Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this morning I was on my way to the World Trade Center as part of my regular commute. The conductor announced that it appeared a small plane had hit one of the towers. So I took a different train under the Hudson River and got off some blocks north of the Trade Center. Standing on Broadway, I watched the building burning and then got on a subway. By the time I’d gotten to work, the other tower had been hit. I could see them both burning from a window on that side of our building.

I reacted differently than most people, partly because it affected my job. We had to deal with the stock exchange being closed that week. But I didn’t watch any of the endless TV coverage and immediately feared that the president would take advantage of the situation, which he did in disastrous fashion. The air around the site was acrid and stayed that way for a surprisingly long time.

From David Roberts (@drvolts on Twitter):

3,200 on Thursday. 2,400 yesterday. On average, Covid is killing around as many Americans as died on 9/11 every single day. 

The very same people who were willing to send American children to war, spend trillions of dollars nation-building, commit war crimes, torture prisoners, & build a massive domestic-surveillance regime in response to 9/11 are unwilling to wear masks to stop a daily 9/11. 

What’s uncomfortable to talk about is that, especially for the loudest post-9/11 voices, it wasn’t really about the lives lost. It was about ego injury, about being hurt by a group of brown people we’d been socialized to think of as primitive & weak. 

The whole ensuing cascade of horrors was mostly about repairing the injury to the large & tender egos of America’s self-style Manly Men. The official elite discourse somewhat obscured this, but it was very, very clear when you read the war bloggers or watched Fox. 

Why does this 9/11 20th anniversary feel weird & muted? Because the real historical significance of 9/11 is that it marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the US, as a democracy & as the dominant global superpower. We’re too close to that, to *in it*, to reckon with it. 

And, just to bring it full circle, this explains the utterly hysterical reaction of US political elites & media to Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal. It wasn’t about lives, it was about *humiliation*, the “Big Dog” running home with its tail between its legs, in failure. 

Will It Happen Here?

“It always happens” doesn’t imply “it will always happen”. With that correction in mind, Adam Gopnik makes an interesting point about democracy and autocracy in The New Yorker:

We are told again and again that American democracy is in peril and may even be on its deathbed. Today, after all, a defeated yet deranged President bunkers in the White House contemplating crazy conspiracy theories and perhaps even martial law, with the uneasy consent of his party and the rabid support of his base. We are then told, with equal urgency, that what is wrong, ultimately, is deep, systemic, and Everybody’s Fault. Perhaps there is a crisis of meaning, or of spirit; perhaps it is a crisis caused by the condescension of self-important élites. (In truth, those élites tend to be at least as self-lacerating as they are condescending, as the latest rounds of self-laceration show.)

Lurking behind all of this is a faulty premise—that the descent into authoritarianism is what needs to be explained, when the reality is that . . . it always happens. The default condition of humankind is not to thrive in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.

America itself has never had a particularly settled commitment to democratic, rational government. At a high point of national prosperity, long before manufacturing fell away or economic anxiety gripped the Middle West—in an era when “silos” referred only to grain or missiles and information came from three sober networks . . .—a similar set of paranoid beliefs filled American minds and came perilously close to taking power. . . . [A] sizable group of people believed things as fully fantastical as the Txxxx-ite belief in voting machines rerouted by dead Venezuelan socialists. The intellectual forces behind Goldwater’s sudden rise thought that Eisenhower and J.F.K. were agents, wittingly or otherwise, of the Communist conspiracy, and that American democracy was in a death match with enemies within as much as without. (Goldwater was, political genealogists will note, a ferocious admirer and defender of Joe McCarthy, whose counsel in all things conspiratorial was Roy Cohn, Dxxxx Txxxx’s mentor.)

Goldwater was a less personally malevolent figure than Txxxx, and, yes, he lost his 1964 Presidential bid. But, in sweeping the Deep South, he set a victorious neo-Confederate pattern for the next four decades of American politics, including the so-called Reagan revolution. Nor were his forces naïvely libertarian. At the time, Goldwater’s ghostwriter Brent Bozell spoke approvingly of Franco’s post-Fascist Spain as spiritually far superior to decadent America, much as the highbrow Txxxx-ites talk of the Christian regimes of Putin and Orbán.

The interesting question is not what causes autocracy (not to mention the conspiratorial thinking that feeds it) but what has ever suspended it. We constantly create post-hoc explanations for the ascent of the irrational. The Weimar inflation caused the rise of Hitler, we say; the impoverishment of Tsarism caused the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, the inflation was over in Germany long before Hitler rose, and Lenin came to power not in anything that resembled a revolution—which had happened already under the leadership of far more pluralistic politicians—but in a coup d’état by a militant minority. Force of personality, opportunity, sheer accident: these were much more decisive than some neat formula of suffering in, autocracy out.

