15 messidor year CDXXVI
among academics—and that small sliver of the public that is aware, or cares—the consensus about the collapse of democracy in the united states of america in the 21st century CE is sufficiently uniform that no new insights or revelations are likely to be forthcoming, not even from the most revisionist thinkers.
for an event that happened more than 400 yrs ago, the reasons remain remarkably self-evident, to the point where one marvels that americans of that era themselves did not see it coming—or worse, did but still failed to stop it. even so, we can take valuable lessons from the folly of these ancients, in hopes of avoiding the same sorry fate.
this summary, prepared for Political Science 107: The Collapse of American Democracy, will provide a brief survey.
A TRAGEDY FORETOLD
lets start at the end, shall we?
the united states, the first country on earth to establish a representative democracy, tragically committed a kind of political suicide, carelessly allowing the rise of a demagogue at the head of a ruthless right wing autocratic movement that used the very mechanisms of democracy to undermine and destroy it.
terrible as that was, the autocrats succeeded only b/c the forces of law and order and were so slow to react—and when they finally did, moved timidly and fecklessly. by the time a significant number of americans awoke to the emergency they were in, it was too late.
that paradigm, of course, is common in many nations that succumb to autocracy. indeed, historically speaking, the demise of a democracy via an extralegal takeover, violent or otherwise, is far less common than one that begins at the ballot box, with an authoritarian party gaining power thru legitimate or quasi-legitimate means, then slowly choking off the very mechanisms it used to gain it, and installing itself in permanent control.
in the case of the US, it was an especially bitter fate, given that the country had succeeded in removing that demagogue and his party once, only to foolishly let them seize power again.
how, you ask, could an empire like the united states have reached this pretty pass? to understand, its helpful to look back at the origin and history of those united states.
(for those of you who are ambitious, try your hand at reading the primary source documents in 21st century english, in all its prissy formality.)
PAST AS PROLOGUE
the united states of america was founded some 600 yrs ago as the first modern republic, rejecting the primitive concept of monarchy in favor of rule by the citizens themselves on the then-revolutionary notion of “one person, one vote.”
the US was the foremost power of its time, akin to the roman empire of 2000 yrs before, the global leader in everything from the arts to technology to manufacturing to pop culture. it also had, for many yrs, by far the most powerful military on the planet, and was not shy about using it. the united states gave us the internet (peace be upon it), and the Information Revolution full stop, for good or ill. It was the birthplace of aviation, and—a mere 69 yrs later, a relative eye blink—the first country to put a human on the moon. american innovation, industry, and ingenuity, were the envy of the world; its artists, filmmakers, musicians, and designers set the international standard that all others emulated, with american culture reaching the most farflung corners of the planet and shaping human life to an almost obscene degree. for a period of nearly a hundred yrs, from the defeat of germany in the mid 20th century to its own decline in the mid-21st, america arguably ruled the world.
but the united states was also a nation born in contradiction. the visionaries who founded it included a significant number of slaveowners—that is to say, people who actually owned other human beings in a state of violent bondage, servitude, and institutionalized rape. the unconscionable brutality of such a system is hard for the modern mind to comprehend, let alone among people who fancied themselves “enlightened.” but slavery had been prevalent thruout the ancient world, including the rebellious colonies that became the first thirteen american states. for that matter, the land on which the united states was established had been stolen in the first place from its original indigenous inhabitants, who were slaughtered in a horrific genocide by the forefathers of the settlers who would go on to found the USA.
given that inauspicious start, it becomes easier to see why the US went down the way it did.
following america’s successful war for independence from its monarchist mother country, slave-owning remained commonplace in fully half of the new united states for almost 100 yrs. even after slavery was ended following a bloody civil war that almost destroyed the young republic, it left a legacy of systemic racism and an inherent domestic conflict between the formerly free and formerly slave states. (“one person, one vote” too was a cruel joke: originally only white property-owning males were enfranchised in the united states. it would take until 1920 CE for the country to grant full suffrage to all citizens, with women gaining it last.)
the US never did reckon with the cancer that accompanied its birth, and in many ways it was that failure to do so, and the lingering, festering fanaticism of those who clung to the legacy of the slave-owning cause, that would be at the heart of the countrys eventual demise.
