A year ago, when Donald Trump won election to the U.S. presidency, most North Americans were appalled. But as bad as the prospects were, we consoled ourselves that he was a reactionary blowhard who couldn’t run the country the way he threatened to.
After all, the U.S. is famous for its system of checks and balances, in which the institutions of government prevent one another from going too far. And while Trump was instantly embarrassing, his fecklessness over the following months was oddly reassuring. Even with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, he couldn’t gut Obamacare or get his tax plan accepted.
Stupidly, we bought his “America First” idea: Trump, we thought, was dedicated to American supremacy but just had the wrong idea about how to sustain it. We would stagger through, preserved by checks and balances and the hope that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would dig up enough dirt on Trump to force his impeachment. Mueller might even drive Vice-President Mike Pence out of office as well.
It is now becoming clear, however, that checks and balances are failing, along with a host of institutions that have ensured a reasonably stable, more or less democratic U.S. for generations. It is also clear that the system has been under attack for decades; Trump is simply the culmination.
‘A decapitation of leadership’
This disturbing thought occurred to me the other day when I read an editorial by the head of the American Foreign Service Association, Ambassador Barbara Stephenson. Writing in the Foreign Service Journal, Stephenson said:
“There is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed, due in part to the decision to slash promotion numbers by more than half. The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60 per cent of its career ambassadors since January. Ranks of career ministers, our three-star equivalents, are down from 33 to 19. The ranks of our two-star minister counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today — and are still falling.
“These numbers are hard to square with the stated agenda of making State and the Foreign Service stronger. Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry. Like the military, the Foreign Service recruits officers at entry level and grows them into seasoned leaders over decades. The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight. The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.”
But it’s not only the State Department. The Environmental Protection Agency is being swiftly dismantled in what EPA employees call a “hostile takeover.”
Given the American right’s longtime hostility toward climate change and environmental regulation, that should be no surprise. But I suspect there’s more to it than making life easy for the Koch brothers.
How to induce mass amnesia
When major government departments and agencies can no longer do their job, people rapidly forget them. As Jane Jacobs warned us in her book Dark Age Ahead, “During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness.” People don’t remember that they once demanded, and got, services and protections just for being citizen-proprietors of a functioning democracy.
The courts have been the usual venue for seeking redress of grievances, but between tweets Trump has been stacking them with young, conservative judges who will have long careers on the bench.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, voting on straight party lines, recently confirmed a 36-year-old lawyer, three years out of law school, to a lifetime position in an Alabama federal court district. He has never tried a case; the American Bar Association declared him completely unqualified.
Vote the scoundrels out in 2018 and 2020? Unlikely, given years of right-wing complaints about “election fraud” — and laws encouraging the suppression of all but right-wing voters. As well, gerrymandering of districts will continue wherever Republicans control state legislatures.
No government and no newspapers
Thomas Jefferson famously said that offered government but no newspapers or newspapers but no government, he’d take the second choice. Now the Americans face the prospect of no government (apart from the military and some police agencies) and no newspapers either. Trump and his supporters decry professional journalism as “fake news,” putting their own lies on an equal footing.
News organizations that have succeeded based on their accuracy are now automatically dismissed. A recent Washington Post story quotes a conservative in Alabama defending Senate candidate Roy Moore against charges of molesting a 14-year-old: “Y’all chose the month before to bring a hit piece thinking you could influence how Alabamians vote. And that’s what makes Alabamians mad. Don’t come down here and tell us how to vote.”
Meanwhile international trade systems built up over decades are being shut down and former American trade partners (including Canada) are scrambling to patch together new agreements. Trump might put America First, but the rest of us will put it last on the list of reliable partners.
If I were pitching this scenario as a dystopian novel to an editor, I would expect her to respond: “It doesn’t make sense. What’s their motivation? Why would a bunch of rich, successful Americans do this to their own country?”
Picking their own country’s bones
I would answer that in a hostile takeover, the takeover artists know they won’t get hurt; they’ll get even richer. And they’ll be using other people’s money, people too big to fail and certainly too big to jail. Just as Putin and his oligarchs plundered the wealth of the old Soviet Union, billionaire American vultures will be happy to pick their own country’s bones. If a weak America makes Russia and China happy, and gives them a freer hand, who cares? The takeover artists can make still more deals with them.
These guys didn’t really operate in secret, but for decades no one took them seriously. How could they threaten the world’s oldest and most stable democracy? They were reactionary billionaires, racist hicks, Bible-pounders, living fossils, pimples on the ass of progress.
Some pimples. The country that nurtured its citizens’ success during a 70-year summer of world dominance had been cradling serpents at its breast. Many were white southerners who still hated blacks and anyone else not like them. Others were rich whites who thought their wealth was entirely due to themselves, not to the society and economy created by ordinary people. Some were rank opportunists, the social equivalent of cancer cells that want only to grow and grow and never mind tomorrow.
All had been working for decades to undermine Americans’ trust in democratic government, in the courts, in the media, and in one another. Trump is the culmination of their efforts.
It can’t happen here?
Canada has often enjoyed feeling superior to its rich, noisy, exciting neighbours. But we are almost like conjoined twins: we have families in the U.S. as well as trade ties. Many of us define success as making it in the States. If anyone did want to do a Trump-style hostile takeover of Canada, they’d find plenty of eager helpers.
We may certainly hope that Robert Mueller will save his country, and that an American Restoration will follow. In the process he could also stall the subversion of Canada. But even a post-Trump America will have close to a hundred million unrepentant Trumpists to deal with before it can rebuild its ties with the rest of the world.
In the meantime, we’re going to have to strengthen our own institutions — our Parliament, our government agencies, our courts, our media and our schools. If the world’s greatest superpower can be decapitated by its own people in less than two years, our own beheading could be accomplished in months.