This is it, folks. This is the scenario our Founders lost sleep over. This is the day they prepared us for.
Outside the Philadelphia convention Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government he and his colleagues were crafting. His reply? “A republic. If you can keep it.” And that is just the question at issue today. Can we keep it?
Sure, it can sound melodramatic to use the f-word (no, not the one Churlish Cheney hurled at Patrick Leahy), and I have mostly avoided doing so for just that reason. Especially where the politically less informed are concerned, arguing that America is slipping into fascism can be the first and last point they’ll hear you make.
But, nowadays, even George F. Will is worried. You know you’re in a seriously bad place when that happens.
America may not be a fascist country today, but it’s not for want of trying. I have no question but that through Dick Cheney’s dark heart courses the blood of Mussolini. No wonder the damn thing’s so diseased. And I have no doubt that Karl Rove has only admiration and envy for Joseph Goebbels. Hey, why can’t we do that here? (Hint: We are.)
America is not a fascist country (if it was, you wouldn’t be reading this), but pardon me if I don’t defer to Bush defenders and ringside Democrats who consider me hysterical for worrying about the direction in which we’re heading.
These are the same people who’ve spent the last two decades denying the existence of global warming, while we now learn with each passing week how much worse than we had ever imagined is that environmental wreckage. These are the same people who said Iraq would be a cakewalk, and planned accordingly. These are the same people who prepared us for 9/11, the Iraq occupation, Hurricane Katrina and the prescription drug plan, and who have set new records for ineptitude in responding to those crises. These are the people who can’t get body armor on our troops, three years after launching the war, and who are getting flunking grades in terrorism preparation from the 9/11 Commission four years after that attack. These are the same people who have turned a massive surplus into a record-setting debt, and coupled it with equally breathtaking trade deficits. And now they want to cut federal tax revenue even more.
Yes, he is the president, but golly gee, Sargent Carter, he sure seems to make an awful lot of mistakes!
So forgive me if I don’t trust their judgement on matters of rather serious importance. Forgive me if I don’t stand by hoping they’re right as the two hundred year-old experiment in American democracy goes down the toilet. Besides, I thought being a conservative meant taking the prudent course, anyhow. Even if there was only a one in a hundred chance that a grenade was live, would you play with it? Wouldn’t it have been better to have acted ‘conservatively’ with the fate of the planet at stake, and assumed that global warming might be real? And, likewise, shouldn’t we worry about what is happening to American democracy now, while we still can?
The truth is, there is a government in office which seeks such complete power and dominance that even some conservatives have started to notice. Too blind to see the true intentions of this bunch, they can at least figure out that an imperial presidency created by George Bush might one day be inherited by Hillary Clinton (complete with her plans for a revolutionary dope-smoking lesbian Marxist state and global UN domination, enforced by an armada of black helicopters), so now even these fools are getting nervous about where this goes. They know that the only difference between the monarchism our Founders so reviled and contemporary Cheneyism is that the technology of our time allows George Bush to turn George III into George Orwell.
It’s Munich in America, people. We can dream the pleasant dream that if we just stand by quietly while the Boy King gobbles up some of our liberties, he won’t want any more, but that would be a lot like Chamberlain dreaming that a chunk of Czechoslovakia would be enough to appease Hitler. It wasn’t, and it won’t be.
Do I overstate the concern? The New York Times recently editorialized “We can't think of a president who has gone to the American people more often than George W. Bush has to ask them to forget about things like democracy, judicial process and the balance of powers – and just trust him. We also can't think of a president who has deserved that trust less.” The Times should know. Between rah-rah’ing the war for Bush, sitting on the Downing Street Memos as if they were banana import trade policy documents, and covering for Judith Miller while she covered for The Cheney Gang, they have about as much blood on their hands as does Donald Rumsfeld. But if even the Times can work up the concern to print a line like that, we’re in a world of hurt.
And we are, in fact, in a world of hurt. Those shreds of parchment on the floor of the National Archives aren’t from Mrs. Washington’s shopping list, I’m afraid to say.
