opinion

Pretty words, screaming at sky won't stop Trump's American autocracy

Will Bunch, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Thursday, October 26, 2017, 1:13 PM

Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), with his wife, Cheryl.

Here’s something that pretty much sums up where the United States of America is right now, more than nine months into Donald Trump’s experiment with blowing up the American Experiment — with principled discourse, a free press, and the quaint notion that citizens should be told the truth all giving up more yards than the Cleveland Browns’ defense on its worst Sunday.

On the night of Nov. 8, thousands of the most rabid haters of Trump and his minions plan to gather under the stars in New York and possibly Boston and other U.S. cities to mark the one-year anniversary of our ongoing American nightmare by looking up and screaming helplessly — and that’s the key word here, helplessly, which is actually in the event’s official title — at the sky.

“This administration has attacked everything about what it means to be American,” Johanna Schulman, who sought to organize a Boston screaming event that fell through after “logistical” problems, told Newsweek. “Coming together reminds us that we are not alone, that we are part of an enormous community of activists who are motivated and angry, whose actions can make a difference.”

But if “actions can make a difference,” then why not, instead of yelling into the void … you know … doing something!!!

And we should also aim our angry exclamation points in the direction of those Republicans like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, former President George W. Bush, and a few other Establishment types who’ve taken what can only be oxymoronically described as bold baby steps in speaking out against the threat to American democracy posed by Trumpism, even as they weirdly refuse to mention Trump’s name. But not so boldly — arguably cowardly, in fact — these GOPers don’t have a single substantive idea for how to stop this rise of authoritarianism, and — even worse — are mostly running away from the field of battle, leaving an open path for despotism.

Simply put, the Flakes, Corkers, and Bushes of American politics are doing the same thing as the political left — howling helplessly at the moon. Other key players — the embarrassingly impotent Democratic Party and a mainstream media that could stop democracy from dying in darkness as long as no one is offended — are essentially doing the same. We were promised resistance last Nov. 9, but what we’re seeing instead is whispers of soft refusal, and then … surrender. Maybe it’s time to stop talking about Trump and “the threat” to democracy.

Democracy is already circling the drain.

The throbbing drumbeat of this brand of fascism — a new, 21st-century kind of reality-show fascism, but fascism nonetheless — pounded louder than ever this week. Confronted with the threats to his authority posed by critics like Flake and Corker, condemnation from his two predecessors (Bush and Barack Obama), and damning new evidence of collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian computer theft, Trump and his modern version of official state media — Breitbart, Fox, and friends — dredged (or Drudged) up the authoritarian playbook to create a fictitious alternate reality where old Hillary Clinton scandals were new again and standard campaign opposition research is now a crime.

Indeed, nothing defines our new American autocracy better than its utter contempt for the truth, from Trump and his allies in the White House and in his allied right-wing media empire. The top chronicler of Trumpian lies — Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star — said Trump set his all-time record as the home of 57 whoppers last week, on matters ranging from economic-growth statistics and immigration numbers to a made-up figure about Muslims and crime in the United Kingdom to the widely publicized unjustified attacks involving his call to a widow of the recent assault on U.S. Special Forces in Niger. Nothing is a greater hallmark of looming dictatorship than the ability to spin official government “truths” from a completely fictional cloth, and get millions of die-hard followers to believe our Dear Leader.

That’s why it was not just praiseworthy but — dare I say it — even heroic for Flake to break ranks with his 51 Republican colleagues by denouncing Trump’s dishonesty and his other demagogic tendencies in a speech on the Senate floor. No one else, after all, has done what Flake just did. The Arizona senator said: “We must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal. Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified.”

Yet Flake also wondered if the next generation will ask us, “Why didn’t you do something?” Really? Because that’s the same question that I and a lot of other people are asking right now. The senator’s speech contained a lot of pretty words about defending America’s democratic norms, but not one suggestion for what do to do about Trump in this present. Indeed, when Flake was asked point-blank on national TV the following day if Trump should be removed from office, he said … no. That makes zero sense.

And the critics are right in noting that Flake stepped up his war of words with Trump right when it seemed increasingly likely that he’d lose his seat next year in a GOP primary against a raving right-wing chem-trail-believing lunatic. What Trump and his inside-out ally Steve Bannon are successfully doing is purging the Republican Party of alleged quislings and replacing them with frightening true believers like Alabama’s Roy Moore, who would be the most bigoted politician to serve in the Senate in the last century.

You know who else purged everyone who wasn’t a true believer?

This is a grave threat, and it wouldn’t be fair to blame all of the nation’s inadequate response on the shrinking posse of comparatively sane Republicans. There’s the Democratic Party — which reacted to Flake’s step in the right direction by publicly ripping him and whose main elements would much rather rehash the 2016 Bernie-Hillary wars over and over and over than come up with a coherent plan to save America from Trumpism. There’s the well-intentioned resistance, which came out of the gate strong with events like the Women’s March and, here at home, Tuesdays With Toomey, but which has struggled to find a new bold direction now that the awfulness at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is hitting its full stride. And don’t get me started about the elite news media, which talks a good “Democracy Dies in Darkness” game but which now would discipline any reporter who dares tweet the reality that democracy is dying under Trump.

There are things that can be done.

Look, Republicans like Flake and Corker are going to fight for their silly conservative things, like unnecessary tax cuts for corporations and billionaires — it’s what they do. But Corker is also right when he says that Trump’s recklessness has increased the intolerable threat of triggering World War III, so why don’t Flake, Corker, and the GOP “sensible caucus” join with Democrats to enact legislation that would bar the president from launching a nuclear first strike without congressional approval? Right now, Trump is openly defying one of the few bipartisan things that Congress has done since January, which is imposing tougher sanctions on Russia given its efforts — successful efforts, many would argue — to hijack the 2016 election. Rather than broad accusations, critics like Flake and Corker could call out Trump and work to actually carry out the measure that they and their colleagues from both parties voted for. Likewise, there’s increasing evidence that the congressional committees tasked with investigating Russia election interference are slowing up or even shutting down their investigations, in spite of so much that we still don’t know about hacking and disinformation campaigns. The eventual willingness of representatives in both parties to weigh the crimes of Richard Nixon is what salvaged American democracy, however faintly, in the 1970s, and Trump-troubled Republicans can lead the way forward again in 2017. In a follow-up to his speech, Flake wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he compared speaking out against Trump to the fight against McCarthyism in the 1950s. Ultimately, McCarthy was censured by his Senate colleagues, and there’s no reason Trump and his dishonesty cannot be censured on Capitol Hill as well. That’s not the thing that would truly save us from moral and possible actual ruin — that would be Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, of course — but, like Flake’s speech or Corker’s critical comments, it would at least be a powerful step in the direction the nation needs to be going.

Combine these basic steps with a unified resistance willing to take bolder steps, including civil disobedience, a Democratic Party committed to fighting Trump and not one another, and journalists who care more about saving democracy than appeasing their right-wing critics, and we’ll at least be moving in the right direction and not sliding backward into the abyss. Anything less would be howling helplessly at the moon.

Will Bunch, STAFF COLUMNIST

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