Will No One Defend the American Republic?
In a previous newsletter, I frankly discussed my view that the United States is careening towards a right-wing dictatorship that is highly likely to be either deranged or unstable or both over the medium term, thus threatening a chaotic collapse of the global economic system that might kill billions (especially in concert with climate change).
We see in the ethnic cleansing campaign that Russia, a comparatively poor and feeble state, is undertaking in eastern Ukraine the danger of that kind of government. Imagine the damage, say, Colorado's mini-Trump Lauren Boebert (age 35) might inflict if she were to end up in firm command of the world's largest military, second-largest nuclear arsenal, the global reserve currency, and the global financial plumbing, for 20-30 years, without any of the (insufficient yet still important) checks that stymied many of Trump's worst impulses, and hence all the opportunity for permanent, total, unaccountable power to do what it usually does to corrupt imbeciles.
It's not like this is some kind of subtle argument here. The upcoming putsch, just like the last one, is being planned right out in the open—this time possibly enabled by the Supreme Court. The Republican Party is not just currently led by grossly immoral (and increasingly, openly white supremacist and antisemitic) maniacs unfit to operate a lemonade stand, it is producing them by the thousands, and they are climbing the party ranks.
A truly odd part of all this, and I suspect one reason why there is such an air of despair in liberal circles today, is that the opposition party is currently in control of the government yet is largely just sitting on its hands. Pennsylvania state Senator Doug Mastriano, for instance, was up to his neck in January 6. Yet not only has he avoided any prosecution or even criminal investigation so far, he was also recently nominated for the upcoming governor's race, where he will have vast authority over the state's electoral machinery if he wins. So far there is not so much as a whisper that Trump is going to be prosecuted.
Any student of history considering the abstract chances of an opposition party attempting a coup d'etat against a sitting president without first obtaining firm control of the military would surely rate them low. But the awesome feebleness of Democrats raises doubts. Surely one reason it would be unwise to attempt to seize power against an established incumbent would be the high probability of getting arrested or shot. But not only are Democrats not locking up the insurrectionist criminals, this same party had the presidency stolen from them by a popular vote loser in 2000 (admittedly in a much less blatant fashion, but still at bottom the same behavior) and back then they just rolled over and took it as well.
What explains the helpless passivity of President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and the rest of the Democratic Party leadership? (To be fair, the January 6 committee has produced a lot of useful information and drama, which may even have shocked Garland into doing something.)
One hypothesis is often called "institutionalism." In a recent profile of Dianne Feinstein, Rebecca Traister writes: "From her youth, Feinstein has been an institutionalist, with an institutionalist’s respect for structure, management, and hierarchy as means to manage the rabble of activism and protest. She seems unable to appreciate the possibility that partisan insurgents have overrun those institutions themselves."
This is well observed but I think it is better called chauvinist cowardice. Someone who actually cared for an institution would notice when it was staggeringly, comically dysfunctional (the Senate) or under assault from fascists (constitutional government), and take action to fix or protect it respectively.
I think what Feinstein exhibits instead, along with the rest of the Democratic do-nothing caucus, is a sort of childish, willfully stupid faith in the crystalline perfection of American institutions—the kind of belief that manifests as denial whenever it conflicts with reality, which is to say all the time. The institutions do not work well or as designed, in fact they are terrible in a dozen obvious ways, but confronting this would mean facing the truth that America is not God's chosen nation—that in fact it just another country like all the others, and indeed is far behind most of its peer wealthy nations in the quality of life (or life, period) enjoyed by its citizens. An insecure chauvinist cannot tolerate thoughts like these, and so resorts to desperate incantation that America is too the greatest country on Earth, so there.
One important voice of chauvinist cowardice is Lawfare. There we can find an article from Jonathan Rauch arguing that Biden should pardon Trump in part because "Prosecuting an ex-president is a bridge the country has never crossed. The implications of seeing a former commander in chief in the dock are vast, profound and unknowable." Subtext: Prosecuting a former president would be a huge tacit admission that the country is in dire shape, and so best to sweep it all under the rug and hope for the best.
