The Passive Path to Democracy’s Death

Is it off-key to write alarmingly of the imminent danger of “democracy’s death” when, for the first time in five years, the United States is once again under competent adult supervision?

Joe Biden’s first hundred days have been startlingly aggressive (in a good way) in restoring the fundamentals of decent, Constitutionally sound governance. Not only has he re-established the rule of law, but the forward-thinking elements of his “New New Deal” have surprised and exceeded the expectations even of many progressives. I am cheered to say the least, and optimistic. Has he been perfect? Of course not. Damned impressive? For sure.  

Joe’s poll numbers reflect it. In an era of hyperpartisanship, when the question “Are puppies cute?” would return a razor thin 50.1-to-49.9 result depending on which party proposed it, it’s clear that the vast majority of Americans—even many reasonable conservatives, if that has not become an oxymoron—support Biden’s agenda.

But while pulling us back from the brink, putting us on the path to national rejuvenation,  and bolstering the chances that those repairs will endure by sheer virtue of their popularity, Biden’s success has also spurred the domestic enemies of representative democracy—which is to say, the Republican Party—to redouble their efforts to establish an autocracy under their control. That vile campaign has many facets to it, some of which we will touch on shortly. But at its heart is the fallout from one singular event that remains dangerously under-addressed. 

You know the one I mean. 

PUNISH THE MONKEY

On the night of January 6th, after watching thousands of violent pro-Trump rioters storm the US Capitol building in an attempt to murder Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and others, brutalizing Capitol Police officers in the process, screaming “Nigger!” at Black members of that force, and beating other officers with Blue Lives Matter flags for extra irony, all in an effort to stop the Electoral College vote count and keep Donald Trump in office, did you think that four months later there would be no repercussions for those who fomented that insurrection?

Neither did I. 

No responsible democracy—no sane government of any kind—would allow such events to go unaddressed, unless it was suicidal. (I made that very point in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, on January 9, in a piece titled “Will There Be a Reckoning….or a Repeat?”)

Yet here we are almost 120 days later, and some of the most prominent leaders of an unprecedented attempt to overthrow the government of the United States by force continue to walk around as free men, and in fact, to hold prominent positions of power in that same government. 

I know, I know: more than 400 Capitol insurrectionists have been arrested and charged thus far, and last week saw the first conviction (albeit of a fellow traveler, not one of the January 6th rioters), a man who had threatened to kill Pelosi, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But this is a severe case of punishing the monkey while letting the organ grinder go. Any of those hundreds of arrestees high-ranking national politicians from Texas who like to vacation in Cancun?

As usual, the low-level people on the chain of blame are talking the fall when the higher ups are thus far managing to skate. It happened with Abu Ghraib (“Just a few bad apples!”), it happens with systemic police brutality (see: Abu Ghraib), it is human nature and the dynamics of power that it happens all the time. But that is the very problem.  

The powerful people who actively fomented the violence on January 6th, who ginned up the Big Lie and spread it for months ahead of the election, who continued to spread that insidious and destructive lie in the two months that followed November 3rd leading up to that terrible day in January, who even now continue to spread it, some overtly and some obliquely, have yet to be called to account. 

Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley still sit in the US Senate. They have not apologized nor expressed regret for undermining the integrity of the election, to include spuriously challenging the electoral vote count, and still carrying on with that indefensible challenge on the night of January 6 even after the attack earlier that day. (Josh-o even infamously gave the insurrectionists a raised fist power salute before they stormed the building.) On the contrary, since then they have doubled down on their support for the Trumpist cause and their winking contention that Joe Biden is not a legitimate president. (A position that, not coincidentally, a strong majority of Republicans continue to believe.) 

Despite scattered and largely ineffective calls for their removal from the alleged “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the worst Cruz and Hawley have been subjected to so far is a secretive and molasses-paced ethics investigation by that august, self-flattering organization. I’ll remind you that less than four years ago Al Franken, a Democrat, was forced to resign from the Senate over some sketchy #MeToo photos and allegations (rather mild on the Ansari-Weinstein spectrum) pushed by a pro-Trump talk radio personality, allegations whose veracity is not at all certain in the first place.

Meanwhile these guys tried to overthrow the government and roll merrily along.

