America's slow-motion coup keeps grinding forward: But is Donald Trump really the one to blame?

The cliché is true: The unimaginable is real. Can we save democracy? Not if we remain hypnotized by Donald Trump

Published September 2, 2019 12:01PM (EDT)


We are in the middle of a slow-motion coup in the United States of America. Even the phrase itself is banal, which is itself a symptom of our moral and political exhaustion. But sometimes clichés are on the money. Most of this coup is happening right out in the open, where those of us who are somewhat paying attention can notice it, bemoan it and then move on to the next day’s real or manufactured outrage. That doesn’t seem to be helping.

There are no tanks in the streets; they haven’t been remotely necessary. Despite inflated rhetoric about our tribal, cultural, geographic and political divisions, our society remains notably peaceable. There are mass shootings almost every day — and a disturbing proportion of them appear to represent de facto support for the slow-motion coup — but in historical terms violent crime rates remain low.

While the official opposition party expresses grave concern about the gradual demolition of constitutional democracy — and, in fairness, some of its leading members use forceful language and demand action — it remains confused and defensive as to both strategy and tactics. At the moment, it appears committed (if that's not far too generous a word) to relying on the machinery of constitutional democracy to defeat the assault on constitutional democracy, which is … I don’t know what it is. Stupid? Naive? Evidence of collaborator’s guilt? One struggles to find the correct metaphor: It’s something like trusting that there will be enough chickens left, a year from now, to vote the fox out of office.

I haven’t mentioned the name of the current president or his so-called political party until now, because I suspect we focus on them too much. It’s not that they aren’t important: Donald Trump has become the central totem of the American push toward fascism or authoritarianism, and the Republican Party has emerged from its chrysalis of self-torment reborn and reinvigorated as a far-right white nationalist party. But I remain agnostic about how much Trump is leading this movement, how much he is surfing a tide of toxic white resentment and racist populism, and how much he is being driven by others toward consolidating a caste system that in fact already exists.

Those are questions we should think about far more deeply than we’re doing right now. I get why they may not seem urgent or particularly meaningful: For many Americans, likely a large majority, the priority is to get Trump out of office and replace him with almost anyone who has a vaguely normative understanding of democracy. But unless and until we grapple with the fact that Trump did not personally create the conditions for his ascent to power; that the decay of democracy is nothing new, and has been aided and abetted by both political parties and numerous other factors; and that the racial, economic and cultural caste system of America is in many ways the material basis of our democracy, then our nation is unlikely to escape this crisis in anything resembling its current form.

I have already used the F-word once in this article, and while it is clearly relevant as a descriptive word, it may carry too much historical baggage to be helpful. Trump is not Adolf Hitler, although some of the mocking historical echoes between the two are startling, and the Republican Party is not a fascist party in the classic political-science sense. Fascists of the mid-20th century were largely not raging hypocrites: They stood clearly for state power, military power and corporate power. They did not pretend to favor “small government” or “freedom of speech,” and explicitly embraced a model of racial-national unity that excluded Jews, gay people, leftists and other ethnic or religious minorities.

One of the most nauseating elements of our current predicament is the elaborate rhetorical gamesmanship conducted around the closeted fascism or dog-whistle fascism of the ruling party and its nominal leader. Trump or one of his minions will say something overtly racist or anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim or anti-democratic (or all of the above), or will announce a new policy that strongly resembles another step toward authoritarian rule. We are all supposed to react in shock, as if this is finally going too far and surely decent Republicans will speak up, Democrats in the House will launch impeachment proceedings and people will take to the streets in large numbers. After some mumbling and shuffling around — and perhaps the token defection of someone like Justin Amash or Joe Walsh, Heroes of Our Age™ — we go back to the new normal of Netflix-and-chill while waiting for Joe Biden, but with just a bit more scar tissue and a higher tolerance for the next round of abuse.

It can seem exhausting, or pointless, to marshal the evidence that what is happening right now in the United States is a slow-motion coup — an attempt to abolish democracy not all at once but little by little and step by step, until we barely notice it is gone. If you do not believe this now, if you think I am exaggerating or being hysterical in the service of some radical agenda, then I can’t imagine you will believe it if I list a few of the things that point in that direction. I cannot possibly list them all; it would be like the proverbial map of a territory that is as large as the territory itself.

In a story for the New Yorker about the “concentration camp” dispute of earlier this summer — which would be one key piece of evidence, already half-lost in the morass — Masha Gessen made the important point that all the mythology built up around the historical crimes of Hitler and Stalin has a distorting effect on the present. 

In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. Or, to use a phrase only slightly out of context, something that can’t happen here.

A logical fallacy becomes inevitable. If this can’t happen, then the thing that is happening is not it. What we see in real life, or at least on television, can’t possibly be the same monstrous phenomenon that we have collectively decided is unimaginable. … Anything that happens here and now is normalized, not solely through the moral failure of contemporaries but simply by virtue of actually existing.

A moral and cognitive choice is required of Americans in this historical moment, Gessen concludes: “It is the choice between thinking that whatever is happening in reality is, by definition, acceptable, and thinking that some actual events in our current reality are fundamentally incompatible with our concept of ourselves — not just as Americans but as human beings — and therefore unimaginable.”

Here is a brief list of several of the "unimaginable" things now happening in America, ingredients of the slow-motion coup that is now underway . This list is in no particular order and was tossed off, without any deep research, over a holiday weekend. It could of course have been much longer, and I’m sure I have forgotten many important potential entries. We all have: The relentless onslaught of seemingly minor offenses is itself an important accelerant of the coup.

If you believe that any of this represents normal democratic politics, or that its long-term pernicious effects can be undone through the mechanism of normal democratic politics, then I would gently suggest that you have been deeply gaslit, and are well on your way to becoming an enabler or ally of the coup itself.

