Potemkin Democracy


Well, that didn’t last long.

We had less than 24 hours to absorb the epic import of the Democratic Party regaining control of the US House of Representatives before the raging id with a combover that pretends to be President of the United States threw the country into chaos again by firing Jeff Sessions.

The two events are, of course, inextricably connected.

It didn’t take a psychic to understand that Trump’s inflammatory / batshit rhetoric in the run-up to the midterms—the caravan of ISIS-infiltrated bloodthirsty barefoot children, the evil gun-grabbing Democratic mob, the press as the “enemy of the people,” etc—was a sign of panic and desperation at the thought of losing his Congressional firewall. Once that happened, the almost immediate firing of Sessions laid his strategy bare, and his fears as well.

It’s very simple. Trump is rightly terrified of the Mueller probe and is acting hastily to shut it down. (Indeed, it’s very possible that he has already been subpoenaed and indictments are on the way, including one for Don Jr., a backstage drama to which we the people are not yet privy but is secretly motivating our mad king’s frantic actions.) With the Democrats in control of the House and able to ramp up the investigative pressure, he is now beginning to be cornered, and like the rat he is, more dangerous than ever.

So once again this week we were smacked in the face with a reminder that we are not living in normal times. Even as the punditocracy opined on the significance of the Democratic takeover and how the chess match would proceed from here, Trump quickly reminded us that he is playing rugby, not chess. (And the dirty kind of rugby, too, where you step on a guy’s balls with your cleats while he’s down.)

To wit:

The election returns were barely in when, with his characteristic Roy Cohn-protégé manner, Trump threatened “a warlike posture” if the Democrats dared do their job and exercise oversight over him. For anyone who’s spent even five minutes in grade school, it was the transparently desperate act of a craven bully trying to bluff his foes into not hitting him where he knew it would hurt him the most.

You don’t scare us, Cadet Bone Spurs.

But at the same time, Trump was anything but bluffing in reminding just how nasty he could be. Indeed, he preemptively went full Pearl Harbor even before the day was out.

Thus the ongoing constitutional crisis in which we have been living for the past two years has dramatically escalated. It’s about to be D-Day for the Democratic Party and the resistance and the rule of law full stop.


But first and by way of prologue, it is only right and proper that we take a moment to acknowledge the blue wave.

We waited two long years for this past Tuesday.

Despite whiny arguments from wounded Republicans that it wasn’t a “blue wave”—and similar lamentations from disappointed Democrats who had unrealistic expectations—the midterms were by any measure a stark repudiation of Trump. That is especially so given the structural disadvantages the left faced, including a daunting electoral map and a no-holds-barred, Orwellian opposition that controlled the presidential bully pulpit and had no compunction about lies, voter suppression, and outright fraud. Also, it didn’t hurt the GOP to have a televised ministry of propaganda that doesn’t even pretend to be “fair and balanced” anymore.

Up against all that we still managed to take back the House and win several crucial governorships which are essential for long term Democratic gains. Let us not underestimate the significance thereof.

Like many progressives, I have been hoping for just such a development ever since the encouraging results of special elections in Virginia and elsewhere almost exactly a year ago. (See Sic Semper Tyrannis: The Lessons (and Limits) of Virginiain these pages last November 10, 2017.)

Which is as it should be: for all their fanaticism, hardcore Trumpers are outnumbered by reasonable Americans something like 7 to 3.

To restate what everyone ought to already fully understand, Trump now faces a whole new ballgame of legislative opposition and oversight to which he is woefully unaccustomed and unsuited—as opposed to the supine and slavish obedience of the last two years. (I am particularly pleased to see Devin Nunes go.)

Predictably, Mitch McConnell’s blatantly self-serving warning to Democrats not to be too aggressive in investigating Trump because it will hurt them in the next election smacks of Brer Rabbit. Mitch also needs some remedial vocabulary training on the difference between “harassment” and “oversight,” which PS, is Congress’s goddam job.

