The Rejection of Washington’s Bequest: What Americans Need to Consider in Advance of the Election
“But are there not many fascists in your country?”
“There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the times comes.”
- Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
Now? Of all fucking times, now? A variation, perhaps less profane, perhaps tinged more with sadness than rage, went through the minds of millions of Americans when the inevitable became reality. A century ago, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck observed a young republic touched by the magic of luck and memorably remarked “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” Once wonders what his latter-day successor Angela Merkel, the last remaining Atlanticist leader upholding the world built by an optimistic, can-do America now long past, must think of the luck of Americans now. In a year when voting in massive numbers is the last stopgap before the irrevocable stain of Putinism becomes too embedded to dislodge, we’re faced with a highly contagious pandemic and a massively, and deliberately underfunded post office. In a year where the litigation is all but certain to decide the thin veneer of legality within which Trump hopes to cloak his purported re-election, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg removes the clearest voice on the Court for fairness and adherence to Constitutional norms, her absence certain to be filled by a sprightly young cheerleader for untrammeled executive power (so long as the presidency is held by a Republican, that is).
In fury and disgust, the departure of the lioness of the Court compels patriots across the country to ask, precisely, what can we do? The Court is gone; McConnell will get his sixth seat, and no amount of “but Lindsay Graham said he wouldn’t do this!” rage-tweets will change that. Most recent commentary jumps ahead to the hoped for renaissance of late January, proposing everything from court packing to abolishing the filibuster. That presupposes an electoral victory, but more to the point, an acknowledgement of an electoral victory. Throughout American history, at least post 1860, those two things have always been the same. It is the burden of 2020 that “winning” and “Donald Trump accepting a loss” are two vastly different things. Leave progressive rejuvenation for the spring. First, the American people are going to need to leap over a limitless chasm, one they quite plainly are not ready to face.
Progressives, having taken the measure of the man, have long at least thought in passing as to what would happen if Trump refused to leave the White House after a loss. Far less has been considered as to the far more deadly scenario, whereby he uses the power of the office to refuse a loss in the first place.
Let us imagine, in our dread, the following scenario: fearing a loss on the night of November 3, with numbers close in key states, the President begins a rage-tweet offensive which declares that “Illegals are voting in MASSIVE numbers! Must be stopped!” Via the toadying offices of Bill Barr, paramilitary forces are dispatched to seize voting boxes containing tens of thousands of votes in critical urban areas of swing states. The courts attempt to intervene, but too late: the President declares the offending votes destroyed, and, continuing their Faustian bargain to its logical endpoint, key Republican office-holders and bleating media allies dutifully repeat the President’s transparent lies about illegal votes. Despite all indication that Joe Biden should be the 46th President, Donald Trump declares himself the victor, legislatures in key states appoint Republican electors (recall that most swing states have state legislatures controlled by Republicans, and the Constitution gives state legislatures ultimate power over electors), and Congressional Republicans swallow their tongues and shrug. The burial shroud of dictatorship closes over the American republic.
Fantastic? Perhaps. Yet Trump claimed millions of illegals voted in 2016, an election he won, and has made repeated and increasingly outlandish claims that the only way he can lose the 2020 election is via Democratic cheating. He has mused about signing an executive order banning Joe Biden from taking the presidency, has encouraged violence against his political opponents, and has repeatedly refused to guarantee a peaceful transition of power. Something unprecedented is almost certain- not possible, not likely, almost certain- to occur because the man sitting in the Oval Office is unprecedented in his disdain for and knowledge of the Constitutional niceties which govern his position. When even the preternaturally measured Barack Obama warns “that’s what’s at stake right now: our democracy,” the unthinkable is now unavoidable: it is possible, even likely, that Donald Trump has absolutely no intention of respecting any election result which results in his eviction from the Oval Office, nor to permit one from occurring should it appear likely. The American Republic has faced foreign bloodshed and criminal turmoil, Depression and labor upheaval, even the mighty scourge of civil war. But never before in our history have we faced the potential for a systemic rejection of that most beneficent ideological gift bestowed by American political thought upon the world. The nation born in amazement as George Washington rejected the tired crown of hereditary autocracy, confirming King George’s astonished comment that should he actually not seize power, he would take his place as the “greatest character of the age” now watches in opposite amazement as a man with the poorest character of the age threatens Washington’s munificent bequest, to the cheering hopes of some 40% of the population.