Here's another from Andrew Kent suggesting it would be fine to not prosecute Trump because holding corrupt ex-presidents accountable when they break the law is what corrupt poor countries do, and that possibility can't be admitted. Any "hint of perpetuating this kind of awfulness, so reminiscent of tyrannies and banana republics, is an entirely plausible reason why Biden could want to avert criminal enforcement action against Trump and his circle." Here's another from Lawfare co-founder Ben Wittes, in which he describes a presidential succession process that has a pointless three-month lame duck period for the sole reason that 250 years ago it would take weeks for presidential candidates to travel to the capital by coach or horseback:
Trump indeed took full advantage of the time provided by this anachronistic delay in his attempt to seize power, as any intelligent child could have predicted he would.
I submit this kind of mindset is a key reason why Garland is letting Trump get away with trying to overthrow the government. He and his party are too timid and cowardly, and too hypnotized by rah-rah grade school slogans, to touch off a massive controversy by arresting and prosecuting a former president. So they close their eyes, click their heels together, and repeat "It Can't Happen Here, America is Actually Good," hoping the whole thing will blow over and we can go back to pretending everything is fine. (I will apologize on bended knee if Garland actually does prosecute the January 6 ringleaders, and I hope he does it, but any well-functioning party would have done it on January 21 last year.)
Defenders of the republic are thin on the ground elsewhere. On the right, of course, the conservative movement is currently engaged in a conspiracy to destroy the Constitution and the republic, while characteristically bleating that they are defending it from left-wing attack, in classic "why do you make me hit you, baby?" fashion.
On the left, we don't even have agreement about the actual desirability of democracy in general or the American republic in particular. On the extreme left electoral democracy is dismissed as a veneer covering up bourgeois domination, and revolution the only way to achieve justice. Others accept the value of democracy, but attack American electoral institutions as unrepresentative and unfair, full of rotten boroughs and veto points abused by the rich. Perhaps most common is an air of critique of almost all aspects of American society—our rattletrap welfare state, our wretched inequality, our ancient and obviously anachronistic Constitution, and our vast and horrible military empire.
It must be admitted that there is a lot of truth in all this. American politics is largely for sale and all but immune from the influence of the working class. The American welfare state really is the worst in the rich world. The last 20 years of American foreign policy really have been one grotesquely horrible and pointless war of aggression after another. I have made all these points at one time or another.
But it is a different matter to conclude that America is unalterably terrible, which is frankly the tenor of most discourse on the left these days. The Bernie Sanders campaign briefly raised people's spirits for a time, but when he was brought down by backroom maneuverings, the left settled back, and many prominent voices gave up entirely. (AOC is one prominent exception.)
I can identify a couple reasons for why this is the case. One is the heavy influence of academics. Now, I'm friends with many academics (and married to one), and I don't mean to cast aspersions on anyone personally. But the political economy of the academy is a poor fit for the left in some important ways.
One is how scholars need to produce new evidence, theories, or arguments in their chosen field regardless of whether there are any good seams of material to mine, so to speak. This incentive, like a similar one in journalism, tends to produce quite a lot of pointless controversy if not glib contrarianism. Another is simply the inherent nature of academic work, where scholars work alone or in groups producing analysis and critique. Most of the time this does not mean writing up bold reform proposals, but instead theoretical discussions, or empirical studies, or investigations into past events.
A second reason is the severe weakness of the union movement, which has always served as the organizational ballast of the left, and helped ground it in actual politics rather than airy metaphysics.
Those two factors combine with the fact that the left has been completely shut out of national power for many decades to produce a enervating lack of confidence in its ability to win or wield power. The result is a political faction that, while it has many entirely valid critiques of U.S. society, does not seriously believe in American institutions nor its own legitimacy in contesting to control them—just like the liberals. The field is left clear for the fascist right to claim the mantle of American symbols while destroying the Constitution and setting up a fascist dictatorship.