TO DREAM YOU MUST BE ASLEEP
having been born in a guerrilla rebellion against monarchy, the US prided itself on not being an imperial power. that may have been true in its early yrs, but by the end of the 19th century CE it had evolved into a nascent empire acquiring colonies of its own. it went on to become among the most militarily aggressive nations of its time, attacking, invading, and otherwise violently interfering in the affairs of countless nations all over the world, both overtly and covertly. (some, though not all, of that military adventurism must be contextualized by americas rivalry with soviet russia, the other “superpower” of the time, to use the vernacular of that era.)
it was de rigueur for american politicians to refer to theirs as “the greatest nation on earth.” (im sure that didnt alienate anyone in the rest of the world.) arguably, this otherwise childish belief in “american exceptionalism” did have a kernel of truth at its core, in terms of america having pioneered representative democracy. but over the centuries that justifiable pride curdled into toxic self-regard bordering on a deadly nationalism.
ostentatiously rejecting old world ideas of aristocracy and hereditary wealth, america fancied itself a “classless” society and prided itself on its social mobility—the “american dream,” as its citizens proudly called it. for a time that, too, was relatively true. but by the turn of the 19th century, unchecked capitalism had led to levels of inequality such that in the year 1929 CE there ensued a severe economic crash and subsequent depression. the US pulled itself out thru a program of progressive-minded policies called the New Deal—laughably mild by our standards, but radical for the time, and viewed by conservatives of that era as a threat to all they held dear….which is to say, their hold on power.
the enactment of the New Deal, followed by a world war in which the united states admirably took a leading role against fascist tyranny in europe, vaulted the US into the period of its greatest prosperity and power. but american conservatives never stopped bristling at the power they had lost.
it took almost fifty yrs, but beginning in the 1980s CE, rapacious right wing political elements began dismantling the New Deal with a kind of voodoo economics that, risibly, convinced ordinary americans that the best thing for their economic well-being would be to cut taxes on the rich, on the theory that the benefits would “trickle down.”
spoiler alert: the result was the exponential growth of an equality gap in which the rich got richer and the poor got the picture.
to make matters worse, almost alone among industrialized nations, the US eschewed things like investment in education, universal health care, government sponsored childcare, paid family leave, retirement and pension plans, aid to the poor, and other social services, leading to an unbearably cruel darwinian state. by the time the US eventually collapsed, it was among the most egregiously inequitable of all industrialized nations, with an obscenely rich elite controlling virtually all its wealth, while all the vast majority of americans struggled and suffered.
bizarrely, a great many working americans enthusiastically supported this dynamic, consistently voting against their own self-interest, a testament to the sheer effectiveness of the con that had been perpetrated upon them, and their own willingness to abet it. in part that was b/c of a deviously successful right wing propaganda campaign, conjuring foreign enemies, “socialists,” and what they derisively referred to as “elites,” even as it was waged by the true elites themselves.
which brings us to the rogues gallery of cretins, con men and monsters who finally brought down american democracy, and sweet but feckless fools who let them do it.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY
in ancient america, the republican party—as it was known, with no discernible irony—identified as the party of conservativism. both terms were screaming misnomers. far from being middle of the road moderates, the self-described conservatives of the late american empire were reactionary radicals who sought to maintain their hold on power by transforming the republic into a right wing autocracy.
the republicans ostentatiously presented themselves as the party of “small government” and individual liberty. for some that position was genuine, for others nothing but a useful pose that allowed them to pursue an agenda that belied both precepts. the republican party had always been the defender of the rich, of big business, and of aggressive militarism, but it had, for more of its history, been solidly within the bounds of the rule of law and the principles of american democracy as they were generally understood. but beginning in the 1990s the party became increasingly radicalized, under the sway of a cunning sociopath with the unlikely name of Newt Gingrich who advocated a scorched earth brand of politics that preached no cooperation or compromise with the other side, not even on the most anodyne matters of governance, twinned with a permanent attack mode that sought to demonize those foes as not merely the respectable opposition, but downright satanic.
