Holding our breath

As soon as we got a mostly complete outline of the Jan. 6 Republican putsch, that same day I wrote down several “things which ought to happen now,” followed by a question “how many will?” Right now, the answer looks to be “some,” but on the whole I would say that confronting the reality is coming in last as an option. Half-measures, buck-passing, quiet conversations, muddling ahead and “holding our breath” are collectively prevailing. Shelt Garner’s model of “an autocracy without an autocrat” seems more apt than ever, as Trump—having proved there’s really nothing in place to stop an organized autocrat from succeeding in America—appears to be deflating anticlimactically because he’s a vain undisciplined grifter.

I agree entirely with all the warnings that this is far from over, but as of this writing we’re in a strange interim place, again. So, some fragmentary thoughts for a fragmentary moment.

Televis-ocracy. COVID-19 has killed so many people, and had apparently trivial impact on American political power; the harm inflicted during the Jan. 6 putsch was relatively very minor but its political impact is, if not yet transformative, certainly larger. One can draw various conclusions, from this, but I think the importance of simple visuals on television is critical. Many have already observed that COVID is still not “real” for lots of people, in the absence of direct experience or visuals of what’s happening in hospitals. The putsch offers a striking contrast, and I think that’s a big part of why we’ve seen even the limited political movement so far.

Corporate America frowns upon the putsch. After days of headlines about corporate America’s alleged pulling of dollars away from Republicans’ “coup caucus,” it occurred to me today that this might be best understood as a PR play and a message to Republicans that the paymasters want clean, professional oligarchy.

For all that the Republican Party acts like an out of control raving monster, it’s clear that corporate capital can reliably call the shots any time it likes. Mostly it doesn’t, because hey, its wealth and power goes up up up. But it could be that some of the .1% have grown concerned that corrupt oligarchy is one thing but America is veering toward costly disorder.

The many statements about suspending donations to various Republicans tarred by Trump’s coup efforts are, taken literally, pretty flimsy although they created plenty of viral headlines. It’s possible that they are also a warning shot to Republicans: “Clean this shit up, get back to sabotaging democratic governance by respectable means, you have your orders and are dismissed.”

Power mapping. The influence of simple TV narratives or visuals, and of corporate capital, are two examples of how it seems like our culture is so out of alignment with where power actually is and how it works. Within electoral politics, we pour resources into peer-to-peer campaigning when this often seems of so little consequence. In the larger picture, all electoral politics seems to distract from how much power follows from economic activity. I will probably return to this, but so much organizing tells people to knock doors, make phone calls, and don’t give a thought to how the money you’re giving to Amazon works powerfully against all your outreach to voters and elected officials.

Accountability and partisan politics. Many Republicans’ execrable garbage about “unity and healing” aside, it’s odd how partisanship leads in different ways to a preference for accountability that someone else enforces. It’s good that the House voted to impeach Trump for inciting insurrection, but the still-Republican-controlled Senate has basically gone to ground, trying not to go on record in any way. For the various members of Congress who encouraged or conspired in the Jan. 6 putsch, it seems unlikely that Democrats will expel any of them from either chamber, even though both will be just-barely “blue” next week. Dem leadership seems much more supportive of the judicial system investigating and imposing penalties, instead.

Meanwhile voters are not at all reliable enforcers of ethical conduct, even when a given standard is widely shared. Partisan polarization plays some role, I think; Ohio Republicans won’t empower Democrats despite corruption scandal after corruption scandal in Republican state government, and to be fair New Jersey Dems wouldn’t give Republicans another Senate vote even though Bob Menendez seems corrupt af. Voters also don’t seem great at policing ethics even when partisan power is not at issue, to be honest; perhaps it’s only in rare situations when everything balances right that it can seem like scandals are frequently punished by voters.

Ultimately, all of this points more and more to the necessity and importance of professionalized institutions. Unfortunately, in addition to raising questions about the purpose of this democracy we’re so concerned to preserve, it is not clear how to keep malign political influence out of institutions.

All in all I feel like America’s institutions have “held up” well, through the Trump administration, in that it has proved difficult to corrupt them fast. But they are not up to the task of fixing the larger problems, nor are they going to be reformed any more readily than they have been corrupted, if at all.

Oh well. America has now gone through, at the very least, a political mini-9/11, and it has rattled the establishment but not much more than that. More things will come out of investigation, but I cannot assume that any of them will be more disruptive than Trumpists committing an armed insurrection and attempted coup inside the US Capitol. It’s entirely possible that this will lead to nothing more than shallow, temporary changes to the big picture.

Trump’s approval rating nosedives as he leaves, but so what; I’m old enough to remember perfectly well how much the electorate turned against GW Bush, then within two years voted Republican again in a “wave election.” Last time, of course, Democrats had more to lose; it’s both sad and hilarious that Democrats seem to have and just might realize more ambition with just 50+1 Senate votes to play with than they did with 60. But deep reforms are basically dead on arrival.

This deeply pessimistic assessment from Chris Hayes seems very accurate right now.

* I like the suggestion of calling it the “Day of Pigs Fiasco.”

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