Sunday, March 19, 2017

Yale Professor Warns That Time is Running Out on American Democracy Itself

Let me preface this blog entry by stating outright that I was one of those people guilty of not taking Donald Trump seriously. Frankly, I still do not take him seriously, at least not what he says. Unfortunately, though, we all have to take his role as president seriously.

It just all seems surreal, doesn't it? I mean, this guy was a joke for a long time! In the 1980's, he reminded me of the Grinch, and the fictional character that seemed to most resemble him was Gordon Gekko, who was no hero. Then, in time, he got his own reality television show.

Fine. Whatever. I was not a fan, but was surprised to see that quite a few people were, given that he seemed like such a scumbag, quite frankly. He disgraced himself further in the wrestling ring, pretending to get pounded by men who, if they really had wanted to, could have killed Trump with their bare hands.

Also, there were some war of words, particularly with Rosie O'Donnell. Not being one who generally cares about celebrities, or the drama between them when they feud, I took it with a grain of salt, but noticed that Trump seemed to particularly lack class in his attacks.

But then, suddenly, he was addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (better known as CPAC) in around 2011 or 2012. Also, he was the main guy behind the whole "birther" controversy, calling into question the legality and legitimacy of Barack Obama even being president. Finally, Trump ran for the White House then, too, although his campaign did not make a big splash at that time, and he lost. This was pretty much as most people figured it would be, myself included.

Then I heard he was running again for the White House during this past election. Initially, my thought was that he simply did not take a hint. Instead, he took the lead.

Still, not to worry, because there were 17 candidates on the GOP side, and even though some were worse by my estimation (Scott Walker or Ted Cruz, anyone?), surely one of the other guys would win, and bring some normalcy back to the Republican Party.

Only, it did not happen, and Trump continued to lead. He had briefly generated some notice back in 2011 and 2012, but it had all come to nothing, so it seemed likely that the same thing would happen this time around, as well. After all, Trump might be a lot of things, but a politician was not one of those things.

Somehow, though, time kept on passing, and Trump kept on leading. The reality that he might be the nominee still eluded me, personally. My esteem of the Democrats has taken a serious hit over the course of the years and decades, but truth be told, I never thought much of the Republicans. Still, though, they surely had not stooped so low that they would actually nominate a clown like Trump, right?

Well, actually, they did. He survived all of those challenges, and brushed aside all of the big and more established names that in more normal years likely would have made short work of him. But 2016 was a year unlike any other, and one by one, they all dropped out. Suddenly, hard as it was to believe, Trump was on his way. He survived Cruz without too much damage, and just like that, he was the Republican nominee.

Even then, though, Republicans had mixed reactions towards him. Congressional leaders seemed to want to keep him at arm's length, while other prominent Republicans, like Jeb Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, seemed to be actively suspicious of him, and warned prospective voters that he was a con artist. Ted Cruz even remained critical of Trump after the race between them was over, refusing to outright endorse Trump during his big speech at the Republican National Convention.

At that point, it seemed like the wheels were coming apart on Trump's campaign, and that he was every bit as hopelessly unhinged as many were suggesting. But Hillary Clinton was a poor candidate in her own right, and despite holding the lead through much, if not most, of the general election, she nonetheless could not seem to get a strong enough lead where it seemed in the bag.

Still, Trump's buffoonery just seemed too much. I was not exactly excited by the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency, but figured Trump's clown act essentially and inevitably would lead to Clinton gaining the distinction of being the first woman president.

Yet, I have to admit that it was alarming to see just how many pro-Trump bumper stickers and campaign posters were out there. It seemed like for every one Hillary Clinton poster and/or bumper sticker I saw, there were ten - at least ten! - Trump posters or bumper stickers. Still, northwestern and central New Jersey were not the entire country, and many of Trump supporters, like the man that they loved so much, had big mouths. So, the presence of many more posters surely was not indicative of how people would vote, right?

But they had the effect of normalizing Trump, of showing that he was accepted in local communities. Add to that other processes in which Trump was normalized, such as his ridiculous appearance on the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, and it seemed to not bode well.

Then, in the last couple of weeks of the general election, it seemed like all of Hillary Clinton's momentum just stopped dead in it's tracks. Perhaps it was the James Comey announcement that the investigations to her email controversy were still active. Or perhaps it was the alleged Russian hacking, which still feels like an overblown story to me.

