On Watching a Democracy Die
“Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms,” wrote economist Paul Krugman, prophetically, in The New York Times on December 19, 2016.
And he meant “Republican” with a small “r”. He was describing the type of government we appear to have, not the venial and cynical political party of the same name. (The party that showed its repulsive true colors minutes after Congress began this week by holding a secret meeting to gut the Independent Office of Congressional Ethics, and then backtracking when the news attracted public outcry.)
“And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade,” Krugman continued.
Ever since the quasi-election of Donald Trump (lost the popular vote by a considerable margin but won in the Electoral College), I’ve been in a state of trauma bolstered by fear and grief. Not just because I believe — and, being a New Yorker, have believed for decades — that Donald Trump is disgusting, mentally ill, and a disgrace to humankind. Not only because he’s an egotistical liar. And not only because I believe, deep in my heart, that he’s a joke — a bad joke that the universe is playing on America as punishment for starting too many wars. (I can hear the universe laughing, can’t you?)
No, I have been in a state of perpetual anguish because I am old enough to remember.
I remember how grateful I have always been that my maternal great-great-grandfather, Barnet Schneider, bravely brought his five motherless children from Krakow to New York City in the 1870s. His courage is the reason that I and the generations that follow me are alive today. I am proudly the child of immigrants. Who isn’t?
I remember the stories my paternal grandparents told about the Russian tzars who decided to blame the Jews for their own miserable society and encouraged murderous pogroms across the Pale. My grandmother and grandfather — separately — escaped to New York, which is the other reason I’m alive today.
I remember how my mother’s family fell apart when my uncle died fighting against Hitler.
And since my family lived in a Jewish enclave in New York City, I remember what it was like in 1946 and 1947 when, as a small child, I could feel in my bones how scared, threatened and revolted my parents and their friends were when the Holocaust refugees started arriving in New York and we learned the truth about what they had been through. My pediatrician had numbers tattooed on the inside of his arm. So did the first rabbi I ever studied with. So did his wife.
I remember reading Kafka and knowing that in totalitarianism it doesn’t matter if you are innocent, because the state can do what it wants with you — even drive you mad.
I remember being in Czechoslovakia in 1970, just after the Russians marched into the country to end the Dubcek government’s liberalization and reform policies — that brief end of censorship opened a blooming of self-expression in art and literature. The Russians put an end to it with tanks and guns. I remember the day students took me to the center of the city to show me the bullet holes in the walls there.
"How can I, just one of thousands of American journalists who care about getting it right, live in a world where a megalomaniac president casually lies?"
I remember being handed a samizat newspaper there. It was made of faded, torn, well-worn, badly mimeographed pages; the country’s mainstream media was spewing Soviet propaganda and lies and these students were ready to die to disseminate the truth. It was the first time in my easy, assimilated, privileged American life that I understood the importance of a free press and of the First Amendment.
I remember the fights of my own generation: first abortion rights so our female friends didn’t have to be afraid of dying in back alleys. Then black power. Then left-wing politics. Then feminism. In fact, the first two things I did when I woke up on November 9, 2016 and learned that Trump was really going to be our president was write a large check to Planned Parenthood and reserve a seat on a bus to Washington D.C. for the Woman’s March on Washington.
I remember the rage I felt when Ronald Reagan killed the unions. And when George W. Bush started a nonsensical war in Iraq that was clearly — even back then — going to destabilize the region for decades. I wrote entire columns against it filled with quotes from Rudyard Kipling, who figured out early on that there was no way to win a war in that region of the world. I marched against that war — millions around the world did the same thing— and felt helpless and disenfranchised once the fighting began.
I remember Bubbling Bob. “Dozens of corpses lay rotting by roadsides or in cars blown up by U.S. forces as they captured Baghdad,” reported David Fox of Reuters. “Nearby, the corpse of an airport worker rolled around in the current of a pool… ‘That’s ‘bubbling Bob’,’ said one soldier. ‘Been there a while. I ain’t gonna fish him out. Let the Iraqis do it.'”
With close to 75 years of lived American history inside me, I remember all of these things.
And now every instinct I have and every thread of nerve is screaming out a danger and a warning — all over this land.
How can I, just one of thousands of American journalists who care about getting it right, live in a world where a megalomaniac president casually lies? Where “truthiness” and “fake news” abound. Where science, knowledge and intelligence are scorned? Where the president is not adult enough to admit even a single mistake. Where he can dodge press conferences and intelligence briefings alike at will, while the “pet” press fawns over him simply to maintain access, appear important and please their billionaire bosses for whom Trump represents dollar signs and nothing more.
Thanks to Trump, the woman-hating, white supremacist uber-right-wing-Christian Mike Pence will be running what is effectively a shadow government, Trump will spend his time — and our money — being royally entertained at the state dinners of dictators while he sells off the U.S. piece by piece to enrich himself.
If lies are the new truth, if propaganda replaces information, if people become afraid and if protesting does nothing except make the government push guns in our faces, what will make Trump leave office? Even if he is elected and serves eight years, would he ever leave? Why would he? He can simply suspend the Constitution and carry on.
For the whole of my blessed American lifetime, honesty and truth have been in the air we have been lucky to breathe. We have had the cherished ability to read and write what we want to read and write, to think what we want to think, and to say what we want to say. (And yes I know that free speech doesn’t give you the right to call “Fire” in a crowded theater, just as the Second Amendment doesn’t give you the right to open fire with your Uzi there.)
I’m sure that Trump has never read Shakespeare, but he appears to be taking a page from the playbook of Iago, the villain in “Othello,” who says, “For honesty’s a fool.”
Krugman called his piece “How Republics End.” In it he talks about the politics of ancient Rome. First he quotes historian Adrian Goldsworthy: “However important it was for an individual to win frame and add to his and his family’s reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic… no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power.”
Krugman continues, “America used to be like that, with prominent senators declaring that we must stop ‘partisan politics at the water’s edge.’ But now we have a president-elect who openly asked Russia to help smear his opponent, and all indications are that the bulk of his party was and is just fine with that. … Winning domestic political struggles is all that matters, the good of the republic be damned.”
As Krugman mulls over the Trump era, he’s not wondering why “white working-class voters support politicians whose policies will hurt them.” He’s out for bigger game: “Why one party’s politicians and officials no longer seem to care about what we used to think we essential American values.” He adds, “And let’s be clear: This is a Republican story, not a case of ‘both sides do it.’”
His answer is that it’s not ideological. It’s “careerism on the part of people who are apparatchiks within a system insulated from outside pressures by gerrymandered districts, unshakeable partisan loyalty and lots and lots of plutocratic financial support.,.. But if there is any hope of redemption, it will have to begin with a clear recognition of how bad things area. American democracy is very much on the edge.”
How I can best join the Resistance? Especially when my body might not be able to handle a march on Washington and my checkbook can withstand just so much pain. The bill to gut Social Security is already in Congress. And for those of you Trump supporters who cry “He promised to strengthen Medicare and Social Security,” all I can say is “Suckers! He lies!” Ask Bernie Sanders about that.
I hope all those Republican voters who just wanted “a change” are happy when Grandma, cut off from her rightful Social Security check, comes to live with them.
What I believe I can do, first and foremost, is to uphold — in every single way I can find — the values in which I believe as a woman, as a senior, as a Jew, as a journalist and as an American. What are those values? They start with truth, with justice and with the Golden Rule.
Patrick Henry famously cried, “Give me liberty or give me death.” and while I’m certainly afraid to die, I stand with him. We must hold fast to our values, because right now the end times are coming for our democracy and I don’t think I can bear to see it die.