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Sleepwalking toward authoritarianism


Leah Litman has a good op-ed (gift link) reminding people — though she’s too tactful to put it quite this bluntly — that the SCOTUS is doing everything within its considerable power to try to get Donald Trump re-elected:

Nearly two months have passed since the justices heard lawyers for the former president and for the special counsel’s office argue the immunity case. The court is dominated by conservatives nominated by Republican presidents. Every passing day further delays a potential trial on charges related to Mr. Trump’s efforts to remain in office after losing the 2020 election and his role in the events that led to the storming of the Capitol; indeed, at this point, even if the court rules that Mr. Trump has limited or no immunity, it is unlikely a verdict will be delivered before the election. . . .

In 1974, the Watergate special prosecutor squared off against President Richard Nixon over his refusal to release Oval Office tape recordings of his conversations with aides. Nixon argued that he was immune from a subpoena seeking the recordings. Last year, Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, looked at how long that case took once it reached the Supreme Court on May 31 of that year. The justices gave the parties 21 days to file their briefs, and then 10 days to respond. Oral argument was held on July 8. Sixteen days later, on July 24, the court issued its 8-0 decision ordering Nixon to turn over the tapes. The chief justice, Warren Burger, who had been nominated to the court by Nixon, wrote the opinion. Total elapsed time: 54 days. Nixon subsequently resigned.

As of Tuesday, 110 days had passed since the court agreed to hear the Trump immunity case. And still no decision.

If Trump is re-elected, he will of course shut down the two current federal criminal proceedings against him as soon as he takes power, pardoning himself if he’s convicted in the insurrection case prior to January 20th of next year. (I will confess to extracting a certain amount of grim amusement from the prospect of America’s leading Institutionalist, Merrick Garland, continuing to contemplate his own unimpeachable rectitude under such admittedly awkward circumstances).

Trump is saying in the most explicit way possible that he is going to prosecute his political opponents for the crime of opposing him. Meanwhile the entire Republican party, without any meaningful exception, is applauding this plan with the enthusiasm of Stalin’s minions at a party conference. (There’s a great story about how, near the end of his reign, party members were terrified to be identified as the first to stop clapping after leaping to their feet at the end of one of Stalin’s interminable speeches, thus leading to several minute standing ovations for his oratory).

“What we’re gearing up for is if Trump wins, he’s going to use the apparatus of the state to target his political opponents,” said Jason Stanley, a professor at Yale and the author of “How Fascism Works.”

Stanley said history is full of examples of people not believing the rhetoric of authoritarians. “Believe what they say,” he said. “He’s literally telling you he’s going to use the apparatus of the state to target his political opponents.”

At his Trump Tower on Friday in New York, the former president returned to the kinds of attacks he has repeatedly lodged in campaign speeches, portraying Biden as the one who is “corrupt” and the U.S. as a “fascist” nation.

Trump called the members of the bipartisan House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol “thugs” and said Biden was a “Manchurian candidate,” a phrase inspired by the 1960s movie portraying a puppet of a U.S. political enemy.

I know I’ve beaten the Ariana Grande Theory of Politics to death already, but the really sad thing is that, under current circumstances, the AGTOP is the most optimistic possible take on our national state of mind, or un-mind as Humbert Humbert would say.

The vast majority of Americans are not in fact full-fledged members of an authoritarian cult of personality, but instead bored, easily distracted people, who pay little to literally no attention to politics. Politics to them is as — switching up metaphors here — gaming is to me: something that I have a vague sense is a huge deal to a lot of people, but that I know basically nothing about and don’t pretend to even begin to understand.

The difference is that if I don’t know anything at all about World of Warcraft that really doesn’t matter, while the fact that a large majority of the American public knows nothing at all about Donald Trump’s open attempt to end democracy in this country is kind of a big problem when you think about it, which is why they don’t.

A closely related point is that, for a large number of those same people, authoritarian quasi-theocracy in the form of managed democracy will have little day to day effect on their lives, so it’s not really a big deal to them, unlike say the price of gas or that trans swimmer that won a couple of Ivy League meets. They’ll think they are free.

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