Mostly, it seems to me that Hillary Clinton's mediocrity just caught up with her, and when the circus that was Trump's campaign calmed down a little bit, and the man was normalized, then suddenly, he seemed to own all of the momentum heading into Election Day.

It was not shocking to see him win, although it felt to me like a punch in the gut. Had the country lowered it's standards to this extent, that we could actually vote in a complete incompetent, a con artist and a transparent phony like this?


Suddenly, the clown and his campaign were no longer laughing matters. Suddenly, he seemed like a dangerous threat - surely the most serious threat to American democracy that this nation has ever seen.

How bad was he? People were comparing him to Hitler, and even though such comparisons were ridiculous and trivialized the extent of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, the fascist and racist leanings of Team Trump were indeed starting to grow seriously worrisome.

Sometimes, I think about the fact that over 60 million Americans saw this man as fit to lead the country, to be the name and face and voice of the country for at least the next four years, and it is as depressing as it is horrifying. It sometimes feels like we are living in different universes, where certain things that seem obvious to me - such as climate change being real, the American healthcare system failing it's people and the need for a universal, single-payer healthcare system that will not leave anyone behind, and the obviousness of Trump being a phony and a shallow narcissist - just are not accepted by a good number of people. Indeed, it has been shocking and alarming not only that the guy has supporters, but in how enthusiastic those supporters are! The fact of the matter is that I have quite a few friends who unpleasantly surprised me by their support of this man, and it admittedly has become difficult for me to take their viewpoints seriously, when they cannot see through a man who always seemed to represent the very worst and most extreme traits of Americans.

As alarming as all of this has been, perhaps more worrisome is the militancy of his supporters. I overheard conversations where Trump supporters sounded downright threatening in their intolerance of opponents of Trump, particularly "the protesters" as they were derisively called. At these times, you can definitely see the fascistic, authoritarian leanings of the pro-Trump crowd.

But the shock value has been lost since November, and President Trump is a reality. Yes, it is every bit as ridiculous and seemingly unhinged as the campaign often seemed, and as the man himself often seemed well before all of this. Yet, let us not forget that he won the election, and that he is not a man to be underestimated. After all, he is the president, and now, his jingoistic and xenophobic viewpoints are indeed a serious threat to democracy.

This is apparently so much the case, that no less of an authority than a history professor at Yale, Timothy Snyder, is warning of the urgency of the situation, and claiming that we have, at most, a year before our democracy is eroded to the point that it no longer exists.

This is where we have to get that sense of shock back, where we maybe have to take these warnings seriously. Indeed, I was guilty of always viewing Trump as a conman and a clown, but he also is the president now, like it or not. And we have to take him seriously.

Snyder is warning us that we are running out of time, that winning the election did not humble Trump, or force him to grow up or compromise. Any hopes that his ridiculous fixation on Tweets would be pushed aside by the awesome weight of ruling the leading superpower of the world is obviously proven false by now. Trump is the same as he has always been, except now, the office that he holds truly does demand that we pay attention and take the man seriously.

Trump always has had a "style" that many people described as provocative. He is an unapologetic hoarder of wealth and excess, having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and inherited a fortune as the foundation with which to build his empire. Many have speculated that this empire of Trump's was built on the misery of those unfortunate enough to have to work to try and build it, so that this narcissist's name could be up in glittering and lit letters, dominating the skylines of our modern cities. Many, in fact, suggest that this man was nothing more than a swindler, than a con artist, and that almost everything that he did and created was one big scam, an elaborate get rich quick scheme. Perhaps the most infamous of these was his encouragement for business-minded folk to sign up and attend his "Trump University." People paid a lot of money - in the tens of thousands - for what has since been described as the ultimate scam.

That is why so many people, including members of his own political party, were so worried and, yes, outspoken, that his entire political approach would be essentially the same thing. After all, Trump has never shown a capacity to be or to do otherwise.

Yale history professor Timothy Snyder actually worries that Trump will bring a lot more than the equivalent of some elaborate get rich quick scheme into the White House. He worries that Trump may very well bring fascism to America's doorstep:

"Trump’s policy is a provocation, which is probably meant to provoke an event like the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst Eduard vom Rath on November 7 1938."

