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Dia de los muertos

An altar at the 2017 Día de Los Muertos celebration at Santa Clara Cemetery in Oxnard. (File photo by John McCoy, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Garrett Epps has a good essay on the life, death, and possible afterlife of American liberal democracy:

Consider the devolution of Bill Barr, from an “institutionalist” who would protect the Department of Justice to a servant of Donald Trump. Consider the two dozen House Republicans who used physical force to disrupt their own body rather than allow government officials to testify to what they know about President Trump—because to follow the rules of the House, and the strictures of national security, would threaten their party’s grasp on power. Consider the white evangelical leaders who prated to the nation for a generation about character and chastity and “Judeo-Christian morality,” but who now bless Trump as a leader. Consider, if more evidence is needed, the unforgettable moment at the Capitol on September 27, 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh dropped forever the mask of the “independent judge” to stand proudly forth as a partisan figure promising vengeance against his enemies

The last incident, I think, sums up the horror of what the nation has learned about many of its leaders. It seems likely that Kavanaugh’s self-abasement was not the impulse of a desperate man, but a conscious choice made because, unless he showed himself willing to fight back viciously, he risked losing the support of the president. That choice had the desired effect. Trump embraced Kavanaugh, and used his tirade to move supporters to the polls that November.

This is the point. These are not victims crazed by “polarization” or “partisanship” or “gridlock” but cool-headed political actors who see the chance to win long-sought goals—dictatorial power in the White House, partisan control of the federal bench, an end to legal abortion and the re-subordination of women, destruction of the government’s regulatory apparatus, an end to voting rights that might threaten minority-party control, a return to pre-civil-rights racial norms. The historical moment finds them on a mountaintop; all the kingdoms they have sought are laid out before them, and a voice says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Trump has, one way or another, changed our national life irrevocably. When one side of a political struggle has shown itself willing to commit crimes, collaborate with foreign powers, destroy institutions, and lie brazenly about facts readily ascertainable to anyone, should the other side—can the other side—then pretend these things did not happen? . .

Assume new national leadership in 2021. What leader worth voting for would negotiate with Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy and believe either will keep his word; what sane president would turn over sensitive documents to Republican-led committees; what Democratic president would simply accept that the federal courts are now the property of the opposition, and submit issues of national policy to them, in the confidence of receiving a fair shake? After this night in the forest, can I, or any sane person, ever believe in these people and institutions again? . .

Our republic may not be in its dying hour, but if it awakes from its nightmare, the knowledge Americans will have gleaned from these years is gloomy indeed.

Three things are killing the American political system:

(1) The long-term devolution of the GOP into a reactionary ethno-nationalist authoritarian party, and the the gradual but inevitable transformation of such a party into a fascist movement.

(2) The election of a career criminal at the head of a cult of personality to the presidency.

(3) The crisis of political legitimacy that is an inevitable consequence of the proto-fascist party controlling the presidency, while not yet fully controlling the legislature and the courts. (We are now witnessing a classic example of what Juan Linz famously termed the “dual legitimacy” problem in presidential systems).

The epitaph of American liberal democracy could well be this: Donald Trump had to be impeached, even though it was always going to be impossible to remove him via the impeachment process.

Trump had to be impeached, because when a career criminal is made president, that person is going to eventually commit so many egregiously impeachable offenses that failing to impeach him, should the opposition party control the House of Representatives, would itself be a kind of delegitimizing failure to act, in regard to both the legitimacy of the political opposition, and of the political system itself.

But while Trump’s impeachment was inevitable, so was the subsequent failure to remove him from office by the Senate. If the opposition party also controls less than two thirds of the Senate, it is also inevitable that the proto-fascist party is not going to accede to the removal of its leader under any circumstances.

The Republican party cannot survive in anything like its present form if anything like democracy and the rule of law remain in force. The party is choosing survival over political death or — what ideologically speaking amounts to the same thing — fundamental transformation.

The lawless anti-democratic Trump regime is not some sort of historical freak: it, or something very much like it, was an inevitable consequence of what the Republican party has become. White supremacy and theocratic evangelicalism are not ideologies that are consistent with liberal democracy, which means that white supremacists and Christian dominionists must both eventually reject liberal democracy root and branch.

We are thus seeing what political scientists call regime cleavage in the context of what Linz identified as the fundamental structural problem of presidential systems:

Instead of seeking office to change the laws to obtain preferred policies, politicians who oppose the democratic order ignore the laws when necessary to achieve their political goals, and their supporters stand by or even endorse those means to their desired ends. Today, when Trump refuses to comply with the House impeachment inquiry, he makes plain his indifference to the Constitution and to the separation of powers. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argues that impeachment overturns an election result, he is doing the same. In the minds of Trump, his allies and, increasingly, his supporters, it’s not just Democrats but American democracy that is the obstacle.

And, as Epps suggests, there is no going back from this. Even if Democrats should win the presidency and both houses of Congress next year, the GOP is not going to be magically transformed into a party that values the democratic process and the rule of law over its core ideological commitments. And it cannot be such a party as long as it remains in anything like its present form, because what have become its core ideological commitments — ethno-nationalism and Christian dominionism — are not and cannot be compatible with liberal democracy.

Donald Trump is but a harbinger of a smarter, more energetic, more competent version of what he and his party have come to represent. And the American political experiment will not survive the appearance of that avatar.

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