Sunday, December 6, 2020

America's Obituary

Steven Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and is the author of, most recently, Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in 'It's a Wonderful Life' and Lincoln: The Ambiguous Icon.

Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in a close election. While he won a record number of votes, the electoral college results were not clear until four days after the voting stopped. Biden will win, eventually, by roughly six million, but Trump garnered over 70 million votes himself, adding over 10 million to his 2016 total—despite a manifestly failed presidency, except in terms of white supremacy, that is.

The polls predicting a decisive Biden victory were wrong. Badly wrong. The Senate is likely to stay in Republican hands, where Mitch McConnell can obstruct Biden’s initiatives, and Supreme Court conservatives, activist Republicans all, hold a 6 to 3 majority. Democrats flipped zero statehouses, which bodes ill for redistricting. Trump has been defeated, but Trumpism lives, and the lame duck president may well run again as a victim of the greatest fraud in American political history in 2024. In the meantime, there is no reason to believe he will disappear from the political scene and preside over his (failing) businesses. Rather, he is likely to wage a running war against Biden and the Democrats from his Twitter account, and may even continue to hold periodic rallies given how dependent he is on the adulation of crowds for validation. He will also need to nurture the wounds he is forging now as he refuses to face the reality of defeat. 

After being declared the winner, Joe Biden delivered the kind of speech everyone knew he would: an Obamaesque call for reconciliation and unity. Biden insisted it is time to end the demonization characteristic of American politics and insisted that our opponents are not enemies but fellow Americans. Biden believes that he can work with Republicans to get things done, and given the dire circumstances the country faces (lethal pandemic, economic collapse, climate change, etc.), there is no shortage of things that need to get done. Biden will start his first day in office with a blitz of executive orders, but this tactic can achieve only so much. 

What do the nation’s prospects look like? Stalemate is one likely outcome. When Barack Obama assumed office in 2013, Republicans made it their mission to destroy his presidency and make him a one-term president. He never seemed to figure out that he could not rise above the partisan fray and bring Republicans along with him in a joint patriotic commitment to the nation. Remember, America was also in crisis when he took office. Republicans did not care. They do not show any evidence of caring now. Trump and Trumpism, despite the jubilant nationwide parties in the streets following Biden’s official victory, have not been defeated, let alone repudiated. They are both alive and well. America’s polarized division will be with us for years, perhaps decades, to come. The country’s electoral system exaggerates and empowers their otherwise minority status. 

Is this the indefinite reality with which America’s democratic citizens have to live? Can we reasonably be expected to live in a polity in which tyrannical minority rule embodied by Donald Trump, his GOP allies in the House and Senate, much of the federal judiciary, and a majority of Republican statehouses and governorships routinely prevails—or even enjoys the possibility of prevailing. Or is there an alternative, a long-term alternative, that it would be wise to start discussing? What if we were to put Trump and Trumpism on notice?

Regardless of November 3’s results, then, given the damage Trump and Republicans have inflicted on this country over the last 50 years, given, furthermore, their very identity as a political party committed to white supremacy and racial resentment, what if the United States took the first steps in a process of self-dissolution? This is an idea with roots in the founding of the country when (some) anti-Federalists preferred to form several small republics in the aftermath of independence from Great Britain. Hamilton’s dreams of national power and global empire defeated democratic aspirations then. The latter can be recovered and redeemed now in the name of a multiracial America that already exists on the east and west coasts and many parts of the American interior, including several large cities in the sunbelt. 

Remember, we already live in a country broken geographically by two oceans (yes, I am counting Puerto Rico) and Canada. Is there any reason we cannot (try to) become a more perfect non-contiguous union? And largely leave the red states to themselves? Imagine a long blue and purple arc starting in the Midwest with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois extending east to Pennsylvania, New York and New England. Trace it down the east coast from the Mid-Atlantic states to Florida (South Carolina will have a decision to make) and then jump to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Finish it off with the west coast of the continental United States, and then Nevada, Colorado, and Hawai’i. The deep red states, concentrated largely in the continent’s interior but including the rural parts of much of coastal America, would be “liberated.”

When Trump was elected president in 2016 he lacked democratic legitimacy. Hillary Clinton, despite a deeply flawed campaign in which she somehow decided not to appear in key battleground states, secured nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, who averted well-deserved defeat thanks to the democratically indefensible electoral college. Three years later, following acquittal by the Senate after House impeachment, Trump ran for reelection lacking constitutional legitimacy as well. After all, Mitch McConnell announced prior to Trump’s trial that the president would be acquitted no matter the evidence, an act not only of institutional betrayal but arguably of treason. America’s vaunted and much-celebrated system of check and balances seemed officially dead. From a democratic perspective, Donald Trump should never have assumed office. From a Constitutional perspective, Donald Trump should never have remained in office. Each points to the failure of America’s purportedly democratic system of government to sustain itself and keep faith with its values. How long do democratic citizen owe allegiance to such a system? 

For nearly four years, Donald Trump has posed a variety of existential threats to the country. Is this overstating the case? To answer the question, let’s take a quick inventory of Trump’s presidency (and thus Trumpism), which might then point to a new way forward.

