Cold first flights, and a thought experiment — forget the rule of law
by Rob Tiller
It was cold here this week, and it took some willpower to get up while it was still dark and roll out to check on the birds. But I did it, making it to Shelley Lake just after sunrise to listen to the geese honking and watch them take their first flights of the day. Each bird and each group bird is a little different. As the sunlight hits the trees on the far side of the lake, the calm dark water turns orange and green.
As always, it was calming and invigorating to spend some time beside the still water with the geese, ducks, herons, gulls, eagles, and song birds. But there were challenges. One day my hands got so cold I couldn’t feel the shutter button on my camera. But fortunately, I didn’t get frostbite, and I wore heavier gloves after that.
My more serious pain issue now is from the Trump impeachment fireworks. Last week I suggested that too much anger, hysteria, and other strong emotions are a big part of our polarization problem, and we need to calm down. I admit, I was thinking the Trumpians might need calming more than me, but I’ll also admit, I’m finding I greatly need it.
I was stunned and sickened when the Republican legislators repeatedly declared this week that the investigation of Trump was a sham. They said it was a hoax, a witch hunt, and a dastardly sneak attack on America. They compared their Democratic colleagues to those who crucified Jesus! What they did not do was acknowledge the voluminous evidence of Trump’s serious misconduct, much less attempt to rebut it.
I keep trying to understand this world view, in which Trump is the innocent victim of the evil Democrats. As I’ve said before, part of the explanation seems to be tribal loyalty and fear of being cast out of the tribe, but a big part of it seems to be raw anger and hatred of Democrats, fueled by the Fox-led propaganda machine and reinforced by group-think. The Republicans seem to be projecting their hatred of Democrats onto Democrats. That is, they seem to think the real problem is Democrats’ blind hatred of Trump, rather than what Trump did.
Perhaps in the Republican mind this justifies dismissing the evidence against Trump as a sham. In this mind, their obstruction of the process, obfuscating, repeating diversionary lies, and promoting wingnut conspiracy views are all the lesser of evils, necessary to combat the greater of evils (that is, Democrats).
Whatever the causes, I’ve been expecting the Republican fever to break (as Michelle Goldberg put it in her column yesterday). I’ve thought that eventually the dissonance between reality and their alt-reality would become untenable. Surely loyalty to the nation, honesty, and honor would eventually prevail. But the hearings this week and the lack of any indication of diverging views among Senate Republicans have made me think (along with Goldberg), that I may have been mistaken. We may be starting a new normal.
The Republicans’ unqualified support for Trump is probably more corrosive of our democracy than Trump’s own misconduct. Let me explain. We’ve only got two major parties, and one of them is signaling that there is nothing — no crime or constitutional violation — that a president of their party can commit that they will deem disqualifying. If that turns out to be their final position, the president will no longer be subject to our traditional system of checks and balances. That is, the president will not be subject to the rule of law. That would be a big change in the very idea of law.
So it doesn’t seem premature to consider the possibility that without much reflection we’re about to dramatically change our system of government. How will life be different if the legislature and the courts exert no authority over the supreme leader, and the law has force and meaning only when it suits the leader?
In fact, there are already a number of systems like that. I’m thinking of China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and the list goes on. And more appear to be coming on line. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen to democracy in India, Hungary, Brazil, Poland, the Philippines, and that list also goes on.
I wouldn’t volunteer to be a citizen of China or other authoritarian, but of course life in any of those places wouldn’t be all bad. There would be many of the things we enjoy and value now, like friends and family, art and entertainment, adventures and sports, good food and wine. There would be beautiful forests, mountains, and ocean waves. The swans would still swim in lakes and mount the air.
But without protections for a free press or free speech, opposition to the regime would gradually fall silent. Normal life would not include any meaningful political participation. There would be no limits on arbitrary state violence.
Just as now, our leaders would act out of ordinary human impulses like greed and the lust for power, but unlike now, there would be nothing to check those impulses. Just as now, our leaders could harbor racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-gay bias, and hatred of political opponents, but unlike now, no law would generally prevent violent action against targeted groups. Just as now, there would be powerful propaganda and wacky conspiracy theories, but fewer and fewer rebuttals based on reality.
This is depressing, I realize. So I should also say I don’t think any of this is inevitable. I heard a podcast recently recounting a few cases where people had fallen out of planes for thousands of feet, hit a kindly tree branch or a snowbank, and survived. Sometimes, even when it looks like all is lost, you catch a lucky break.
But rather than count on a long-shot miracle, we’d better start coping with the reality we’ve got — the reality that is obscured by overwhelming fear and hatred. Unless we figure out a way to overcome that fear and hatred, we’re in big trouble. The place to start is with ourselves. In first aid training, they teach you that the first thing to do in an emergency is stop and think. Take a moment to calm down. Take some deep breaths.