Dxxxx Txxxx came to power not because of an overwhelming wave of popular sentiment—he lost his two elections by a cumulative ten million votes—but because of an orphaned electoral system left on our doorstep by an exhausted Constitutional Convention. . . .

The way to shore up American democracy is to shore up American democracy—that is, to strengthen liberal institutions, in ways that are unglamorously specific and discouragingly minute. The task here is not so much to peer into our souls as to reduce the enormous democratic deficits under which the country labors, most notably an electoral landscape in which farmland tilts to power while city blocks are flattened. This means remedying manipulative redistricting while reforming the Electoral College and the Senate [or by making the Electoral College irrelevant]. Some of these things won’t be achievable, but all are worth pursuing—with the knowledge that, even if every box on our . . . wish list were checked, no set-it-and-forget-it solution to democratic fragility would stand revealed. The only way to stave off another Txxxx is to recognize that it always happens. The temptation of anti-democratic cult politics is forever with us, and so is the work of fending it off. . . .

Unquote.

It’s hard for most Americans to believe it might happen to us. We haven’t had a king or dictator since the United States was created 240 years ago. That’s why Sinclair Lewis called his novel about fascism coming to America It Can’t Happen Here. Our country isn’t destined to become an autocracy, but the past four years show that we have work to do — to make sure it doesn’t happen here.

“An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America” by Nick Bunker

Like most Americans, my knowledge of the Revolutionary War is spotty. The Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, one if by land, two if by sea. The minutemen. Lexington and Concord. The “shot heard round the world”. Bunker Hill. The Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, Washington crossing the Delaware. Later we got the Constitution.

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I didn’t realize the Revolutionary War lasted eight years. The Civil War only lasted four, but it’s sucked up most of the historical oxygen, along with World War 2. I did know that Washington was going to New Jersey when he crossed the Delaware River and that the Continental Army had terrible winters at Jockey Hollow, south of Morristown, even a winter that was worse than Valley Forge’s.

Reading An Empire on the Edge was helpful, therefore. The book covers events leading up to the war in great detail, sometimes in more detail than I needed. The author begins with the state of the American colonies after the French and Indian War (known elsewhere as the Seven Years War) and concludes with the British government having finally decided it’s necessary to use force to put down the rebellion in Massachusetts in 1775.

What really surprised me was the highly complicated, years-long series of events in both America and Great Britain that preceded the exchange of gunfire at Lexington and Concord in 1775. If there is one event that marked the beginning of the conflict, it was the Stamp Act, parliament’s attempt to tax the colonies by requiring printed materials to be produced on embossed paper made in London. That means there were ten years of escalating tensions, with the Americans resisting parliament’s efforts to make laws for the colonies and the British government convinced that parliament had the authority to do so. There were acts of violence on both sides, but mainly there was a lot of discussion: speeches, newspaper articles, pamphlets, meetings and personal diplomacy. All that talk eventually led parliament to declare Massachusetts in open rebellion and initiate a military response.

The author emphasizes throughout that, even so, the British government paid as little attention as possible to what was happening in the colonies. The government’s representatives in the colonies did a poor job informing London, while London was usually much more interested in events far from America. He sees the basic problem, however, as the inability of British aristocrats to understand the American point of view:

The crisis that led to the revolution in America had many causes, and ranking high among them was the narrowness of vision that afflicted [British prime minister Lord North] and his colleagues. . . . They found the rebels in America unthinkable. Nothing in rural Oxfordshire could prepare Lord North for an encounter, at a distance of three thousand miles, with men like . . . Ethan Allen of Vermont. For radicals like . . . Allen, the tenant was the equal of his landlord or even his moral superior; they would never pay a tithe to please a vicar or doff their hat in the street as he walked by . . . 

Perhaps the deepest divide of all was the one that separated Lord North from John Hancock. In the eyes of the king and his ministers, a Bostonian so wealthy had a duty to defend the status quo. . . .At best the man was deeply ungrateful, while at worse he was a traitor. . . 

A man with origins like those of Frederick North could never understand an enemy of Hancock’s kind. Nor could he be creative in response to the challenge that the colonies threw down. The very qualities George III liked best about him — his devotion to his church, to his king and to the landed gentry — were precisely those that rendered North incapable of governing America. . . . [368-69].

The war had been long in the making, the product of an empire and a system deeply flawed, the work of ignorance and prejudices and of men well-meaning but the prisoners of ideas that were obsolete and empty. “You cannot force a form of government upon a people”, the Duke of Richmond had said in the House of Lords . . . but although the radical duke would be proved right, it would take long years of fighting before the nation could admit that this was so [365]. 

It was never going to be as easy for Great Britain to rule over its American colonies the way it did over a country like India. The Americans believed they should be accorded the same rights as proper Englishmen. However, I came away from An Empire on the Edge feeling some sympathy for the British. I’m an American, but the Americans of the 1770s seem to have been a cantankerous lot, too ready to see looming tyranny.

Not much has changed in 250 years. 

Understanding Our Fellow Voters

I read one of those “understanding Txxxx voters” articles at Salon today (no link provided). If you can find it, you can read every word and won’t find anything concrete. The author says the Democratic Party must “start changing its approach”; “a great number of people in the country . . . simply feel unseen, and in desperation they reach out to anyone who even appears to care about them”; and “people are looking for a sense of belonging, looking to be heard, looking for professional and educational opportunity, looking to feel valued and loved”.

These are his explanations for the president getting 70 million votes. He must think the president “appears to care about” his supporters, that he sees them and loves them. If the president appears to care about them, it’s because they think “he tells it like it is”. He expresses opinions they agree with. He makes them think he’ll protect them from Spanish-speaking immigrants; Islamic terrorists; uppity black people; leftist protesters; feminist writers; Whole Foods customers (but just the liberal ones); people with advanced degrees; and the uncaring Democratic politicians who tell us to wear masks, use acronyms like LGBTQ, worry about pollution, and want to raise taxes on the rich and increase the minimum wage.

Democrats say over and over that we’re all in this together, that everyone should have an opportunity to succeed. Txxxx supporters don’t like the sound of that at all.

Here’s another view. Two professors, Brad Evans and Henry Giroux, have written an article called “American Fascism”. An excerpt:

Fascism is a mutable beast. Like society itself, it is prone to transformation. We cannot underestimate the importance of this. Since so much of our understanding of fascism is informed by history, too often we fixate on the final acts of its destruction. The destruction of life, the destruction of cities, the destruction of politics. Whilst this concern with end state fascism does allow us to emphasise how truly nihilistic and deadly its violence can become; it nevertheless works in an apologetic way insomuch as fascism cannot be named if democracy hasn’t fully been suspended or gas chambers built and people led to certain death. . . We must recognize that fascism is a process, parasitic to everyday fears, anxieties and insecurities. . . . It is adept at seducing the masses, so they desire their oppression as though it were their liberation.

We do not accept the notion that talk of a fascist politics emerging in the United States and in the rise of right-wing populist movements across the globe can and should be dismissed as a naive exaggeration or a misguided historical analogy. In the age of leaders such as Txxxx, Bolsonaro, and Erdogan, such objections feel like reckless efforts to deny the growing relevance of the term and the danger posed by a number of societies staring into the abyss of a menacing authoritarianism.

In fact, the case can be made that rather than harbor an element of truth, such criticism further normalizes the very fascism it critiques, allowing the extraordinary and implausible, if not unthinkable, to become ordinary. Under such circumstances, history is not simply being ignored or distorted, it is being erased. Not only in such cases does one run the risk of repeating the worse elements of the past, but also becoming complicitous with them.

In the current historical moment, a growing fascist politics connects the ravages of [contemporary] capitalism, . . . media perversions of truth, and authoritarian practices with fascist ideals . . . This unprecedented convergence includes: a disdain for human rights, a rampant anti-intellectualism, a populist celebration of white nationalism, the cult of leadership, the protection of corporate power, the elevation of pejorative emotion over critical insight, rampant cronyism, a disdain for dissent and intellectuals, and the “more or less explicit endorsement of violence against political enemies”.

What this new political formation suggests is that fascism and its brutalizing logics are never entirely interred in the past and that the conditions that produce its central assumptions are with us once again, ushering in a period of modern barbarity that appears to be reaching towards homicidal extremes . . . While there is no perfect fit between Txxxx and the fascist societies of Mussolini, Hitler, and Pinochet, the basic tenets of hypernationalism, racism, misogyny, rootlessness, and manipulation of the rule of law, “the essential message is the same”. Fascism is never entirely interred in the past and as Hannah Arendt reminded us in her discussions of totalitarianism, it can crystallize in different forms. It may go into remission, but it never entirely disappears.

So when another commentator says “we need to learn to say ‘yes’ to each other”, we should consider what we’re saying “yes” to.

A woman who identifies herself as a nurse in South Dakota wrote this on Twitter last night:

I have a night off from the hospital. . . I can’t help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that “stuff” because they don’t have COVID because it’s not real. Yes. This really happens. And I can’t stop thinking about it. These people really think this isn’t going to happen to them. And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated. It’s like a fucking horror movie that never ends. 

Just say “yes”?

