American democracy is the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. Donald Trump and his minions continue to add seasoning to the water while stoking the fire. The frog now knows that something is wrong. But its legs may be too weak to jump out of the pot to safety. Trump and his minions see the frog starting to squirm and struggle. They are reaching for the lid to seal the frog’s doom.
The last few weeks have shown American democracy in the Age of Trump as an ongoing crisis with many apparent crescendos.
The Democrats have found their footing in their efforts to blunt Trump’s power through impeachment. In depositions before Congress, patriots such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor who are defying Trump's regime have revealed that the president and his inner circle are engaging in systematic abuses of power, lawlessness, corruption and other impeachable behavior. Trump and his minions’ efforts to extort the president of Ukraine into aiding Trump in the 2020 presidential election is part of what appears to be a much larger global criminal enterprise.
Attorney General William Barr continues to act in the interests of Donald Trump, not the interests of the United States and the rule of law. For Barr and other Trump acolytes, Donald Trump is the law. He is the embodiment of the nation. For them, patriotism is defined first and foremost as loyalty to Trump, whom they view as essentially a king or an emperor.
To that end Barr has been traveling the world in an effort to find “evidence” for bizarre conspiracy theories that will somehow exonerate Donald Trump against the Mueller Report’s decisive conclusion that Vladimir Putin and Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to install Trump in office.
Even more concerning for the rule of law in America, Barr has now launched a criminal investigation into the career FBI, CIA and other law enforcement or intelligence officers who did their job by investigating Russia’s connections to Donald Trump and that country’s widespread interference in America’s elections.
As he proved during a recent speech at the the University of Notre Dame law school, Barr is also working to overturn the United States Constitution and, apparently, to transform the country into a right-wing Christian theocracy.
In many ways, Donald Trump is the nightmare scenario that the Framers designed the Constitution to protect against. Benjamin Franklin warned that “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” In Federalist No. 47, James Madison sounded the alarm about demagogues and authoritarians such as Trump: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one or a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
Donald Trump and his spokespeople continue to engage in stochastic terrorism. The most recent example: Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., perhaps Trump's most avid congressional defender, told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Monday that journalists are “assassins.”
Trump and his Republican Party are continuing their campaign to keep nonwhite people and other likely Democratic supporters from voting. This is part of a broader effort to undermine the human and civil rights of nonwhite people in America and around the world.
Public opinion polls and other research show that Donald Trump’s political cult remains extremely loyal to him. Fox News and other parts of the right-wing propaganda machine continue to distort reality in the president’s favor. Trump himself has now told almost 14,000 public lies. Trump’s hate-filled rallies continue to draw thousands of supporters, people who are being primed for political violence by the president’s rhetoric and other behavior.
A healthy democracy requires a shared sense of empirical reality and a societal ability to discern truth from lies. Trump, his supporters, the Republican Party and the right-wing news media reject those basic principles. Because of that they are collective enemies of democracy. As Michael Tomasky writes at The Daily Beast, Trump and his allies and supporters live in an imaginary realm that is “the direct opposite of the truth.” Tomasky continues:
The question that always confronts us is, What’s the next lie? We can’t imagine, you and I, because we don’t have the same totalitarian mindset these people have. We don’t know what it’s like to wake up, look the truth in the face every morning, and spend the rest of the day thinking about how to smother and suffocate and suppress it. The vast majority of people, thank goodness, completely lack that impulse.
But paradoxically, that fact — that the vast majority of the people don’t have that impulse — works to the benefit of the totalitarian lickspittle, because most people can’t possibly imagine that someone would lie like that. …
Republicans are no longer normal people. They are Gletkin from Arthur Koestler’s "Darkness at Noon." Just Google it. You’ll see what I mean. He’s the total party man with no memory of anything before the revolution and no morality except that which serves power. And he’s not acting. He believes. That’s the frightening part.
Donald Trump has repeatedly betrayed his presidential oath of office. His most glaring offense, among many, is a refusal to protect America from foreign attack.
Writing at Defense One, Thomas Wright summarizes this:
Democrats face a national-security problem without parallel in the annals of American democracy. The president of the United States, Donald Trump, has made clear not only that he will remain passive in the face of foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. election — a threat his current and former directors of national intelligence have called the most serious facing the country — but also that he will actually solicit such interference if it serves his interests. We know of at least one case — when he asked President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden as a personal favor — but there may well be others….
When defense is difficult, deterrence becomes important. One way to deal with election interference is to convince foreign adversaries that the cost might outweigh the gains, thus persuading them not to attack. This is where Trump’s position is so damaging, seeking to punish interference against him, but openly welcoming interference on his behalf
In total, Donald Trump’s rise to power, nearly three years into his presidency, is a story about the normalization of political deviance and about how authoritarians use psychological projection to maintain power and control.
As described in the 2015 article “When Doing Wrong Feels So Right," the normalization of deviance occurs when “people within an organization become so insensitive to deviant practice that it no longer feels wrong. Insensitivity occurs insidiously and sometimes over years because disaster does not happen until other critical factors line up.”
