Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Is America Over? The View From the North

 By Eric Segall

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the right-wing, Trump-inspired (or led) attack on our nation's Capitol, both the traditional media and social media are full of worrisome predictions about the demise of democracy and representative government in America. As a glutton for punishment, I have been reading a bunch of these but the best I have seen is from Canadian scholar Thomas Homer-Dixon who, in his own words, studies "violent conflict. For more than 40 years, I’ve studied and published on the causes of war, social breakdown, revolution, ethnic violence and genocide, and for nearly two decades I led a centre on peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto." 

His most recent essay, "The American polity is cracked, and might collapse. Canada must prepare," is clear-eyed, focused, and brilliant. This blog post summarizes the highlights (or lowlights) of this piece and adds a few thoughts of my own. I skip over the end of the essay where Homer-Dixon discusses what Canada needs to do to prepare for the possible demise of America's system of government.  

One of the most refreshing (and depressing) aspects of this essay is that Homer-Dixon starts with his time in America in the 1980's listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. This is exactly the right place to begin. He says that in the 1980's he

listened to Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio talk show host and later television personality.... With each broadcast, it was if Mr. Limbaugh were wedging the sharp end of a chisel into a faint crack in the moral authority of U.S. political institutions, and then slamming the other end of that chisel with a hammer.

Since then, 

week after week, year after year, Mr. Limbaugh and his fellow travelers have hammered away – their blows’ power lately amplified through social media and outlets such as Fox News and Newsmax. The cracks have steadily widened, ramified, connected and propagated deeply into America’s once-esteemed institutions, profoundly compromising their structural integrity.

Homer-Dixon does not mention the rumors that in the years leading up to Trump's 2016 run, he consistently listened to right-wing radio to plan his political strategies. And, as Homer-Dixon does note, eventually Trump and the GOP gave Limbaugh (a racist, sexist, awful excuse for a human being) our country's highest civilian medal. At the time, here at Dorf on Law, I wrote about my anger at that travesty and concluded that:

We could be living in a world where some on the right would have reacted to this fiasco along the following lines: 'We support Donald Trump and his policies regarding judges, the economy, immigration, etc. We think Democrats and their policies are bad for America. But no person with Limbaugh's history of racism and sexism is deserving of American's highest civilian honor. The President giving him that honor is a direct slap in the face to women, people of color, and the traditionally disadvantaged.

Of course, none of that happened. The title of that piece was "The Enablers of American Evil: The Rush Limbaugh Story." I (humbly) believe that blog post is more important today than when it was first written.

Homer-Dixon then steps back and discusses some of the defects that were built into our system of government from the beginning and which continued during our first century and a half (recognizing no model of government is perfect). He notes that at the founding there was an "abiding distrust in government baked into the country’s political culture during the Revolution." He also observes that America has also had to wrestle with "slavery...[the] political compromise of the Electoral College...overrepresentation of rural voting power in the Senate...and [later] the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War." 

All of us at Dorf on Law have written about the pernicious effects of American racism that continue to this day, the evils of a grossly malapportioned Senate, and the complex issues raised by the Electoral College. There is also little doubt that the North's failure to remain in the South and enforce the Reconstruction Amendments, along with the Supreme Court's misreading of those Amendments during the late 19th century, are partly to blame for our racial issues today.

But why are these defects causing such a potential for civil strife and totalitarian government today? A recurring theme of the essay is that a second Trump Presidency might well lead to an Hungarian or Russian style autocratic leader, given that Trump (or someone even smarter) knows that putting lackeys in key positions in the military might be the final key to turning off American democracy. 

One major factor is of course our inequitable economic system, where the rich seem to be getting much richer and the poor much poorer. Homer-Dixon emphasizes our 

stagnating middle-class incomes, chronic economic insecurity, and rising inequality as the country’s economy – transformed by technological change and globalization – has transitioned from muscle power, heavy industry, and manufacturing as the main sources of its wealth to idea power, information technology, symbolic production and finance.

He correctly observes that "[e]conomic insecurity is widespread in broad swaths of the country’s interior, while growth is increasingly concentrated in a dozen or so metropolitan centres."

Homer-Dixon dos not draw the connection directly but our gross wealth disparities correspond to our urban-rural divide, which also replicates our intense political dysfunction. Atlanta's politics have more in common with Houston or Philadelphia than it has with counties in Georgia 50 miles from Atlanta's center, and the same is true for most of the country. Culturally, economically, and politically we are much more divided urban/rural than north/south or east/west. 

