I’m not in the habit of quoting John Birchers, but I’ll make an exception today. 1964 the right-wing extremist author John Stormer published a book Nobody dares to call it treasonand explained how and why he believed a major communist conspiracy had infiltrated every level of the US government.
The book was rubbish, a stew of lies, misinformation, and misinterpretation of facts, but the title was catchy; and when I saw the first 2020 presidential debate on Tuesday evening, it kept popping up in my mind.
I put fear quotes around the word “debate” just like I put fear quotes around the word “president” when I think of Trump. For an actual debate, this means an interplay of ideas, an intellectual back and forth, the willingness and ability to develop logical lines of argument and calmly refute the ideas put forward by the opponent with reference to facts. By definition, it includes more than one participant, as well as a set of basic rules that affect combatant interaction. These are the basic standards of debate that a child of 8 or 9 years old should be taught by their debate coach. I should know – my son is a debater in high school; Before that, he was a land and middle debt advisor.
But none of this was available Tuesday evening. Or rather, Biden showed up with his debater’s things, but Trump predictably showed up with a megaphone, a desperately swollen ego, and a slash and burn strategy that not only limited the ability to debate but also did great damage to the integrity of the political process in America. Faced with Trump’s vitriol storm and repeated interruptions, presenter Chris Wallace was spectacularly unable to bring order to the stage. It was a colossal journalistic failure on his part that enabled Trump to dominate demagoguery and buffers, a kind of verbal version of mixed martial arts or world wrestling entertainment, with his noise in a way that has never been seen before by a US President was seen.
Trump lied almost every time he opened his mouth. He lied about his Covid response; he lied about his health plans (if any); he lied about Biden’s health plan; he lied about his environmental record; he lied about Biden’s environmental record; he lied about his economic record; and he lied about Obama’s economic record; It wasn’t just that he mixed up his facts from time to time; after all, that can happen even to the best-prepared debater. It was that he had decided that facts were impractical and that he would therefore discard them for a fictional counter-narrative that better suited his needs.
But it went way beyond lying. Again and again he tried to sow doubts about the electoral process, about the basic democratic principle of the settlement of political battles at the ballot box; and in the last terrifying minutes, he made it clear that he was ready to send vigilantes to polling stations and lawyers to improve every aspect of the vote and secure his power.
In a country on the edge and polarized like America today, with more guns than people, this was the height of irresponsibility. For that reason alone, this “debate” would have qualified as the most belittled example of its kind in American history. But things didn’t stop there. Where Trump really ended up was halfway in some kind of fascist house, a strong man who wasn’t quite sure enough to completely abolish the electoral process but sure enough in his gall to wink and nod to white nationalists and neo-Nazis street fighters, and to greet a group by name, the Proud Boys, who tell them: “step back and stand by. ”
That will surely be considered one of the most notorious lines in American politics – the moment Trump made the world aware that he was ready to activate his version of the Nazi SA paramilitary forces.
You reap what you sow. When Mitch McConnell’s Republicans acquitted a man they knew was guilty of a number of crimes and crimes against the Constitution in his Senate trial earlier this year, they imprimatured Trump’s dictatorial impulses. He is now running on these impulses and breaking down the democratic pillars of the country as he rages. When the history books are written about this shameful period, those who made possible Trump’s attack on democracy will be condemned as collaborators.
Trump, according to the technical definition of the word, must not be guilty of treason. But I know what Trump is unleashing in his increasingly desperate quest to retain power, and what the GOP Congress leadership will accept if they continue their fist-trade with him (“They give us conservative judiciary nominations, and we do will turn a blind eye to all of your sins ”) is something very, very dark. Something that could do unfathomable damage to US institutions and the lives of Americans. Something that could make peaceful politics, politics bound by rules, norms and boundaries, a curious legacy of a quieter past. Because when the “President” of the United States uses his time in front of tens of millions of viewers to flirt with street gangs, destroy public confidence in elections and refuse to agree to guarantees for the peaceful transfer of power, he is urging a narrative about civil conflicts. And that is something that every person with a clear conscience, regardless of their ideological affiliation, should withdraw in horror.
Trump repeatedly said Tuesday night that he represents “law and order,” but from the beginning of what CNN’s Dana Bash referred to as a “shit show” to its conclusion, his own words on stage contradicted it. He is now openly flirting with violence to prevent a full and fair vote count and release fascist thugs to deal with his political enemies. This is gangsterism – and this is the signal: The “President” of the United States is essentially leaving the American constitutional system of government. And yet, from the ranks of the GOP in Congress, we still hear the clapping of the rented claque or, equally significant, the silence of a cowardly and intimidated crowd.