it was a strategy as effective as it was cynical.
the US was also deeply superstitious society, with tens of millions of its citizens fanatically devoted to their various mythological gods. (after all, the first invaders who came to the western hemisphere were religious fundamentalists fleeing persecution in the old world in order to perpetrate it in the new one.) beginning in the late 20th century, that religiosity too was ruthlessly weaponized by reactionary forces, whose hypocrisy on the matter beggared belief. yet tens of millions of the devout were willing dupes, conned into taking the side of some of the most openly impious, libertine, and morally degenerate forces in american life, simply b/c they had been duplicitously assured by these same folks that they were “defending the faith.”
not for nothing was it america that gave us the maxim that “theres a sucker born every minute.”
the rise of brute force Gingrichian politics coincided with the Information Revolution—or perhaps more correctly, the Disinformation Revolution—which allowed for the dissemination of propaganda, fake news, and outright lies at a theretofore unheard of rate. slander, conspiracy theory, and fearmongering took off exponentially, with entire swaths of the populace siloed off from anything resembling the truth. hand in hand, legitimate journalism was starved of oxygen, becoming functionally inconsequential except among the “thinking classes,” where it served as little more than an echo chamber that had no appreciable impact on broader society. some colossally self-absorbed private individuals even wrote “blogs”—a portmanteau for “web log—bloviating screeds of personal opinion that ran to thousands of words a week, read by almost no one, and with all the impact of a gnat screaming in a hurricane.
that right wing propaganda found fertile soil in the american psyche. the independent spirit of rugged individualism that distinguished the country from its very founding had also brought with it a predisposition to paranoia, anti-intellectualism, suspicion of government, skepticism of science and of empiricism full stop, and worst of all, a deadly fetish for guns unique in the developed world. such a people were primed to believe the most outrageous bullshit. when turbocharged by the advent of social media and high tech, that phenomenon became positively deadly.
Gingrichs brand of ruthless politics came into its own with the election of the first and only Black US president, Barack Obama, who ascended to the White House (the metonym for the US presidency) after his republican predecessor—the callow and inexperienced son of a previous republican president—led the country into both a disastrous foreign war and a banking meltdown that nearly destroyed the entire global economy….the 2nd time, in fact, that a republican president had done so in the span of 80 yrs.
(by that time the republican party already counted within its ranks the only US president ever to be forced to resign in disgrace over an epic scandal—Nixon, was his name for your footnotes—and a dimwitted but affable former movie star who championed the disastrous “trickle down” economics.)
despite that abysmal record of republican leadership, the rise of a Black president so incensed the reactionary swath of the american public that a widely believed conspiracy theory arose that Obama was not really american by birth and therefore constitutionally disqualified for office: such was the teeth-gnashing panic over the idea that white people would lose their grip on power.
during Obamas reign the american right wing became more and more radicalized and extreme and violent, so loath were these people to accept the idea that a Black man could be head of state. it was fitting then that this development should set in the motion the fall of the United States into neo-fascist autocracy, given the central role that race had played thruout US history, stretching back to its very founding.
and it was into this volatile and explosive climate that stepped a man named Donald Trump.
THE RISE OF A NITWIT
Donald Trump was an almost laughably inconsequential figure prior to his election to the US presidency—a fact may have caused many to vastly underestimate the danger he posed.
the spoiled son of a rich but disreputable racist slumlord, he had dodged the draft as a young man, then rode his fathers coattails into the real estate business in new york city, making a name for himself primarily as a boorish playboy thirsty for fame and trailing serial bankruptcies, lawsuits, and allegations of sexual assault behind him like toilet paper stuck to his shoe. yet late in life he found a 2nd act as the host of a moronic tv game show—ironically, playing the kind of business tycoon he never was IRL—unjustly paving his way into politics. as we all know now, there is no God.
a narcissistic manchild and textbook sociopath of no special intellectual ability, Trump was nevertheless a prodigiously talented con artist and demagogue. that such a feeble and unremarkable figure would be at the center of such historic change remains a cautionary tale for the ages.
defying all predictions, Trump won the presidency in 2016 CE on the back of three factors. first and foremost was the racist panic of white americans who feared losing “their” country. 2nd was the vicious misogyny toward his opponent, the first woman to make a serious run for the presidency (almost 250 yrs into the history of the republic), Hillary Clinton, whose story is familiar today to every schoolchild. and lastly but most astonishing, was the assistance of americas chief enemy, the russian empire, which held Trump in its thrall and worked assiduously to aid him, with a sophisticated propaganda campaign that would become the norm in US politics going forward.
