Charlatans, delay, and normalization

On this day five years ago, Donald Trump wailed “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” Obviously it did not work out that way.

I have remarked already that America basically normalized the Trump presidency. I think a lot lately about how “hypernormalization” is a defining feature of the culture, at this point; I don’t know how one can process contemporary America and not lose one’s mind, without understanding that “crisis” or “breaking point” aren’t really meaningful concepts.

In retrospect, the “Refuse Fascism” people were probably correct with their “Can’t Wait” for elections warning, if for the wrong reason. The big problem wasn’t what Trump would do in two more years or in three more months or in five minutes. The big problem was that the “wait patiently for the next scheduled election” approach meant that any and everything Trump did was thereby made part of “normal politics.” Imagine, again, if Ukraine had done that in response to a Putin crime capo being head of state. Fortunately, Ukraine didn’t. Unfortunately, we did.

Even more unfortunately, Americans were giving charlatans power over us well before Trump came along. Choosing a point when that began is an arbitrary selection, to some extent; some mild element of fraud at minimum is probably always present in political power.

I would assert, though, that at least into the 1970s, the surrender of power to charlatans was by no means terminal in America. Nixon was a horrible person, and America’s big votes for him are embarrassing, yet national government in the 1970s looks very genuinely and meaningfully responsive to popular concerns compared with today. Landmark environmental legislation. Ending the long, all-too-bipartisan Vietnam war. Even some kind of national health insurance was on offer. Plus, of course, when Nixon transgressed, ultimately he got caught, exposed, and had to go away. Not at the end of his term, not after exhaustive snails-pace law-enforcement processes played out.

That was a bad America in all kinds of ways, I want to make clear. I’m just not sure that surrender of power to charlatans was yet so extensive as to achieve irreversible capture by the bamboozle.

That process is arguably still intensifying, but the year-2000 decision that democratic accountability to majority opinion is actually meaningless, and that elite games of dubious rules and rigged maps determine the head of state, represented an excessive surrender of power to charlatans, I think. Once you cross that line, I think you’re definitely into “can’t correct our error because it’s too painful to admit it” territory.

In between, the culture was drifting toward that territory anyway, and I don’t know that any obvious opportunity existed to steer away. I think a big problem is that, to an extent that a more legitimately responsive political system existed around the time I was born, hardly anyone understood how it actually functioned; there was already a big problem of attribution. One might add that by the late 1980s, scandals having consequence had been replaced by the “Teflon” president, Bill Barr, and accountability to rules being merely a game at which one could cheat and still be the winner “fair and square.”

It was almost certainly years too late by 2009, precisely because a seismic popular vote for CHANGE produced no corresponding reaction among elites, whose subsequent priority was instead to close ranks and restore regular order; it hardly matters whether or not Democrats might have changed the course of history in 2009 if they did dramatically different things, because that wasn’t even the subject of serious debate. When debate is instead about how to make policy acceptable enough to status quo interests to unite 60% of legislators, because the privileges of 40% plus one are more important than accountability to the common good, charlatans already hold too much power. That transfer of power won’t be reversed within the system in place.

“Don’t look away,” some say, but that assumes people are looking or even have their eyes open in the first place.

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