Our theocracy nightmare: President Palin's martial law

What if McCain/Palin won, then McCain died -- and a terror attack followed. Apocalyptic fiction from a nightmare

Published June 29, 2013 12:00PM (EDT)

Sarah Palin                                     (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Sarah Palin (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Excerpted from "Christian Nation: A Novel"

It is obvious in retrospect that only an external attack like that on 7/22 could have saved the Palin presidency. Without it, would any of what followed have happened? I doubt it. The Democrats would have recaptured both the White House and Senate that fall. The culture wars would have simmered on, but the evangelical movement’s momentum on the path toward political power would have been lost. I would be installed in my corner office downtown, practicing law. I would probably have children with Emilie. I might be having dinner with Sanjay tonight instead of sitting here with people I really don’t know, trying to remember and record all that happened since then.

But 7/22 did happen. It was truly horrible, and the American people were understandably scared and angry. 7/22 opened a door, and Sarah Palin walked through it.

On July 24, 2012, President Palin, for only the second time in the history of the republic, declared martial law over the entire country. Instead of appearing alone in a televised address from the formality of the Oval Office, she addressed the nation from the situation room in the basement of the White House flanked by all the Joint Chiefs of staff, with Vice President Sam Brownback and top consultant Steve Jordan the only civilians present. Her speech was direct and forceful. After 9/11, she said, our enemies had counted on our weaknesses. They knew of our preoccupation with rights, laws, and political correctness of every sort. They counted on it. And what did we do? We acted true to form: no profiling of Muslims; continuing to welcome Muslim immigrants; hauling terrorists into federal courts as if they were common criminals; and having some of the brightest legal talent in the country come to their defense. “No more,” she said. Nearly seven thousand of our fellow citizens died because of it, hundreds of thousands more were heartbroken, and six American cities were still smoldering. This was a war. Islamic fundamentalists were our sworn enemies. each of the eighty-one terrorists had been welcomed to our country like the millions before them seeking freedom and a better life. But they had betrayed us and used our freedoms against us. Thousands more were doubtless still in the country plotting the same betrayal. She swore to find and deport or punish every last one of them. Every one. Nothing would stop her.

The president reported that the Joint Chiefs, her cabinet, and all her advisors were unanimous in their advice that fighting this war here in the homeland required a declaration of martial law. The protections of the Constitution were not intended for our enemies, she said. Moreover, this was a war to be fought by soldiers, not policemen, and when the terrorists were caught, they needed to be tried in military, not civilian, tribunals. Nothing else mattered. She would devote her presidency to this and only this. The emergency and her duties as president required her full attention. She would not conduct a normal political campaign. She would appear at her party’s convention but would neither debate nor travel the country for public appearances in the run-up to November 6. This was not, she said, a time for politics. If the American people chose to reelect her, her promise was simple: she would eradicate all the other Islamists lurking here in the homeland and keep out any new ones. That was it. She hoped everyone understood her priorities.

The speech was wildly popular. Article 1, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution states, “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the Public Safety may require it.” During the Civil War, Lincoln had selectively imposed martial law through unilateral suspension of the writ, but the Supreme Court ruled that congressional authorization was required. Lincoln got it. But after the Civil War, the Posse Comitatus Act limited the role that the federal military could play in domestic law enforcement. The bill submitted to Congress by President Palin authorized her to suspend habeas corpus—the constitutional guarantee of judicial supervision of detention and civil trial—and it sanctioned unlimited involvement by the U.S. military in investigating, pursuing, and prosecuting terrorists found within the country. Largely overlooked in the legislation was a provision that allowed the president to take direct control of the state National Guards without the consent of state governors. In a rare display of unity, Congress authorized the martial law legislation on these terms and, unwisely as it turned out, failed either to prescribe limits to the president’s authority or to provide a “sunset date” following which martial law would terminate unless extended by Congress.

The weekend after 7/22, my friend Sanjay, who runs Theocracy Watch, was at our apartment and the three of us were flipping channels and comparing the coverage. F3 was, as usual, the most dramatic and compelling. The network had suspended regular programming and was running stories on the prior uses of martial law in an attempt to dispel the widespread disquiet by numerous commentators that the loss of constitutional protections represented a victory of sorts for the terrorists. F3 cited, in some cases incorrectly, the Chicago Fire, Hawaii after Pearl Harbor, coal riots in West Virginia, and even Hurricane Katrina as prior uses of martial law. They argued that martial law was routine and necessary in times of national crisis.