And Cruz and Hawley aren’t alone. Capitol security camera footage from January 5th reportedly shows Republican US Representatives Andy Biggs, Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, Louie Gohmert, Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz (!) all giving private tours of the otherwise closed-to-the-public US Capitol to people who the very next day were among the mob that stormed it. (The matter is under investigation.) In retrospect, it seems clear that those tours functioned, wittingly or not, as reconnaissance, given the suspiciously good intel on the building’s layout that some of those insurrectionists had on the day. 

Yes, Gaetz is now under investigation for crimes including sex trafficking, prostituting an underage girl, and public corruption, but nothing to do with the insurrection. 

Likewise, Rudy Giuliani—who stood before the crowd on the Ellipse on the morning of January 6th and called for “trial by combat“—is in legal trouble but it’s not related to the insurrection per se, but rather to some of his other skullduggery, in Ukraine. (Rudy has lots of sins to choose from.) The legal woes of Gaetz and Giuliani, like many scandal-plagued right wingers, are an indication of the general moral turpitude and degradation of people of that political bent; it’s no surprise that sooner or later the law catches up with them for one thing or another. But you’d think that something like, oh, I dunno, trying to overthrow the government, would be high among the things they get nailed for. 

And of course there is the biggest fish of all, Donald Trump himself, whose responsibility for the Capitol attack has been thoroughly detailed. Now, from Elba-a-Lago, Trump continues to insist he was robbed and is still the rightful president, for the audience that cares to listen. That audience may be far smaller than when he really was president (and on Twitter) but it is heavily armed, and has already shown that its willingness to use lethal force to achieve its aims.  

Why are we allowing the Republican Party to pretend it’s a legitimate, law-abiding organization at all after what it did…..and even now refuses to renounce? What kind of country lets a defeated head of state and a bunch of his allies, many of them senior elected officials, conspire to violently seize power at the head of an armed mob, then suffer no consequences?

A country in a lot of trouble, that’s what.

THE FOOLISHNESS OF OUR MERCY

Mercy is not really the right word, of course. Call it timidity, denial, procrastination, laziness, unwillingness to face the horror or what happened or the trauma required to address it….call it what you will. Many factors are in play. 

The most generous interpretation—and I think it is too generous—is that it is taking time for us to figure out how to address this unprecedented state of affairs and get the gears of justice to begin grinding. I recognize that dealing with the insurrection is a challenge for our political and legal system, but that does not excuse us from the task. And justice delayed is justice denied. 

In the mean time, at least in terms of the senior seditionists behind this atrocity, we are sending a signal to the Insurrectionist Caucus and all of America that you can get away with this shit. As the saying goes, a failed coup that meets with no consequences is just a dry run.

For rest assured: the insurrectionists will come again. In fact, they are already coming, and not necessarily the way they did on January 6th, which is the insidious part of it. The Insurrectionists are currently attacking down a different avenue of approach, to use the military term of art, and in a manner we may not so readily recognize or be so alert to repel.

Chief among these attacks is a sustained, coordinated, multi-pronged attempt to suppress the vote in dozens of the states that the GOP controls. 

Now, you may say to me, “But King’s Necktie: unacceptable as it is, it isn’t Insurrectionists carrying out the voter suppression. That’s a separate issue.” 

And I would say to you: “Are you sure?”

Let us not be so shortsighted as to limit the definition “insurrectionists” to only those who stormed the Capitol. In truth, it is an entire movement, whose membership includes all those who core belief is that the election was stolen from Donald Trump and the Joe Biden is not a legitimate president. The broader belief system of this cult is that Democrats, progressives, feminists, people of color, and assorted other fellow travelers are somehow anti-American monsters and therefore an active threat to the very foundations of American life that merits aggressive opposition by any means necessary, to include both violent domestic terrorism and hair-raising violations of fundamental tenets of democratic rule. 

These folks are so drunk on Fox News-brand Kool-Aid that they have inverted reality, seeing themselves as great patriotic defenders of democracy, and their enemies as so evil, that their destruction justifies even the most extreme measures, including bloodshed and the establishment of autocracy. I know it’s crazy. But so-called “conservative” media is rife with the circular argument that left-wingers have become so dangerous to democracy that they have forced (forced!) right-wingers to resort to authoritarianism, to protect us from….you know…..authoritarianism.