But above all the midterms were a reassuring sign that some sanity still prevails in parts of the United States, and that the system of checks and balances and a mechanism for the expression of the will of the people continues to function, more or less. There is still a long battle ahead, but this was a major victory. Which is precisely what drove Donald crazy.


Another welcome sign was the rise of a whole new generation of fresh progressive candidates, including unprecedented numbers of women and people of color, and strong showings—and even some outright wins—in places Democrats had no business even making a contest of it. A gay governor in Colorado? A hijab-wearing Muslim woman in Florida? A Democrat almost winning a statewide race in Texas? A black lesbian with a Yale law degree in Georgia (three things that are anathema to the Confederacy)? And here in New York City, Max Rose—a young, combat wounded former US Army infantry officer and proud Democrat—who flipped a Congressional seat in bright red Staten Island. (Hoo-ah.)

On CNN, Van Jones called the new Democratic Party “younger, browner, cooler.”

Sounds like a sitcom on the CW.

Yes, there were places that continue to be retrograde—most prominently Iowa, which inexplicably is OK with the human skidmark that is Steve King; Florida, which maintained its spot as a strong contender for the most fucked up state in America (step up your game, Maine); and Georgia, where I spent a significant chunk of my first 22 years and therefore for me is close to the bone.

Brian Kemp might be the most appalling figure in this election cycle, not counting King, Seth Grossman, and that Holocaust denier in Illinois. If in in any other country we saw the official in charge of overseeing the election running in it, we would fully understand the corruption in play and snicker at the sight. Yet here it is right in our faces and much of America either can’t see it, or worse, is totally fine with it.

More power to Stacey Abrams for refusing to concede and insisting on a fair accounting, given the outright criminal behavior of her opponent. At least someone learned the lessons of Florida 2000 (and Merrick Garland, and Russiagate.) No more playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules when the other guys have gone full Gillooly.

That said, we are about to witness what the GOP would have said and done had the Gore campaign contested the vote count in Florida in 2000. In retrospect it is now painfully clear that Team Gore should have done so, but spilled milk: few people understood eighteen years ago that a slow motion coup was beginning in which the old rules of decorum and even democracy itself would no longer be in effect.

(Note to right wing readers, if that is not an oxymoron: please don’t launch into your usual schoolyard retort the US is a republic, not a democracy. That tired Fox News talking point is the ultimate bad faith argument. We all understand that what we are discussing is a form of government that derives its mandate from the public, and—theoretically—elects leaders according to the will of the majority in one fashion or another. Everything else is semantics aimed purely at misdirection and distraction. Also, the dictionary definition of “republic” is a representative democracy, so piss off.)

I support the Abrams campaign’s stand-and-fight strategy 100% . But for those who criticize Al Gore for not doing likewise almost two decades ago, we’re about to see just how bitterly the Right would have fought back, with every dirty name and dirty trick in the book. But Kemp—who belatedly resigned as Georgia’s Secretary of State (bit late, dude), and then only in order to begin the transition process—better hope the recount goes his way or he will be out of both jobs. Boo hoo.

Regardless of how it shakes out, Kemp is destined to join a long line of Peach State abominations like JB Stoner, Lester Maddox, and Newt Gingrich in the Georgia Hall of Shame (which shares office space with the Confederate Preservation Society).


In my 2006 film Land of the Blind, a political revolutionary played by Donald Sutherland scoffs at the democratic process, saying, “If voting could really change anything it would be illegal.”

It’s an old line and I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I put it in that character’s mouth for a reason. In that storyline, he is living in an unnamed autocracy where that may be true. In the real world United States of 2018, we’re not quite there yet, although we’re getting closer all the time.

In the Western world, modern authoritarians have largely abandoned the jackbooted techniques of a Pinochet or a Marcos or a Franco, or at least learned how to hide them better. What they have constructed instead is even more sinister: a sham “democracy” with the illusion of freedom. The classic absurdist example is the dictatorship in which a Saddam, Idi Amin, or Kim Jong-un gets 99.99% of the vote. Savvier autocrats are able to achieve the same results with a process that looks superficially more legit still ensuring that your vote is just a charade.

