I’m late to the rending of garments. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the United States has hit crisis point. But crises are not purely objective conditions. They are as much cultural and psychological in nature. In crises, we experience a sense of accelerating events. These demand choices in the short term that, if wrong, invite catastrophe. Michael Anton’s assertion that 2016 was the “Flight 93” election sought to constitute it as such a crisis, in which the failure to elect Trump would mean the destruction of the conservative vision of America.
The experience of crisis is crucial for social mobilization, but it can be dangerous. It helped convince many Republicans otherwise uncomfortable with Trump to vote for a kleptocratic confidence artist, one with no sense of obligation to the broader American community. People can make dangerous decisions in the face of crisis; both for their own cause and that of the broader community. But because a sense of crisis compels action, it is also essential in the face of democratic erosion.
Are we in a crisis? For migrant and asylum-seeking families ripped apart and slated for concentration camps (in the actual sense of the term), the answer is clearly yes. If you mean Kennedy’s decision to retire, then the answer is more complicated. We are likely about to see a majority for gutting, if not formally overruling, Roe v. Wade. The hope that the Supreme Court will enforce voting rights is pretty much dead. The Court will also not strike down gerrymandering so effective that it renders elections undemocratic, and it has reaffirmed one of the worst Constitutional rulings in American history under the guise of overruling it.
Rather, what this last week or so has crystalized is this:
First, nothing will stop Trump’s demagoguery. He will stoke racism and hatred because, among other reasons, he believes it is a winning political strategy. When he has the power to, he will implement authoritarian policies. We’ve seen this in the kidnapping of (mainly) Central American babies and children. But we also know it to be true, because Trump tells us he would.
Second, we cannot count on the judiciary to adequately check Trump’s pocket-authoritarian dispositions, especially as McConnell and Trump continue to stack it. I should note that this was always a major flaw in the anti-anti-Trump argument about democratic backsliding.
Third, it is true that we are not in the Weimar Republic. Democratic elections will continue, just not on a level playing field. The problem is that, as Paul and many others have argued, we are already in a period of minority rule.
To continue with this theme, it is simply becoming impossible to ignore that American political institutions have already entered a pivotal phase—a critical juncture. The unravelling of the Civil War and New Deal reorganizations of the American political system is well underway. The Supreme Court may be the major player here, but the other branches of government are doing their part. In general, we think about this in strictly ideological terms: ‘this is bad for liberal policy preferences, good for conservative ones.’ I think this is too narrow a perspective.
We are talking about the potential for significant decentralization that precludes country-wide policy coordination, even more extensive local variation in political systems between “Red” and “Blue” states, and attenuation of the fiscal capacity to engage in national projects. This kind of system might work for a nineteenth-century federation largely shielded from great-power competition (although, in truth, it careened from crisis to crisis and its survival only looks inevitable in retrospect), but it is likely ill-suited for twenty-first century challenges: environmental, national-security, and economic. Moreover, deregulation of campaign finance, among other things, leaves the country vulnerable to globalizing authoritarianism.
Even if my diagnoses is wrong, the point is that the GOP is altering fundamental aspects of the American political architecture without much consideration of the broader implications of doing so, especially with respect to international politics.
Whether we call all of this is a crisis is besides the point. The first task is harm reduction, and November provides the first concrete opportunity to do so.