COMMENTARY

Can American democracy escape the doom loop? So far, the signs are not promising

Republicans now believe they can subvert democracy. Democrats seem ready to surrender. What can change the dynamic?

By Chauncey DeVega

Published December 10, 2021 5:50AM (EST)

Donald Trump watching democracy burn (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump watching democracy burn (Getty Images/Salon)

America is trapped in a democracy doom loop. Neofascism is ascendant. A form of path dependency is setting in, whereby at almost every key decision point Democratic leadership, the country's elites as a group, the press and even the American people as a whole are making the wrong choices.

The Republican-fascist movement that is laying siege to American democracy and society is not composed of geniuses or uniquely gifted seers. But they have planned carefully, targeting key points of vulnerability and failure in America's democratic culture and institutions and exploiting them to their own advantage.

Moreover, the Republican fascists have convinced themselves that they are going to be victorious. To that end, they are acting with an esprit de corps and fanatical commitment to their cause to make such an outcome a reality.

For the Republican fascists and their movement, Jan. 6 and Donald Trump's coup attempt were and are a powerful symbolic victory, one that represents what is possible because of how close they actually came to overthrowing American democracy. In that sense, what happened on Jan. 6 was a trial run: The next time America's neofascists attempt a coup it will likely be successful.

Instead of rallying to defend democracy, too many Americans — and the Democratic Party in general — appear to have already surrendered, giving into learned helplessness, before the battle was ever fully joined. To make matters worse, the Democrats are often distracted by factional fights between liberals, progressives and centrists instead of unifying against a common foe. Those Americans who are attempting to engage in effective acts of resistance against the rising tide of neofascism are few in number.

Based on turnout, mobilization, and enthusiasm, it appears that defeatism and fatalism have taken over the Democratic Party and its voters. Given that reality, it will be difficult if not impossible to escape American democracy's doom loop: Defeat becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

RELATED: Destroying democracy can make you very rich

Unfortunately, fatalism is not an unreasonable sentiment given the torrent of new "revelations" about the failing health of American democracy and the depth of the Republican fascists' schemes. It has recently been reported that the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection has obtained a copy of a 38-page PowerPoint presentation apparently created by former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and titled, "Election fraud, Foreign Interference & Options for 6 JAN."

Meadows was supposed to give a deposition before the committee this week but has since backed out, hiding behind dubious claims of executive privilege. Like Steve Bannon, he may be held in contempt of Congress and face possible criminal charges.  

The Meadows PowerPoint presentation is basically an outline for how the Trump regime and its allies in Congress and Republican-controlled state governments could use false claims about hostile foreign interference (supposedly from China, in this case) and other "irregularities" and "fraud" to overturn Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election. In that scenario, Trump would have declared a national emergency and remained in power while a "recount" of all paper ballots was conducted, with electronic votes disqualified. A new slate of electors would then choose the president, with the National Guard on alert to quell public disturbances. 

As a practical matter, the intended outcome was obvious: This fake recount — or, alternatively, a new election — would have resulted in a second term for Trump, by way of a supposedly legal self-coup. Given that such a nullification of Biden's victory would surely have led to massive civil protests and other unrest, the National Guard (and other military and law enforcement assets) would likely have been deployed against the American people. 

We know that on Jan. 6 the National Guard was late in responding to the assault on the Capitol, and did not show up with adequate force for several hours. There remain many lingering questions about the military's role on that day, including whether Trump and his allies specifically limited or outright prevented the National Guard from deploying in a timely manner. 

RELATED: Leaked memo: Ex-D.C. guardsman says Michael Flynn's brother lied about Jan. 6

In a leaked memo obtained by Politico, a former D.C. National Guard officer accused two senior Army officers — one of them the brother of Michael Flynn, Trump's disgraced former national security adviser — of lying to Congress about the military response to the Jan. 6 riot. Here's how Salon's Igor Derysh reported the story:

Col. Earl Matthews, who served in various high-level National Security Council and Pentagon positions in the Trump era, sent a 36-page memo to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection calling Gen. Charles Flynn, who was deputy chief of staff for operations at the time, and Lt. Gen Walter Piatt, the director of Army staff, "absolute and unmitigated liars" over their accounts of the day to Congress. The Army previously falsely denied that Charles Flynn, whose brother has spent months pushing election and QAnon conspiracy theories, was involved in the response before admitting that he was present during a "tense" phone call on which Capitol Police and D.C. officials pleaded with the Pentagon to send the National Guard to the Capitol.