We are in serious Vietnam-era “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” terrain, folks.

DESERT STORM FRONT

Some parties that lost as resoundingly as the Republicans did on the national level in 2020 might conduct a rigorous and reflective post-mortem that asks, “Hmmm, what did we do wrong? What is it about our platform that so many people dislike?” Instead, the GOP is asking: “How can we stop people from voting at all?” For it knows that is the only way it can regain and retain power going forward.

The whole point of the insurrection, lest we forget, was to seize control of electoral votes. All autocracies seek the fig leaf of political legitimacy, modern ones above all, though they are prepared to do without if necessary. The Trumpists’ post-January 6th campaign is targeted at the same goal; they are merely attacking at an earlier point in the electoral process. 

As part of that campaign, in Georgia, Republicans have not only instituted new, Jim Crow 2.0-style restrictions that make it harder for traditionally Democratic constituencies to vote, but they are even devouring their own, stripping Republican officials like Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of their power to oversee elections after he courageously took a stand against Trump’s attempts to steal back the Peach State

And then there’s Florida, the reigning champ in American lunacy and (appropriately) Trump’s adoptive home, where the Republican-controlled state government recently passed new “anti-rioting”  laws that allow it to crack down on dissent and peaceful protest. As laws were already on the books outlawing such violence, and long have been, these new measures can only be seen as what they are: an attempt to broaden the scope of Florida’s ability to stifle righteous, constitutionally protected freedom of expression, to the benefit of the Trumpist GOP. 

How ironic that the people who supported an actual riot now have the gall to pass laws punishing their peaceful opponents under the rubric of “anti-riot” legislation. 

Gerrymandering also remains key to the GOP strategy, and we now see how the Republican investment in the battle over the Census has paid off as well, as the new apportioning of seats has gifted red states a net gain of four new seats in Congress, and therefore four more electoral votes, further widening the gap between the popular and EC vote. 

As I say: multi-pronged. 

Among the scariest of Republican efforts is an attempt to exert partisan control over the vote counting process. 

Right now we are witnessing yet another recount in Maricopa County, Arizona, home to Phoenix and the vast majority of that state’s population, even after two bipartisan recounts already resoundingly reaffirmed Biden’s victory there. For this one, jawdroppingly, the Republican-controlled state government handed the process over to a fly-by-night company based in (wait for it) Florida called “Cyber Ninjas” that has no experience in these matters, is refusing to fully comply with court orders to reveal its mysterious sources and methods, is denying the press access to observe the process (except for OAN), and ejecting those few reporters who have managed to gain entry.  

Outrageous does not begin to describe it. Even some Republican officials in the Arizona state government have expressed their disapproval.

Cyber Ninjas is owned and run by an overt Trump conspiracy theorist, Doug Logan, an active member of the “Stop the Steal” movement. A not-small number of the people he has doing the recount inside a Phoenix-area facility—an “audit,” as they innocuously call it—arrive in cars festooned with Trump bumper stickers. One of them, former Arizona state representative Anthony Kern, is an actual insurrectionist who was part of the January 6th attack. (You won’t be surprised to learn that he is also a vocal defender of Gaetz and Giuliani, tweeting on the matter as recently as this past week.)

And how is the GOP justifying this transparently dishonest and hyperpartisan perversion of electoral integrity? The Washington Post reports:

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann (R), who spearheaded efforts to conduct the audit, has said that it is not about challenging President Biden’s win in Arizona, but is rather aimed at identifying possible weaknesses in state election laws that could be improved.

“When you’ve got half of the people who do not trust the electoral system anymore, rightly or wrongly, and they have questions, who is responsible for answering these questions?” Fann said Tuesday on KTAR News in Arizona. “This has been the sole thing, to get answers, so that if we have any problems, we can fix them.”

So to be clear, Republicans went all out to instill doubt about the integrity of our elections, and are now using that very doubt to justify looking into the integrity of our elections. And, oh yeah, the capper: their efforts are themselves destroying that very integrity, but for real this time. 

We are fast approaching a moment when Republicans will declare that any election they lose is illegitimate, while assuring us that any election they win is completely legit, because they say so. It’s an infinite loop of malicious disinformation, wielded by a power-mad party that has utterly abandoned the most basic precepts of democracy, except as Orwellian windowdressing. 

