But Remember What They Had To Go Through First!
The OECD— The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development— does all kinds of statistics. Yesterday a friend of mine sent me one that helps explain why America seems to be teetering on the brink between our fragile democracy and a mindless fascism.
Half of U.S. adults can’t read a book written at the 8th-grade level, according to the OECD.
The average American reads at the 7th- to 8th-grade level, according to The Literacy Project.
The historians that informally briefed Biden on this whole teetering thing last week, used different metrics. Reporting for the Washington Post, Michael Scherer, Ashley Parker and Tyler Pager wrote that the select group of scholars “painted the current moment as among the most perilous in modern history for democratic governance… Comparisons were made to the years before the 1860 election when Abraham Lincoln warned that a ‘house divided against itself cannot stand’ and the lead-up to the 1940 election, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt battled rising domestic sympathy for European fascism and resistance to the United States joining World War II.”
The group that gathered in the White House Map Room last week was part of a regular effort by presidential historians to brief presidents, a practice that dates at least as far back as the Reagan administration. Obama convened such groups multiple times, though the sessions fell out of favor under Trump.
Following a similar meeting with Biden last spring, the Aug. 4 gathering was distinguished by its relatively small size and the focus of the participants on the rise of totalitarianism around the world and the threat to democracy at home. They included Biden’s occasional speechwriter Jon Meacham, journalist Anne Applebaum, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, University of Virginia historian Allida Black and presidential historian Michael Beschloss. White House senior adviser Anita Dunn and head speechwriter Vinay Reddy also sat at the table.
…One person familiar with the exchange said the conversation was mostly a way for Biden to hear and think about the larger context in which his tenure is unfolding. He did not make any major pronouncements or discuss his plans for the future.
“A lot of the conversation was about the larger context of the contest between democratic values and institutions and the trends toward autocracy globally,” the person said.
Most of the experts in attendance have been outspoken in recent months about the threat they see to the American democratic project, after the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, the continued denial by some Republicans of the 2020 election results and the efforts of election deniers to seek state office.
Applebaum, a contributor to The Atlantic, recently published a book on eroding democratic norms called Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. Black, a longtime adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was recently named to the board of Vanderbilt University’s Project on Unity and American Democracy, which aims to reduce political polarization.
Beschloss, a presidential historian who regularly appears on NBC and MSNBC, has recently become more outspoken about what he sees as the need for Biden to battle anti-democratic forces in the country.
“I think he has got to talk tonight about the fact that we are all in existential danger of having our democracy and democracies around the world destroyed,” Beschloss said in March on MSNBC, before Biden delivered the State of the Union address.
Wilentz, prizewinning author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, has also voiced alarm in recent months about the state of the country. “We’re on the verge of what Hamilton in ‘The Federalist’ called government by brute force,” Wilentz told The Hill last month.
Some of last week’s discussion focused on similarities between today’s landscape and the period leading up to World War II, when growing authoritarianism abroad found its disturbing echo in the United States.
As Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini consolidated their power in the 1930s, the Rev. Charles Coughlin used his radio broadcast to spread a populist anti-Semitic message in the United States. Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) also rallied Americans against Roosevelt and showed sympathies for dictatorial government.
Concerns about anti-democratic trends have long animated Biden, who began his 2020 campaign by arguing that a “battle for the soul of the nation” was underway, a play on the phrase used by Meacham to title his 2018 book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.
Democrats broadly expect the same ideas will anchor Biden’s reelection campaign, if he decides to move forward with one, especially if Trump is his opponent again.
Biden has continued to bring up such themes in his public speeches, most recently in a July address to a law enforcement group, where he criticized Trump for taking no immediate action as the rioters he had inspired attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to overturn the results of the recent presidential election.
“You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy,” Biden told the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. “You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-American.”
And that brings us to Tim Alberta’s essay essay in yesterday’s Atlantic, What Comes After The Search Warrant. “If Donald Trump committed crimes on his way out of the White House,” he began, “he should be subject to the same treatment as any other alleged criminal. The reason for this is simple: Ours is a government of laws, not of men, as John Adams once observed. Nobody, not even a president, is above those laws. So why did I feel nauseous yesterday, watching coverage of the FBI executing a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate? Because this country is tracking toward a scale of political violence not seen since the Civil War. It’s evident to anyone who spends significant time dwelling in the physical or virtual spaces of the American right. Go to a gun show. Visit a right-wing church. Check out a Trump rally. No matter the venue, the doomsday prophesying is ubiquitous— and scary. Whenever and wherever I’ve heard hypothetical scenarios of imminent conflict articulated, the premise rests on an egregious abuse of power, typically Democrats weaponizing agencies of the state to target their political opponents. I’ve always walked away from these experiences thinking to myself: If America is a powder keg, then one overreach by the government, real or perceived, could light the fuse.”
[W]e’ve seen what happens when millions of Americans abandon their faith in the nation’s core institutions. We’ve seen what happens when millions of Americans become convinced that their leaders are illegitimate. We’ve seen what happens when millions of Americans are manipulated into believing that Trump is suffering righteously for their sake; that an attack on him is an attack on them, on their character, on their identity, on their sense of sovereignty. And I fear we’re going to see it again.
It’s tempting to think of January 6, 2021, as but one day in our nation’s history. It’s comforting to view the events of that day— the president inciting a violent mob to storm the U.S. Capitol and attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election— as the result of unprecedented conditions that happened to converge all at once, conditions that are not our national norm.
But perhaps we should view January 6 as the beginning of a new chapter.
