Kagan as Cassandra

This week on The King’s Necktie, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before in four and a half years of writing this blog: devote an entire essay to a single piece of journalism by another author.

I’m doing that because last week the conservative foreign policy thinker Robert Kagan published a juggernaut 6000 word op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Our Constitutional Crisis Is Already Here,” forcefully laying out the clear and present danger to our republic like no other piece of writing before it. It should be required reading for all Americans. 

Let’s dive in.

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS

Kagan’s point is simple: that the GOP is in the process of installing Donald Trump for a second term in 2024, regardless of the results of the election, an act that would mark the de facto end of representative democracy in the United States and the arrival of an autocratic state. Further, he states that the Democratic Party, the respectable remnants of the Republican Party (all three of them, hiding in a basement in Orange County), and other forces opposed to Trump are not reacting to this crisis with the due urgency. 

I couldn’t agree more. 

The US, Kagan argues, is entering “its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.” The steps he sees, and about which he thinks there is no debate, are as follows:

First, Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. The hope and expectation that he would fade in visibility and influence have been delusional. He enjoys mammoth leads in the polls; he is building a massive campaign war chest; and at this moment the Democratic ticket looks vulnerable. Barring health problems, he is running.

I would add to the list of potential de-railers “legal problems” including felony indictments, but I’m not holding my breath. Even being on trial in federal court—or less likely, pumping iron in the yard of a federal prison—might not be a barrier to Trump running, or even winning, especially considering Kagan’s next point:

Second, Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. 

Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way…..the amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for Trump are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process. 

The reason for this effort is self-evident. Trump probably cannot win in a fair election, just as the broader party has found it all but impossible to win on policy at the national level, so the GOP needs to take control of the electoral process so that a) Democratic voters will be suppressed, and b) it can manipulate the results if they don’t go its way. Kagan notes the irony that Trump has said the Democrats cannot win in 2022 and 2024 without cheating, when in fact the math says that it is Republicans who are in that position. So cheat they will

And it might not be that difficult to pull off:

The fact that (Trump) failed to overturn the 2020 election has reassured many that the American system remains secure, though it easily could have gone the other way—if Biden had not been safely ahead in all four states where the vote was close; if Trump had been more competent and more in control of the decision-makers in his administration, Congress and the states. As it was, Trump came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year. All that prevented it was a handful of state officials with notable courage and integrity, and the reluctance of two attorneys general and a vice president to obey orders they deemed inappropriate.

It is this last point that is most alarming. If the GOP succeeds in its concerted, systemic effort to remove anyone whose x-rays show evidence of a spine and replace them with Trumpist lackeys, who will be left to stop him next time? Not a Republican-led Senate under Mitch McConnell. “As the two Trump impeachments showed, if members of Congress are willing to defend or ignore the president’s actions simply because he is their party leader, then conviction and removal become all but impossible. In such circumstances, the Framers left no other check against usurpation by the executive—except (small-r) republican virtue.” 

A party that will not remove a president who tried to mount a violent self-coup can hardly be counted on to play fair the next time that same guy runs for office. 

INSURRECTION 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO

Anticipating GOP claims of victory in the next presidential race—or fraud, if they lose, irrespective of the actual numbers—Kagan then paints a portrait of nationwide chaos. “Today’s arguments over the filibuster will seem quaint in three years if the American political system enters a crisis for which the Constitution offers no remedy.” If Biden calls out the police and/or National Guard to maintain order, let alone invoke the Insurrection Act, Republicans will scream “Tyranny!” even as they were fine—even encouraging, in some cases—when Trump mused about doing that very thing. (IOKIYAR.) Democrats, conversely, will have trouble defending such actions, even if they are genuinely warranted, after hue and cry over hints of presidential despotism and martial law last time. 

Alarmism, you say? I refer you to the events of January 6, 2021—and the following February 13, when the aforementioned Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold Trump accountable. Yet still many of countrymen refuse to believe such political violence is plausible, even after seeing it happen once before. 

