Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey has sent shock waves through the nation this week. And as I’ve observed the different reactions, I’ve seen two broad perspectives among Trump opponents, one more optimistic and one more pessimistic.
The optimists say this is the beginning of the end for Trump. The growing evidence of his campaign’s collusion with Russia plus his ham-fisted Nixonian attempt to thwart the investigation into that collusion are going to force him out one way or another. As progressive commentator Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks gleefully said, “He’s done.” The pessimists say that this move by Trump, this “little whiff of fascism” as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews put it, has brought us to a constitutional crisis that puts us in real danger of descending into authoritarian rule. As Jeffrey Toobin put it on CNN, “This is the kind of thing that goes on in non-democracies….This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is something that is completely outside how American law is supposed to work.” Or as Bill Moyers and Michael Winship said in an article published yesterday, “With each day [Trump] edges us closer to autocracy….He’s attempting a coup. No joke.”
Though admittedly I’ve been observing from a distance here in Mexico, and what follows here is of course an oversimplification of complex views, my impression is that Trump opponents have responded to the whole Trump phenomenon by inclining toward one of these two camps. The optimists say, “Don’t worry. Trump is incompetent and only about thirty percent of the people support him. We have so many kind, sane, and loving people in the resistance, and things like the Obamacare repeal are waking people up. He’ll be impeached, or he’ll get voted out in four years, and we’ll be ready for Bernie in 2020.”
The pessimists, on the other hand, say something quite different. While they might agree that there are lots of good people in the resistance, they say, “We’re very worried. Trump’s people or other extremely conservative Republicans have control of every branch of the federal government. The Republican leaders have shown themselves to be stunningly willing to harm ordinary people (see Obamacare repeal). Laws and norms of American politics mean nothing to them, and truth itself has become ‘alternative facts.’ We could be one terrorist attack away from a total power grab. We may not have an election in four years.”
Where am I on this spectrum? Well, first, let me state the obvious by humbly admitting that there’s no way I can know what’s going to happen. Who could possibly know that? But if you ask me which way I think the wind is blowing, I have to sadly admit that I incline toward the pessimistic side. There are lots of reasons for this. It comes partly from reading the various intelligent and respected commentators who warn of the real danger that we are sliding into fascism. I’m speaking of people like Moyers and Winship, Toobin, Henry Giroux, Timothy Snyder (whose book On Tyranny is chilling), Robert Reich, and even conservative commentators like Andrew Sullivan, who in an article written before the election called Trump “an extinction-level event.”
Moreover, as I look at what is actually happening day to day as the Trump administration is unfolding, I see a combination of factors that in my mind put us in real danger. Many of them preceded Trump’s administration but have worsened since he entered office, and many would remain even if somehow Trump himself leaves office early and Mike Pence takes his place. Among these dangerous factors:
- The extreme views of powerful people within the government, from Trump himself to the dedicated Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan to the climate-denier EPA chief Scott Pruitt to the unabashed white supremacist Steve Bannon. (An article I read on the white supremacist novel that Bannon uses as a framework to describe his views on immigration is one of the most frightening things I’ve ever read.)
- The sheer amount of power that these people and others who share their views possess—again, extremely conservative Republicans control every branch of the federal government. Republicans also control 69 of 99 state legislatures.
- The utterly uncompromising scorched-earth tactics they’ve used in the exercise of this power—for instance, using the “nuclear option” to ram through the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch (after never holding hearings on Obama’s nominee, in violation of the Constitution), hammering through the latest Obamacare repeal (without hearings, CBO scoring, or even much time to read the bill at all), and yes, firing James Comey.
- The apparent disregard they’ve shown for the rules and norms and institutions of constitutional democratic government in the exercise of this power—epitomized, for instance, in Trump’s contempt for judicial rulings against his executive orders, and his proposal (which White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said they have actually looked into) that the president should be able to sue the press for writing “negative” things about him, a proposal that would require altering the First Amendment.
- The willingness they’ve shown to repeatedly mislead, obfuscate, or outright lie (as confirmed by every nonpartisan fact-checking service) in the exercise of this power—a campaign of misinformation that goes far beyond the usual “spin” that all politicians engage in to some extent, and which is eagerly promoted and disseminated by Fox News and other right-wing communication outlets.
- The many things those in power are quietly doing, with little press coverage—laws being passed, procedures being changed, regulations being undone, funding being stripped, etc.—that will bring great harm to people in America and all over the world. (Just one example: On Trump’s order, the EPA rescinded a rule limiting the amount of that mercury dental offices can discharge into the environment.)
- The apparent mental instability and impulsiveness of Donald Trump himself. (Even people who work with him in the White House express concerns about this in their leaks to the press.)
- The apparent normalization of all this on the part of the political class (including both parties), the mainstream press, and seemingly many American people. It sure looks like, for the most part, people are just going about business as usual. Few are treating what’s happening as an “extinction-level event.”
- The real risk that something like a terrorist attack could, given all the other factors I’ve mentioned, generate enough fear among the population that those in power could exploit that fear as a means to grab far more power—even authoritarian or dictatorial power.
Gosh, I hate writing all of that. It has the look of a rant, even though all I’m trying to do is honestly describe what I’m seeing. I think it’s imperative for us not to normalize this, because the consequences for doing so could be devastating. I really hope I’m wrong in my pessimism, and of course I could well be. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we just throw up our hands and give up; by all means, let’s work to turn the tide and hope for the best. But it seems to me that at least some of the optimism I see is wishful thinking, a kind of whistling past the graveyard. As hard as it is for me to say it, I suspect we are in for dark times ahead.
I have to give the optimists their due, because in spite of what I’ve just written, in the long run I am an optimist. Even though my guess is that we’re in for dark times for a while (how long “a while” is I have no idea), I believe that in the long run optimism is fully justified. We do have so many kind, sane, and loving people among us. So much good resistance work is being done. Things like the Obamacare repeal are waking people up. Those who stand for kindness, sanity, and love are the majority. Moreover, I’m convinced that even those powerful people who are currently wreaking so much havoc also have a deep core of kindness, sanity, and love within them, as we all do. And I believe that treating them lovingly as we want to be treated (even as we oppose some of their actions) will inevitably bring that core to the surface. The loving reality that we all share as children of God will ultimately prevail.
So, I like to think of my current position as a kind of hopeful realism. I wrote all of that stuff I didn’t like writing because I think it is essentially true, and if it is, then acknowledging it is a bit of needed realism. But for me it is a hopeful realism. And in my mind the “hopeful” part of it is a deeper realism, because it points to the reality of love that I believe will have the last word. That last word will likely take a while to manifest—I think we need to work patiently, one day at a time—but as Gandhi so famously said:
When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall—think of it, always.
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P.S. Regarding the danger that we are sliding into fascism, I recently came upon a remarkable resource put together by a woman named Amy Siskind. She is compiling a week-by-week list, complete with links to sources, of specific events and actions that are pushing us in that direction.