Thankfully, this is not a dictatorship

by Rob Tiller

We were not really happy with the yellow we chose for our living room (too bright), and so we got the painter to come back to put on a slightly calmer shade this week.  It being the season for expressions of gratitude, I’m grateful he could do it, and we could pay him.  Though I must admit, it’s been a long and not very fun process, and I’m glad the end is in sight.

I’d say the same for the Trump presidency.  It looks like we’re going to survive it, though with our democracy somewhat the worse for wear.  I’m still having a hard time getting my head around his continuing claim that he won the election, and that millions of Republicans are buying that claim.  This is, of course, ridiculous nonsense, but it says something about us.  

In the campaign, Trump actually said that the only way he could lose the election was if there was fraud.  The natural corollary to this is the election is illegitimate unless he is declared the winner.  This is Ministry of Truth material, at least as bizarre as anything conceived by Orwell.  It means that, contrary to what we previously understood as reality, in Trumpworld elections have nothing to do with choosing a leader.  It means that democracy as we’ve practiced should be deemed a farce.

It’s shocking that most Republican leaders have gone along with this attempt to steal the presidential election, which is in clear violation of their oath to protect the Constitution.  It is also shocking that seemingly respectable attorneys have filed lawsuits lacking any factual basis in support of the effort, which plainly violated both their constitutional oath and their professional ethical obligations.  Lawyers can be disbarred for filing lawsuits without a legal or factual basis, and for lying to courts.  Now that most of Trump’s election lawsuits have been kicked out of court and into the trash, the state bar ethics committees need to get to work investigating this misconduct.

As the courts and election officials have overwhelmingly confirmed there was no gigantic election fraud, it’s increasingly hard to understand why Trump and his supporters continue to attack the election.  Can they really accept as normal and laudable an attempt to steal the presidency?  

I doubt it, but who knows?  Possibly even the proponents don’t expect the theft to work this year, but are working towards an end that is even more deplorable:  destroying faith in democracy.  It sounds hard to do, but it’s starting to seem that the foundations of our system are more fragile than we knew.  We used to think it was almost automatic for people to agree on basic facts, and hard to get people confused as to what is reality.  

But plainly, Trump has confused a lot of people.  It sounds counterproductive, but non-stop lying and obfuscation can be an effective political strategy.  Vladimir Putin’s “chef,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been a pioneer in this field.  

Part of the idea is that if the government incessantly pumps out outrageous lies, ordinary political discourse becomes impossible.  Opponents spend all their energy trying to counter the lies, with none left for more substantive opposition.  Meanwhile, the public is increasingly not only confused but also cynical, persuaded that there’s no way to get the real truth, that all politicians lie, and that ordinary politics is pointless.

At this point, a lot of people might tune out of politics entirely, figuring the status quo is no worse than any known alternative.  Or they might come to the view that we should give up on messy traditional politics and replace them with something that doesn’t depend on agreeing on relevant facts and searching for compromises.  As the Germans and Italians once put it, a Leader.

If you wanted to push along in this direction, you’d likely quit talking about political opponents with terms like “the loyal opposition” and insist that they be treated as enemies.  Political opposition, formerly considered a normal and necessary part of democracy, would be reclassified as subversion or treason.  

For example, liberals who supported, say, universal health care would be attacked as disloyal socialists or communists.  Indeed, conservatives would find that consideration of any policies supported by liberals would be evidence of their disloyalty.  Compromises with liberal enemies would be morally anathema, akin to consorting with Satan worshippers, child-abuse ring leaders, and cannibals.  

Let’s face it, white nationalist militias and QAnon conspiracists are already here, and they don’t seem ready to leave along with Trump.  Millions of ordinary Republicans seem to be rejecting the new Biden administration as illegitimate.  Just when you thought polarization couldn’t get any worse . . . .  For those concerned about the future of democracy, this does not bode well. 

Fortunately, we also have a long tradition of non-fascist politics.  We know a lot about compassion, respect, and tolerance for others.  We have a lot of experience with scientific study, curiosity, and openness.  Even with our many differences in ancestry, religion, and culture, we have widely shared norms of decency, fairness, and justice.  

Maybe the fever that is Trumpism will suddenly break.  More likely, though, we’ll need to keep confronting a Trump who thinks he may make a comeback, and continue to be patient and careful with those Trumpically infected.  It may be a long, slow process to build relationships of trust and confidence, and persuade ex-Trumpists that progressive politics have nothing to do with communism, Satan worship, or child molestation.  

We can start right away, since, thankfully, we’ve already got a lot in common.  We want to know how each other’s kids are doing, and how the job’s going.  We like a lot of the same things, like sports, music, or books.  We already know how to talk about a range of things, and with some work we can expand the list.  We might eventually be able to work on more charged subjects, like, say, taxes, or health care.