So then, what do we do? The first thing is to remember that assuming that the worst cannot come to pass makes it far more likely that it will. Maybe this will be for naught, an overwrought joke of fevered imagination to laugh at in the future. I hope it is. But as a real conservative once said, “trust, but verify.” There are steps to take, now, to head off the potential for catastrophe, to prevent the plausible possibility that if we are not to be a banana republic, it’s certainly no improvement to be an Orange ex-Republic, either.
First, Say the F Word
Not that one, however appropriate it is at this time. Americans are conditioned to “both sides’ or “that’s just politics” any increased schism between the parties or their partisans, and have generally shrugged off a rising chorus of warning from scholars and observers that what we are seeing is not business as usual but rather the sui generis rise of a unique pathogen of American fascism. In part, Americans do so because making the mental leap from rough but normal political infighting to authoritarianism induces feelings of panic and the mental submission that often results from bargaining with your own terror. But in larger part, Americans associate fascism with the worst excesses of the Nazis, and of course, 2020 America is nowhere close to genocide and total war, is it? Historical ignorance is a luxury we can no longer afford. The Nazis are to fascism what the Black Plague is to illness: its most famous and virulent example, but by no means the only one. The scholar Robert Putnam defined fascism as a
form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
We certainly satisfy the first part of the definition, if not yet the final part of that sentence; but with pro-Trump militia groups inciting violence in the midst of protests, with reports of sterilization of caged women in ICE facilities, with paramilitary answerable only to Bill Barr flooding the streets, with democratic guardrails increasingly dismantled by traditional elites riding the wave of Trump’s id, and with increasingly unbounded President musing openly about simply refusing to accept any electoral loss, we are well within shouting distance of the rest.
Americans need to face the facts, now: the Republican Party is increasingly committed to a plundering form of American fascism in which dissent is criminalized (witness Barr’s instructions to consider charging protestors with sedition, something not even contemplated during the worst of the Vietnam protests), the regime promulgates the only “correct” version of history, jurisdictions which do not support the President are targeted (witness Trump’s declaration of New York City, Portland, and Seattle as ‘anarchist jurisdictions,’ a declaration straight out of the Red Scare a century ago), minority rule of whites with “good genes”, a favorite Trumpian musing, is assured via bastardization of law, and the underclass Other is demonized, whether antifa or migrants, as a threat to the survival of the white Volk. This is fascism, not in black and white photographs found in dusty books, but here and now, in 21st Century America. A party that enables a dictator is not a party of a democracy, period. We cannot defeat an insurgent threat by painting over in more muted colors the viciousness of a lurching vicissitude. Say it, recognize the peril, and prepare from there.
Begin to Organize Now
Waiting to see what Trump will do is a mug’s game, as this most guileless of men has communicated his intentions with a clarity noticeably lacking from his assertions for the remaining parts of his job. If November 4 comes and Americans of good faith nervously look around to see what, precisely, someone else is doing to fix this, we might as well fold up shop now. Democracy is not just a form of government, but a way of being, a method of living; unlike fascism, which requires little from the mass of the people save obedience and acquiescence to the gifts provided by the leader, the survival of a democracy demands that the people practice in their own lives the very methods for resolution and self-actualization they demand for the nation, for they are the nation. John Adams once observed that “there never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” If we are to collectively retort “perhaps, but not yet”, we need to know in advance what we the people can do, and that means forming groups and methods of communication, now, that plan to meet the moment appropriately. Find local organizations which are preparing to respond to a Trumpian outrage, and join their ranks.