Of course, it was not. What was new here was the remarkable cognitive shift required for the states’-rights and individual-freedom-loving opinion makers of F3 to now show unbridled enthusiasm for federal usurpation of fundamental state prerogatives, suspension of the Bill of Rights (including, notably, their precious Second Amendment), and an unprecedented projection of Beltway power into the heartland. Not two years before, F3 itself speculated that, faced with a far more limited projection of federal power, the “bubba” and Christian militias would rise up and defend the Constitution and the people from the threat of tyrannical abuse. This time around, there was no talk of militias or tyranny.

My wife Emilie was not surprised. “It depends, of course, which side you are on. If Barack Obama were in the White House and 7/22 happened exactly as it did, the Christian right would be screaming bloody murder about martial law. But since they’re in charge, it’s OK. It’s that simple. Surely you understand that much.”

To be honest, I did have trouble understanding even that much. My mind expected and sought principle and coherence. I was not programmed to deal well with pure expediency, and I found it difficult to accept that people could be so easily manipulated into supporting positions that contradicted both their self-proclaimed values and their own interests. But Karl Rove, Steve Jordan, and the other brilliant political strategists of the republican far right had made their reputations and fortunes doing just that.

“Emilie is right,” said Sanjay. “I think it is that simple. Power is good if it is in your hands and bad if it is in the hands of the enemy. And by the way, the corollary rule is that once extraordinary power is in your hands, risking that same power transferring into the hands of your enemy through free and fair elections is difficult to accept.”

“Are you saying she’ll suspend the election?” asked Emilie.

“Not at all. She doesn’t need to. This is an election that now she cannot lose. But I am saying that the Christian right has backed itself into a corner. Whether or not the time is really right to make the big push to some kind of theocracy, they have left themselves little choice. Either end martial law before the end of Palin’s second term or use it to create the Christian Nation.”

Of course even Sanjay, with all his foresight, didn’t call that one exactly right.

“And Greg,” Sanjay continued, “as to the cognitive dissonance, with respect, this is an example of how ‘thinking like a lawyer’ can get you into terrible trouble. People are endowed with reason, but it rarely rules their minds. They have access to logic, but they use it sparingly. One of the most remarkable things about the human brain is its ability to embrace contradictions.”

“San, dear,” Emilie interrupted, “if you are going to protect us from Christian extremist knuckleheads, you are going to need to speak more plainly. No one knows or cares about ‘cognitive dissonance.’ Just say what you mean. Most Americans will believe almost anything—golden tablets from God buried under a hill in upstate new york, alien souls bouncing around the universe and inhabiting our bodies, getting to fuck seventy-two virgins as a welcome present when you arrive in heaven—it’s all the same crap. If you are raised to believe it, or are dumb enough and desperate enough, then you’ll believe anything.”

Sanjay, unusually, seemed both amused and annoyed. “You, Emilie, will not be writing my speeches. and my comments were targeted at tonight’s particular audience, who I assumed to be sufficiently intelligent and educated to handle a bit of philosophical digression. But since I apparently was wrong, let me give you a specific easy-to-understand example. Remember Terri Schiavo? I think history will record the Terri Schiavo affair as one of the seminal events of our modern history, a singular watershed for the evangelical movement and for conservatives. The reconstructionists, previously somewhat at the margins, were propelled to the center of a fight that galvanized the entire Christian right. and what was at the heart of it? You had a question—whether to let the doctors remove life support from a brain-dead woman as authorized by her husband and opposed by her parents. This is and always has been a question solely for the states. There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution that makes any part of this a federal question. Think of it this way: if the Florida court had ordered that the feeding tube not be removed, then any federal intervention would have been anathema to the Christian right—yet another in the long line of grievances where federal courts frustrate the will of the people on federal or constitutional grounds. But this time, the state court ordered the feeding tube removed. So, was their response consistent with their own fundamental political belief—that is, to defer to the state and keep the federal government out of it? no. When federal courts properly declined to intervene, George Bush flew back from Texas, Tom DeLay recalled Congress, and the Congress of the United States attempted, by federal law, to prevent the doctors of a brain-dead woman in Florida from removing her feeding tube because, in the particular belief system of a single sect of a single religion, this is seen as euthanasia and contrary to the law of the Old Testament. A few brave Republicans at the time saw the monumental hypocrisy. You know what Chris Shays, the congressman from Connecticut, said?”

“I haven’t a clue,” said Emilie, “and I’m not really sure that I care.” Sanjay was not deterred.

“He said, ‘My party is demonstrating that they are for states’ rights unless they don’t like what states are doing. This couldn’t be a more classic case of a state responsibility. This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy.’”

