Fears and hopes after Charlottesville

Two frightening historical questions faced our species at the beginning of the 21st Century. Would humanity accelerate its compulsive consumption to the point of environmental collapse, even extinction?  More provincially, would the United States graciously accept its relative decline in global power or would it prefer a cult of international and domestic violence?

Donald Trump’s Presidency has reduced the likelihood of a good answer to either question. It is hard to be sure about Donald Trump’s long-term aspirations, because he is such a disorienting blend of fool, knave, and madman. He turned his staggering ignorance and anti-intellectualism into a badge of twisted honor. His willingness to insult anyone and blatantly lie has made him a perpetual source of late-night comic jokes that resemble campfire horror stories more than political satire. His willingness to rip off contractors and to promote his tawdry family brand demonstrates that unbridled greed is a major motivator. Alas, there are worse things than greedy leaders like the Trumps (or the Clintons, for that matter). Crazy people and fanatics become so involved in their overwrought narratives that they become dangerously unstable and unpredictable, threats to themselves and others. Trump’s impulsive, erratic behavior is self-evident. During the campaign he wondered why the United States has nuclear weapons but doesn’t use them. Nuclear war could result from a moment of sleep deprivation, boredom, pique, or desire to improve poll ratings. At such a moment, Trump would join Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other mass murderers in the great, ever-expanding pantheon of evil. Of course, if you believe that the most important thing is getting attention, what else matters?

We have witnessed enough of his behavior to assume something close to the worst. While one can grimly hope that there is some decency and restraint in the White House, we should tentatively conclude that Trump seeks to destroy our republic and put himself in charge. If wrong, we can always apologize for overreacting. Perhaps someday the most fearful of us may seem something like those on the Alt-Right who claimed that President Obama was going to round up opponents and put them in FEMA camps. But there are a lot more facts supporting current fears, the most obvious of which is that Trump currently has vast Presidential power and Obama is a private citizen who maintained basic democratic traditions.

Here are a few more grisly, well-known facts. Trump said he could shoot someone in Times Square and his supporters would stand by him. He encouraged people to rough up opponents at rallies, even suggesting he would pay for legal expenses (Good luck on that!). He posted a doctored video of his knocking down a person with a CNN logo superimposed on that actor’s head. He admires such political criminals as Putin as well as recently triumphant authoritarians like Turkey’s Erdogan and The Philippines’s Duterte. All those cretins rose to power by using private and public violence to eliminate and intimidate opposition. In the Philippines, the police have murdered over 20,000 people for alleged illegal drug activity. Predictably, this mass murder included political opponents. Erdogan recently proposed that “traitors” be beheaded.

The desperate hope was that Trump merely had an autoerotic fantasy about violence, similar to the delights many of us get by watching a Terminator movie or a hard-played football game. In other words, a neurotic bully who just liked to talk tough. But his response to the horrific events at Charlottesville reinforces the dread that Trump seeks to destroy our democracy by using private violence to eradicate dissent. Hitler never could have risen to power or maintained power without his Nazi Party thugs. To seize and maintain power, authoritarians must kill dissenters and journalists, creating the ultimate “chilling effect” on free speech and free press. By equating Nazis and other racists with their opponents and equating street scuffling with murder, Trump once again sent a message to his most venal followers that he wants more domestic terror, not less. He should have said that we will often ferociously disagree, but we should never kill one another over political disputes. At that point, the criminal becomes a terrorist. The Justice Department should immediately bring terrorism charges against the killer. Given Trump’s track record on domestic political violence, his equivocation in the face of political murder, which must be the brightest of moral bright lines, should be interpreted as implied endorsement of future killings.

Yet there remain reasons for hope. This country has powerful democratic traditions and institutions. Not only most of the corporate media and Democrats, but also many Republicans said Trump violated basic moral standards. His poll numbers have resumed their downward spiral. Virginia indicted the white supremacy terrorist for killing Ms. Heather Heyer.

That last point about Virginia’s criminal charges is worth exploring a bit more. Despite their many flaws, the Framers of the Constitution created the framework for a political system that has proved remarkably resilient. Structurally, it allocates political power to many people. In other words, the Framers did not create a monopoly over public power, particularly public coercive power. States’ Rights, often a source of injustice, can be one of our best protections if Trump finds enough minions to run the federal government, immunizing all those “good people” who wear Nazi paraphernalia and shout anti-Semitic slogans. Trump may be able to pardon the cruel “Sheriff Joe” for flagrantly defying a federal court order, but Trump cannot prevent States from throwing Brownshirt wannabees in jail for violent crimes they commit. Thus, we must elect responsible state officials and hold them accountable if they fail to uphold the rule of law.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine congratulated a workman for scratching out the “T” on a “Trump” sticker on his car, leaving “rump” in its place. The young man replied that he was a supporter of Trump and needed to replace the sticker. One of us then expressed contempt for Trump. He replied, “Well, we all have a right to our own opinion.” That, folks, is the common ground that we cannot let this President destroy.

May the premeditated murder of Heather Heyer be the worst moment in this wave of domestic political terrorism, the instant when the vast majority of Americans saw they had so much to lose by bloodying their streets to curry favor with autocrats or fanatics of any political persuasion. May this moment resemble Kent State, a political massacre that led many people to retreat from escalating polarization. But whatever happens, my heart aches for Ms. Heyer’s family.