Is This How Liberty Dies?
Sometimes events follow a narrative that almost feels pre-ordained. It is that sense of deja-vu when you catch yourself thinking you have been here before. These occasions can be exhilarating. You feel as though you can see the future. I get this sense as our new president-elect, Donald Trump, begins to unveil his cabinet. But, instead of excitement, I am met with a profound sense of foreboding. I don’t want to see the future as I feel I already know how this movie plays out.
Let’s be honest we didn’t need a crystal ball to know the Trump transition would be a jarring. First, it is obvious that our new president elect is not a detail guy. Instead he prefers to leave the day-to-day machinations to others only to come along and change direction on a whim. This was the pattern in the campaign as he lurched from contradiction to contradiction and, until he loses his Twitter account, is certain to be his style going forward. By now it is clear that Donald Trump demands to be king of the castle while his courtiers seek to curry favor at every opportunity. We put the authoritarian label of this behavior today, but in times past it could have easily been Henry VIII - minus three of his six wives.
Second, it was clear who would be in the forefront of his administration team after consistently turning a blind eye to racism and white nationalism under pinning the campaign. While some of his supporters were clearly attracted to the hate filled message, many others decided they needed to vote for change, a new broom or the anti-Hillary candidate. At the end of the day, they hoped for the best. They gave the benefit of the doubt to a man who had done so little to earn it during the election cycle. But vast swathes of people were angry and Trump connected with a simple message that drowned out all reason to the contrary.
On election night there was a glimmer of hope for all of us. In his widely applauded speech he set a more moderate tone. He pledged ‘to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans’. He even added his customary dose of hyperbole for emphasis, ‘and this is so important to me’. Those voters who went for Hillary could at least temporarily cling to some vestige of hope that the king and his court would not govern from the extreme. How wrong they were.
Trump has rewarded his courtiers; his cronies; the sycophants. Each new announcement begets another gasp of breath. A look of incredulity is shared between family, friends and co-workers. First up was Steve Bannon, an anti-Semite and promoter of the unseemly underbelly of American culture. Next, we get an avowed anti-Islamist, General Michael Flynn, given the task of being National Security Advisor. And, third, we witness Senator Jeff Sessions, a person already disqualified from the judiciary for racist comments, promoted to Attorney General. Not only is this the axis of evil, but also of the unhinged and unworthy.
There are others of course, and surely more to arrive in the coming days. On the international stage we are already witnessing the effects and conceding ground, especially in the vital area of climate policy. For instance, China has found it necessary to let the newly elected US president know that global warming is not a hoax. And, instead of joining the celebrations in the latest round of climate talks, negotiators are looking fearfully across the Atlantic to see who will be asked to take up the environmental reins in Washington. Based on our experiences so far we should all be nervous. Our newly elected leader despises details. Ask yourself whether you really think he is going to sit down and have a reasoned discussion with any of his advisors. Moreover, is a reasoned conversation even possible with such dark and divisive histories clouding each individual’s perspective?
Just as in a bygone era, the king is promoting his court. There will be no decent and no challenge to authority. To do so risks banishment from the kingdom. Thus when the talent pool is so shallow, the result is the predictable cast of court jesters before us.
What is surprising, however, is how the rest of the Republican Party has normalized these candidates. Is Paul Ryan so determined to push through his ideas that he is willing to sacrifice everything for a chance to see them become reality? Indeed, it must be hard to spend a lifetime pushing a rock up the mountain and not be able to finally push it over the top. But he must become Sisyphus if we want a chance to have a country that is welcoming to all. We already know Mitch McConnell, the re-elected Senate Majority leader, will not lift a finger. After all, he spent the last 8 years doing everything he could to ensure a disfunctioning system. He is now at the apex of his crowning achievement.
For the democrats screaming about the injustice remember the valuable civics lesson we are enduring. It took so few votes in a handful of counties to tip the Electoral College. Yes, Hillary will win the popular vote, but that is all for naught. George W. Bush rammed through his tax cut and led us to war without a popular vote mandate and Donald Trump is embarking on a far more extreme agenda with far less capable people. In short, you don’t get to dictate outcomes unless you vote. Democrats, therefore, have a long road ahead before they can again influence events in any meaningful way.
No, the sad reality is we are going to require Republican lawmakers to find some outrage, or at least a modicum of embarrassment. When Mitt Romney pays a visit to the king this weekend let’s hope he maintains his principled stance and keeps his backbone straight. It would be a shame for the champion of the Never Trump movement to bend a knee and declare fealty. Rather than being a counter weight to the extremes inside the Administration, Romney would garner more influence and respect on the outside where he would be free to speak his mind without the threat of a beheading.
Perhaps these events seem so familiar because we have seen them play out before. Oftentimes movies start to imitate life and the lines between art and human history blur. As the victorious Republicans dance for the new king, a line from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith springs to mind. Upon witnessing the Emperor’s rise to power Padme remarks: so this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause. It is time for us all to acknowledge that what we are witnessing is not normal. Otherwise I think we can all see the future. And it is dark.