EXTREMISM IN THE DEFENSE OF AUTOCRACY

As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I lived in Arizona for a while and have great affection for the state. But that does not negate its long history as a loony tunes hotbed of quasi-libertarian, Old West-worshipping contrarianism and right wing insanity, from Goldwater to Arpaio. (It’s changing though, with two Democratic senators in Kelly and Sinema, even if Kristin is a bit of a DINO.)

Watch your back, Florida, there’s a new challenger on the rise. 

Trump is said to be thrilled by the Arizona recount, pestering aides for updates multiple times a day. His hope, reportedly, is that similar events will now take place in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. So, in case there was any doubt, Donald apparently is just as batshit as some of his most extreme supporters, many of who genuinely expect him to be imminently returned to office in a kind of “La-La-Land, oops, no, it’s Moonlight” mixup. 

(Meanwhile, the really far out wing of MAGA Nation—and I do realize that’s a sliding scale—is spreading a rumor that Biden is actually dead and Trump is still in the White House. I shit you not.)

So I am bracing for Cyber Ninjas to return a ridiculous claim that Trump actually won Arizona, which will trigger all sorts of hell. I don’t remotely think Joe Biden is going to be ejected from the Oval Office and Trump reinstalled, arriving in a sedan chair borne by the now-enslaved members of the Squad and escorted by members of the Proud Boys who think The Handmaid’s Tale is a how-to manual. But the whole process is blood-boiling and—more to the point—a terrifying omen

This is why I say that the voter suppression effort by the “mainstream” Republican leadership is merely another face of the Insurrectionist agenda. The GOP is clearly angling to create a system by which it can procedurally overturn the results of elections that don’t go its way; no storming of the US Capitol necessary. 

It would be beyond naïve to presume that they won’t succeed. 

CONFEDERACY 2.0

This past weekend I was in New Orleans. (My first air travel in fifteen months, as it happens. In case you’re wondering, time has not improved the experience of traversing the friendly skies.) 

New Orleans is a magnificent and enthralling city, but like much of America, it also has a dark and disturbing history….and in that Faulknerian way, the past ain’t even past. To that end, it offered a reminder of just widespread the Insurrectionist movement is.

I don’t mean the old school Confederacy in the form of Stars and Bars on display, and other open totems of Trumpism. Yeah, there was some of that, like the guy with the kiosk on Decatur Street with his lifesized cutout of Joe Biden dressed in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. (Pose for a photo with it, $6.) But was much more worrying were the number of doughy, middle-aged, suburban white guys in black-and-white t-shirts with reasonable-seeming quotes from the Constitution and Stuff Like That. (And I can say that, because I’m a doughy middle aged white guy.) These people represent a mainstream-ish bloc of “conservatives” who have internalized that aforementioned wildly ass-backward interpretation of American democracy, and they are all the more dangerous for their quasi-normalcy, as opposed to a bunch of Ducks Dynasty cosplaying militiamen and Lowe’s tiki torch-carrying neo-Nazi frat boys. (Though there’s likely some overlap.) Per above, it’s the height of irony that these dumbass motherfuckers flatter themselves to think that they’re somehow defending the Constitution with their support of a criminal presidency and a gangsterocracy of a political party, and not eviscerating that same document. 

Pro tip, fellas: maybe read the thing, and then re-consider the wisdom (or folly) of what you’re doing.  

But it’s a reminder that about 30% of the country, in my super-scientific anecdotal estimation, is totally down with a fascist takeover of this country, so long as their side is the one wearing the figurative boot and not the one on whose collective neck it’s pressed. 

So how to fight back? We have to put the pressure on for swift, thorough, and honest investigations, and if so indicated, criminal prosecutions, Congressional censure, and other repercussions. 

We also have to keep the pressure on in the media and the national conversation, even as Republicans like Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are trying to gaslight us into the thinking January 6th never happened, or if it did, it was a church picnic….even as Kevin McCarthy—who was nearly killed by rioters—cravenly walks back his initial criticism of Trump….even as Republicans try to squash efforts to stand up a 9/11 style commission to look into the matter, despite the cries of esteemed senior national security officials from both parties. 