Most Americans—and all but a handful of politicians—have refused to take this possibility seriously enough to try to prevent it. As has so often been the case in other countries where fascist leaders arise, their would-be opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement….(following) the standard model of appeasement.

A strong candidate for Cliché of the Year is the maxim that a failed coup that meets with no punishment is just a dry run. But clichés usually earn that distinction because they are true. 

It would be foolish to imagine that the violence of Jan. 6 was an aberration that will not be repeated. Because Trump supporters see those events as a patriotic defense of the nation, there is every reason to expect more such episodes. Trump has returned to the explosive rhetoric of that day, insisting that he won in a “landslide,” that the “radical left Democrat communist party” stole the presidency in the “most corrupt, dishonest, and unfair election in the history of our country” and that they have to give it back. He has targeted for defeat those Republicans who voted for his impeachment—or criticized him for his role in the riot. Already, there have been threats to bomb polling sites, kidnap officials and attack state capitols. 

Kagan offers a review of how the chattering classes on both left and right have consistently underestimated Trump’s awfulness and his willingness to employ it, including “how far he was willing to go to retain power.” But by now we ought to realize that nothing is unimaginable or beyond the pale for the Trumpist GOP. 

The same people who said that Trump wouldn’t try to overturn the last election now say we have nothing to worry about with the next one. Republicans have been playing this game for five years, first pooh-poohing concerns about Trump’s intentions, or about the likelihood of their being realized, and then going silent, or worse, when what they insisted was improbable came to pass. These days, even the anti-Trump media constantly looks for signs that Trump’s influence might be fading and that drastic measures might not be necessary.

So let us be under no delusions about what the modern GOP is and its lone goal:

The Republican Party today is a zombie party. Its leaders go through the motions of governing in pursuit of traditional Republican goals, wrestling over infrastructure spending and foreign policy, even as real power in the party has leached away to Trump. From the uneasy and sometimes contentious partnership during Trump’s four years in office, the party’s main if not sole purpose today is as the willing enabler of Trump’s efforts to game the electoral system to ensure his return to power.

And if the GOP cannot regain power with electoral subversion, it will be happy to do it with bear spray, zipties, and AR-15s. 

RAIN ON A TIN ROOF

So who is this prophet of doom foretelling such a grim future?

Robert Kagan is a co-founder of the now-defunct neoconservative think tank the Project for the New American Century. A veteran of the State Department with degrees in history and public policy from Yale and Harvard and a PhD in US history from American University, he was a speechwriter for Secretary of State George Shultz under Reagan, and a foreign policy advisor to Jack Kemp in the early ‘80s and for John McCain during his 2008 presidential run. Currently he is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Foreign Affairs Policy Board, and a contributing editor at The New Republic and The Weekly Standard

So, no slouch, and no bleeding heart liberal either. 

A lifelong Republican, Kagan left the GOP in 2016 over its nomination of Donald Trump and endorsed Hillary Clinton. 

I’m not on Team Kagan when it comes to foreign policy. Given that he was one of the chief cheerleaders who took us into Iraq, the bloody aftermath of the fall of Afghanistan is not a great time for Bob to pop up and give advice. But he is as right about the danger of Trump as he was wrong about the ease of taking out Saddam.

Kagan suggests that Trump is waging war on two fronts: one the “normal, legitimate political competition,” the other “outside the bounds of constitutional and democratic competition and into the realm of illegal or extralegal efforts to undermine the electoral process.” 

The two are intimately related, because the Republican Party has used its institutional power in the political sphere to shield Trump and his followers from the consequences of their illegal and extralegal activities in the lead-up to Jan. 6. Thus, Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, in their roles as party leaders, run interference for the Trump movement in the sphere of legitimate politics, while Republicans in lesser positions cheer on the Jan. 6 perpetrators, turning them into martyrs and heroes, and encouraging illegal acts in the future.

