Is American democracy coming to an end?
Perhaps I should not admit as much, but I find myself seriously contemplating the question.
What do you think?
We now have a presidential administration that equates disagreement over policy with betrayal. (See: the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after her refusal to defend President Trump’s ban on immigrants from majority-Muslim nations. “Using the word ‘betrayed’ for somebody is frightening,” observed Joe Scarborough, the Republican host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “It’s what an autocrat would use.”)
The same administration also seems to think that the facts are whatever it decides they are. (See: Trump’s claims about having the largest number of attendees at his inauguration. Also see: his repeated assertions that millions of noncitizens voted illegally for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election; and so on.)
It’s easy for many Americans to convince themselves that Trump’s brazen disrespect for dissent and his cavalier relationship with the truth are unique. But sadly, they have direct precedents. In 2001, George W. Bush declared, “You’re either with us or against us,” casting a chill on dissent over the Republican administration’s approach in the so-called war on terrorism.
Only a few years later, Bush senior adviser and White House deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, expressed disdain for what he termed “the reality-based community” of people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”
“That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he told Ron Suskind of The New York Times in 2004. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities.”
Last November, Scottie Nell Hughes, a CNN pundit and Trump campaign surrogate, went even further. In an interview on The Diane Rehm Show, Hughes asserted: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts. … And so Mr. Trump’s tweet[s], amongst a certain crowd — a large part of the population — are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, … people believe they have facts to back that up.”
In his 2006 book Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, the cultural critic and historian Morris Berman observed that “atrophy of education and critical thinking” are one of the characteristics of a disintegrating empire.
“We were already in our twilight phase [in the early 1980s] when Ronald Reagan, with all the insight of an ostrich, declared it to be ‘morning in America,’” Berman wrote. “[W]hat we are now seeing are the obvious characteristics of the West after the fall of Rome: the triumph of religion over reason; the atrophy of education and critical thinking; the integration of religion, the state, and the apparatus of torture…; and the political and economic marginalization of our culture.”
Last month, more than a decade after Dark Ages America was first published, Berman wrote on his blog that “with Trump: well, this is really our last gasp. … Sitting now in the Oval Office is a cartoon character: a man who has no political experience or qualifications to be president … and who is, nevertheless, the logical culmination of 400 years of hustling — what America is finally and nakedly all about.”
He added: “As the comedian George Carlin used to say, our leaders are representative; they don’t just descend from Mars. … The US will end, not with a bang or a whimper, but on a bad joke.”
Berman often likes to ask those who bristle at his pessimism about the future of the United States, “Where are the levers of power?” (He says there aren’t any. “For God’s sakes, don’t point to the Democratic Party,” he once told an audience. “They’re a joke. They’re intellectually bankrupt and politically impotent.”)
Dear readers, email me your thoughts at cjoseph [AT] sfweekly.com. Where are the levers of power that could set the U.S. on a different path?
“Notes From the Intersection” is a column by SF Weekly’s editor, who lives at the intersection of Black gay man, student of history, eternal optimist, and many other identities.