Living atop a powder keg

“The weather was indeed fine, but thinking men and women were aware that Europe lived on a powder keg, and had for years.” James Stokesbury wrote this about summer 1914, in the opening paragraphs of A Short History of World War I, which I have read over and over.

I think about this lately, as well as a few words about the eve of another even larger convulsion: commenting about their respective countries in The Wind Rises, Castorp speaks very plainly to Jiro: “Japan is going to blow up. Germany will also blow up.”

For all that I go on about this theme, it feels like one thing to perceive such a course and quite another to process it and adapt one’s thinking accordingly. I may be making some progress. It seems more immediately real that America is living on a powder keg, which we should expect to blow up.

It has been just about nine years since I wrote a jeremiad on the theme “head for the exits” at a now-defunct blog. I could see the trends of the bad decade already begun.

Again, though, seeing and processing things are different, especially something this big. The years since have brought flashes of hope, swings back to despair, and plenty of distractions. Looking back on the whole decade, spending more time ruminating on the big picture in 2020 than I have in years, and witnessing the extent of the sabotage revealed have all contributed to processing this, as have compelling corroborating writing by others such as Eric Sandy.

All of this was jarred into sharp focus, I suppose, by the big leap forward which Republicans are making in both corruption of the federal judiciary and a general approach suited more to war than politics. In politics, it really is unthinkable for so many prominent figures to commit themselves so explicitly to something i.e. “absolutely no Supreme Court appointments during a presidential election year no matter what” then simply betray that commitment without any rationalization whatsoever, only a few years later. But in war, where combatants are fighting to reduce an enemy to subjugation if not extermination, an act like this is simply an effective deception campaign, at least among co-belligerents who are the only ones given any real regard.

Considering that, and the massive mutually reinforcing structural problems throughout America, there is just not a credible scenario which doesn’t involve much more convulsion and damage.

The Republican Party does not and will not accept exercise of power by Democrats as legitimate. This has been the case for more than a decade, and only becomes more obvious. Republicans won’t accept exercise of power by Democrats: not unilaterally, not on a compromise basis, not slowly and incrementally, not at all. This means America is basically ungovernable, when combined with rigid formal structures and equally stubborn cultural systems which both treat broad “bipartisan” consensus as a prerequisite for doing anything.

This has been going on for more than 10 years and most institutions barely seem to have recognized it, let alone processed it and adapted.

This is not a stable situation, either. The sabotage by Republicans has become more routine and more consequential. Ten years ago they were entirely ready to choke an economic recovery and hold America’s credit rating hostage; shutdowns have become more and more frequent; in recent years they have ram-raided the federal treasury, attacked everything from the USPS to infectious-disease management, and are now backing a president who openly encourages white supremacy and violent insurrection.

I absolutely regard the 2020 election as significant, for the reason that it can prevent extensive atrocities. That matters.

But it doesn’t seem likely that any remotely realistic outcome of the 2020 election can prevent major turmoil and convulsions. If Joe Biden wins, Trump has already indicated clearly that he will seek to retain power by any means he can. If Biden gets sworn in, Republicans will use all of the power they have to sabotage his administration; even if a Biden administration learns from all of the errors of Obama’s presidency, doing anything meaningful about Republican sabotage will be next to impossible.

Legislation will be dead on arrival. Every executive action will be sued from a dozen directions, in a federal court system packed with pure partisan operatives. Even without a corrupted judiciary making things up, the genuine restrictions within the Constitution will protect things like the extreme malapportionment of the Senate, and make amendments to the Constitution effectively impossible. Media narratives and other “conceptual infrastructure” show no sign of adapting to any of this.

I don’t know exactly what will happen, let alone when. I only know that in any and every realistic scenario I can imagine, America will blow up.

If Trump loses badly he will still try, with extensive support from Republicans, to reject the transfer of power to Democrats. In a “business as usual” Biden presidency, Republican sabotage will continue until something blows up. The Affordable Care Act is a likely possibility; Republicans look like they will at last be able to dynamite it soon without anyone accountable to voters having to take responsibility for “a tough vote,” but as ever they have no alternative whatsoever to offer. They could blast this unresolved contradiction and set off a sociopolitical earthquake.

