning Trump dump offered a mélange of unfounded allegations against members of the Mueller team, assertions made on Fox Business Channel by Jerome Corsi (a conspiracy-monger who is a target of the probe), and a leading question posed by the FBC host about the procedure used in a FISA request regarding a private investigation of Trump’s links to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. It all kicked off last night with a tweet that said this: “FAKE NEWS – THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”
Around the same time that Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” tweet posted, CNN received a bomb threat that was later determined to be a hoax.
It is easy to point to Trump’s Twitter feed and laugh: Ha-ha-ha, the guy is nuts, stupid, can’t spell. And so we do, and then we go about our holiday shopping. But each tweet brings democracy writ large—not just ours—closer to the brink of disintegration.
When Trump asserts in a tweet, as he did this morning, that the Mueller investigation is a “Witch Hunt!” he undermines respect for the rule of law. He knows it. That’s what he wants.
And when the president rails against “FAKE NEWS” and CNN andThe New York Times and whichever major news outlet today publishes a negative story about him, he not only undermines belief in fundamental facts and a shared national narrative; he sets members of the media in the sights of violent radicals who hate to see their worldview threatened by the truth. But even more than that, he gives a wink to the Saudi crown prince who reportedly presided over the murderof a Washington Post columnist, or to Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’s dictatorial president, who has clamped down on media in his own country.
Yes, yes, that’s who he is, we say. And then we settle into the hard work of figuring out what to make for dinner.
But here’s what we do know about Donald Trump: He is already acting in contradiction to the U.S. Constitution. Just look at his directive on asylum-seekers, which refuses to consider the applications of anyone who has entered the country through anything other than designated ports of entry. But U.S. law says anyone who presents themselves within U.S. borders with a request for asylum shall be considered. If Trump is willing to flout the Constitution on this matter, how else might he do so? By jailing journalists? Or doing clandestine deals with hostile foreign powers? Or selling access to his staff?
Dammit, I don’t know! Bridge club tonight.
For many of us fortunate to enjoy a certain level of class- and skin-privilege, denial is a seductive response to all of the Trumpian horrors. Our lives, so far, have continued to go on much as they had before Trump: the same job, the same Sunday brunch with friends, the same parent-teacher conferences. At our present moment of peril, however, denial is a privilege—one unlikely to pay off well in the long term.
Look around. The world is falling prey to the forces of authoritarianism, most of it right-wing. The notion that it can’t happen here only adds fuel to the possibility that it very well could happen here. But the fact that we’re all at our desks or in our cars or at the meeting—and not in the streets—demonstrates just how invested we are in our own myth of American exceptionalism.
The domestic terrorists who sent pipe bombs to a former president and other political opponents of the president, who killed and maimed protesters with a car, who gunned down worshippers at a synagogue and at a church—these are Americans whose actions are rooted in our national culture. That we don’t see it as such is testament to our national denial.
With a president who believes himself to be above the law, and above the very U.S. Constitution, we are, in our passivity, leaving open the possibility that the military will ultimately be left to determine the fate of the republic. Will the generals unilaterally reject an unconstitutional order, should another one be issued?
Jeez, pretty unlikely it’ll come to that, right? Now, where did I leave that grocery list?