If You’re in a Swing State, Vote in Person
Because Trump is unable to not verbalize any random thoughts that cascade off the barren insides of his skull, we know that the validity of mail-in voting will be his prime target for delegitimization. In many states, where the election is all but decided before it starts, this may not matter. But in six crucial states- Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona- Republicans control both houses of the legislature. In a nightmare scenario, one prophetically reminiscent of what could have occurred in 2000 in Florida, the state legislature could, under Trumpian twitter assault and in total disregard of state law, simply decide that the state’s popular vote should be limited solely to in-person votes, disregard all mail-in votes, and throw the electoral slate to the Republican party. It would be unprecedented, but what these days isn’t? We must forestall as much of the obvious attacks on legitimacy that we can. Voting in person in the middle of a pandemic is dangerous, but so was storming the beaches at Normandy. The defeat of fascism requires a timeless acceptance of risk.
If it’s a Coup, Call it a Coup
Like fascism, we know what coups look like: strutting leaders in military uniforms puffed with medals commanding tank units driving menacingly down the main streets of some banana republic capital. That will not be the arrangement in 2020 America: ours is a republic of laws, and the mechanism that a Trumpian coup might occur will be through abuse of those laws rather than via any 70s era military cosplay. Yet if a coup is the replacement of the legitimate government by illegitimate means, any attempt by the Trump administration to remain in power over the legitimate votes repudiating it is a coup, even if cloaked in suits rather than fatigues. This will not be a replay of 2000, when Americans learned about “hanging chads” and patiently awaited the legal maneuvering to determine the victor, to the surprise of the participants themselves. Whatever will happen will be loud, messy, and filled with the misdirection of, in Kellyanne Conway’s infamous but perfectly appropriate phrase, “alternative facts.” Remain focused on what is directly in front of your face: if the votes cast should, even allowing for the Electoral college, even allowing for the messiness of vote by mail, result in a Biden presidency, any deviation is a coup. Don’t hesitate to call it one.
Recognize that Protest Alone Won’t Be Enough
This may be the hardest lesson to comprehend, given that loud street protest is likely seen as the final arbiter of the lurching crisis, a fail-safe at which point the will of an enraged citizenry cannot be ignored. Yet the Trump Era has not lacked for protest. The Women’s March occurring in 2017 brought 470,000 to Washington, with approximately 3–5 million others appearing at marches around the country. More recently, the George Floyd protests have brought an estimated 15–26 million Americans into the streets, in the middle of a pandemic no less, to announce the stirrings of a determined counterattack on the forces of white revanchism which drove the Trumpist movement to power. The Floyd demonstrations, should those numbers be accurate, take their place as the largest protest in American history. In an earlier generation, Lydon Johnson was besieged in the White House by protests against the Vietnam War; just months after 100,000 marched on the Pentagon in October, 1967, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. Democratic challenged Eugene McCarthy believed that Johnson’s exit was preordained by protest: “I don’t think they could stand up against five million college kids just shouting for peace. There was too much will-power there.”
Yet some fifty-three years later, a similarly embattled President, the death toll from his breezily acknowledged failures far exceeding Johnson’s Vietnam tally in a far more truncated time frame, apparently feels far less pressure from the millions marching against the ideals for which his movement stands. Far from being enfeebled by the millions shouting for change, or respecting the “too much will power” their expressions represent, Donald Trump has not only ignored the cries for fundamental change but doubled down on vilifying the millions of voters voicing them. Fundamentally, Johnson understood that voters responded to policy, and were available for his Democratic primary challengers to win no less than his Republican general opponents. Trump, the avatar of politics as identity, understands no less that in the new era, voters no longer respond to policy shifts but rather to negative views of the opponent and his or her movement’s perceived impact on tribes. Policies permit voters to swing to different candidates, but tribes are identity, and identity doesn’t swing. For that reason, protests against Trump don’t compel him to moderate policy, let alone step aside: they instead give him a foil to inflate into a cabal of anti-American terrorists coming to steal the election and with it, the primacy of his supporters. Protests don’t weaken Trump: they simply confirm for his supporters the need to counter-mobilize.