But it isn’t as though Democrats seem to have any plan, there, either. I genuinely believe that conservative Senate Democrats would sooner enact some approximation of Medicare for All via budget reconciliation, than end filibustering, let alone change the size of the Supreme Court (even though Republicans changed the size of the court twice within the past five years). Which, okay, would provide some approximation of Medicare for All as well as historic irony. But, a Supreme Court which reverses a several-years-old judgment on the Constitutionality of signature legislation entirely as the obvious consequence of partisan power-grabs—then gets away with it with no penalty—is going to be emboldened to even more abuses of power. Result, America will blow up at some point.

At best, I can imagine that things really fly apart for Republicans in and after this election on a scale which their activities seem to indicate they treat as possible. I really doubt it; Republicans bounced back promptly after Nixon and GW Bush after all. But maybe there’s outrageously scandalous information even by the absurd standard of 2020, extending beyond the Trump administration to Senators and even the judiciary, and maybe if they lose the ability to suppress everything it could tumble out. At least if Democrats take power and use it to investigate and prosecute; I genuinely can imagine that Trump would spill every dirty secret he’s got if he faced a choice between that and spending even a day behind bars.

I don’t think anything like this is remotely likely, but I mention it because it’s a remote frontier of what’s even conceivable, and still involves an unprecedented convulsion in which any near-term hope of restoring functional “normalcy” is blown up.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s at least as possible that Republican abuses of power and outright rulebreaking somehow keep Trump in power; that scenario leads quickly to atrocities, plus who knows what else. American culture is by habit so authoritarian that Republicans can sustain a fundamental separation between popular will and power, for quite a while I’m sure. But the Republican Party’s own culture is so driven by revanchist contempt and pandering to the extremes, that I don’t think it would stop until eventually provoking some backlash it couldn’t contain. Result, America blows up.

As always, I wish I could be wrong, but I’m certain that America has been living on a powder keg for years, and that the arsonist Republican Party is going to keep waving burning brands around.

It seems pretty likely that the only possible conclusion to this must be that America blows up.

(What should one do about this? Well, hm…)

2 Thoughts on “Living atop a powder keg

  1. I’ve been noodling a response to this for a few days now and haven’t come up with anything really satisfactory. I’ll attempt something anyway…

    First, and most superficially, I find it interesting that you and I have come to pretty much the same conclusion largely independently. I think most of my arguments (certainly where I put the most detail) for America blowing up have been on Facebook, so I doubt you’ve seen much of my thought process. It’s been something I’ve been trying to warn people about for at least a few years now, but it’s only been the past few months where people didn’t universally dismiss the idea out of hand.

    A lot of my concerns from the past few years, broadly speaking, have borne out. And I’m just coming at this as an armchair economist with a passing familiarity with politics. Let me tell you, “I told you so” is zero comfort here. I can’t imagine the frustration someone like Sarah Kendzior — who’s been screaming this from the rooftops since 2016 based on her extensive study of precisely this type of thing — has been feeling. And even more maddening is how many people still refuse to consider how dire things really are. “Oh, Robert Muller’s report will show everything and then things will be fine.” “Oh, Pelosi has started impeachment proceedings; things will be fine now.” “Oh, Trump’s niece’s book will expose everything; and then we’ll be fine.”

    But, of course, your last question is perhaps the most pertinent one at this point, given that we’ve got too much momentum to keep from flying off the cliff even if we slam on the brakes now. I don’t have a good answer. (Although, I suppose it’s easily arguable that there are no good answers.) Originally, I’d kind of hoped we could fall back on my wife’s heritage to obtain Jamaican citizenship, but that hasn’t happened for a variety of reasons. So for the past few years, I’ve focused more on just fortifying our home. (More stockpiling supplies and having redundancies, and less digging moats and breeding pet alligators.) Is that the right approach? Will it be enough? I have no idea, but I haven’t been able to think of anything else.

    • Yeah people are getting to similar conclusions without any coordination. I don’t see your opinions on Facebook. I have had negligible interaction with Eric Sandy, ever. Etc.

      I think that for the individual it really does come down to something like hurricane preparedness: either flee the storm, or prepare to shelter in place. In this case, there’s also perhaps a compromise or two: staying within the US, one could look for state/local governments likely to be resilient, then move there and combine that with personal resilience measures.

      Various people write also about trying to fortify yourself, mentally, which I think is a valid concept… but it’s a challenging concept, and I think the people most in need of a conscious effort, there, are also the ones least likely to be persuaded in time of the need. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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