“Of course,” said Emilie, oozing sarcasm. “Theocracy. It’s where all roads lead. Our karma.”

“Not necessarily. But do you not see? The imposition of Christian values by the federal government violates fundamentally the conservative principles of individual liberty, states’ rights, and limited government. You could be forgiven for thinking that this is an absolute barrier to a conservative embrace of theocracy. But it is not. these values, what some conservatives call ‘process conservatism,’ will always be thrown under the bus if they conflict with ‘substantive values,’ such as the right to life. Mike Huckabee, the governor of Arkansas, was at least frank about it. He just shrugged and said, ‘There’s a larger issue in play, and that is the whole issue of the definition of life.’ So there you have it. Personal freedom, states’ rights, and limited government—all pushed aside in a moment when there is a ‘larger issue.’”

“Sanjay, you seem as preoccupied with this Terri Schiavo person as the knuckleheads are,” said Emilie. “For God’s sake, it was seven years ago. That’s an eternity.”

“You are right. I am preoccupied. I think this incident is incredibly revealing of what we can expect from the fundamentalists. and it’s not just the casualness with which personal liberty, states’ rights, and the rest were thrown aside. This was a manufactured ‘crisis.’ Millions of good people around the country were manipulated into really caring about the woman. They cried when she died. and so the movement gained a martyr—a symbol that the puppet masters, when it suits their purposes, can use to reconnect the faithful with that emotion.”

Emilie looked thoughtful. “That’s a pretty cynical reading, San.”

“And one last thing: the movement flirted with violent resistance. Jeb Bush actually dispatched armed state agents to forcibly remove Terri Schiavo from the hospice in violation of court orders, but those state agents were stopped by the local police who upheld the law. Jeb Bush should have been impeached and jailed for that stunt. But instead he became one of the heroes. iIwas really surprised to learn that a large plurality of americans would have approved the use of violence to ‘save’ Terry Schiavo.”

Emilie yawned. “Come to bed, Greg.” I did.

* * *

President Palin kept her promise. Through November 6 she never spoke publicly about a single topic other than ridding the American “homeland” of Islamist terrorists. Palin was renominated by acclimation at the Republican convention, held only four weeks after 7/22. In her acceptance speech, not a word was spoken about the economy or about the Christian Nation. The campaign plan, brilliantly conceived by Steve Jordan, was simple: all 7/22, all the time. The terrorist outrage gave them a blank slate. Everything before was trivial except as it related to whether and how the attack could have been prevented. It put even the still-disastrous economy in perspective—hundreds of thousands of Americans lost spouses, children, siblings, and friends, and you are complaining because your mortgage is underwater? And spoken of in only the subtlest way, the almost subliminal message that they hate us because we are Christian.

Despite 7/22, I managed to close the rare-earths project in August. We mobilized $8 billion of capital for one of the poorest countries on earth, prevented the Chinese from obtaining a monopoly position in a strategic commodity, created billions in value for our clients’ shareholders, and earned a fee in excess of $10 million for RCD&S. The timing could not have been better. The firm’s elections for partnership were held in early November. The odds start out pretty long, with over a hundred lawyers starting in a class and typically fewer than ten of them becoming partners eight years later. Moreover, the process and criteria were opaque to the associates, and the results seemed to us to be unpredictable. It was, one of the partners reminded me cryptically, “an election” where the dynamics of decision making were prone to sudden shifts in view. There were, I was told at every performance review, “no guarantees.” Nonetheless, I felt quite confident about my chances. Rationally, I told myself to be philosophical about the outcome. After all, if RCD&S didn’t want me as a partner, I could walk into a partnership at a number of other firms only very slightly down the pecking order from RCD&S. But in moments of honesty with myself, I admitted that I would take rejection by the firm badly.

When I admitted to Emilie that I was nervous about the outcome, she looked incredulous.

“For God’s sake, grow a pair, Greg. If you want to be a winner, you have to believe you’re a winner. A whiff of doubt and they’ll crucify you.”

It continued to alarm and annoy me that, each year, Emilie’s language became increasingly vulgar. She knew how to “behave” when we were with older people in social situations, but she brought home with her the casually foul language of the trading desk. I wonder now why I didn’t tell her more often how much it bothered me.