Should Americans take to the streets in angry and noisy protest after, as posed hypothetically, Trump intervenes to ensure his re-election on illegal grounds, there is simply no evidence to believe that an avalanche of clever wordplay on signs and pink pussy hats by the millions will alter the fundamental truth of protest in the modern era.
Hit them in the Wallet
Protest alone may not do it- but a general strike just might. Even his supporters find Donald Trump a generally ridiculous person, but a number of his more well-heeled supporters stay with him for self-interested financial reasons. Trump himself recognizes the importance of economic performance to his appeal to some of his base: Trump was telling the truth when he told Bob Woodward that he downplayed the COVID threat because he didn’t want to cause panic, but it wasn’t the citizenry he didn’t want to spook: it was the stock market. Only the perception of financial Götterdämmerung might compel pressure on Republican officeholders to break ranks with Trump and force his acceptance of Constitutional defeat. Economic pressure would not be unprecedented: boycotts of apartheid South Africa hastened white supremacy’s collapse, and even domestically, the ideal of a civil rights movement triumphant by the soaring rhetoric and moral chasm between the sides is incomplete: boycotts and financial pressure were an integral part of the nonviolent assault on Jim Crow. Time magazine once referred to store owners under pressure from the withdrawal of black shoppers as “pocketbook integrationists,” in that their cultural beliefs about black and white were subordinated to their desires for green once real harm started to befall their bottom lines.
Economic pressure in the post-globalized capital era will be harder, now that American companies have slipped the surly bonds of America and touched the face of foreign markets. Yet America remains the largest market, and massive pressure by withdrawal of financial support for companies and entities that support a coup against the republic will be bound to draw blood. It won’t be easy in the era of shareholder capitalism — who is the owner of the Company when it’s publicly held, including by pension funds themselves beneficial to the workers?- but the complexity of the situation does not mean it can or should be disregarded. Republican politicians are creatures of their donors, and their donors enjoy being rich above all. Recall Blackstone founder Steven Schwartzman, worth 18 billion dollars, hysterically comparing Barack Obama’s tax plan to “when Hitler invaded Poland.” America’s oligarchs have independently faced down demands from labor, mostly successfully. But a political strike is an entirely different animal, and executed properly, may be the last fail-safe remaining if the worst comes to pass. In Czechoslovakia in 1989, an estimated 75% of the Czech population joined a general strike against the regime in its waning days, hastening its end. Earlier, in Berlin in 1920, 12 million striking workers crushed a coup, cutting off water, gas, and power in the process. The precise method of using American consumer and productive power to protect the republic is unclear through the mists of uncertainty and the complexity of international capital, but it exists, for it must. What will American workers need to sacrifice in order to pressure financial interests? The answer may be the difference between saving the republic and meanly losing the last best hope on Earth.
Don’t Give Up.
Reflecting on his long stay in a North Vietnamese prison camp, James Stockdale observed that “you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” We may have a brutal reality approaching at terrifying speed. We can no longer expect that Presidents will simply follow the tradition of Washington, who made it a point not only to attend the inauguration of his successor, John Adams, but to walk behind him after the ceremony as a sign of transition to a new elected leader. Like visitors in a fancy zoo, American citizens walk along the footpath, believing and trusting that behind the scenes someone created the exhibits to ensure that the animals aren’t really able to spring forth and devour them, and that someone is maintaining them still. That illusion is fading, which is perhaps for the best. In any democracy worth saving, we the people must be the final arbiters to confront the measureless peril ahead. Perhaps we will get lucky, once again, as we were in Bismarck’s time, and bluster will remain just that. Let’s not bet everything on luck, and instead, prepare to protect the shaking columns which uphold all that is worth upholding in our republic.