This is Not Normal
How would 2016 look upon what has happened to American Democracy?
On November 3rd 2016, I set an alarm on my phone. Repeating Google calendar alert.
“Not normal.” Every Tuesday night, before I go to bed, I look that message in the face and become more and more distant from the shocked 17 year old high school student who wrote it.
For over a year I copied the text onto my upper thigh, a message in black sharpie reminding me that having a confessed rapist and racist in the white house was not normal. That making claims that all immigrants are “rapists and murderers” is not normal. That denying science and journalism is not normal. But that ink faded from my skin, dragged away by personal worry and ambition. Which is why I set a repeating reminder. That is why, as we approach the 2020 election I again pull out my sharpie and bring you back to 2016.
President-elect Trump, as you assume the nation’s highest office, we urge you to reconsider and change course on certain campaign promises you have made. These include your plan to amass a deportation force to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants; ban the entry of Muslims into our country and aggressively surveil them; punish women for accessing abortion; reauthorize waterboarding and other forms of torture; and change our nation’s libel laws and restrict freedom of expression.
But perhaps more relevantly to today it concludes:
One thing is certain: We will be eternally vigilant every single day of your presidency. And when you leave the Oval Office, we will do the same with your successor as we have done throughout our nearly 100 years of existence. The Constitution and the rule of law are stronger than any one person, and we will see to that. We will never waver.
I urge you think back to 2016. Try to imagine what the state of the country would be going into 2020.
Likely, you predicted the ongoing sexism, science denial and racial tension. Likely you predicted a strengthening of white nationalism, perhaps even the consequence of a trade war with China. Maybe you predicted the imprisonment and separation of migrant and refugee families. Perhaps you truly did fear and predict the attempted Muslim ban. Maybe you even predicted that he would fail to address natural disasters. You probably didn’t predict that 200,000 Americans would be dead from incompetence, but I think it’s fairly forgivable to have failed to predict the global pandemic. Most of us did.
What scares me is the certainty of that statement by the ACLU, believed by us all “The Constitution and the rule of law are stronger than any one person, and we will see to that. We will never waver.” I still want to believe this. But it has been thrown into doubt in a way that my 2016 self could not fathom.
We were not without warning. On November 4th 2016 Johnathan Blitzer of the New York Times published an article titled “A Scholar of Fascism Sees a Lot That’s Familiar with Trump.” In it he details how Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who studies the strong man trope in Fascism, with particular focus on Mussolini, began to see parallels to her primary subject. She ends the interview with the statement “He means everything he says, Authoritarians never pivot.”
“He means everything he says, Authoritarians never pivot.”
Even before the election in May 2016, Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece in NY Mag titled “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic. And right now, America is a breeding ground for Tyranny.” In it, alongside brilliant analysis of the philosophical problem of the “singular weakness” of democracy he also warns that “Neo-fascist movements do not advance gradually by persuasion; they first transform the terms of the debate, create a new movement based on untrammeled emotion, take over existing institutions, and then ruthlessly exploit events.” Sound familiar? The article concludes “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”
“In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”
Coming back to 2020, do these articles really still sound as fear mongering? Can you still push them aside with reassurances that the rule of law is stronger than any one person or do you worry about this so called one person pulling the thread of the singular weakness of democracy? I for one, would rather worry than be caught off guard.
Many Americans are worried about how bad things might get under another 4 years of Donald Trump. Living in Australia, I have found that many abroad are worried about how much we Americans fail to see how bad things already are.
I live in a place where COVID testing is readily available. Every morning the prime minister of my state goes on camera and reports the goal of our current COVID policy, the number of test results collected, the number of positives, the number of deaths, and the latest science on how to keep our country safe. When a case is recorded at a public place within a day it is broadcasted to the public so that those who have been exposed can get tested. While Australians have “been doing it tough” as the politicians here phrase it, that is acknowledged and supported by Job Keeper and Job Seeker. These policies will be phased out now that the pandemic is largely under control, but the new budget is expected to instead contain stimulus for new jobs to be created designed around the post-COVID world.
I am not saying that Australian politics are not complicated. In fact, my prime minister testifies today about a breach in hotel quarantine that required the lock-down of Melbourne and loss of thousands of jobs. We have our own issues around policing of indigenous communities and the Australian First immigration policy that detains thousands. However, when things go wrong, when disasters happen, we can count on our institutions to respond with help for those affected and investigate the cause of the situation. When politicians are found to be corrupt they are fired. When workers lose their job to no fault of their own they are supported. When scientists report their results, we believe them. News agencies are trusted and publicly funded and supported. When people get sick during a global pandemic affecting millions they receive free, caring, and effective medical care. To me this is what it means to live in a functioning democracy, in a developed nation, in 2020. To many of my friends back home, this seems like a too good to be true pipe dream.
The argument that the 2020 election is not just central to policy goals but rather the structure of American Democracy is not new as it was in 2016. But it is more important than it has ever been. Ironically, those who follow history will recall that the Spanish Flu in 1918 followed by the great depression set the stage of desperation and anti-establishment thinking that lead to the rise of Nazi Germany. As the granddaughter of a holocaust survivor whose extended family was exterminated, forgive me for saying it is slightly troubling to watch my family live through this American dance with fascism from the safety of a foreign nation.
Perhaps COVID-19 is history’s snide way of reminding us that history repeats itself. And if you’re on the wrong side, well… you’re failing an open note test.