I noticed after we had parted that my friend and I spent our conversation on Monday speaking in hushed tones, that we each ran through our own internal post-election checklist with the other before we proceeded; mine went something like: I know my friend is on my side but I haven’t seen anything on her Facebook feed recently, so when she asks “How are you?” answer her with generalities and let her be specific first.
We hugged hello. “How are you doing?” she asked. I replied with the specifically general (or generally specific), “Today?” and a weak shrug.
She spoke first. “I haven’t talked with you since the election? How are you holding up?” She confessed that she has felt overwhelmed since Inauguration Day. I confessed to the same sensation. “The worst appears to be coming to pass and it looks like they are trying to make it happen faster than anyone seemed prepared for,” I added.
Later that same day, a second friend sent me a message on Facebook. “I’m scared,” she wrote. She is a college student and was recently accepted into Columbia University graduate school. This is a young woman who has experienced more emotional turmoil in her twenty-something years (in her telling) than I have in my almost fifty. I told her to allow people to know that she is scared so that they can be open, too, because then a community will be created out of this weird moment and we will be grateful for it.
I try to be positive, but I am scared, too.
George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and a novel that I wrote about on Election Day, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, sit atop various bestseller lists on Amazon.com right now.
One of the most shared articles in the last week was Yonatan Zunger’s “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” which employs a question mark in the headline but nowhere else. It was shared almost 12,000 times so far this week, not counting links like the one I just embedded. It was also ridiculed in a Washington Post article, “The cult of the paranoid Medium post.”
Zunger’s thesis is that the new administration’s moves in the first two weeks reveal that it intends to be a kleptocracy, that an inner circle around the new president “is actively probing the means by which they can seize unchallenged power,” and that “The aims of crushing various groups—Muslims, Latinos, the black and trans communities, academics, the press—are very much primary aims of the regime, and are likely to be acted on with much greater speed than was earlier suspected. The secondary aim of personal enrichment is also very much in play, and clever people will find ways to play these two goals off each other.”
A social scientist named Tom Pepinsky wrote a rebuttal titled, “Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders,” which has been shared more than ten thousand times on Facebook alone. He argues that Zunger’s thesis falls prey to the logical seduction of observational equivalence; in other words, two conclusions can be drawn from the same (limited) set of observations and these may not be at all equal. His example is not intended to be reassuring about the present White House:
The swift release of President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration without much advice or feedback from the affected bureaucracies may be evidence that the administration is completely centralizing control within the office of the president. Or it might be because the administration does not understand standard operating procedures in a presidential administration. Or it might be because they worry that they have lost the narrative, need to do something, and a gross Nazi is calling the shots. Again, only the first is a sign of strength. The latter two are signs of weakness. All three of the same observable implications, but have radically different interpretations.
Twitter user @nomikkh wrote, “it’s prudent to prepare for malice and hope for incompetence.”
If the outcome is a general coarsening of our public discourse and a fear to engage in discourse, if fear is what is created, then questions about the psychology that guided the actions that the political class signed off on are probably pointless. Juries, if crimes are committed, and historians can debate the intentions all they want, but with hundreds of individuals held up at airports, the difference between malice and incompetence becomes an intellectual exercise, a “paranoid Medium post.”
The new administration’s kleptocracy seems to have been self-evident from before Inauguration Day. The president himself has given the only reply he will give: “Who cares?”
“No one cares” about his taxes or whether his not-very-blind blind trusts will work, he has declared. Indeed, among his supporters, no one appears to care. This is a general coarsening of our public trust in our public servants. This may wind up Mr. Trump’s worst gift to American life. The only thing blind is the eye his supporters are using to ignore activities that they would be outraged by if the previous president engaged in them or if their local high school’s assistant principal engaged in them.
The blind-eye, “no one cares” thinking from among his supporters seems to run along these lines: “Who doesn’t get better service when they leave a good tip at a restaurant? That’s how business gets done. My president demands respect, they pay it, and they get good business as a result. We get good business as a result of that.”
The only individual who has received a benefit from the “respect” that his White House has started to demand and receive has so far been Donald Trump. Did you know he appears to have won the rights for himself, not for American business, to Russia’s state-run oil company, Rosneft?
A paragraph in Zunger’s Medium post has not received the attention it ought to have. Again, it is perhaps an example of observational equivalence, of drawing several facts together in the proper order to look malignant when there may be a perfectly reasonable absence of connections.
Reuters reported (in great detail) how 19.5% of Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, has been sold to parties unknown. This was done through a dizzying array of shell companies, so that the most that can be said with certainty now is that the money “paying” for it was originally loaned out to the shell layers by VTB (the government’s official bank), even though it’s highly unclear who, if anyone, would be paying that loan back; and the recipients have been traced as far as some Cayman Islands shell companies.
Why is this interesting? Because the much-maligned Steele Dossier (the one with the golden showers in it) included the statement that Putin had offered Trump 19% of Rosneft if he became president and removed sanctions. The reason this is so interesting is that the dossier said this in July, and the sale didn’t happen until early December. And 19.5% sounds an awful lot like “19% plus a brokerage commission.”
Conclusive? No. But it raises some very interesting questions for journalists to investigate.
Once a reporter brings up the Steele Dossier, the public’s collective eyes glaze over. Listeners assume the reporter is revisiting the allegations that Mr. Putin is threatening to blackmail our new President into allowing Russia to do whatever Mr. Putin wants to do. How pre-Election Day of us! But this White House attempted this week to lift sanctions off Russia’s burden. This White House did choose to not record a phone call between the two leaders this week, rendering private a phone call that should not ever be private.
Malice or incompetence?
Finally, back to fear. Will this administration be a totalitarian regime? Is it now? Will it need to visibly act on that desire? Or will it bait us into a desire for a totalitarian, law-and-order, administration? All of our protests are music to its ears right now, especially if it can latch on to any example of lawlessness. We must protest, loudly, but civilly. The phrase is “civil disobedience,” after all, and it reminds us to always act better than the authorities are acting in order to get them to show their monstrousness willingly.
The administration’s direction-less directive about immigration last week and its order that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials ignore court orders to relent on detained individuals held in airports was the power-hungry monster stepping out of the closet. Firing the deputy attorney general for saying that the law ranks higher than the White House was the monster choosing to remain outside even in the bright sunlight. Malicious, capricious, or incompetent, it is a monster and it is here to stay.
David Frum writes in next month’s issue of The Atlantic:
What happens in the next four years will depend heavily on whether Trump is right or wrong about how little Americans care about their democracy and the habits and conventions that sustain it. If they surprise him, they can restrain him.
Public opinion, public scrutiny, and public pressure still matter greatly in the U.S. political system. In January, an unexpected surge of voter outrage thwarted plans to neutralize the independent House ethics office. That kind of defense will need to be replicated many times.
Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid.
This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.
My “finest hour as an American”? Count me in.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 3 asks us to reflect on the word, “Overwhelming.”
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