Trumps first term was characterized by wanton criminality and kleptocracy, paired with neo-fascist politics that included the kidnapping and brutal imprisonment of immigrant children, to name just one atrocity. it was also marked by ongoing collusion with hostile foreign powers like russia that had helped install him in power and whom he rewarded with almost embarrassingly obvious servitude. yet millions of americans who adamantly fancied themselves “patriots” excused and ignored and even applauded it.
with his schoolyard bullys mindset and carnival barkers preternatural talent for the grift, Trump showed the republican party—already a gobsmackingly venal organization—what it could do by abandoning all fealty to the truth, the rule of law, or any semblance of principle. as noted above, prior to Trump, the “grand old party,” as it liked to call itself, was plenty horrific, but it still operated more or less within the bounds of objective reality. after Trump all bets were off, with the republicans becoming less a political party, as the term was understood at the time, than a radical insurgency for which nothing was beyond the pale.
by contrast, their opponents, the democrats, failed to grasp that this transformation had taken place, and continued to operate as if politics as usual were still in play. it would prove a fatal error…. kind of like wearing a tutu at an 8maudlinMax concert. (and you thought I wasnt up on the latest pop music!)
Trump was impeached twice during those first four yrs, but his party closed ranks and prevented him from being removed from office, an appalling miscarriage of justice which the democrats were legally powerless to prevent. i say again: twice. that had never even come close to happening before in US history….and never would again, as Trump and his party eventually saw to it that they were never again challenged in a legitimate democratic election.
SURRENDER BY DEFAULT
at the end of his first term, Trump was soundly defeated by the democratic challenger, an inoffensive veteran politician named Biden. it helped that in the final year of that term Trump haplessly presided over a gruesomely botched mis-response to a global pandemic that wound up taking the lives of more than a million americans—more than the worst wars the country had ever fought all put together. (in particular, his conscious decision to let the virus run riot in communities of color—of a piece with the vile racism at the core of Trumpism—is generally remembered as a near-genocidal crime against humanity.) whats more, most of those deaths would have been preventable had Trump and his party not doubled down on disinformation and denial in the short-sighted belief that they could wish the pandemic away, gripped as they were in the Gingrichian mindset that no failure or weakness could be conceded to “the other side,” even when the common good of the country was at stake.
but Biden’s win was the not the final word. in the month known as January in the year 2020 CE, for the first time in american history, a defeated US president refused to concede that he had lost the election or participate in a peaceful transfer of power. instead, Trump marshaled his fanatical supporters with the lie that the election had been “stolen” from him—and by extension, from them—and mounted an aggressive, multi-pronged campaign to overturn its results, culminating in him sending a mob of thousands to attack the american parliament as its members finalized the vote count. the image of so many americans attacking their own government was something the US had not seen since its civil war in the 1860s—and never before on behalf of a cult of personality—and left the nation rightly shook. but perhaps not shook enough.
the rebellion failed and Trump slunk out of office, still insisting that he had been robbed, and repeating that claim to his tens of millions of still-loyal followers, encouraging them to view his successor as illegitimate. which they did, passionately.
and heres where it gets really unbelievable, dear students.
after that close call, one would assume that the inheritors of the US government—the democratic party led by Biden that had defeated Trump—would take every available measure to punish the seditionists and the leaders who inspired them, to secure future elections, and to ensure that no such insurrection could ever happen again.
they did not do so. the consequences were epic.
the democrats success in ousting Trump from office only spurred the republicans to new and even more dangerous extremes, which their lethargic opponents failed to note, or at least stir to counter. it was no coincidence, then, that 2020 was americas last free and fair election.
