Before it all totally hit the fan on Tuesday — before Sen. John McCain turned the very concept of JFK’s Profiles in Courage on its head, before our pro-life vice president Mike Pence cast a vote that could lead to the premature death of thousands of uninsured Americans — a hardy band of protesters briefly tried to bring the U.S. Senate to a halt. They chanted “Kill the bill!” and “Don’t kill us!” before the Capitol Police quickly moved in for arrests. Other officers blocked the hallway to keep journalists away from the scene, as one reportedly shouted “No photos!” before adding, “Delete your photos!”
When Chinese police detained me in Tiananmen Sq on 20th anniv of crackdown there, first step was to make me delete all photos. https://t.co/i7CJ9WtprU
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) July 25, 2017
It was only a few months ago that someone warned us that democracy dies in darkness. Now, at 2:45 p.m. on a bright and seasonable July afternoon, the American Experiment was quickly fading to black. And the last thing the co-conspirators wanted was a photographic record. After the last annoying pocket of resistance had been cleared, the U.S. Senate — once, hard to believe, known as the greatest deliberative body in the world — moved with not-deliberative speed to take a great leap forward to briefly debate a plan that no one has actually seen but is believed to divorce millions of Americans — maybe 15 million, maybe 32 million — from their health insurance, while fixing few if any of the actual problems with U.S. health care yet stirring up a beehive of new ones.
To note the insanity of that would miss the point. The Republicans who run this country (with help from their friends Gerry Mandering and E. Lector al-College) weren’t voting Tuesday with the foggiest notion of actually improving your family’s health care. That barely crossed their collective mind. No, they needed to show they could get 51 votes for something to prove and maintain their power over you, which is the No. 1 goal of American government in 2017. There’s a word for this mindless exercise of authority. It’s “authoritarianism.”
Remember “the doomsday clock” that nuclear scientists have promoted since the height of the Cold War, chiding world leaders on how close the world stands toward nuclear Armageddon? It’s time to belatedly wind up a doomsday clock for American democracy. Looking back, we should have started a couple of decades ago with the rise of GOP obstructionism, the war on science, mass incarceration and entertainment’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” hostile takeover of political discourse. But things start moving downward swiftly in that moment two summers ago when a real estate mogul descended on an escalator from his gilded tower on 5th Avenue. After some ups and downs these six months since Donald Trump became America’s 45th president, we may look back on this last week of July 2017 as the moment the democracy doomsday clock struck 11:58 — and the ticking noise grew insufferable.
The fish continues to rot from the head, of course. It is President Trump — with his non-stop bullying, his stream of falsehoods, a crudeness that mocks the claim he could be more presidential than anyone since Honest Abe, and a willingness, sometimes born of cruelty and sometimes of ignorance, to trample the norms of democracy underneath his tiny footsteps — who is setting the table for American autocracy. Let’s quickly review some of the things that have happened just in the last two days:
Trashing any remaining dignity of the office of the presidency: The bizzaro Trump Youth rally in West Virginia in the guise of a Boy Scout Jamboree was in many ways a moral low point for Trump’s tenure: The crude sexual innuendo, the relentless and highly inappropriate politicking, Trump’s pleas for praise and, of course, for loyalty, and his mocking of political rivals brought the president’s Straight Outta Nuremberg style to our nation’s impressionable youth. Even a former CIA director saw the appalling moment for what it was.
Trump's Boy Scout speech had the feel of a third world authoritarian's youth rally.
— john mclaughlin (@jmclaughlinSAIS) July 25, 2017
The theme continued Tuesday night, as Trump brought his more familiar brand of rally shtick to Youngstown, where he bullied and mocked a protester, harangued against a free press, and portrayed immigrants as committing violent acts against teenage girls in a sickening style that echoed Europe’s worst autocrats of the 1930s. And the more that Trump pumps this toxic brand of authoritarianism into the system, the more “normal” that the incredibly not-normal becomes.
The lies, remarkably, are increasing: Keeping score of Trump’s prevarications has become something of a sport as 2017 devolves, and this week the president racked up some epic numbers. The Washington Post has just documented 29 false or misleading “Trumpian” claims in just 26 hours, on everything from the size of his crowds (a favorite falsehood) to the ownership of the Washington Post to the facts in a misleading allegation about ties between the Democratic National Committee and Ukraine.
The rule of law is hanging on by a fingernail: Trump’s bullying of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in an apparent effort to force one of his cabinet members to resign (for arguably the only reason he shouldn’t resign), while the president can (try to) avoid the political consequences that would stem from firing, has become an almost comic soap opera with a most unfunny potential punch line. The reason, after all, for Trump’s dissatisfaction is that Sessions can’t bend to his will and quash the Trump-Russia probe, presumably by firing special prosecutor Robert Mueller. And crushing the independence of prosecutors, along with the media (another Trump target) and the judiciary is the No. 1 hallmark of autocracy.
Alarmingly erratic behavior in the Oval Office: All of the above behavior, including the president’s raging narcissism and inability to display empathy — compounded by Trump’s alternately bullying and paranoid posts on Twitter — has sparked a raging debate among America’s psychologists whether the so-called “Goldwater rule” barring public discussion of a politician’s mental health still applies. But members of Congress and other key players are having these conversations — if not yet in public. Earlier this week, an open hot mike captured Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine discussing Trump’s “crazy” state of mind, with Collins stating, “I’m worried.” Welcome to the club.
Which brings us to why this week’s health care action in the Senate is so important. America’s founders anticipated the potential problems of a chief executive who shredded the rule of law or who otherwise proved to be unfit for the office. But there was no way, constitutionally, to prepare for what happens when the people handed those powers — primarily the Congress — refuse to exercise them. Rather than serve as a realistic check on the authoritarianism at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and their minions have chosen to work as accomplices — part out of shameless expediency and part out of fear.
The specifics of the various Obamacare repeals plans that are now being debated, thanks to Tuesday’s vote, are horrific, but the equally significant alarm bell is the wretched legislative process that got us to this point. The lack of “regular order” — a fancy term for having both a lengthy and unhindered debate about health care involving not just lawmakers from both parties but the key stakeholders like patients and their doctors, at open public hearings — is the kind of thing that takes place in a so-called “banana republic” and not a nation that for years has branded itself around the globe as democracy’s shining city on a hill.
The fact that 50 GOP senators, with Pence, were willing to vote to debate a bill that none of them have actually seen is proof that loyalty and discipline are the only things that matter in Trump/McConnell Washington — not the will of the people or a free exchange of ideas. (And there’s just too much to be said about Sen. John McCain and the meaning of political courage to go down that rabbit hole right now, but suffice it to say that his hypocritical vote and broken promise to fight for “regular order” render his pretty-sounding words after the vote utterly without meaning.) In the long run, the Senate’s spinelessness may prove more damaging to democracy than Trump’s buffoonery.
That’s why 11:58 p.m. feels like the proper setting for our democracy doomsday clock. Because the two-minute drill for America’s soul, and maybe even its survival, starts right now. The debate over an actual health care bill, which clearly could go either way, is a starting point. Massive public pressure on a few key lawmakers — phone calls, letters to the editor, protest marches, or even just making your feelings known in your community or on social media — could start to turn things in the right direction. That may prove doubly true in pressing Congress to use whatever’s left in its tool box — including impeachment, if necessary — to thwart a Trumpian coup at the Department of Justice. Such activism stands counter to modern American tendencies — our couch-potato political culture is how we ended up with Trump in the first place, right? — but the alternatives are unfathomable. And the ticking keeps getting louder.