In contrast to an overt police state where the cowed public knows it has no rights and no say, in this kind of sham democracy the state manufactures consent and maintains control by making the public think they have a voice when they really don’t.

Sound familiar?

The prime example of this sort of Potemkin democracy is Vladimir Putin’s Russia (which his protégé and designated bum boy Donald Trump is eagerly seeking to emulate). It’s a far more sophisticated but no less oppressive kind of autocracy than a clumsy old school one….indeed it is more insidious precisely because of that very sophistication. And make no mistake: beneath that veneer it is no less brutal or violent.

Other key elements include the illusion of a free press when it is in fact state-controlled (see Russia Today) or at least allied (see Fox News), and the token tolerance of genuine dissent, but laughably marginalized. Like the fake vote, the effect is actually worse than total abolition of free expression in that it contributes to the state’s grip on power by serving as cover and camouflage. (I don’t want to look sophomoric and quote Zizek, but it’s an example of when “resistance is surrender.”)

The United States is not quite in that league yet, but it’s not for lack of trying by the Republican Party.


In the US, autocracy already has a leg up thanks to the antiquated and anti-democratic Electoral College, which the GOP is using to maximum advantage. How anachronistic and destructive is it? An anecdote:

On the eve of the elections my wife and I were talking to our seven-year-old daughter about the midterms, because she is still traumatized by 2016, when she was only five. (At least in our part of the USA, her entire generation of kids—girls especially—is super politicized. Watch out, patriarchy.)

In the course of our conversation she casually said something about “more people voting for Trump than Hillary two years ago.” I clarified that, actually, more people voted for Hillary.

She got an extremely confused look on her face and asked how that could be. I gave her a rough explanation of the Electoral College and she was HORRIFIED.

“How can THAT be how we choose our president?” she asked, wrenched.

Good question.

From the anti-democratic chokehold of the Electoral College, to the absurd degree of gerrymandering of Congressional districts, to the shameless effort to gin up hysteria over the myth of voter fraud, to the manipulation and distortion of the census, to the dysfunction of the Supreme Court confirmation process, American governance is profoundly broken. Worse, this is not an accident but deliberate sabotage by the Republican Party.

The forces of autocracy, plutocracy, and nascent authoritarianism—which is to say, the Republican Party—undeniably want to minimize (if not totally obliterate) the value of your vote. For more than thirty years they have waged a relentless campaign to do so.  (Far longer, if you want to go back to the days of the poll tax, literacy tests, the anti-suffragette movement, and so forth. But let’s confine ourselves to the modern era.)

So the fact that this blue wave wasn’t Waimea-sized shouldn’t be surprising, and not merely because of anti-democratic deckstacking. The results reiterated what we all learned on November 8, 2016 and have been confronted with daily ever since: tens of millions of our fellow countrymen legitimately thrill to the poisonous racism, misogyny, and malignant cult of personality of Donald J. Trump.

Taken together, those two factors—the active GOP campaign of disenfranchisement and the neo-fascist impulse of 30% of the electorate—make any Democratic gains impressive.

And yet these midterms still managed to express some semblance of the public will, sort of, which is how democracy is supposed to work……and that is precisely the thing that presents an existential threat to Donald J. Trump.


Which brings us back to Trump’s morning-after freakout.

First of all, there was his marathon press conference. (For a guy who thinks the press is the enemy of the people, Donny sure likes to talk to them.) Trump lost his shit, behaving even more impulsively and erratically and dishonestly than usual, which is saying something, including hopelessly petty belittling Republicans who lost their races (to his mind, by not sufficiently embracing him, though the numbers debunk that) and an Alice in Wonderland attempt to spin the preivous night as an overall GOP win.