Seeking a sympathetic ear, I had a late dinner the next night with Sanjay, who listened attentively to my angst about partnership. And I listened to an energized Sanjay, who was now deeply convinced that Palin would get a second term and that it was inevitable that she would use her martial law powers to advance the only agenda about which she, Steve Jordan, and Sam Brownback really cared. Not surprisingly, the imposition of martial law had given Theocracy Watch a boost. Millions of Americans were farsighted enough to be deeply scared by how martial law might be used by the Palin administration. Sanjay once again emerged as a prominent spokesman, one of the few who publicly linked the martial law powers with the long-standing agenda of the Christian right.

I did not see it that way. 7/22 was real, not some Terri Schiavo-like controversy cooked up to mobilize the movement. And whatever ulterior motives Palin and Jordan may have had in crafting their response, they were right about one thing. We didn’t get it right the first time, and no one would be safe until the Islamist threat was somehow eradicated.

In late October, Sanjay gave a speech at the New School in New York that was advertised as “How to take over the USA.” I kidded him about the title. “They’ll think you’re some sort of anarchist. Some anti-globalization crusader. They’ll be tapping the phones of all your friends. What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that I need to think like them. The evangelicals have said their goal is to acquire political control and use that control to implement their agenda. About this they are entirely transparent. There is no need for analysis or speculation regarding what they would do with political control should they achieve it. But how will they achieve it? That is the question. Implementing their stated agenda requires casting aside the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state. It requires changing the nature of our republic from one governed by the laws of men to one governed by the ancient laws of a single religion. It would be, really, nothing less than a takeover of the country. That is certainly what they would call it if it were communists or socialists or Islamic fundamentalists pursuing their agenda through the consolidation of political power.”

“You’re right,” I replied. “This is the question—and maybe, San, the answer. after all, how can you take control in a sustainable way when less than half the population is with you? And with all the protections built into the Constitution?”

“Right. so I have read everything their leaders have ever said on the subject. I have studied Steve Jordan and the way he thinks, pretended I am he, and then outlined the strategy he must be following. a strategy for how to take over the country. That is what my talk is about. Why mince words?”

* * *

I have looked long and hard in Adam’s files to find a copy of the speech. It’s not there. Before the Holy War, scholars were already labeling it as “historic.” I remember an opinion piece in the Times during the siege that called it one of the most prescient works of political and cultural analysis in American history. For the five hundred of us packed in the Tishman Auditorium at the New School that night, it was a riveting experience. Sanjay was a compelling speaker. After only a few minutes, the audience intuited that he was an utterly sincere man, and scrupulously honest. He did not play with their emotions. He did not dumb down his speech, nor did he indulge in unnecessary jargon or convoluted analysis. he laid out the facts, thoroughly and methodically.

Sanjay started by reminding his audience about the path followed by most revolutionary movements, starting from the fringes and proceeding to the legitimate mainstream and then insinuating themselves into the very power structures they seek to overthrow. this of course had already been accomplished. But the Christian fundamentalists, according to Sanjay, had four other, more unusual strategies, each of which, he argued, had the potential to be successful. these included moving the Christian religion itself from its moderate protestant roots to the fundamentalist beliefs in biblical literalism and godly authority, the reinvention of American history to establish the origin myth of America as a Christian nation, the inculcation in all Christians of a strong sense of victimization and threat, and preparing the ground for the inevitable necessity to use violent means to achieve the final transition to the theocratic utopia. i remember that he closed by reminding his audience of Hannah Arendt’s conclusion regarding the driving motive behind all totalitarian revolutions: “unwavering faith in an ideological fictitious world, rather than lust for power.”

His audience was shocked but at the same time motivated. For the first time I saw the sort of visceral fear and determination to act that would later come to unify New York and power its resistance.

After San’s speech, we went back to his apartment for a drink. I thought that the speech had been truly brilliant and told him so.

“Greg, I wish to ask you something. I know it will cause you distress, and for that I apologize in advance. But I must ask.”

“Jesus, San. You don’t have to apologize. You can ask me anything.”

“Thanks. Greg, I want you to come and work with me at TW. I have decided that I cannot shoulder this burden alone. 7/22 and a second term for Palin changes everything. We are now in the final stages, and what we do in the next year could mean everything.I do not wish to sound presumptuous. But for the first time I have a clear vision of how this can play out. I also now know what needs to be done, what needs to be said. And I also know my limitations. you know them better than I do. and we complement each other, G. You know the law and you know Wall Street. You know how to get things done. We will need lots of money. We will need powerful allies. I need a partner who can talk to these people. I need someone to watch my back. in short, and to be blunt, I need you to leave RCD&S and join me as co-head of TW. And I need you to do it now. That is what I am asking.”

I felt I had been punched in the stomach. He saw this on my face. “G, I am sorry. I should not have asked.”

