Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Democracy Must Save Itself

There is still media talk about a Republican reckoning, that Trump’s legal troubles will catch up with voters.  These voters loathe the notion of Democrats in power, particularly a second Biden term, but are going to finally concede to Trump’s unelectability.

The argument here is that there is more at stake than Trump himself and that the Republican Party’s political objectives are significant enough to distance from Trump.  What else could DeSantis or Tim Scott or Nikki Haley be thinking?  Thinking?  This requires the presumption that MAGA voters, the base of the party that no Republican can win without, are indeed motivated by political interests.  That they are moved by policy ideas.  Trumpism is indeed rooted in an idea but it only political inasmuch as it embodies a menacing look that means to become retribution against enemies.  Trumpism is inseparable from him, from what that mugshot means and him.

We needn't go so far as to say that MAGA voters have no politics or that politics does not inform their choices.  But it is a mistake to see their loyalty to Trump as political.  The presumption that politics determines the choice of the MAGA base is just plainly false.


Trump is a cult leader, not a politician because that is what MAGA loves about him. It’s not about particular policies, though cultists are often bemused by slogans (including those that appear to be policies, like "build the wall") and the sheer fun of it all.  It’s really about being part of it, and it isn’t more than what he is so long as he provides the entertainment.  What is most entertaining is the feeling, including the exhilaration and the sense of power that MAGA means you can do what you want, and particularly what you want to do to them.

It’s like going to the game.  You root for "us", for "our team" and against "them."   It’s what you do.  It’s who you are.  You don’t change fandom from week to week, much less to the opposition.  At best you might lose interest.  But that takes time, much more time than we have before the 2024 election.  MAGA will die a slow death made from its own boredom before it succumbs to truth or shame.


Cults often do espouse beliefs and even consistent  beliefs---but this is not a particular feature of Trumpism.  The fact that Trumpism isn’t about beliefs is a key to understanding that it is more about belonging and being one of us.  In Trumpism identifying through him is the point.  Ramaswamy out Trumping Trump makes not one iota of difference.  He is the point because he tells his followers that they need nothing but him to have everything they want.

In Trump’s mugshot you see it all: it is about defiance, about giving them what for, it's about exactly what he said: I am your revenge.  Such a base emotional commitment is more than enough to rally the fandom.  Nothing can make a Red Sox fan ever admit the Yankees are less loathsome.  But here the team isn't a cast of players or a franchise or an institution, it's him.

Cults don’t need to be religious to make devotion and heresy essential elements of identity.   Trump stands for the kind of self-identity that will not be denied, not in the fact of facts or even criminal conviction.

Without MAGA, no current R-candidate can consolidate enough votes to win the nomination and MAGA has no intention of leaving Trump no matter what he says or does.  As indictments pile up and the real threat of conviction on any number of crimes manifests, the majority of R-voters will rally around their leader. They may not like Trump any more than the evidence before them but to change teams at this point is to admit failure, a failure that pre-dates Trump's take over of their party.  These folks simply cannot vote for the D and will more than likely pull that R lever under any circumstances.  Just ask them.  There will be no such reckoning on political grounds because we are no longer dealing with a political movement.

That so-called “reasonable” Republicans, like the governors of Virginia and New Hampshire, are acting as if the politics are at stake is shameful.  Worse.  It is morally contemptible.  Continuing to say that the fate of the country is in fact a matter of politics, that is, of Democratic policies they cannot abide is more than a mere failure of imagination or political dissimulation.  It is a serious, even profound moral failure that must be assigned and repeated until their shame, conscience, and intellectual dishonesty becomes unbearable, even for the power-craven.

Nearly all elected Republicans have announced that there is nothing is more important than preventing another Democratic victory: they raise hands, like their Junior Varsity colleagues on stage at the Republican “debate”, agreeing to support whoever is the R-nominee, knowing full well that if Trump bears their standard they will have likely participated in the end of America as it has existed at least since 1864.   Apparently, the need for power and the ability to dissimulate for the sake of personal survival is more important than the fate of the republic.  