It’s worth remembering that Trump, who has long claimed to be a victim of political persecution, threatened to jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton, throughout the 2016 campaign, reveling in chants of “Lock her up!” at rallies nationwide. (Republicans did not cry foul when the FBI announced an investigation into Clinton just days before the election.) It was during that campaign— as I traveled the country talking with Republican voters, hoping to understand the Trump phenomenon— that I began hearing casual talk of civil war. Those conversations were utterly jarring. People spoke matter-of-factly about amassing arms. Many were preparing for a day when, in their view, violence would become unavoidable.
I remember talking with Lee Stauffacher, a 65-year-old Navy veteran, outside an October Trump rally in Arizona. “I’ve watched this country deteriorate from the law-and-order America I loved into a country where certain people are above the law,” Stauffacher said. “Hillary Clinton is above the law. Illegal immigrants are above the law. Judges have stopped enforcing the laws they don’t agree with.”
Stauffacher went on about his fondness of firearms and his loathing of the Democratic Party. “They want to turn this into some communist country,” he said. “I say, over my dead body.”
I’m going to bet that if the average American, reads at a 7th-8th grade level, Stauffacher, is significantly below average. Maybe he found a coloring book that persuaded him Clinton and Obama and Biden want to turn America red. It sure wasn’t Karl Marx. In a moment you’re going to meet Deborah Fuqua-Frey; she makes Stauffacher seem like a professor by comparison. Literacy tests were applied badly in the past; maybe we need to try them again and do it right this time.
As I hit the road again in 2020, crisscrossing the nation to get a read on the Republican base, it was apparent that something had changed. There was plenty of that same bombast, all the usual chesty talk of people taking matters into their own hands. But whereas once the rhetoric had felt scattered— rooted in grievances against the left, or opposition to specific laws, or just general discomfort with a country they no longer recognized— the new threats seemed narrow and targeted. Voter after voter told me there had been a plot to sabotage Trump’s presidency from the start, and now there was a secretive plot to stop him from winning a second term. Everyone in government— public-health officials, low-level bureaucrats, local election administrators— was in on it. The goal wasn’t to steal the election from Trump; it was to steal the election from them.
“They’ve been trying to cheat us from the beginning,” Deborah Fuqua-Frey told me outside a Ford plant in Michigan that Trump was visiting during the early days of the pandemic. “First it was Mueller, then it was Russia. Isn’t it kind of convenient that as soon as impeachment failed, we’ve suddenly got this virus?”
I asked her to elaborate.
“The deep state,” she said. “This was domestic political terrorism from the Democratic Party.”
This kind of thinking explains why countless individuals would go on to donate their hard-earned money—more than $250 million in total—to an “Election Defense Fund” that didn’t exist. It explains why others swarmed vote-counting centers, intimidated poll workers, signed on to shoddy legal efforts, flocked to fringe voices advocating solutions such as martyrdom and secession from the union, threatened to kill elections officials, boarded buses to Washington, and ultimately stormed the United States Capitol.
What made January 6 so predictable—the willingness of Republican leaders to prey on the insecurities and outright paranoia of these voters—is what makes August 8 so dangerous.
“The Obama FBI began spying on President Trump as a candidate,” Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee tweeted this morning. “If they can do this to Trump, they will do it to you!”
“If they can do it to a former President, imagine what they can do to you,” read a tweet from Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee. They followed up: “The IRS is coming for you. The DOJ is coming for you. The FBI is coming for you. No one is safe from political punishment in Joe Biden’s America.”
“If there was any doubt remaining, we are now living in a post constitutional America where the Justice Department has been weaponized against political threats to the regime, as it would in a banana republic,” the Texas Republican Party tweeted. “It won’t stop with Trump. You are next.”
It won’t stop with Trump— that much is certain. The House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, all but promised retaliation against the Justice Department should his party retake the majority this fall. Investigations of President Joe Biden and his son Hunter were already more or less guaranteed; the question now becomes how wide of a net congressional Republicans, in their eagerness to exact vengeance on behalf of Trump and appease a fuming base, cast in probing other people close to the president and his administration.
Assuming that Trump runs in 2024, the stakes are even higher. If Biden— or another Democrat— defeats him, Republicans will have all the more reason to reject the results, given what they see as the Democrats’ politically motivated investigation of the likely Republican nominee. If Trump wins, he and his hard-line loyalists will set about purging the DOJ, the intelligence community, and other vital government departments of careerists deemed insufficiently loyal. There will be no political cost to him for doing so; a Trump victory will be read as a mandate to prosecute his opponents. Indeed, that seems to be exactly where we’re headed.
“Biden is playing with fire by using a document dispute to get the @TheJusticeDept to persecute a likely future election opponent,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted. “Because one day what goes around is going to come around.”
And then what? It feels lowest-common-denominator lazy, in such uncertain times, to default to speculation of 1860s-style secession and civil war. But it’s clearly on the minds of Americans. Last year, a poll from the University of Virginia showed that a majority of Trump voters (52 percent) and a strong minority of Biden voters (41 percent) strongly or somewhat agreed that America is so fractured, they would favor red and blue states seceding from the union to form their own countries. Meanwhile, a poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland showed that one in three Americans believes violence against the government is justified, and a separate poll by NPR earlier this year showed that one in 10 Americans believes violence is justified “right now.”
It’s hard to see how any of this gets better. But it’s easy to see how it gets much, much worse.
We don’t know exactly what the FBI was looking for at Mar-a-Lago. We don’t know what was found. What we must acknowledge— even those of us who believe Trump has committed crimes, in some cases brazenly so, and deserves full prosecution under the law— is that bringing him to justice could have some awful consequences.
Is that justice worth the associated risks? Yesterday, the nation’s top law-enforcement officers decided it was. We can only hope they were correct.