He cites the advantages of “this pincer assault,” principally, that it allows Republicans to pretend to be normal politicians acting in good faith while acting in horrendously bad faith. (Along the way, Republicans have also suddenly remembered their hawkish interventionalist foreign policy, and their deficit-fetishizing supply side economics, both of which were in a blind trust during the Trump years, unlike the Trump Organization.)

But as Kagan writes, “there is a fundamental disingenuousness to it all.” 

It is a dodge. Republicans focus on China and critical race theory and avoid any mention of Trump, even as the party works to fix the next election in his favor. The left hand professes to know nothing of what the right hand is doing.

Even Trump opponents play along. Republicans such as Sens. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse have condemned the events of Jan. 6, criticized Trump and even voted for his impeachment, but in other respects they continue to act as good Republicans and conservatives. On issues such as the filibuster, Romney and others insist on preserving “regular order” and conducting political and legislative business as usual, even though they know that Trump’s lieutenants in their party are working to subvert the next presidential election.

The result is that even these anti-Trump Republicans are enabling the insurrection.

THE LOWEST OF BARS: WHAT PASSES FOR REPUBLICAN COURAGE

To that end, we all know by now just how vile and loathsome the top Republicans are: McConnell, Graham, McCarthy, Hawley, Cruz, DeSantis, Abbott, and the rest of democracy’s gravediggers. But one of the great public services Kagan provides is calling out the handful of “decent” Republicans like Romney who have been happy to collect praise for their mild pushback against Trump while refusing to take the necessary steps real resistance demands. 

Like the man said, ain’t nothing in the middle of the road but a big yellow streak. 

In distinguishing Trump from traditional (big-r) Republicanism, Kagan is trying to protect the legacy of the “Reagan Revolution” in which he believes, though I would argue that Reaganism was very much a waystation on that downward journey, and not a departure from it. He urges the left not to view the GOP as synonymous with Trumpism, as there are allies to be found among disaffected Republicans who still cling to some semblance of true conservative principles and shared American values. He also beseeches Democrats not to use this moment as a partisan opportunity to deal lethal damage to the GOP, though there I would again argue that the GOP has already done that to itself, and nothing the Democrats do one way or another will make it better or worse. (Kagan himself details the ugly history of Republican self-harm better and culpability for the rise of Trump than anyone. More on that in a moment.) 

It has become fashionable to write off any possibility that a handful of Republicans might rise up to save the day. This preemptive capitulation has certainly served well those Republicans who might otherwise be held to account for their cowardice. How nice for them that everyone has decided to focus fire on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

Yet it is largely upon these Republicans that the fate of the republic rests.

Those who criticize Biden and the Democrats for not doing enough to prevent this disaster are not being fair. There is not much they can do without Republican cooperation, especially if they lose control of either chamber in 2022. 

But who are these supposed idealists who are ripe for rebellion? Only seven Republican senators voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment. “All have faced angry backlashes—Romney was booed and called a traitor at the Utah Republican convention; Burr and Cassidy were unanimously censured by their state parties.” But Kagan does not see this seven as particularly magnificent, and is harder on them than almost anyone on the left:

Yet as much credit as they deserve for taking this stand, it was almost entirely symbolic. When it comes to concrete action that might prevent a debacle in 2024, they have balked.

Specifically, they have refused to work with Democrats to pass legislation limiting state legislatures’ ability to overturn the results of future elections, to ensure that the federal government continues to have some say when states try to limit voting rights, to provide federal protection to state and local election workers who face threats, and in general to make clear to the nation that a bipartisan majority in the Senate opposes the subversion of the popular will. 

Kagan asks why they have been so timid. They have no “future in a Trump-dominated party,” and even if they did, do they really want to be mere lackeys in a neo-fascist regime? He urges Romney et al to “fashion themselves as Constitutional Republicans who, in the present emergency, are willing to form a national unity coalition in the Senate for the sole purpose of saving the republic,” meaning joining with Democrats in a “temporary governing consensus on a host of critical issues: government spending, defense, immigration and even the persistent covid-19 pandemic, effectively setting aside the usual battles to focus on the more vital and immediate need to preserve the United States.”