But the undeniable lowlight was his sputtering shitfit aimed at his frequent antagonist Jim Acosta of CNN, who tried to get a straight answer to a simple question (about whether Trump was demonizing immigrants) and for his trouble was screamed at and called “a rude, terrible person.” (Project much?) To say it was unpresidential is a laugh; it was unpresidential even by the abysmal standards—such as they are—of President Trump. 

Notwithstanding Trump’s pathetic spin, the midterm shellacking and the legal threat it represented were clearly eating at Donald’s black little coal-lump of a heart. And although we had just seen American democracy in working order a little bit the night before, it was also a reminder that millions of our countrymen love this guy for this very behavior, and would follow him right off a cliff. (And drag us all with them.)

Acosta wasn’t the only reporter that Trump went psycho on. Among others, the leader of the free world also told Yamiche Alcindor of PBS—who is African-American—three times that she was asking a “racist” and “insulting” question. (See previous note re projection.)

But the Acosta thing took the cake.

The administration subsequently pulled Acosta’s White House press pass—again, the sort of thing that happens in a banana republic—and then tried justify it with a lie about Acosta being physically aggressive with the female White House intern dispatched to take the mike away from him. (Yes, in the Trump era presidential press conferences have devolved into WWE events.) The official White House statement about the incident was full of huffy language about how Donald Trump would not tolerate such unchivalrous behavior!

First of all, the idea that Acosta did anything at all wrong—from asking a perfectly legitimate question to behaving in a perfectly civil manner as an intern tried to grab the mike right out of his hand—was a blatantly obvious smoke-and-mirrors attempt to obscure the real issue of the president’s abhorrent behavior. The truth is apparent to anyone who watched the actual event.

Secondly, the reason offered for his excommunication was knee-slappingly ridiculous.

Trump banning Acosta was already the mark of a fascist. Pretending it was to defend a woman’s honor—from the pussy grabber-in-chief, no less—tells you just how stupid he thinks his supporters are. About that much he is right. (Just for extra Stalinist fun, the White House also shared a doctored video purporting to show Acosta shoving the intern.)

So if I may, a modest proposal to the legitimate media:

Stop giving oxygen to this greasefire.

As long as Jim Acosta is banned, no self-respecting reporter should attend any further press activities held by this White House, no matter whether it’s Trump, Sanders, or any other official presiding. If Trump administration press briefings turn into kabuki plays in which only Fox, Breitbart, and InfoWars send reporters, they will cease to be newsworthy events. I am all for depriving this administration of the platform to spew its lies and propaganda.

Come on, Fourth Estate, this is your moment.


But the press conference proved to be just the appetizer to a main course of rotten fish that was already  on its way out of the kitchen.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, but whoever was in charge of resetting the clocks in the White House at the end of Daylight Savings Time really screwed up, because Trump thought it was Saturday night.

In finally firing his Attorney General and longtime whipping boy Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III—the only Confederate monument he has been willing to take down, as one wag quipped—Trump really gave the game away.

In the general public we are not privy to everything that is going on behind the scenes with the Mueller inquiry, its negotiations with the White House, the secret orders issued to Rudy Giuliani, and the rest of the shitshow. But in retrospect, the fanatical push to get Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and the hysterical fearmongering ahead of the midterms can be seen for what they were: evidence of Trump’s terror at the vise that is closing on him.

Deranged and megalomaniacal though he is, Trump knows better than anyone the ocean-sized graveyard of skeletons in his many many closets, and the kind of legal jeopardy he is in if proper investigations into his misdeeds are allowed to advance, and if new ones begin. With the Democrats about to be in control of the House, he didn’t even bother to try to play it cool; instead, like the guiltiest looking criminal you ever saw on Law & Order, he hit the panic button, which also happened to be wired to Sessions’ ejector seat.

For a guy whose catchphrase is “You’re fired,” nothing has done more damage to Trump than firing Jim Comey, and firing Jeff Sessions may prove to be a close second or even the new champ.

In Part Two of this essay—coming soon—we will look at this treacherous new phase of the cold civil war in which we find ourselves engaged……


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