It is true, of course, that other presidents – even the best of them – have taken enormous liberties with the Constitution, especially during wartime. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, FDR jailed Americans on the West Coast for the crime of having Japanese ancestry, Truman and Eisenhower stood by while McCarthyism ripped a gaping hole through American civil liberties, and Nixon and his plumbers went to work on his political enemies in the name of national security. Of course, we now look back on those episodes as among the most shameful in American history. But the present crew is even more dangerous for their intentions of creating permanent war to justify permanent repression.
Already they’ve torn large chunks out of the Constitution.
Article One creates the legislative branch, that which the Founders intended to be the most powerful and consequential. Today, we have a president who makes the stunning assertion that he is the “sole organ for the nation in foreign affairs”. This Congress seems mostly to agree, even though the Founders gave them the power to declare war, to fund all governmental activities, to ratify treaties and to oversee the executive. Who, us? Bye-bye Article One.
Article Three creates a Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes (especially over governmental powers) and to protect the Constitution. But BushCo can’t be bothered to follow even the Court’s tentative interventions into due process concerning Guantánamo and beyond. And why should it? By the time they get done with loading the damn thing up with ‘unitary executive’ fifth-column shills like Roberts and Alito, it will be a moot court, just like the ones in law school. Once the Supreme Court becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of the executive branch (about one vote from now), it’s bye-bye Article Three.
The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to assemble in protest. But protest is a joke in Bush’s America. People are kenneled off into pens so far from the president he is never confronted with any contrary views at all, apart from the odd funeral he has to show up at but Rove can’t script. The halls of Congress are ground zero for American democracy, much boasted about at home and jammed down the throat of the world (except when the results don’t favor American corporate or strategic interests). But go there and sit in the balcony wearing a t-shirt with the number of dead soldiers in Iraq printed on it and see how fast you get a lesson in Bush’s interpretation of the Bill of Rights. And that little display at the state of the union address was no freak event, either. That kind of thing happened all the time during the 2004 campaign. At Bush rallies, people were getting arrested for the bumper-stickers on their cars.
The First Amendment also protects freedom of the press. That freedom has not been eliminated, per se, but it has been effectively neutered beyond effectiveness. Between the White House intimidating most of the press, coopting the rest, stonewalling information requests, planting stories in the American and foreign media, and buying off journalists, today’s mainstream media has too often become a pathetic megaphone for White House lies, and that includes those supposed bastions of liberalism, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Bye-bye First Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment guarantees “against unreasonable searches and seizures” and requires that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation”. Can you say “NSA”? “Guantánamo”? “Abu Ghraib”? It’s bad enough that Bush has authorized himself to bug anybody, arrest anybody, convict anybody and silence anybody, but his NSA chief doesn’t even appear to have read the Fourth Amendment. That whole thing about probable cause was lost on him, as he and his president simultaneously trampled the separation of powers and checks and balances doctrines by eliminating two out of three branches of government from their little surveillance loop.
Meanwhile, informed estimates repeatedly assert that the majority of detainees rotting away in Guantánamo are there either because they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time simply and got swept away like so much garbage into a dustpan, or were reported as al Qaeda so that one Afghan clan could use the US military to burn another. And so there they sit, unable to be charged, to be tried, to exercise habeas corpus, to have representation, to confront witnesses – unable now even to starve themselves to death in protest. If this wasn’t precisely the fear of the Founders when they put this language into the Constitution, then Dick Cheney is a poster boy for the ACLU. Strike the Fourth Amendment.
And take with it the Fifth (no one shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”), the Sixth (“the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury”, the right “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense”), and the Eighth, providing against “cruel and unusual punishments”). Boom, boom, boom.
In a disgusting display of legal sophistry, the administration would argue that these provisions don’t apply because of jurisdiction, which of course was the entire purpose for putting their gulag in Guantánamo in the first place. As if it is not American territory since we ‘lease’ it from Cuba. As if Castro could send in the police to clean up the open sore of Bush’s human rights travesty there, and the US could do nothing about it, since it is Cuban land. Right.
But even if Fun With Domestic Jurisprudence is to be their game, the actions of the administration also represent a massive breach of international law, since the Geneva Conventions prohibit precisely these sorts of horrors which the Creature from Crawford has visited upon the poor SOBs caught in his dragnet.