All-American Terrorists

The F.B.I. announced the arrest of 13 members of our species who were planning to make America great again. Here are five of them:

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From The New York Times:

Storming the State Capitol. Instigating a civil war. Abducting a sitting governor ahead of the presidential election.

Those were among the plots described by federal and state officials in Michigan on Thursday as they announced terrorism, conspiracy and weapons charges against 13 men. At least six of them, officials said, had hatched a detailed plan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has become a focal point of anti-government views and anger over coronavirus control measures.

The group that planned the kidnapping met repeatedly over the summer for firearms training and combat drills and practiced building explosives, the F.B.I. said; members also gathered several times to discuss the mission, including in [a basement] accessible only through a “trap door” under a rug.

The men spied on Ms. Whitmer’s vacation home in August and September, even looking under a highway bridge for places they could place and detonate a bomb to distract the authorities, the F.B.I. said. They indicated that they wanted to take Ms. Whitmer hostage before the election in November, and one man said they should take her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin for a “trial,” Richard J. Trask II, an F.B.I. special agent, said in the criminal complaint.

Mr. Trask said that one of those arrested had bought a Taser for the mission last week and that the men had been planning to buy explosives on Wednesday. Court records indicated that at least five of the men had been arrested on Wednesday in Ypsilanti, Mich.; it was not immediately clear if the sixth man had been taken into custody. . . .

The F.B.I. said a leader in the kidnapping plot had reached out to members of an unnamed anti-government group for help, and the state charged an additional seven men, all from Michigan, with providing material support for terrorist activities, being members of a gang and using firearms while committing felonies.

The seven men were said to be affiliated with an extremist group known as the Wolverine Watchmen, and the state’s attorney general accused them of collecting addresses of police officers in order to target them, threatening to start a civil war “leading to societal collapse” and planning to kidnap the governor and other government officials.

The seven men were charged with state crimes, which carry penalties of two to 20 years in prison.

Ms. Whitmer and Dana Nessel, the Michigan attorney general, tied the extremist plot to comments from President Txxxx and his refusal at times . . . to condemn white supremacists and violent right-wing groups. . . . Ms. Whitmer said extremists had “heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry — as a call to action.”

. . . the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, said in September that the most pressing threats facing the nation were from anti-government and white supremacist groups, who . . . have carried out the most lethal domestic attacks in recent years.

The F.B.I. investigation of the kidnapping plot began early this year, according to an affidavit, after a social media discussion of violent government overthrow. The F.B.I. used confidential informants, undercover agents and intercepted messages to monitor the group. . . . The six men were charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, which can carry a life sentence.

The authorities said that [two of the men] had decided to “unite others” to “take violent action” against state governments that they thought were violating the Constitution . . . . The F.B.I. said [one] had talked of storming the Michigan Statehouse with 200 men and trying Ms. Whitmer for treason. . . .

Ms. Whitmer has been the subject of criticism from right-wing protesters for measures she imposed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected about 146,000 Michigan residents and killed about 7,200.

In April, thousands of people gathered at the State Capitol to protest the executive orders she issued shutting down most of the state. Mr. Txxxx openly encouraged such protests, tweeting, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

. . . In May, a man was charged with threatening to kill Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel. And the protests at the Capitol in Lansing featured some signs with swastikas, Confederate flags and demonstrators who advocated for violence against Ms. Whitmer, including one man who carried a doll with brown hair hanging from a noose. Many in the crowd carried semiautomatic weapons, leading some Democrats in the Legislature to call for a ban on guns in the Capitol.

Republicans in the Legislature sued Ms. Whitmer in May over the executive orders, and last week opponents of her lockdown filed petitions with more than 500,000 signatures to repeal a 1945 law that gives governors authority to declare emergencies during times of a public health crisis. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled last week that the law, which Ms. Whitmer had cited, was unconstitutional [deciding it conflicts with another Michigan law regarding emergency declarations]. . . .

The alleged plot in Michigan was infused with elements that have been the focus of anti-government extremists for years, said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, such as accusing government officials of tyranny.

Most of all, Ms. MacNab said, they want their acts to serve as examples — to inspire others to carry out similar attacks.

“Starting a revolution is a common thread in the overall anti-government extremist movement,” Ms. MacNab said.

Homeland Security analysts have warned in recent days of potential attacks from extremists seeking to retaliate against government-ordered social distancing measures and closures. . .

The F.B.I. said it had monitored the kidnapping plot throughout the summer as the target narrowed to the governor’s personal vacation home. The group discussed the governor in vulgar terms and called her a “tyrant.”

“Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her,” one of the men said in an encrypted group chat, according to the F.B.I. . . .

“I just wanna make the world glow, dude,” the affidavit quoted [one of the men] as saying in a profanity-laced tirade. “We’re gonna topple it all . . . “