Another major cause of our polarization is that white Christians fear losing power and influence. As "immigration, aging, intermarriage and a decline in church-going have reduced the percentage of non-Hispanic white Christians in America, right-wing ideologues have inflamed fears that traditional U.S. culture is being erased and whites are being replaced."

These fears have, of course, been inflamed by the likes of Limbaugh and then Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, who consistently paint the left as warring on Christians (and Christmas) and on a nightly basis issue lies, half-truths, and paranoid discussions of America losing its basic values (read white supremacy).

In addition to this racist and fundamentalist based attack on America's institutions, the tragic other piece of the puzzle, according to Homer-Dixon, is that America is "armed to the teeth" with somewhere around 400 million guns in the hands of civilians, many of whom seem to want to follow Trump, Fox News, and folks like Marjorie Taylor-Greene wherever they want to go.

The most compelling part of Homer-Dixon's essay is his recognition that "[w]hile both wings of U.S. politics have fanned polarization’s flames, blame lies disproportionately on the political right." The Koch Brothers and other wealthy right wing super capitalists during the early 2000's "used disciplined tactics and enormous streams of money...to turn extreme laissez-faire ideology into orthodox Republican dogma." 

Then President Obama's election magnified the fears about immigration and cultural changes 

among older, often economically insecure members of the white middle-class, who then coalesced into the populist Tea Party movement. Under Mr. Trump, the two forces were joined. The GOP became...a radicalized combination of convenience between anti-government, free-market true believers and racially anxious activists and voters.

Homer-Dixon does not include the Court's same-sex marriage decisions and abortion cases in his analysis but the Justices quite obviously fanned the flames of discontent among far-right evangelicals, a major voting bloc. Trump understood this perfectly in 2016 by employing his famous Federalist Society list of possible future justices and Hillary Clinton played right into this strategy by emphasizing the need for liberal justices who would overturn Citizens United and secure reproductive rights for women.

Then, Homar-Dixon correctly circles back to Limbaugh, explaining that current far-right pundits and politicians are using Limbaugh’s "tried-and-true methods...to push the radicalization process further than ever before." Trump, an expert at "weaponizing people’s fear and anger" as well as much of the GOP, transformed that political party "into a near-fascist personality cult that’s a perfect instrument for wrecking democracy."

Sensitive to the overuse of the "F" word, Homer-Dixon quotes conservative commentator David Frum, who argues that Trumpism

increasingly resembles European fascism in its contempt for the rule of law and glorification of violence. Evidence is as close as the latest right-wing Twitter meme: widely circulated holiday photos show[ing] Republican politicians and their family members, including young children, sitting in front of their Christmas trees, all smiling gleefully while cradling pistols, shotguns and assault rifles.

The threat is not even thinly veiled.

There is much more to this wonderful essay than I can summarize here. Homer-Dixon talks about the troubling parallels between America today and the Weimar Republic (while also noting the differences). He consulted a number of experts who "agreed that under a second Trump administration, liberalism will be marginalized and right-wing Christian groups super-empowered, while violence by vigilante, paramilitary groups will rise sharply." And he returns to the depressing fact that Americans, many of whom are heavily armed with military grade weapons, might well follow a charismatic right-wing demagogue as far as he or she wants to go.

Homar-Dixon does not say very much about how America can avoid this potentially nightmarish future. If we have hope, and I am trying to keep mine, there is one paragraph in the essay that I think requires special attention. Talking about the effectiveness of the "Big Lie" and how 70% of the GOP believes the election was stolen, Homer-Dixon writes that 

at the heart of the ideological narrative of U.S. right-wing demagogues, from Mr. Trump on down, is the implication that large segments of the country’s population – mainly the non-white, non-Christian, and educated urban ones – aren’t really equal citizens. They aren’t quite full Americans, or even real Americans.

This trope is the Fox News, Rush Limbaugh-inspired strategy for stoking fear in millions of Americans. It is all about the "other," people not worthy of political representation and equality. It is about religion and race--two of the most divisive issues in America at the founding and continuing until today.

So my small and probably meager appeal is to those in the GOP who truly believe that we are all created equal. We can disagree about the best economic, military, and foreign policy strategies but we should not disagree over the essential aspect of the American dream/illusion--that we are all entitled to equal dignity and equal rights. There are still moderate Republican voters, if not politicians, who embrace that ideal. If they don't take control of the Republican Party right now, today, then America may well be lost, and there will be blood.

Postscript: Along similar lines, see Mike's latest Verdict column, in which he laments that a year after the Capitol Insurrection, the "battle for the soul of the GOP, pitting social and economic conservatives against outright authoritarians," is thus far being won by the authoritarians.