Donald Trump conspired and attempted to conspire with foreign governments, first with Russia and then with Ukraine, to subvert America’s democratic system and obstruct any and all efforts to uncover these schemes. He has also called on China to interfere in America’s electoral process and come to his aid. Trump’s lawlessness pertains not just to his efforts to secure and maintain his position of power, which is critical to his family’s financial fortunes. It relates to all areas of government: Trump refuses to recognize the very idea of Congressional oversight of his administration. He believes that he is accountable to no one and no thing. The Constitution, on his “reading,” allows him to do whatever he wants to do. This is the definition of tyranny. Athens and Rome, our spiritual and practical forebears, knew how to handle tyrants. America’s founders thought they could learn from and improve on their ancient predecessors and lessen violence in politics. They appear to have been wrong. Only one Republican Senator, Mitt Romney, voted to convict Trump at his impeachment trial. Lawlessness is not just a Trump problem. It is a Republican Party value (at least when they have power). 

Donald Trump presided—and continues to preside even as I write this—over Republican efforts, which have included the federal judiciary and state and local governments, to suppress the vote on a massive scale and disqualify Democratic votes after they have been cast, especially of people of color. Republicans long ago concluded that they cannot win elections without rigging their outcome, as Brain Kemp did in Georgia in 2018. This electoral violence is consonant with Trump’s refusal to renounce White supremacy when given the opportunity during the first presidential debate. He refused for one simple reason: he is a White supremacist and it is the key to his electoral and Republican Party fortunes. Race and racism account for the deep devotion of his base, even as he poses a threat to their livelihoods and their lives by ignoring a lethal pandemic and its economic fallout. 

Donald Trump refused, when asked repeatedly, to say whether he would respect the results of the 2020 election, and thus the will of the American people, and commit to the peaceful transfer of power, a tradition that traces back to the origins of the country and George Washington. Rather, insisting that he cannot by definition lose, Trump believes that any defeat is inherently illegitimate, which is one reason he won’t concede the election now, despite the threat to national, including health, security. Combine these assaults on American democracy with voter suppression efforts and Trump and the GOP have effectively placed themselves in harm’s way should the need arise to remove him from office. This should be unthinkable in American democracy. It is no longer. 

Biden is not worried. His campaign reassured the country that “the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.” Trump’s supporters, in and out of government, might not be as sanguine about removal. Here it is worth noting that when British colonists revolted in the 1770s and pursued a course of violent revolution to establish an independent nation-state, they did so with much weaker cause and provocation than America’s democratic citizens possess today.

Donald Trump, despite the known dangers, has lied over and over (again) about the Covid-19 global pandemic, making an effective national response impossible. He has refused to advocate the most basic precautions to stop the spread of the virus and protect American citizens, instead encouraging his base to believe, wrongly, that their freedom was at stake if they wore a mask. In an all out effort to secure s second term, through reelection or otherwise, Trump has insisted on reopening the economy without adequate precautions and sponsored superspreader events at the White House and in numerous states on the campaign trail, resulting in the dissemination of the virus. It can be argued that his boundless narcissism, breathtaking incompetence, and criminal neglect of this deadly disease have needlessly cost tens of thousands of Americans, perhaps more, their lives, rendering Trump a uniquely political serial killer. Can any democratic citizen can be expected to subject themselves to his rule? 

Donald Trump has told nearly twenty-five thousand lies, tracked by The Washington Post, while in office. These lies, from inauguration crowds to Covid-19 to his defeat by Joe Biden, make democratic politics nearly impossible by deliberately confusing an alternative fictional reality with truth. Trump’s lies serve a number of political purposes. Perhaps the primary effect is to render accountability impossible and obscure the threat that Trump and Trumpism’s far right agenda poses to American democracy. Insofar as the media try to hold him accountable, which is one of their critical functions, he labels them the “enemy of the people.” Trump’s ambition is to undermine trust in the media, to disempower it, enabling him to pursue the party’s right wing program with as little effective opposition as possible. The media are not Trump’s only enemy, of course. Trump and Trump’s America are defined by their enemies, which they constantly and endlessly create, all of whom are actual or would-be targets of violence, both state and state-solicited.

It is evident that Trump and the Republican Party aspire to create what amounts to a second Confederacy, as reactionary and racist as the first. Through their actions and rhetoric they have made it clear they do not believe in democracy and will not—they cannot—share a polity with those unlike and opposed to them. How, then, can democratic citizens be reasonably expected to live alongside them, let alone allow them to impose minority rule over them? Democracy itself, I would argue, is not and should not be a legitimate subject of American elections. But that is what the latter, in part, have become, which is tantamount to asking the country’s democratic citizens, should they lose, to acquiesce in their own political domination. The next round of this dynamic is now scheduled for 2024.

Perhaps the United States of America, thanks to would-be destruction of its basic institutions, practices, and norms from one side of the political divide marking it, is an idea whose time has cone and gone. But from the ashes of Trump’s America, a new nation might be born. Fortunately, it already exists, if inchoately. Among other things, this new nation needs to divorce its revanchist other half and redraw its boundaries. Given how the two Americas feel about each other, why can’t such a separation proceed amicably? Or, if this proposal, projecting the loss of the country they claim to love, were to serve as a shocking wake-up call to so-called Red State America(ns), perhaps, as Biden hopes, their better angels might prevail over their darker impulses. Either way, Biden is right about one thing: democracy has to defend itself.

November 15, 2020



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