Ah yes, and after that they will flap their wings and fly to the moon. 

There is no sign that any such non-partisan bravery on the part of disaffected Republicans is in the offing. 

Kagan makes some other claims that also seem rather, uh, optimistic. He notes the urgency of passing new voting rights bills, and says that “Senate Democrats were wise to cut down their once-massive voting rights wish list and get behind the smaller compromise measure unveiled last week by Manchin and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.” Yet in the very next sentence he admits: “But they have yet to attract any votes from their Republican colleagues for the measure.” 

“Democrats need to give anti-Trump Republicans a chance to do the right thing,” he writes. Well, we have, and by Kagan’s own admission, the best we’ve gotten is Susan Collins running interference for Brett Kavanaugh because she was confident he was not out to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and then not even getting behind the House bill that codifies Roe, even after good ol’ Bart pulled the football out from under her, Lucy-and-Charlie Brown style.

Hoping a few Republicans will rise up and save the day does not strike me as a winning strategy. I think it is more than “fashionable” to write off that idea— it is prudent, to use a word conservatives once favored. 

Thus far the anti-Trump GOP resistance in elected office has shown less courage than my ten-year-old daughter did on her first night at sleepaway camp.

THE SERPENT’S EGG

In the same way that Kagan calls out Republican cowardice in the present moment, he is also quite clear on who is responsible for the rise of Trump in the first place—not an academic question, as it bears on the current dilemma. The bookstores are already full of tomes on the subject, and that cottage industry looks to have a long future ahead. But Prof. Kagan minces no words: 

The (Republican) party gave birth to and nurtured this movement; it bears full responsibility for establishing the conditions in which Trump could capture the loyalty of 90 percent of Republican voters. Republican leaders were more than happy to ride Trump’s coattails if it meant getting paid off with hundreds of conservative court appointments, including three Supreme Court justices; tax cuts; immigration restrictions; and deep reductions in regulations on business.

This is not a new development. Kagan has long blamed the GOP for going down a path that led to this monster, notably in a 2016 piece for the WaPo, before Trump even officially secured the Republican nomination, titled “This Is How Fascism Comes to America.”

He notes that Trump either forced out or co-opted all the mandarins of the traditional GOP, many of whom foolishly thought they could restrain, manipulate, or out-maneuver him, just as Hindenburg & Co. did with a certain clownish mustachioed upstart in the ‘30s. But the normal rules of party politics cease to operate when dealing with a cult of personality.

More chilling still were those who were happy to bow down.

Trump’s grip on his supporters left no room for an alternative power center in the party…..The only real issue was Trump himself, and on that there could be no dissent. Those who disapproved of Trump could either keep silent or leave.

Conservative publications that once opposed him as unfit for the presidency had to reverse course or lose readership and funding. Pundits had to adjust to the demands of their pro-Trump audiences—and were rewarded handsomely when they did. Donors who had opposed Trump during the primaries fell into line, if only to preserve some influence on the issues that mattered to them. Advocacy organizations that had previously seen their role as holding the Republican Party to certain principles, and thus often dissented from the party leadership, either became advocates for Trump or lost clout.

He excoriates the conservative intellectuals who “not only came to Trump’s defense but fashioned political doctrines to justify his rule, filling in the wide gaps of his nonexistent ideology with an appeal to ‘conservative nationalism’ and conservative populism.Perhaps American conservatism was never comfortable with the American experiment in liberal democracy, but certainly since Trump took over their party, many conservatives have revealed a hostility to core American beliefs.”