According to Politico's report, Matthews wrote, "Every leader in the D.C. Guard wanted to respond and knew they could respond to the riot at the seat of government" long before they were given the green light to do so. "Instead, he said, D.C. guard officials 'set [sic] stunned watching in the Armory' during the first hours of the attack on Congress during its certification of the 2020 election results."

Matthews also described a confidential report circulating within the Army after the fact as an attempt "to create an alternate history which would be the Army's official recollection of events." That report, he wrote, was a "revisionist tract worthy of the best Stalinist or North Korea propagandist."

At Esquire, Charles Pierce offers further context, including the fact that Trump appointed Chris Miller as acting defense secretary on Nov. 9, 2020, two days after it was confirmed that Trump had lost the election. Miller was in direct control of the D.C. National Guard on Jan. 5 and 6. The Guard "was not deployed for hours" on the 6th, Pierce writes, "as a mob battered down the doors of the national legislature in an attempt to stop or delay Congress from confirming that Miller's boss would soon leave office."

Because all the while that Trump was purging the senior levels of the security services, he was yelling that the election had been stolen from him and the result was illegitimate. He drew his superfans to Washington to disrupt the certification of that election result. And the security services were slow to respond to that attack. Oh, and here's a line in a USA Today report on Trump's Pentagon purge, published on November 10, 2020: "White House officials said Trump wanted his own team at the Pentagon should he prevail with his legal challenges to the balloting." What? So Trump connected his purge with his attempts to overturn the election? And he was saying this to aides in the White House, and they told USA Today? Who are these staffers? They seem like people the January 6 committee ought to speak with under oath.

Some former military officers and other national security leaders continue to sound the alarm about America's worsening democracy crisis and what they see as the real possibility of a sustained right-wing insurgency.


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In a recent essay at The Cipher Brief, former CIA director Michael Hayden, who is also a retired Air Force general, issued a warning based on his experience in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s:

What struck me most though, when I walked through the city, was not how much Sarajevans were different from the rest of us, but how much they weren't. This had obviously been a cultured, tolerant, even vibrant city. The veneer of civilization, I sadly concluded then, was quite thin.

Now, 30 years later, I worry about the United States, not Sarajevo. ... The historian, Woodard, said this recently: "I knew the country was brittle and if we kept going down the road we're on, that there would be trouble ahead, but it's the speed at which it's happened."

Ten years after the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant said if there was a problem, "I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon's but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other."

Charlottesville, police and protester clashes, a Capitol Hill insurrection, Lafayette Park, Black Lives Matter, the election, the big lie.

I am worried about our country, as I was about Bosnia 30 years ago. We have a fundamental issue. Can we solve it, or not?"

In recent weeks we have seen paramilitary groups, apparently inspired by Jan. 6, the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict and other acts of tacit or open encouragement to right-wing violence, appearing in major cities such as Washington and New York. This reflects a nationwide pattern of intimidation in which fascist forces demonstrate their ability to take over public space and operate largely unopposed.

Experts on extremism continue to warn that such groups, formerly confined to the far-right fringe, continue to expand their recruitment efforts, simultaneously becoming more radicalized toward violence and more concerned with "professionalizing" their propaganda campaign in order to make their public image seem acceptable to a broader range of Americans.

In a recent essay for The Bulwark, former gun executive Ryan Busse warns that the forces of Republican fascism are arming themselves to engage in political violence and terrorism against their perceived enemies, meaning liberals and progressives, Muslims, nonwhite people and other marginalized groups:

I worked in the firearms industry as a sales executive for a long time and beginning during the Obama presidency, gun business leaders like me, who helped build the nation's top gun companies, noticed this disturbing chatter from gun owners at firearms trade shows. Many in the industry dismissed these threats. I didn't. And now we hear them from gun owners across the country who dream of deploying their arsenals to kill fellow citizens….

And the glass-half-empty view seems pretty convincing. America has a rapidly growing authoritarian army comprised of thousands of men [who] have been groomed by Trump acolytes such as [Charlie] Kirk and Steve Bannon. They have also been developed as avatar customers by the gun industry, meaning that they are well armed.

But what non-gun owners may not understand is that these men are not your average gun-owning Americans. They are people who have fallen into a cult where it is normal to organize your entire culture around weapons of war. Some make it official by claiming membership in the Oath Keepers or Three Percenters. Some are just average suburban dads who've been radicalized. They laugh at "Let's Go Brandon" chants, drink Black Rifle Coffee, and wave "Come and Take It" flags at political rallies.

Busse concludes by arguing that what we see now "is nothing less than the normalization of early-stage authoritarianism," a movement of people who are "asking, right now, 'When can we use the guns?'"