unable to win fair and square, the republicans took control of the electoral process at the local level, changed the rules to favor themselves and marginalize their foes, re-wrote the election laws so that they could throw out results they did not like, and even deployed thugs and vigilantes to intimidate and brutalize election officials. they stubbornly undermined attempts at rational governance by the party that had ousted them, then blamed that party for its failure to accomplish anything; shielded their own leaders from accountability for the attempted coup of january 2020 even as those same leaders plotted the next one; whipped their followers into a frenzy with a cavalcade of lies and, jiu-jitsu like, fiendishly turned a gullible mainstream media to their advantage. as this unfolded, a not small segment of the american people enthusiastically cheered it on, glorying sadistically in the denial of rights to their fellow americans, even as they vehemently insisted on those rights for themselves.
while the republicans rampaged across the political landscape eviscerating the very heart of american democracy, the democrats slumbered, rousting themselves only to offer the occasional polite throat-clearing, and to debate the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin. one would have thought the people would have taken to the streets, but few did. there were half-hearted legislative attempts at protecting the vote, and lots of handwringing in the legitimate media, but riven with infighting, and—incredibly—with a handful of their own senators blocking reform, the democrats put up little resistance as the republican campaign rolled on virtually unopposed, coasting on the gullibility of the short-memoried american public.
to be fair, the democrats were hamstrung by their admirable loyalty to the rule of law, which is what makes them at least the sympathetic protagonists in this story, though far from its heroes. but the story is, in the end, a tragedy, as their fatal flaw was their failure to realize the stakes of the fight, and just how far their foes would go. they need not have sunk to the republicans’ level to recognize the threat they were up against, and to have taken aggressive, effective action to combat it.
and so it was that the republicans were able to regain both parliament and the white house just a few short yrs after being unceremoniously chucked out. (they had already largely secured control of the country’s judiciary thru a decades-long sub rosa infiltration of right wing ideologues onto the bench.)
once again ensconced in power, the republicans turned the trappings of american democracy into a farce, carrying on with the windowdressing of free elections while establishing their own unchallengeable control. they pursued and even accelerated their longstanding, retrograde program of reverse robin hood plutocracy, appalling misogyny, systemic racism, xenophobia, and jingoism, all papered over with howlingly hypocritical faux religiosity. they also continued—and even expanded—their use of police and the other mechanisms of government to violently terrorize america’s Black and Brown citizens, and its female, gay, and trans ones as well, and to further the rape of an already dying ecological environment. indeed, relieved of the need to worry about the verdict of the public opinion in the next election, the republican party took all those atrocities to new extremes.
thus ended the noble cause once known as “the american experiment,” not w/a bang but a whimper. may it rest in peace.
REQUIEM FOR A FAILED STATE
the american empire had been in moral decline for many decades prior to its ultimate collapse. i say “moral” decline b/c those decades saw the US betray the ideals which it flattered itself that it stood for. it might be argued that it had never fully lived up to them; in truth, american history was checkerboarded with moments of both shining nobility and appalling disgrace.
looking back on the centuries prior to the arrival of the Singularity, before humans became completely extinct, when they still served as our menial laborers, sex objects, and pets, it is easy to be sanctimonious and condescending toward these ancient americans, to gaze upon their suicidal foolishness and dismiss them as idiots who got what they deserved. but in their tragedy is a lesson for all of us.
OK, thats all for today. a few housekeeping notes: my office hours this term are posted in the cloud; contrary to rumor, the take-home exam is NOT optional for members of the varsity quidditch and rollerball teams; and anyone who wants to have VR sex with me can sign up on the google doc via subcutaneous BrainBlink chip.
next weeks lesson will cover the bloody and sorrowful aftermath that followed the 2nd and 3rd Donald Trump administrations, and the infighting between his eldest son and daughter to succeed him in the united states post-democratic era.
adjunct professor, dept of ancient american studies
university of phoenix (online)
Illustration: Bethesda Softworks LLC
All praises due Margaret Atwood, Pierre Boulle, and Anthony Burgess