That process continues even now, with once-vaguely credible organizations like the Claremont Institute, whose president Ryan Williams recently offered The Atlantic’s Emma Green an eyepopping argument why minority rule by conservatives is justified, even in defiance of the popular vote. (Part of an interview that was chockablock with racism, xenophobia, Christian supremacism. Have a look, if you have a strong stomach.) 

This is the inevitable next step in the conservative movement’s Orwellian rationalization for why it is duty-bound to destroy the very fundamentals of American democracy.

But it was one thing for working Republican politicians and pundits to become Trump’s lickspittles—despicable, but understandable. But what of those with nothing on the line who still kept quiet and stared at their shoes, those “Republican elder statesmen, former secretaries of state in their 80s or 90s who had no further ambitions for high office and seemingly nothing to lose by speaking out”?

Despite their known abhorrence of everything Trump stood for, these old lions refused to criticize him. They were unwilling to come out against a Republican Party to which they had devoted their professional lives, even when the party was led by someone they detested. Whatever they thought about Trump, moreover, Republican elders disliked Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democrats more. 

Again, this is not so unusual. German conservatives accommodated Adolf Hitler in large part because they opposed the socialists more than they opposed the Nazis, who, after all, shared many of their basic prejudices. 

Such is the toxic influence of tribalism. For even as Kagan argues that Trumpism and the GOP are not synonymous, he inadvertently highlights the deeper reality: The Republican Party gave birth to this viper, and didn’t strangle him in the nest, precisely because ultimately its members are sympathetic to him and what he aimed to do (and still aims to do), at least when measured against the Democrats and their agenda.

Res ipsa loquitur. 

PERSONALITY CRISIS

Without denying or excusing their underlying racial bigotry, Kagan notes the “normalcy” of the majority of Trump supporters, even those who took up arms in the Insurrection of January 6th. (Hannah Arendt, call your office.) 

That does not make them any less dangerous….indeed, it says something chilling about so-called “mainstream” America. “Although zealous in defense of their own rights and freedoms, they are less concerned about the rights and freedoms of those who are not like them,” he writes. What these folks don’t have “is what the Framers meant by ‘republican virtue,’” of which he spoke earlier, “a love of freedom not only for oneself but also as an abstract, universal good; a love of self-government as an ideal; a commitment to abide by the laws passed by legitimate democratic processes; and a healthy fear of and vigilance against tyranny of any kind.”

Al Gore and his supporters displayed republican virtue when they abided by the Supreme Court’s judgment in 2000 despite the partisan nature of the justices’ decision. (Whether the court itself displayed republican virtue is another question.)

The events of Jan. 6, on the other hand, proved that Trump and his most die-hard supporters are prepared to defy constitutional and democratic norms, just as revolutionary movements have in the past. While it might be shocking to learn that normal, decent Americans can support a violent assault on the Capitol, it shows that Americans as a people are not as exceptional as their founding principles and institutions. 

Kagan traces the long history of this “paranoid style” at the heart of Trumpism all the way back to the dawn of colonial America, with its “suspicion of and hostility toward” centralized authority, its racism, white supremacism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, sectarian fear of modernity and secularism, economic anxiety, class tensions, and the rest. The cross-breeding of that reactionary impulse with a cult of personality and the power of modern media has proven to be terrifying.

(F)or millions of Americans, Trump himself is the response to their fears and resentments. (Trump supporters’) bond with Trump has little to do with economics or other material concerns. They believe the US government and society have been captured by socialists, minority groups and sexual deviants.

There was a time when political analysts wondered what would happen when Trump failed to “deliver” for his constituents. But the most important thing Trump delivers is himself. His egomania is part of his appeal. In his professed victimization by the media and the “elites,” his followers see their own victimization. That is why attacks on Trump by the elites only strengthen his bond with his followers. That is why millions of Trump supporters have even been willing to risk death as part of their show of solidarity: When Trump’s enemies cited his mishandling of the pandemic to discredit him, their answer was to reject the pandemic. 

Such a slavish, demigod-worshipping mindset is fundamentally at odds with a republican form of government. 