In the realm of "normal" politics, the Republican fascists and their operatives are accelerating their campaign of extreme gerrymandering, voter exclusion and infiltration of local and state government, as well as other ways of keeping nonwhite voters and other key Democratic constituencies from voting and otherwise exercising their civil rights.

For the most part, Democratic leaders and the Biden administration have not responded with anything close to the necessary urgency. The Senate filibuster remains in place. As a direct result, legislation that would protect the right to vote appears to be dead in Congress. Discussions about reforming the Supreme Court so it is no longer a tool for Republicans and "movement conservatives" to dismantle democracy and roll back rights and freedoms have largely evaporated. 

RELATED: Why are Democrats afraid to use their power? American democracy depends on it

The Jan. 6 committee is at least proceeding slowly onward, with the apparent leaders of the Trump coup plot doing whatever they can to delay, mislead and obfuscate. Most former Trump officials have made clear they will not testify, apparently on the orders of their boss.

Public hearings are supposed to begin next year, after the House and Senate adjourn for the holidays as usual (once again acting as if everything in America is normal), at least a full year after the events of Jan. 6. The public is already losing interest in discovering the truth about what led up to that day and what actually happened. For too many Americans, public hearings on Jan. 6 will be a meaningless distraction, mere "political" noise. The mainstream media will likely respond in a similar fashion.

Throughout the first year of the Biden presidency, the media has created false equivalences between him and former president Trump, as if arguing that a president who has made some policy missteps and has messaging problems is not better or worse than a fascistic sociopath who attempted a coup, engaged in acts of democide against the American people and is still actively working to undermine democracy and the rule of law.

Increasingly disheartened and depressed, the American people are also failing in their civic responsibilities. They are not demanding forceful action from the Biden administration and the Democratic majority in Congress. The American people are also not engaging in corporeal politics — such as direct action, boycotts or a general strike — nor are they acting to reclaim civil society and public space from right-wing forces.

In a widely read new article for the Atlantic, George Packer offers two scenarios for how America's democracy crisis may end. In the first, he imagines a disputed 2024 election leading to "tangled proceedings in courtrooms and legislatures":

The Republican Party's long campaign of undermining faith in elections leaves voters on both sides deeply skeptical of any outcome they don't like. When the next president is finally chosen by the Supreme Court or Congress, half the country explodes in rage. Protests soon turn violent, and the crowds are met with lethal force by the state, while instigators firebomb government buildings. Neighborhoods organize self-defense groups, and law-enforcement officers take sides or go home. Predominantly red or blue counties turn on political minorities. A family with a BIDEN-HARRIS sign has to abandon home on a rural road and flee to the nearest town. A blue militia sacks Trump National Golf Club Bedminster; a red militia storms Oberlin College. The new president takes power in a state of siege.

Packer's second scenario involves a national descent into "widespread cynicism":

Following the election crisis, protests burn out. Americans lapse into acquiescence, believing that all leaders lie, all voting is rigged, all media are bought, corruption is normal, and any appeal to higher values such as freedom and equality is either fraudulent or naive. The loss of democracy turns out not to matter all that much. The hollowed core of civic life brings a kind of relief. Citizens indulge themselves in self-care and the metaverse, where politics turns into a private game and algorithms drive Americans into ever more extreme views that have little relation to reality or relevance to those in power. There's enough wealth to keep the population content. America's transformation into Russia is complete.

As Packer suggests, the second scenario is more likely. America's democracy doom loop is already becoming the "new normal," and the country's experiment in multiracial democracy may end in a pitiful anticlimax. 

RELATED: Democrats and the dark road ahead: There's hope — if we look past 2022 (and maybe 2024 too)

Americans like to imagine themselves as the heroes of action movies, but most will quickly acclimate to the country's new fascist plutocratic regime, if or when it comes to pass. Many Americans, of course — though not a majority — will embrace such a "new" country as the fulfillment of their dreams and a restoration of the "real America" they so longed for, with its unrepentant racism and white supremacy, its patriarchal and misogynistic gender hierarchy, and many other ways for "real Americans" to impose their will and power on who they deem to be undeserving or lesser others.

History offers various lessons about authoritarianism and fascism: Here is one. Those Americans who welcome this new order — most of them in the white middle class or above, perhaps self-defined as "Christians," "patriots" and so on — and who believe they are immune from harm or other negative consequences will, sooner rather than later, learn a painful lesson. If and when the Republican-fascists successfully consolidate power, no one will be safe.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Coup Democrats Donald Trump Fascism Jan. 6 Republicans