The reason for this Republican gaslighting is obvious: they’re accomplices. As Chauncey DeVega writes in Salon:

Elected Republicans, by and large, were co-conspirators in the coup attempt. It is in their obvious self-interest to stop any and all investigations into their role in the Jan. 6 attack. The Republican propaganda machine continues to amplify the “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. As part of that lie, the right-wing propaganda machine has also crafted a narrative in which Trump’s followers who attacked the Capitol are “victims” and “patriots,” innocent of any malicious intent or serious wrongdoing. Such lies will only encourage more right-wing terrorism and other political violence.

It’s up to us to keep up the volume and not let these assholes get away with it.

While we’re in Louisiana, let’s turn to the Ragin’ Cajun, who nailed it recently while speaking to Vox, in his inimitable way. Over to you, James Carville:

(Democrats) have to make the Republicans own that insurrection every day. They have to pound it. They have to call bookers on cable news shows. They have to get people to write op-eds. There will be all kinds of investigations and stories dripping out for god knows how long, and the Democrats should spend every day tying all of it to the Republican Party. They can’t sit back and wait for it to happen. 

Hell, just imagine if it was a bunch of nonwhite people who stormed the Capitol. Imagine how Republicans would exploit that and make every news cycle about how the Dems are responsible for it. Every political debate would be about that. The Republicans would bludgeon the Democrats with it forever.

So whatever you think Republicans would do to us in that scenario, that’s exactly what the hell we need to do them.

PUTSCH AND SUNDANCE

By way of closing, let me just say that Godwin’s Law remains in abeyance in the post-Trump era (to the extent that it is “post” at all), not because we in America are facing something on a par with Nazism, but—as I have noted many times in these pages—because the Nazis remain the most instructive template for the rise of a modern authoritarian state. 

In Ascent, the first volume of his massive new two-part biography of Hitler, the author Volker Ullrich describes the failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, which landed the führer-to-be in prison for nine months (of a five year sentence). At the time, many otherwise savvy observers thought Adolf was done for, his political career over, and his future prospects nil.  

But ten years after that failed coup, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through legal political means, appointed by President Paul von Hindenburg whose hand had been forced owing to Hitler’s popularity and the maneuvering of his surrogates. So when I say “legal political means,“ I mean that the Nazi Party had so corroded the German political system that it could essentially seize power without firing a shot. The first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, went into operation two months later.

Ullrich writes:

If the Bavarian judicial system had enforced the letter of the law, Hitler would have spent many years in prison for his attempted coup d’état, making a political comeback almost inconceivable. Thus the leader of the NSDAP had every reason to be grateful to his judge for giving him the minimum sentence. Moreover, he was also allowed to use his trial as a stage for self-aggrandisement, during which he styled his dilettantish attempt at armed rebellion into a heroic defeat. 

The failed putsch was to become a central element in Nazi Party legend. The party comrades who died in it were glorified as “blood witnesses” to the movement’s struggle, and Hitler would dedicate the first volume of Mein Kampf to them. After 1933, 8 and 9 November 1923 would become the high point of the Nazi calendar. 

The lesson is clear. If we don’t want January 6th to become a national holiday under the auspices of a re-ascendant Trumpist ruling party, we best make sure that those responsible for it are met now with the full force of the law. Wasn’t it Goldwater himself who scolded us that “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”?

I know Biden wants to move on and focus on his forward-thinking agenda, and is walking a tightrope in terms of unsubstantiated (but still fraught) allegations of political vindictiveness. I know we’re all tired and want to move on. But there can be no moving on without accountability. I would not presume to equate the Insurrection with the events of August 1945, not by a mile, but it’s still worth recalling the haunting lines from Hiroshima Mon Amour: “It will happen again.” Indeed, it is happening even now, in slow-motion.

For make no mistake: democracy continues to be under assault in the United States in multiple chilling, insidious, and outrageous ways. And why shouldn’t it be, when we have clearly signaled to the assaulters that they will pay no price for their crimes? Inaction is a recipe for disaster. If we do not reckon with what occurred and force its authors to face the consequences of their actions, it will happen again, and we will have no one but ourselves to blame. 

**********

Photo: The defendants in the 1924 trial of the architects of the Beer Hall  Putsch of the preceding fall. Hitler fourth from right. (Did you need me to write that?)

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