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Toxic Politics Fatigue

Last year, Donald Trump ran for president. Now I'm a different person.

If nothing else, the last year and a half have been a humbling lesson on how some events, although utterly beyond my control, can alter my day-to-day existence. Can force me to adapt. Can change me, irrespective of my will. I paused today, just to notice the change. I tried to measure it. Which in turn prompted me to think back to the version of myself that existed before all of this happened. That guy was hardly any different than me! But I can’t help but feel that, in some way, he was healthier than I am.

It's not unlike remembering life before the onset of a mild but chronic illness. I can’t be entirely sure, but back then, I think I used to be able to concentrate just a little bit more. Back then, my undivided attention was just a bit less divided. My highs were just a bit higher. Back then, I might have been slightly less categorical and rigid in my thinking.

Although I remain hopeful that the worst outcomes of a Trump presidency will ultimately be avoided, I think I used to be more optimistic and less jaded. I think I was just a bit more willing to grant the benefit of the doubt. I was more confident in my ability to steer any political conversation, no matter how heated, toward common ground. I know I didn’t respond like a pavlovian dog at the mere mention of a stranger’s name.

It’s important and necessary to think about politics. We are an engaged citizenry, these things affect our lives, and it is fitting and proper to remain informed about them. But what used to be a sound habit of mind now feels a lot like the symptom of a disease.

I don't just follow, but actually consume this degrading and exhausting drama. It's hard not to crave, on some level, that heady melange of negative emotions—fear, outrage, sadness, disgust, conceit—that off-gasses from today's politics like a toxic cloud. And even when I want to turn it all off—to get away—I can’t. It’s on every screen, and there are screens everywhere. It's on the minds and lips of my friends and loved ones. Negativity and cynicism are addictive, and they are now the main course in my daily news diet. I'm being conditioned to live in—and perpetuate—my own nightmare. This feels like abuse.

I've already been changed and possibly harmed—simply by witnessing this vile shitshow—in ways I can’t quite enumerate or describe. I imagine that this is happening, in some fashion, to many others as well. I think it's changing, however imperceptibly, the way we understand ourselves in the world, the way we interact with each other, the way we approach our daily lives. I worry that it’s corroding our ability to govern ourselves, which rests upon our ability to generate empathy for one another—even those with whom we vehemently disagree. But then, I am also slightly less empathetic than I used to be.

We're six months into this term. I wonder if my country will even be recognizable in three and a half years. I wonder that about myself.

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The Republican Party vs. American Democracy: Only One Can Survive

The Republican Party has won for itself all three branches of national government by a combination of chicanery and sedition. They have secured the House thanks to gerrymandered districts and targeted voter suppression--strategies which evoke legitimate comparisons to the days of Jim Crow. They have fallen in line behind a president who never tells the truth, scapegoats the weak and vulnerable, and who probably conspired with the Russian government to beat Hillary Clinton last fall. They have stolen a Supreme Court nomination from a Democratic president, and radicalized their base so as to make bipartisan compromise a political impossibility.

And for all this, they have been rewarded with a once-in-a-century opportunity to remake American government into an undemocratic instrument of private wealth, programmed to transfer even more money from the poor and middle class, as well as the assets still held in common trust (e.g. public lands, natural resources, etc.), to the few at the very top.

But they haven’t won yet. To ensure the realization of these long-held goals, the entire Republican Party is now hard at work covering Trump’s messy tracks and propagating his cult of personality. At the same time, they are trying to ram through a repeal of the ACA before anyone can see it--a necessary first step toward a government exclusively by and for the hyperwealthy. And finally, Trump and the Republicans are trying to intimidate and delegitimize both the intelligence community and the free press--two of the remaining centers of opposition to his authoritarian rule. (Trump even pays homage to one of the "Great Ones" by resurrecting an old Stalinism, "enemy of the people," to castigate the press.) Should the Republicans fail in any of these endeavors, their ambitiously dystopic vision may never come to pass.

So now, we as a nation have finally reached the crossroads we’ve been moving toward since the era of Barry Goldwater. All of the antidemocratic things the Republican Party has done over decades to reach this point have gradually made it anathema to the foundational American ideals of transparent and representative governance. The GOP is now beyond accommodation, appeasement or redemption. And now that a strongman like Trump occupies the Oval Office, the death struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is no longer just over the horizon; it’s here. The foundational institutions of American democracy will either triumph or perish in the fight. The same is also true of the Republican Party.

This fight was not the will of the American people, but the choice of a handful of powerful Republicans, who deliberately made their party incompatible with America's democratic traditions in exchange for power. It's going to be ugly and destructive no matter what.

Should Republicanism/Trumpism prevail, the United States will likely become a one-party state, in which an informed and engaged citizenry plays no role. If, on the other hand, American democracy is to survive in anything more than name, the architects of this historical moment--which include names like Trump, Bannon, Sessions, McConnell and Ryan--will have to be sidelined and discredited, and the party they lead repudiated and possibly even abolished. That's where we're at. These men know very well the stakes of the game they play. Everyone else should know them too.

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Fighting Words

So Trumpism is a thing now. The specifics of Trumpist ideology are still unclear, since the president-elect himself is too obtuse, dishonest, and contemptuous of the American tradition of representative government to have developed a cohorent political worldview. But clearly, Trumpism is a civic expression of some familiar and deeply human impulses--unreasoned fear, uncurbed spite, bullheaded ignorance and religious fundamentalism--just like every other authoritarian "ism" in memory, both here and abroad. Like every such movement before it, Trumpism disguises those underlying frailties under the trappings of strength and certainty.

Trumpism is also a natural consequence of America's deteriorating governing structure and traditions: the corporate capture of state and media power, income inequality, civic disengagement, the devaluation of the basic idea of the commons, and the degradation of civil liberties. As a result, we have now entrusted every organ of elected federal government to an avowed authoritarian and his political party.