So the most important question isn’t whether Trumpism is a political movement but what we are going to do in face of a cult that appears powerful enough to take political power because so many are willing to deny the danger the cult leader poses to democracy itself.

To call MAGA a cult is not hyperbolic.  I think it wise in fact to avoid hyperbole just as it is to continue to address Republican voters with a certain stoic curiosity about their choices.  It’s unlikely Trump is moving any previous Biden voters.  Our partisanship is as immovable as Rs are unpersuadable from their cult mind.


In terms of behavior, the assimilation of information, and emotional connection, Trump has near complete control over his followers.  Information is siloed and restricted such that followers are told what to accept and what can be ignored.  Few actual beliefs or principles are at work because in this form of cultism more important is purity,  that is, that one remains inside the group.  Purity translates directly into following the next directive and sustaining the rejection of alternatives, particularly anything to do with Democrats.  Last, Trump’s emotional grip on the cult aims at their most primal self-identity: feelings themselves are a refuge because to deny him would not only admit to error, it would be to deny self.


This means that the facts, be they legal or logical and evidentiary, are unimportant.  Nothing can be said that the cult has not heard and dismissed before.  Any admission of error now would be tantamount to admitting they’ve been wrong all along.  Once you’ve been conned, it’s nearly impossible to admit you were conned, and it’s far more likely you’ll continue to play the game and raise the stakes.  There’s little reason to believe anything will persuade the MAGAs to alter their behavior, much less admit to error or a changed mind.   


We can only reasonably surmise that MAGA itself can’t be stopped and that most Republicans will refuse to acknowledge the gravity of the threat before us.  Why? Because this is exactly what has been the case for the past eight years.

There are a few voices of more recent “conversion” like Chris Christie, but to think that there is a Republican anti-Trump and pro-democracy movement of consequence that will save us is simply not realistic.  The Lincoln Project, Steve Schmidt, the Bulwark have been anti-Trump since voting against him in the last election.  Are there really more hearts and minds to be changed that haven’t already made up their minds?

Trump and Trumpism can be defeated if there is an election as free and fair as the last.  What that will take is every Democrat voting again and in truth more Democrats.  Trump won more votes in 2020 because those people were voting for him.  They will likely do as much again.  

Younger voters must turn up and if they do on the basis of issues well-articulated, political positions including women’s body sovereignty, the climate catastrophe, civil right, gun violence, and the rest, then Trump will lose again.

But it’s going to be close.  And as disheartening as that is, and as shameful as we might say are those R-voters who really do know better but fail the moral test, there is something still something worse:  Should Democrats fail to show up in significant enough numbers in the purple States and somehow Trump gains yet another minority Republican victory, we will have lost the country.  Can we please pause for a moment to consider that?


We must make a positive case for policy and values, for moral decency and democracy even as we make clear the real danger this cult poses to the existence of the country.  Making just the existential case for America may not be enough.  People need to vote for something that moves them and, as I see it, democracy however posed will not alone suffice to motivate folks to get out to vote.  Outside the cult, voters need policies and positions that stand for their values.  We will not defeat the cult by being cultish.  We can only defeat them with ideas that motivate a positive initiative of real political value.  Of course, we still have to hope that all the votes will be counted.

MAGA will retreat back into its bunker only when its elderly voters die.  It will take generational change to reject a cult’s influence and role in determining destinies.  The children of cult members don’t necessarily buy into the cult.  Some MAGAs may even retreat quietly, even be influenced by news, facts, and events right before their eyes and may choose not to vote.  But those folks will not vote for anyone else which means the fate of the country really does lie with voters.

The MAGAs will never admit to the conn, that’s a bridge too far, but that is not important.  What MAGA voters will latch on to next need not concern us: we live in a culture of cults, whether that means sports teams or guns, or cooking and antiquing.  People have plenty to do that isn’t MAGA.


MAGA is going to have to die a natural death and fail because it lost recruits and its leader is somehow out of the mix.  Trump must be absented from power by decisive electoral failure if we are to have the slightest chance and any meaningful future.  There is not going to again be normalcy until generational change occurs and that itself is contingent on the next election.

