Against Autocracy and Apathy

David Frum, who wrote speeches for George W. Bush, is one of the few right-wingers who haven’t swallowed Drump’s Kool-Aid. He now writes for The Atlantic, where he published an excellent article in January called “How To Build An Autocracy”. Its subtitle was “The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald [Drump] could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism”.

It’s a full-length magazine article that takes a while to load because of all the advertisements (unless your ad blocker is working), but it was very well-received and is still worth reading. Frum begins by imagining Drump being sworn in for his second term. America hasn’t gone completely over the edge but it’s not healthy either. The article concludes:

Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.

I was reminded of the article because Mr. Frum generated what’s called a “tweetstorm” on Twitter today. Up until a few months ago, I thought Twitter was basically a joke. I didn’t realize how interesting it is as a source of political news and commentary. So I created an account and now follow a small number of journalists, politicians and people with common interests (and a few comedians). Some of the journalists, including David Frum, offer what’s almost a running commentary on the day’s events. Here’s what he wrote today in 21 segments:

  1. [The Attorney General] Sessions story today is a sinister confirmation of central thesis of my autocracy article:
  2. Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous president because he harbors so many guilty secrets (or maybe 1 big guilty secret).
  3. In order to protect himself, Trump must attack American norms and institutions – otherwise he faces fathomless legal risk
  4. In turn, in order to protect their legally vulnerable leader, Republicans in Congress must join the attack on norms & institutions
  5. Otherwise, they put at risk party hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake US government in ways not very popular with voters
  6. American institutions are built to withstand an attack from the president alone. But …
  7. … they are not so well-built as to withstand an attack from a conscienceless president enabled by a hyper-partisan Congress
  8. The peculiar grim irony in this case is that somewhere near the center of Trump’s story is the murky secret of Trump’s Russia connection
  9. Meaning that Trump is rendering his party also complicit in what could well prove …
  10. … the biggest espionage scandal since the Rosenberg group stole the secret of the atomic bomb.
  11. And possibly even bigger. We won’t know if we don’t look
  12. Despite patriotic statements from individual GOPers, as of now it seems that Speaker Ryan & Leader McConnell agree: no looking.
  13. So many in DC serenely promise that “checks and balances” will save us. But right now: there is no check and no balance.
  14. Only brave individuals in national security roles sharing truth with news organizations.
  15. But those individuals can be found & silenced. What then? We take it too much for granted that the president must lose this struggle
  16. The “oh he’s normal now” relief of so many to Trump’s Feb 28 speech revealed how ready DC is to succumb to deal making as usual.
  17. As DC goes numb, citizen apathy accumulates …
  18. GOP members of Congress decide they have more to fear from enforcing law against the president than from ignoring law with the president
  19. And those of us who care disappear down rabbit holes debating whether Sessions’ false testimony amounts to perjury or not
  20. Meanwhile job market strong, stock market is up, immigration enforcement is popular.
  21. I’m not counseling despair here. I don’t feel despair. Only: nobody else will save the country if you don’t act yourself.

Of course, it will be the height of irony if Drump, after claiming that he inherited a disaster from Obama, ends up getting credit for the economy improving and ISIS being defeated, but that’s the way American politics works. At the present moment, however, what especially struck me about Frum’s comments was the idea that citizen apathy, including my own, might be growing. 

I was able to attend a town hall by our Congressman, Rep. Leonard Lance (NJ-7), two weeks ago. He the typical relatively sensible Republican who went to Washington and now almost always follows the party line. At the town hall, he avoided straight answers, repeated some ridiculous Republican talking points and made promises he won’t keep, but at least he got an extended earful from hundreds of angry constituents.

