Is this the end of the USA’s democracy? Or does American democracy recover in a few years from Trump and his supporters? I wish I knew. This American dystopian unraveling of democracy that we’re living through, and which may easily last another 5 more Trumpian years (or more), has made me question a lot of things I have taken for granted my whole life about this country. I’m in agony, and I know a lot of other people who are too.
One of the things I didn’t see coming was the way that the times we’re living in have made a newfound literary love of mine feel prescient and relevant in immediate ways I never previously thought possible. I’m talking about sci-fi. And I wish that what I’m about to describe wasn’t the case…
I’m 50. It wasn’t until my late 40s that I started reading sci-fi epics. I think the Battlestar Galactica TV series sparked my interest in the genre, and audiobooks were my way into multi-book series that use space opera as a literary and imaginative means for exploring questions about human nature, human society, politics, violence, meaning, and power.
Before this staggering American descent into authoritarianism, reading (well, really mostly listening to) books like The Expanse Series by James S. A. Corey and the Hyperion Cantos series by Dan Simmons would have led me to appreciate the insights and lessons of these works from a bit of a safe emotional distance. These are books in which political certainties, including long-standing political systems and alliances, change drastically and sometimes within the lifetime of a single character.
For example: in The Expanse, when we begin the epic, the competing nations are Earth, Mars, and the Belters, with Earth and Mars dominating the Belt and locked in a multi-generational standoff with each other, which is held in check because of mutually-assured-destruction. [Mild spoiler alert follows.] Within a matter of decades, a Belter faction is top of the heap, Mars is a withered and dying society, and Earth is recovering from catastrophic military and civilian losses. Within a matter of years after that, the entire political, social, and imperial order changes radically two more times. I’ve recently finished the 8th of the 9 book series, and the names of the nations and the military and political realities for humanity are so different from where the series began that, recently, sometimes I have wondered whether I was still reading in the same fictional world.
Before the Trump era, I would have acknowledged that there is genuine insight in literature that reminds its readers that any seemingly solid political, religious, economic, environmental, or social order can change, and at some point will change, and that taking the long view of human history we recognize that many thousand-year-empires have come and gone, and that often all that remains of them are some ruins and written documents. Before the Trump era I also would have thought that these massive reorganizations of the human order tended to occur every few centuries at their fastest. The way in which James S. A. Corey’s and Dan Simmons’s respective sci-fi epics describe radical wide-scale socio-political destruction and transformation taking place within shorter time frames than I would expect would have struck me as a literary conceit that I could forgive because it was probably necessary for the plot advancement of their story arcs.
Now I see their literature as a warning of how fast things can really be upended and reordered by ruthless and dangerous people. I see these books as fiction that is describing what we’re living in. This is literature that tells its readers that empires and democracies, great powers and nations that have reliable institutions that have withstood many pressures, can come apart at the seams very quickly. Very opportunistically.
With the White House now firing and purging officials who had the moral courage to testify against Trump during impeachment hearings, and no Congressional check remaining to stop them, the slide into authoritarianism we’ve been going through for the past 3 years has now become more of a landslide. Loyalty to the autocrat is now the clear requirement for key positions of civil service that for most of this country’s history have managed to resist being corrupted in this way. The House and a number of brave witnesses did what they could to call out the abuses of power and the dangers to our democracy, and the Republican Party shut down that effort, demonstrating to Trump that he will not be stopped by the checks and balances of the Constitutional order, and giving him much more room to act with impunity at every level of government that he has influence over. And nearly half the citizens of the country approve. That’s what has sunk us.
Almost half the people who vote here approve of the tyrant. Moreover, a massive media and propaganda machine promoting Orwellian up-is-down and lies-are-truth narratives further marginalizes any kind of check on power that might be provided by a free and skeptical press, or by the Democratic Party’s efforts to call out the lies for what they are. Finally, it’s our bad luck that our broken electoral college system has all but guaranteed Trump’s re-election. He only needs about 47% of the voters to get the electoral college votes he needs, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t do that.
The Resistance has been courageous and creative, energetic and diverse, inspiring and determined — and yet, it is looking increasingly like we have lost this fight to save our democracy. What we have built through activism, organizing, and revitalizing the Democratic Party at the Congressional, state, and local level has led to important political victories and welcome shifts in power, but still it looks unlikely that we have enough of the voters in the right configuration of states to defeat this new American order.
And we are tired. And we aren’t the majority.
Trump’s supporters – his base – are certainly not the majority either – they are a third to forty percent of the electorate. But the percentage of the electorate that is horrified by Trump’s Russian-enabled undermining of our democracy, that really comprises the base of voters determined to try to oust him – that is also at most, 35 or 40 percent of the voters. The remaining voters are fungible, and not alarmed. Maybe a slim majority of them will vote for the Dem this November, but not in order to save the republic. And given the likelihood that they’ll buy some of the Fox News / Trump propaganda and the mainstream media’s tendency to engage in “both-sides-ism,” it’s just not likely that enough of that group will vote to oust an incumbent if the unemployment rate is low and the stock market is high. The Dem can win the popular vote by more than Hillary did in 2016, and still lose the electoral college. But honestly, it’s hard for me to picture any Dem winning even the popular vote. I can’t tell you why, but I just know it in my gut – we’re not gonna win this November. I don’t think it’s even going to be all that close. I’m going to campaign my ass off and keep doing the different activist things I’ve been doing for a long time now. I won’t hold back – but I just think we all know deep down that we’re not going to beat him. What was needed to stop this catastrophe was something more than what the Resistance has done, and something more than all that so many people who care about protecting democracy have done. What was needed was enough Republicans in power to put country over party, democracy over autocracy. They chose autocracy, and so it goes. This is looking like the end of it, this democratic system of sturdy, enduring and relatively uncorrupted institutions.
In Trump’s second term we will lose more Supreme Court seats. We will see the dramatic ramping up of the already outrageous intertwining of Trump’s family’s business interests and the policies and expenditures of the US government. We won’t see whistle-blowers in the intelligence, military, or other civil service ranks because they will have been purged by then, and they now know that Congress won’t have their backs. Also, what Trump started with excluding his least favorite journalists from the White House Press Corps will accelerate to new levels of contortion and abuse. We will have a wall along the southern border, and legal immigration and asylum will grind to a halt. We will see the rich and powerful around the world, in governments and in business, adapt to the new order and begin to create layers of self-interest in preserving it as the status quo.
Mike Huckabee made headlines last month saying he was convinced that there was a constitutional justification for Trump to run again in 2024, and that he was heading up the ’24 re-election campaign starting now. That really might happen. After Trump, don’t be surprised if it’s one of his sons who follows.
We really may be finished here, with American democracy. It’s not science fiction. It’s our sickening misfortune.
PS: I hope I’m wrong about our collective fate being sealed, about my dismal sense of what’s likely to happen in November. I also hope I’m not feeding the beast of allowing my grief and fear to corrupt my determination to keep fighting on for American democracy. If you want a corrective to my morose blog post above, check out this piece by Heather Cox Richardson (with thanks to my friend, Rabbi Erin Hirsh, for making me aware of it) – especially the second half of the piece.