At present we have but one choice and one way to save the republic for any meaningful future: we must get out every vote and hope the system has enough integrity to count them honestly.  We did this before and, sadly, that is once again our only effective play.  Neither persuasive arguments nor convictions are going to matter much.  It won't be the courts, some brilliant interpretation of the 14th Amendment, or a magic wand that will save us from ourselves.  Democracy can only be saved by democracy.  And if it does not, it will almost certainly not get another chance.




Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Is there no virtue among us?

"Is There No Virtue Among Us?"

For me the year always begins in September. I am among the lucky few for whom the coming of school was something good, something I could understand not because it was easy but because it brought us together to learn about ourselves.

I had fears and trepidations but I thought no matter how challenging or overwhelming it all might seem, this was a place where we could grow understanding. What are our assumptions and from whence do they arise? What is the evidence, from whence and what has not been allowed? What are your reasons? How do you draw your conclusions? What are the implications of your understandings and how will they guide, inform, or fail to inform your actions?

Now I wonder how much of what matters is open for honest discussion. I'm not interested in causing a stir but no matter what our personal preferences may be, we live in perilous times where it is difficult to attempt undisguised conversation. Questions that should be matters of policy, debate, and, yes, compromise to reconcile our genuine differences have devolved to nothing less than existential matters of survival. I wish this were only hyperbole.

There are too many examples to note but a report this morning from the Washington Post tells us that we are deeply, irrevocably broken and divided on a partisan basis over the climate, and how much less the fragilities of this democracy and the relentless culture wars that threaten to ruin the last shards of decency and civil discourse. We seem incapable of sharing even the same facts, much less agree to disagree. And so very few seem committed to learning the skills of argument grounded in good faith and respect for the truth.

Truth has been reduced to performative grifts and silos of misinformation that seem impenetrable to break. You will see plenty of that if you can stomach the Republican "debate" this evening.

I came across a piece of James Madison this morning regarding Judicial Powers of the National Government, dated June 20, 1788. In this complex comment, Madison tells us that our liberty requires consideration of restrictions and principles upon which there is likely to be contrary interpretation. He is particularly keen to point out the distinct role the courts will play in framing the rule of law in a democracy. He frets over jurisdiction and gives countenance to the privilege of jury trial, and above all what he terms the "uniformity of justice."

If we cannot abide the outcomes of equal justice under the law, we will become little more than the mob or will revert to the claims of the powerful autocrats to whom the law does not apply as it does to all. We seem to be on the verge of losing democracy to the autocrats who have duped masses of people to reject democracy itself for a racist populism.

For all of Madison's own many inexcusable faults, he grasps the heart of the matter wholly germane to our current crisis---for what we face as a nation is a crisis and of existential dimensions. Those who cannot accept the results of elections are not likely to accept the rulings of the law either.

Madison asks rhetorically, "Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks--no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea."

So there we have it, the question plainly put: is there, will there be "any virtue in the people"? We have spent very little time in the past few decades teaching how virtue is made much less how to think, read, and write critically with respect for the facts. Madison didn't expect these skills of the people to be well-honed but he did understand that without a real sense of virtue, of knowing the difference between right and wrong and being able to act upon it, that we would not survive in this democratic experiment.  

Whatever next happens in the circus of the media, the court of public opinion, or the legal system, we will certainly fail if this current "wretched situation" finds no solution. I am more than a little worried that a significant percentage of the American people would prefer a morally flawed, proven criminal autocrat than the deliberations of the law and messy workings of this fragile democracy. If we must count on virtue then we will have to make some and not merely count on it.

I think we shall know before too long if there is the slightest hope for this country, or if our flaccid indifference, short attention span, and under developed considerations of virtue will be our end.

I for one am tired of shouting matches with those for whom there is no respect for fact (or even the notion of fact) nor a shard of decency in their hearts. No pointless debate will solve our problems until we are prepared to have the more authentic conversations that invite the difference between right and wrong.