But now that the excitement of the town hall has faded, and no big demonstrations like the Women’s March on Washington in the news, I’m beginning to feel a little numb myself. That’s natural, I suppose. Intensity will come and go, even as the outrages continue. In the meantime, however, if you’d like to do something positive, there’s a special election being held in a suburban district outside Atlanta to replace the lying creep who’s now running the Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Jon Ossoff is a Democratic candidate who could pull off an upset in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District if he gets enough support and there’s enough of an anti-Drump backlash. Even if he doesn’t win, a close election will show Republicans like our Leonard Lance that their re-election isn’t assured. I made a donation today. You can too if you visit Mr. Ossoff’s campaign site.

Even if you’re not at peak emotional intensity right now, you can always spend a few dollars for an important cause. 

What To Do (Which Side Are You On?)

It’s already Day 5 of the T___ administration. Sadly, there’s no indication yet that Vice President Pence has begun following the steps in the 25th Amendment (in particular, the Let’s-Replace-A-Crazy-President clause). However, stories describing the President’s mental instability and general unfitness for his new job are appearing, and it’s been suggested that Pence’s staff may be leaking damaging information in order to lay the groundwork for just such a constitutionally-mandated transfer of power. One can hope.

Of course, there are things to do besides hoping. Except for the extremely successful, worldwide Women’s March on Saturday, the best known call to action has probably been “The Indivisible Guide: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda”. What began as an overloaded Google doc is now a website:

WHO IS THIS DOCUMENT BY AND FOR?

We: Are former progressive congressional staffers who saw the Tea Party beat back President Obama’s agenda.

We: See the enthusiasm to fight the Trump agenda and want to share insider info on how best to influence Congress to do that.

You: Want to do your part to beat back the Trump agenda and understand that will require more than calls and petitions.

You: Should use this guide, share it, amend it, make it your own, and get to work.

Here’s the summary of Chapter Two:

How your MoC [Member of Congress] thinks — reelection, reelection, reelection — and how to use that to save democracy. MoCs want their constituents to think well of them and they want good, local press. They hate surprises, wasted time, and most of all, bad press that makes them look weak, unlikable, and vulnerable. You will use these interests to make them listen and act.

Chapters Three and Four offer instructions for organizing your own anti-T___ group and doing things that will have the biggest effect (attending events, requesting meetings and making coordinated phone calls).

Another document that’s received a lot of attention was written immediately after the election by the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. It’s called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”. Having lived under Putin, she lets us know it would be a big mistake to give T__p the benefit of the doubt. For example, she wishes Hillary Clinton had said something like this that dark night in November:

We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.

Gessen’s six rules for surviving autocracy are: 

  1. Believe the autocrat (don’t assume he’s exaggerating when he promises to do something terrible)
  2. Don’t be taken in by small signs of normality
  3. Institutions won’t save you (nor will cultural norms)
  4. Be outraged
  5. Don’t compromise
  6. Remember the future (in other words, keep hope alive).

Gessen followed this up with another article, this time describing her great-grandfather’s experience in Nazi-occupied Poland and her grandmother’s as a government censor in the Soviet Union. Her conclusion is: given a choice between collaboration (possibly under the guise of being a “realist”) and resistance, choose resistance.

In December, the economist and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich cautioned against falling into one of four syndromes: (1) normalizing the situation (“he’s just another President”); (2) going numb or shutting down emotionally; (3) cynicism; or (4) helplessness. Prof. Reich, who is currently providing almost continuous political commentary on Facebook, ends with this:

If you find yourself falling into one or more of these syndromes, that’s understandable. Normalizing, numbing, becoming cynical and feeling powerless are natural human responses to the gross absurdity and genuine peril posed by T___.

But I urge you to pull yourself out. We need you in the peaceful resistance army, starting January 20.

Finally, here are some sites that offer alternative perspectives on the news. They’re good places to visit if you want an antidote to outlets like CNN, the TV networks and the front page of The New York Times (The Washington Post is better these days):

Pro Publica (Journalism in the Public Interest) 

Think Progress

Talking Points Memo

Media Matters for America

Vox

Daily Kos (a group blog about politics)

Hullabaloo (another group blog about politics)

Plus, something that might give you chills. It did me.