It's a good bet that most establishment Republicans are also shocked by Trump's victory. Their takeaway from Mitt Romney's loss in 2012 was that the party needed to embrace comprehensive immigration reform to attract Hispanic voters, or they'd never win the presidency again. That was Marco Rubio's whole reason for being. And then the party went and nominated Donald Trump. He was seen by party regulars as a ruffian and a terrible electoral risk. He was supposed to lose, and they were supposed to pretend that he'd never existed.

But he won, with some help from Putin, the FBI, and yes, vote rigging. And now a radical, amoral Republican Party has a completely unexpected opportunity to roll back every progressive policy accomplishment since the Civil War. Their priorities are the priorities of their corporate masters: to wipe out ACA, roll back financial reform, destroy what remains of the union movement, and privatize Medicare, public education, and social security. They will challenge the very idea of federal environmental policy. They will gut workplace safety regulations, void rules governing overtime pay, etc., etc...

And unless the Dems can stop them somehow, they will definitely do serious damage to our country's electoral system. This will be the first time Republicans have controlled both houses and the presidency since Justice Roberts declared the 1965 Voting Rights Act obsolete in 2013's Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case. So they'll be looking for more and better ways to lock in existing franchise restrictions and further suppress minority voting, or even to change how votes are counted. I expect Republicans to take a page out of Vladimir Putin's playbook by imposing heavy new restrictions on how American elections are monitored. Edit: I note here that Kris Kobach, Kansas' own vote cager extraordinaire, has been named to Trump's transition team.

In exchange for the ability to do everything they've ever wanted, Republicans will now pledge their fealty to Donald Trump. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell is getting that little errand out of the way today. House Speaker Paul Ryan is claiming that Trump has a "mandate" despite losing the popular vote. Ryan's a liar by both temperament and profession, but that's probably the most blatant public whopper he's told so far. That's how you know an authoritarian is feeling confident.

I don't know yet what congressional Democrats can do to protect the basic functions of American democracy. But at the very least, every Republican judicial appointment--not just to the Supreme Court--must be fiercely opposed. Going forward, I don't want to hear a single congressional Democrat snivel about how "so-and-so Republican is really a straight shooter (Hi Jim!)" or that "this is the best we're going to get from this administration." I don't ever want to hear Dems talk about how they need to "work across the aisle" to "get something done for the American people," or any other such nonsense. No Republican uttered any of those words in the last eight years. Congressional Republicans refused to even grant a hearing to Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland for almost a year. Merrick f'n Garland! No congress in the history of the country had ever done that before. And not only did Republicans pay no political price for violating the constitution they claim to revere, but their gambit worked to perfection. With Trump's victory, congressional Republicans have successfully stolen a Supreme Court pick out from under a Democratic president. There are no rules anymore, which is an objectively terrible state of affairs. But that's how the ballgame is played now, Dems. You don't have to like it. But by God, don't wimp out. And whatever you do, don't let the Republicans put your presidential candidate in jail.

Here's another idea: stop talking about the Republican Party and Trump as if they aren't one and the same. There are no Republicans anymore, only Trumpists. Every Republican is, and should always be referred to, as a Trumpist for at least as long as he's in office. In writing, quotes, speeches, everything. There is no daylight between the party and the monstrosity at its head. So he should define them, not the other way around. Michael Moore's got some other pretty good ideas about how citizens can organize to oppose the Trumpist takeover of our government. But the point here is that we are now officially in opposition to self-proclaimed facism. The normal rules of decorum no longer apply.

Above all, don't despair. Overt demagoguery tends to have a short shelf life in American politics. The First Red Scare whipped up fears of bolshevist revolution in the United States, resulting in race riots and 1918 Sedition Act--a rather conspicuous violation of the First Amendment. But when Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the architect of much of the Red Scare, warned the nation of a communist uprising planned for May Day 1920 and it didn't happen, he was laughed off the public stage and the Sedition Act was repealed. When Joseph McCarthy first burst onto the scene in 1949, he turned the federal government inside out, cynically repurposing genuine American fears about communism into a seemingly invincible partisan weapon. (Notably, Roy Cohn, who was McCarthy's odious chief counsel, was also a legal representative and close advisor to Donald Trump until Cohn's death in 1986.) But Joseph McCarthy also ultimately failed. The moment of his public demise, which came during the Army-McCarthy hearings, was recorded for posterity. Written on his political epitaph were Senator Joseph Welch's famous words, "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" It's a powerful reminder of where we've been, and it's worth rewatching this week.

By some measures at least, we've now entered a far darker time than either of the Red Scares. If you care about the environment and climate change, human rights, income inequality, the alleviation of poverty, national security, equal protection, racial equality, gender equity, public lands, government transparency, civil liberties, public health, financial and industrial regulation, the integrity of our elections, public safety, the future of American democracy, or just the basic Golden Rule, the next four years are going to be agonizing to witness, and for many, to endure. The white backlash has now been mainstreamed, and Trump's election will uncork a flood of racial and gender-based aggression and cruelty. But we are still free to assemble, still free to give of our time and our money, still free to speak. We are free to stand up for one another, to protect each other. And now we have to do all of those things like we have never done them before.

There will come another Joseph Welch moment. It won't come without effort, without concerted and dogged resistance. I don't know when, or how much damage Trumpism will do beforehand. And it may not be a moment at all, but rather a gradual and accumulating diminution of Trumpism's ability to inflict further harm on our body politic. Beneath Donald Trump and his party is the dustbin of history--silently awaiting their inevitable fall. And when it happens, Trumpism won't be a thing anymore. It will be an epithet.

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