America is a failing democracy. Trumpism is a symptom and not the disease. The rise of American fascism reflects both institutional and systemic failures, made worse by Donald Trump and his movement.
Trumpism as the normalization of political deviance has many dimensions.
The post-civil rights era Republican Party is hostile to the very idea of (multiracial) democracy. Today’s Republican Party and broader conservative movement is also racist, sexist and authoritarian. Social scientists and others have shown that those values motivate Donald Trump’s voters and other supporters. Trump did not seduce or trick the Republican Party into surrendering to him. In reality, the Republican Party was ready and eager for someone like Trump.
The Democratic Party, instead of resisting at every step, has allowed itself to be dragged ever farther to the right because of its obsession with being "moderate" and “centrist” in order to win back the fabled “white working class” which has moved toward the Republicans. This has been a decades-long fool’s errand.
Both parties are advancing a gangster-capitalist vision of society in which capitalism and democracy are believed to be the same thing, and where the social safety net is whittled away to give more power and resources to corporations and plutocrats at the literal expense of most Americans. The difference between Democrats and Republicans is not whether they reject neoliberalism, but how much of a social democracy and a humane society they wish to preserve. The Republicans want virtually none. Neoliberal Democrats want to retain a less than robust version of the social safety net as a way of maintaining social order.
The American people have chosen spectacle and distraction over being responsible engaged citizens. As a class, America’s elites have certainly failed to serve the common good and to nurture and protect the country’s democracy and civil society. But the American people are also responsible for their embrace of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism, a choice that has left tens of millions yearning for the excitement created by a demagogic political clown such as Donald Trump. Too many other Americans have simply chosen to surrender — cowed into a state of learned helplessness — to Trump and the dangerous social and political forces he represents.
The right-wing media's propaganda machine has created an alternate reality for its viewers and has helped to poison America’s public discourse more generally. The mainstream corporate news media has also retreated from consistently telling uncomfortable truths about Donald Trump and the Republican Party, wallowing instead in both-sides-ism and outdated notions of "fairness” and “balance.” These are choices — motivated by profit-seeking and by fear of attacks from conservatives — that only elevate and legitimate Donald Trump and the American right’s innumerable assaults on empirical reality and democracy.
Projection is one of the main tactics and strategies through which the normalization of political deviance is sustained.
Authoritarians accuse their political opponents of doing the very things of which they are guilty. For Trump and his agents this means accusing the Democrats, “NeverTrump” conservatives and other principled people who oppose him of being “traitors.” When Trump and his agents protest that he is the target of a “coup” or that his adversaries are “corrupt” or “violating the Constitution,” this is a way of clouding the public discourse by making reality and the rule of law meaningless. The ultimate goal for an authoritarian like Trump is to hollow out the rule of law so that it can only be used in his service and against his political enemies.
In a failing democracy such as the United States in the Age of Trump, projection as political strategy is another way of attacking truth, the bedrock of democracy. The Rand Corporation’s 2018 “Truth Decay” report warns about this:
Truth Decay is defined as a set of four related trends: increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information….
The consequences of Truth Decay manifest in many ways. The most damaging effects might be the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty about U.S. policy.
What can be done to counter the deleterious effects of Donald Trump’s normalization of political deviance and strategy of political projection?
Democracy, like other forms of government, is a means of solving a collective problem by outsourcing decision-making and other responsibilities to elected officials and other social and political elites. Trumpism and other forms of right-wing authoritarian populism have shown that model to be broken at present.
The first step in beginning to fix America’s broken democracy is to defeat Donald Trump in 2020 and banish the Republican Party from public office. If Trump and his party are not defeated, our broken American democracy will likely fall into a state of permanent disrepair.
The American people must demand and fight for more meaningful democracy across all areas of public life, including their schools and workplaces. They must also become more involved in local and state-level politics where they can make their voices directly heard in support of policies that will have an immediate impact on their day-to-day lives.
The American people must become active and engaged citizens who feel a responsibility to democracy, and a need to fight for it. Democracy is both a noun and a verb. Too many Americans have forgotten that fact. This has created a power vacuum for demagogues such as Donald Trump and the anti-democratic forces he has empowered.
Finally, those Americans of conscience who oppose Donald Trump and the Republican Party must shed the political bystander effect, whereby they believe someone else will solve the political and social problems facing the United States. The American people must be the change they seek. To oppose Trumpism and American fascism, that will necessitate engaging in the hard work of corporeal politics, such as joining and creating social movements. Victory will also demand day-to-day acts of civil disobedience, perhaps including a national strike and consumer boycotts in support of Trump’s impeachment and conviction. Such acts of resistance and defiance will be crucial if Donald Trump wins re-election in 2020, an outcome that seems increasingly likely.
If Donald Trump is defeated or forced from office, that same energy must be marshaled to force the Democratic Party to follow through on the great changes which will be needed to heal and improve the country, and to ensure that another Donald Trump can never again rise from the political swamp to attack America.