For a few moments I could not speak. I realized it was the decision I most wished to avoid, the choice I most wished to be spared. I lushed with anger at having to confront it.

“You bastard. I mean, Sanjay, I’ve killed myself for eight years. I’m up for partner next month. What are you thinking? You cannot, you just cannot lay this on me now. Not now.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“I know you,” Sanjay said.

My initial anger passed, and I started to regain some control. “San, I'm sorry. I know you mean well. You’re a fucking saint. It’s hard to have a best friend who’s a saint.”

"I am no saint,” he said.

“Look,” I continued, “I’m not like you. I am not a person of passion. I’m practical. I have made choices in life. I chose to pursue a career in the law. I chose to try to make partner. I am a person who makes choices and then lives with them. I am reliable, steady, and predictable. and I’ve got to tell you, San, I respect your work. I hear your arguments; I respect your conviction. Even though what you said tonight was awesome, really scary stuff, everything inside me, everything I’ve learned, everything I know about the world and how it works, every instinct and belief and calculation tells me the same thing: you’re wrong. You’re wrong because it can’t happen here. It’s America in the twenty-first century and it cannot happen here. I should have told you before, San. I’m sorry. But I believe you’re wrong. It just can’t happen here.”

Sanjay laughed out loud and the tension instantly broke. I laughed with him.

“What’s so funny?”

“Have you read Sinclair Lewis?” he asked.

“Sinclair Lewis? In high school, I think. 'Main Street' or 'Babbitt,' I get them confused. What . . .”

Sanjay was rooting around one of the many bookshelves that lined the walls of his tiny apartment.

“Here. Here’s a Sinclair Lewis I bet you never read.”

He handed me a small volume. "It Can’t Happen Here."

“He wrote this for you. Yes, really. I insist. you must read it.”

As was the case with most of Sanjay’s books, the upper right-hand corners of dozens of pages were folded over, and the text was heavily annotated with circles, underlines, exclamation points, and question marks. I flipped open to one of the turned-down pages and read out loud the underlined bits:

“Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical —yes, or more obsequious!—than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how the Right Honorable Mr. Senator Berzelius Windrip—”

I interrupted myself, “Who was Senator Windrip?”

“It’s a novel. He’s the demagogic character who suspends the Constitution.”

I continued,

“Senator Windrip owns his State . . . Remember the Ku Klux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut “Liberty Cabbage” and somebody actually proposed calling German measles “Liberty measles”? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! . . . Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? . . . Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition—shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor—no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for dictatorship as ours!”

I had nothing to say.

“You,” Sanjay said, “studied history.”

“Lewis was a socialist, wasn’t he? I mean, it was the mid-1930s . . . This is different.” I trailed off lamely.

“All I ask is that you use your skills as an historian. your perspective. This is what is required here. A serious historian could never say ‘It can’t happen here.’ A serious historian would ask what were the conditions under which fascism prospers, and ask—”

“Fascism,” I interrupted. “Give me a break.”

Sanjay looked out the window.

When I got home, I did not tell Emilie what Sanjay had asked me to do. Let’s just say I did not sleep very well that night.

* * *

On November 6, 2012, Sarah Palin was reelected with 56 percent of the popular vote and an even stronger majority in the Electoral College. Riding the wave of 7/22, the election would doubtless have broken the same way had the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act not been passed early in Palin’s first term and ultimately survived constitutional review in a 5–4 decision by the Supreme Court. But the election was notable for being the first where the evangelical churches, the threat to their tax exemption removed, spent heavily on political advertising. The mega-churches themselves became centers for partisan political action by conducting elaborate get-out-the-vote and phone-bank efforts and other political activities. The full consequences of this legislation would not be generally recognized until four years later. The other thing driving the 2012 results was the remarkable success by Steve Jordan in forging such a close alignment between the Tea Party and the Christian right that the media had started to call it the teavangelical movement. During the campaign, Ralph Reed boasted that he had the cell phone numbers of 13 million teavangelical voters.

In addition to the reelection of the Palin/Brownback ticket, the House and Senate both returned to Republican control, and the new Congress included a large number of new members who had ridden an ugly wave of post-7/22 anti-immigrant Christian nationalism.

Excerpted from "Christian Nation: A Novel" by Frederic C. Rich. Copyright © 2013 by Frederic C. Rich. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

By Frederic C. Rich

Frederic C. Rich is an author, lawyer and environmentalist. His next book, Getting to Green, will be published by W.W. Norton in April 2016.

MORE FROM Frederic C. Rich

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