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The State of the Union

January 30, 2018

State of the Union

We are in a cold Civil War–one which in many ways is simply an extension of the armed conflict that ended a century and a half ago. Those issues–the most fundamental of which is racism–were never really resolved.  Now they are back out in the open, in large part because we have a president who has gleefully fanned those smoldering embers back into a raging fire.

What’s really different is that for the first time in our history, the man in the White House sees himself as a messianic despot. “I alone can fix it.” He asks people to put their trust in him personally rather than in the institutions of the country, while doing everything possible to undermine and subvert those same institutions and subordinate them to his own agenda. And the Republican Party has become his eager accomplices.

We are on the verge of something unprecedented in this country: the decimation of the nation’s premier law-enforcement agency in order to kill an investigation into clandestine manipulation of our election by a hostile foreign power in support of the sitting president. The truly scary part is that Trump might very well get away with it.

He has put in place all the elements of a classic authoritarian dictator:

  • Building a cult of personality fueled by repeated rallies in front of carefully selected adulatory audiences and holding meetings with cabinet members who must individually praise him.
  • Engaging in character assassination against former and current political adversaries, and using such attacks as diversions from criticism of the leader.
  • Creating an inner circle comprised primarily of family members and sycophants, whose responsibilities are fluid and ill-defined.
  • Expressing unrelenting hostility towards the independent press and incessant attacks on legitimate news organizations that are critical of him.
  • Showing casual disregard for facts and willingness to repeat lies that, though refuted, are uttered in such quantity that truth becomes irrelevant.
  • Deliberately stoking of fears and prejudice against easily identifiable and vulnerable minorities who are vilified as the cause of the country’s problems.
  • Pandering to perceived grievances and fears of the dominant ethnic group by claiming to be their savior.
  • Using religion to solidify political support and exploit prejudices.
  • Instituting targeted rules and regulations to suppress voting by specific groups deemed to be hostile to the leader.
  • Saber-rattling and brinkmanship against selected foreign countries to foster public fears and patriotic sentiments.
  • Cultivating the military by appointing politically sympathetically generals to senior White House positions and staging political events in front of military captive audiences.
  • Catering to the financial interests of wealthy and ideologically-attuned donors who will support political allies and amplify the message in media they control.
  • Attacking government agencies whose missions are not aligned with the leader’s agenda by starving them of resources and appointing directors who will cripple those agencies from within.
  • Imposing fiscal and regulatory policies and awarding government contracts that directly benefit large corporate interests in return for financial and political support.
  • Flouting of ethical rules and encouraging a culture of corruption with particular benefit to financial interests of the leader, his family, and close associates.

We Americans (or at least white Americans) have been inculcated since birth with the idea that our country is exceptional and our constitutional freedoms will always be secure. We may think that the Founding Fathers had such god-like wisdom that  democracy will live forever under the system they created. But that’s an illusion.

African-Americans certainly know better. The Confederacy may have lost the war in 1865, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution supposedly gave them the full rights of citizenship. But the forces of reaction never gave up and have waged an unrelenting and often successful battle ever since to keep that from happening.

The point is that the Constitution is just a piece of paper. For it to function as intended, there must be a shared consensus on norms, practices, customs, and rules to faithfully implement its lofty aspirations. Without that it can just be a sham, as so many fine-sounding constitutions of dictatorships have proven.

That’s why this moment in our history is so crucial and dangerous, because we have a person in the Oval Office who cares about nothing but gratifying his own personal greed, grievances, and ego. And behind him is one of our two major political parties which has cast off adherence to the norms and practices that have allowed American democracy to function, however imperfectly, and appears fully prepared to follow him off the cliff.

Maybe a majority of Americans has become disgusted with Trump, but we have never faced this situation before, we can’t quite believe what is happening, and we don’t know what to do about it. But I think we know that the ground is shifting under our feet.

Ladies and gentlemen, the state of the union is alarmed!

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