Liberal democracy requires acceptance of adverse electoral results, a willingness to countenance the temporary rule of those with whom we disagree. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, it requires that people “endure error in the interest of social peace.” Part of that willingness stems from the belief that the democratic system makes it possible to work, even in opposition, to correct the ruling party’s errors and overreach. 

For a movement built around a cult of personality, these adjustments are not possible. For Trump supporters, the “error” is that Trump was cheated out of reelection by what he has told them is an oppressive, communist, Democrat regime. While the defeat of a sitting president normally leads to a struggle to claim the party’s mantle, so far no Republican has been able to challenge Trump’s grip on Republican voters: not Sen. Josh Hawley, not Sen. Tom Cotton, not Tucker Carlson, not Gov. Ron DeSantis. It is still all about Trump. The fact that he is not in office means that the United States is “a territory controlled by enemy tribes,” writes one conservative intellectual. 

That is a recipe for insurrection and civil war. Kagan again:

The world will look very different in 14 months if, as seems likely, the Republican zombie party wins control of the House. At that point, with the political winds clearly blowing in his favor, Trump is all but certain to announce his candidacy, and social media constraints on his speech are likely to be lifted, since Facebook and Twitter would have a hard time justifying censoring his campaign. With his megaphone back, Trump would once again dominate news coverage, as outlets prove unable to resist covering him around the clock if only for financial reasons.

But this time, Trump would have advantages that he lacked in 2016 and 2020, including more loyal officials in state and local governments; the Republicans in Congress; and the backing of GOP donors, think tanks and journals of opinion. And he will have the Trump movement, including many who are armed and ready to be activated, again. Who is going to stop him then? On its current trajectory, the 2024 Republican Party will make the 2020 Republican Party seem positively defiant.

So what would a return from Elba look like?

(Trump’s) exoneration from the charges leveled in his impeachment trials—the only official, legal response to his actions—practically ensures that he would wield power even more aggressively. 

His experience with unreliable subordinates in his first term is likely to guide personnel decisions in a second. Only total loyalists would serve at the head of the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and the Pentagon. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs will not be someone likely to place his or her own judgment above that of their civilian commander in chief. 

Nor would a Republican Senate fail to confirm Trump loyalists. In such a world, with Trump and his lieutenants in charge of all the levers of state power, including its growing capacity for surveillance, opposing Trump would become increasingly risky for Republicans and Democrats alike. 

A Trump victory is likely to mean at least the temporary suspension of American democracy as we have known it.

PAGING JOE STRUMMER

Kagan is far from alone in raising these fears, but he has been among the most blunt and eloquent. 

While being interviewed at The Atlantic Festival last week, Hillary Clinton was asked about his op-ed and replied that she “largely agree(d) with it, because I’m not sure that many people—and this includes obviously the public, but also the press—fully appreciate the determination, the relentless pursuit of power, the design of minority rule that we are currently watching happen.” 

We’re in a tough spot. And it is an existential crisis in lots of ways because there’s no doubt in my mind that the plan on the other side is to win the presidency again, whether or not they win the popular vote and the Electoral College. And the same will be true to take back the Senate, to take back the House. And anybody who thinks that’s not the most important issue facing our democracy is really not paying attention.

Kagan wraps up thusly:

We are already in a constitutional crisis. The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. In a little more than a year, it may become impossible to pass legislation to protect the electoral process in 2024. Now it is impossible only because anti-Trump Republicans, and even some Democrats, refuse to tinker with the filibuster. It is impossible because, despite all that has happened, some people still wish to be good Republicans even as they oppose Trump. These decisions will not wear well as the nation tumbles into full-blown crisis.

In common usage, the term “cassandra” is often used to mean a false prophet whose predictions prove untrue. But that usage is itself wrong. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a prophet who was cursed to always tell the truth….but not be believed. 

Let’s hope Bob Kagan doesn’t go down in history fitting that description. 

That will be up to us. 

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