  • The assault on birthright citizenship. Overturning the clear language of the 14th Amendment has been a goal of the anti-immigration movement for years. Trump has signaled toward that many times — and has now taken his first baby steps with a rule change designed to deprive certain children born overseas to U.S. military personnel of automatic citizenship.
  • The proposed purchase of Greenland, which was perhaps never more than a feint or a trial balloon — although one of Trump’s peculiar talents is that it’s never possible to tell the difference between what he says and what he means. In any case, this was a gesture toward old-school imperial expansion or territorial conquest: In Nazi terms, Lebensraum.
  • The imprisonment and abuse of immigrants, under various circumstances, in different kinds of facilities and under constantly changing rules. The administration’s sadistic shell game, particularly involving migrants and refugees who are exercising a right to asylum recognized under international law, has multiple effects. It’s a theatrical display of racist cruelty aimed at the president’s base, and a legal, regulatory and administrative tangle designed to distract, confuse and horrify his opponents (i.e., to provoke “liberal tears”).
  • The constant rhetorical warfare in which racist, anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim crimes committed by white people are excused or minimized — or described as unavoidable or isolated anomalies, akin to fluke weather events. On the other hand, even relatively minor crimes by Muslims, black people or “antifa” radicals are viewed as dangerous terrorism, if not an existential threat to Western civilization.
  • The incremental exclusion or deportation of small groups of “legalized” but undocumented immigrants, including refugees from various war zones and, most recently, severely ill or disabled children who are receiving treatment in the U.S. There are no words for this, are there? Do I need to mention that in Nazi Germany and various other totalitarian regimes, children with serious illnesses or disabilities were viewed as unfit to join the national polity and quietly exterminated?
  • The equation of outsiders and opponents with vermin and criminals. As CNN anchor Victor Blackwell’s viral video made clear, Trump has repeatedly used the term “infested” to refer to places where black and brown people live. Salon’s Chauncey DeVega has repeatedly observed that this kind of "stochastic terrorism" has a clear end-point, and is designed to encourage acts of violence while cloaking the speaker in a faint aura of plausible deniability.
  • Deliberately confusing and profoundly hypocritical discussion of Israel and the Jewish people. Maybe Trump really believed that American Jews would flock to him over his support of the right-wing Israeli government. But other Republicans who loudly proclaim their love of Israel do not suffer from such delusions. Jews are less than 3 percent of the U.S. population, and have overwhelmingly voted Democratic since the 1920s. The real audience for all this doubletalk about Jewish “loyalty” is evangelical Christians and hardcore white supremacists. It’s a new twist on a very old pattern: We love the “Jewish nation,” but actual Jewish people, as usual, are “cosmopolitan” outsiders in league with destructive foreign elements.
  • Persistent attempts to delegitimize electoral democracy — a process that, to be clear, was well advanced before Trump came on the scene. Vote suppression, voter ID laws, extensive partisan gerrymandering and false claims of widespread voter fraud have been with us for years. Add that to the systematic propaganda campaign of 2016 (with foreign assistance), the mounting concerns about electoral security and Trump’s specific suggestions that vote totals are not to be trusted. Is the end goal the actual cancellation of elections, or simply to create so much confusion they are widely viewed as spurious? You pick.
  • Constant "jokes" about how the president may serve 10 to 14 more years, which would require amendment or abrogation of the Constitution. This is so extraordinary it deserves its own category. While Trump undeniably exists on a continuum with earlier Republican presidents, none of them would ever have considered going there. The media and political classes, of course, treat this as Trumpian verbal diarrhea, barely worth acknowledging. Freud’s observation that “jokes” always conceal a genuine wish or desire is sometimes applied too literally. In this case, at least, it would seem to fit.
  • Repeated suggestions that those who break the law on the president’s behalf will receive pardons. This would be grounds for impeachment all by itself, if the opposition party hadn’t agreed in advance to lose all the battles in hopes of someday, in a utopian hypothetical future of bipartisan comity, winning the war.
  • Governmental loyalty purges, likely more extensive than we know. These have certainly occurred within the FBI, the Department of Justice, the State Department and the EPA. It’s reasonable to assume that the campaign to drive out “Deep State” bureaucrats suspected of disloyalty to Trump is much wider than that.
  • Blatant hypocrisy in the purported defense of “freedom of speech.” Bret "Bedbug" Stephens of the New York Times, who would claim not to support Trump, is the star adopter of this new reading of the First Amendment, which now has a differential application to different social castes. It is sacrosanct for white conservatives on campus or in the media, who deserve special protection from all forms of mockery or criticism. It is nonexistent for Muslim members of Congress, black athletes, white leftists, women who speak out against abuse and so on — such people are simultaneously fragile snowflakes and would-be Stalinist tyrants.
  • The normalization and glorification, bordering on hero worship, of foreign despots and authoritarians. Yes, of course this includes Vladimir Putin, but it extends well beyond him to the leaders of other degraded pseudo-democracies, including Brazil, Hungary, Turkey and the Philippines, and also to flat-out dictators or monarchs, such as Kim Jong-un and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

Far too many people in the foreign policy establishment, by the way, still claim to draw important distinctions between those last two leaders: Trump’s friendship with Kim is a shocking violation of established protocol, whereas Prince Mohammed, journalist-dismembering and all, is America’s “strategic ally.” On this one point, at least, Donald Trump is not being a hypocrite. He loves them both! If our nation was actually the world’s leading light of democracy, rather than the global enforcer of vulture capitalism, we would perceive them as far more similar than different. But then, if that were the case America wouldn’t be in this sorry condition, now would it?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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