Indeed, Trump's whole style can likely be seen as provocation towards his enemy. And it was one thing when this kind of approach was used in business. It was bad enough there, but it could be argued that this is the way in which businesses are run. The whole idea today of how American businesses, and how our present incarnation of the capitalist system (or what passes fort he capitalist system these days) works is one guy basically getting over on the other, pulling the wool over him, and walking away with the better deal. Trump obviously believes in this approach, and he apparently believes, as many here in the United States believe, that the country as a whole not only could, but should be run in much the same manner.

It has not yet been fully two months since Trump gave his much criticized inaugural speech, where he relentlessly reiterated his message that from this day forward, it will be only America first. Yet, already, many of his campaign promises have fallen by the wayside. Mexico will not pay for the wall, Americans will through their taxes. In fact, if Trump would get his way, American consumers would pay twice over, as his proposed tariff on imported Mexican goods would essentially make American consumers of Mexican goods foot the bill, paying for his wall twice over. To many, this sounds like the political equivalent of his business schemes, sounds like he is schooling us at his "university" about the art of the deal, as he sees it. Ditto with the healthcare bill, which as a candidate, he promised would cover all Americans. Now, as president, he is championing a bill that is projected to have 14 million Americans lose their healthcare coverage as soon as next year. He also promised to release his taxes, as well as to divorce himself from his business interests, so as to make clear that decisions and gifts made by foreign governments will not have undue influence over decisions made by the White House.

When you add to that Trump's well-established tendency to lie, often blatantly, it indeed buttresses the notions that he is a scam artist. This has been well-known for some time. Yet still, tens of millions of Americans saw fit to elect him to the highest and most reputable office in the land. There were suggestions that the awesome power of the presidency might change Trump, that it might even humble him. Unfortunately, there seem to be no real signs that this is the case at all, at least not thus far.

Many criticisms of Trump's first days in office, from opposing Democrats to even some Republicans like McCain and Bush, have focused on both Trump's style and his stance on issues. Indeed, so far, it does feel a bit like the political equivalent of his whole business style, which is to say that he is more than willing to crush anyone in his way - assuming that it is in his power to do so. When it is not - and this has already often been the case despite his newness to the office he now holds - he seems to whine and complain that it should be within his power, and this is what has folks wondering. When the second version of his travel ban on Muslims is struck down by another appellate judge, and he describes this version as very watered down and suggests that what he really wants is, indeed, an outright ban on Muslims coming into this country, that has many worried, especially when these remarks are accompanied by his trying to discredit the judges that keep his power in check, and his suggestions that the system should be changed, and that he should have the power to overrule these judges.

The system of checks and balances that was established at the very inception of this nation's history by no less an authority than the Founding Fathers is being seriously threatened by Donald Trump and his trademark style. It is obviously worrying many people, and his critics have been many, obviously including Timothy Snyder. Of course, Trump himself dismisses any and all criticism and protests of his actions in the White House as irrelevant, tainted, or skewed. But indeed, the worries are serious, and this goes beyond the more common disagreements over a president's policies or stance on the issues. Many worries have been expressed that it is American democracy itself that appears to be threatening, and that there are troublesome signs that it is already eroding and vulnerable.

Of course, there is much disagreement over the extent of the threat, as well as the time frame that we are talking about. Some would suggest that the foundations of American democracy are strong enough to withstand the challenges to it by the Trump administration. Others suggest that it is not as strong as we might think, and some are even waiting for Trump's Reichstag fire, another kind of 9/11 which will give this administration the excuse to grab even more emergency powers than George W. Bush and his administration did a decade and a half ago, after the September 11th attacks.

Here, no less of an authority than a Yale professor of history is warning Americans that we have less than a year to act and safeguard our democracy. He takes the threat of Trump very seriously, and he is urging action to ensure the survival of democracy, because he feels that the alternative is fascism right here in the United States. It can happen here, he is saying, and we just might want to take his warnings seriously.

Below are the links to two articles on Daniel Snyder, and how he feels Trump might just effectively eliminate American democracy itself, and usher in a whole new, and most unfortunate, era in American history and politics:

If We Don’t Act Now, Fascism Will Be on Our Doorstep, Says Yale Historian by Steven Rosenfeld, March 15, 2017:

“We have at most a year to defend American democracy, perhaps less“ published by Süddeutsche Zeitung International, February 10, 2017:

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