Is there any alternative? I think the best example of what might be called critical patriotism is provided by Abraham Lincoln. As Garry Wills writes in his brilliant book on the Gettysburg Address, in that speech Lincoln quietly altered the popular understanding of the Constitution as being at least tolerant of slavery and skeptical at best of democracy and majority rule.
Lincoln is here not only to sweeten the air of Gettysburg, but to clear the infected atmosphere of American history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt. He would cleanse the Constitution—not, as William Lloyd Garrison had, by burning an instrument that countenanced slavery. He altered the document from within, by appeal from its letter to the spirit, subtly changing the recalcitrant stuff of that legal compromise, bringing it to its own indictment. By implicitly doing this, he performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked. The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.
Lincoln even more or less declared his intention in advance. In an 1854 speech in Peoria, at the end of a frankly rather slippery argument that the Constitution and the founding generation were against slavery and thus would support his efforts to limit its spread, he said: "Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it ... If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving."
Lincoln always had an acute sense for the grubby realities of power, but this wasn't mere political cynicism; it was part of an act of political will. His strained (though not wholly dishonest) arguments about the founders and the Constitution were part of an effort that hugely changed the actual character of the country. He seized on the parts of American institutions and history that were useful to his purpose of destroying slavery, and downplayed the parts that were not.
Lincoln was thus able to convincingly claim political legitimacy (backed up by a massive national organization) as leader of the country and defender of freedom, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, and lead the country through a horrendously bloody war that actually did destroy slavery. It was, in a sense, a successful political prophecy. Then he used his unparalleled rhetorical gifts to cement the meaning of that sacrifice, and he and his party heavily revised the text of the Constitution and laws—with sweeping reforms to the currency, banking system, higher education, land, and more—to cement that new reality.
The histories of all nations have many threads, and many of America's are dark indeed. But it is simply inaccurate to say that there is nothing worth defending or being proud of in there. Eradicating slavery was a great achievement. Enfranchising four million former slaves was one of the most radical expansions of democracy in world history. The New Deal was, on balance, a massive improvement on the status quo, even for Black Americans. The Civil Rights Movement was a splendid achievement.
More broadly, to put on an academic hat, there cannot possibly be such a thing as a national "essence" that will hold for all time. Political communities are malleable things—its character depends on who wins the inevitable constant struggle between factions.
Obviously I'm not a national leader and so I can't lay out a political program that will reach the hearts of the masses. But a sketch of one is not hard to imagine. Start by appropriating the good side of the founding generation (centered on the Declaration), the Civil War and Reconstruction, the New Deal and the union movement, the suffrage and feminist movement, and the struggle against Jim Crow. Heroes with some popular resonance abound: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Tom Paine; Lincoln, Grant, Fredrick Douglass, Thad Stevens, and Harriet Tubman; Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt; and Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and Rosa Parks. (Dozens of others could be added, of course.)
That stuff would serve as the propaganda and ideological glue to hold together a mass movement in favor of democracy and economic reform—the latter being critical so as to demonstrate the functioning of national institutions, as both Lincoln and FDR knew instinctively. One reason why faith in national institutions is collapsing—just 7 percent of Americans have confidence in Congress—is that they are so pathetically helpless in the face of enormous problems, from cancerous medical cost bloat to constant mass shootings of children to climate change threatening human civilization as a whole.
Plainly the Constitution is going to have to come under scrutiny in any such movement. In my view the Electoral College and the Senate are going to have to go, and the House be reformed to allow multiple parties (and thus diffuse escalating two-way mutual hatred in several directions) to have any prayer of the country functioning at all again. But even the Constitution has some good stuff, like the Bill of Rights and the Reconstruction Amendments, and defending at least its legacy of elections and the peaceful transfer of power against violent right-wing assault is a powerful rhetorical stance.
At any rate, I'm just pointing out the need here, and saying all this stuff is a lot easier than doing it. But the American people are desperate for leadership and some way to do something about the terrible disasters besetting us on all sides. It's a political opportunity ripe for the taking.