Your scissors are probably getting a bit dull by now, but this means that not only is international law in scraps, but you can also go ahead and cut out Article Six of the Constitution as well, which provides that “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land”. Ah, how ‘quaint’. How very ‘obsolete’.
Such treaties may be the supreme law in some land, but apparently not in Bush Land. Or, at least not if you don’t mind another cute legal charade, in which a new category of POWs called “unlawful combatants” is fabricated with the intention of rendering – with disingenuousness extraordinaire – the detainees as falling outside the Geneva provisions.
That’s precious, as if a ‘lawful’ Bush all of a sudden got religion for the fine points of international jurisprudence. Except, of course, when it came to the need for obtaining a Security Council resolution to invade Iraq. Except when it comes to the International Criminal Court, which the Bush junta has been desperately trying to undermine at every opportunity (gee, I wonder why, given the Court’s mandate to prosecute war criminals). Except for nuclear nonproliferation. Except for the use of white phosphorus in Falluja. Apparently the only legal distinctions these guys follow are the ones Bush orders Alberto Gonzales, that paragon of legal independence and the rule of law, to create for him out of whole cloth. That international law.
There’s not much left of the Constitution now that these guys have tortured it as if it were some personal project in Lynndie England’s basement. Of course, they’ve made damn sure that the Second Amendment is fully protected, to the point where John Ashcroft wouldn’t investigate the gun purchase records of the 9/11 hijackers. You gotta love that. I wish they gave the rest of the Bill of Rights a tenth of the attention the Second Amendment gets. Heck, for that matter, I wish they’d even interpret the Second Amendment properly. Maybe in my next lifetime.
Meanwhile, arguably the three most brilliant inventions of the Constitution are separation of powers, the guarantee of civil liberties, and federalism. Even the latter – which has least to do with foreign affairs or checking executive power, and therefore has been least assaulted – is under duress as the Bush Gang attack state power any time it strays from their regressive political agenda, for instance with respect to euthanasia, medical marijuana or affirmative action.
In fact, all three of these key constitutional doctrines are suffering under a brutal assault from a regime which finds democracy and liberty fundamentally inconvenient to their aspirations for unlimited power. The administration absurdly claims to be bringing democracy to the Mid-East. (After that whole WMD thing went MIA, and Saddam’s links to al Qaeda proved equally credible, what the hell else were they going to say?). But far from the ludicrous claims that they are agents for the spread of democracy abroad, they are busy unraveling it with furious industry here at home.
It is, I’m afraid, Munich in America, and now we must decide whether to appease the bullies and pray for happy endings, or fight back to preserve a two hundred year-old experiment in democracy. Despite all its flaws and failures, Churchill was still right about it: Democracy is the worst system of governance except for all the others. And that makes it worth fighting for.
But the spot we’re in now is actually worse than Munich, because there will be no Normandy in this war, and no Stalingrad. No country with the deterrent threat of a nuclear arsenal can ever be invaded by another country or group of countries, regardless of the magnitude of the latter’s own military power.
That means we’re on our own, folks. If we flip completely over to the dark side, nobody will be storming our beaches and scrambling up our cliffs to liberate us from our own folly. Hell, if they weren’t so worried about the international menace we represent, they’d probably be laughing at us, anyhow, thinking how richly we deserved the government we got.
But there’s nothing funny about this situation. Hitler dreamed of a thousand year reich, but didn’t count on the resilience of an endless army of Slavs, or the technological prowess of a nation of shopkeepers’ great-grandchildren hammering his would-be millennium down to a decade. If the US goes authoritarian (or worse), on the other hand, who will play Russia or America to our Germany? The answer is no one, and it is not apocalyptic paranoia to fear a very, very long period of unrelenting political darkness, once the curtain comes down.
Is this the beginning of the end for American democracy? Maybe. I have no doubt that unchecked Cheneyism intends precisely that. It’s therefore up to the rest of us to stop it. It’s up to us to say yes to Philadelphia, and no to Munich. Because there will be no Normandy.
Now we find out if we can keep Mr. Franklin’s republic, after all.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (email@example.com), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond.