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TUCSON – During five years of daily word storms — stories that matter, hyped “breaking news” and thumb-sucking punditry — I’ve stayed fixated on what Steve Bannon told the New York Times in January 2017: “The media should keep its mouth shut.”
That’s not how democracies work. A year later, Donald Trump’s fat-slob Rasputin explained his chilling strategy to author Michael Lewis. “The Democrats don’t matter,” he said. “The real opposition is the media, and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Today the stench is sickening. Without a massive turnout in primaries and general elections, I believe American democracy is over.
This is no hair-on-fire hyperbole. Thomas Homer-Dixon at Royal Roads University in British Columbia, who has studied violent conflict for 40 years, warns Canada to prepare for a rightwing dictatorship and civil upheaval on its southern border by 2030 or sooner. “We mustn’t dismiss these possibilities just because they seem ludicrous or too horrible to imagine,” he wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
I have covered coups d’état since the 1960s. Violent overthrows quickly succeed or fail. Far more insidious are those that creep up on free people who don’t react until it is too late. Trump weaponized rifts among societal sectors, families and friends that have been widening for years. But the Constitution is still intact. This is not a civil war but rather a creeping coup that may succeed because of ignorance and apathy.
- Trump politicized the pandemic and let it run rampant. He thwarted global efforts to contain it. Americans died lonely, painful deaths before he left office. Biden is now blamed for the inevitable impact: soaring inflation, broken supply chains and new Covid-19 variants.
- Trump capitulated to the Taliban, leaving Biden no options. The Afghan president fled, sparking panic. U.S. forces flew 123,000 people to safety, a stunning feat. Biden, who has tried to end the war since 2008, is blamed for what Trump calls the worst debacle in history.
- Trump escaped impeachment for withholding arms to Ukraine to extort dirt on Biden, who now rushes weapons to Ukraine because Vladimir Putin has amassed troops on the border to see whether America is as rudderless as it seems from the outside.
- Trump survived a second impeachment after he fired up a murderous mob to sack the Capitol, intent on overturning his electoral loss. Republicans shrug that off even after a dozen domestic terrorists, with more to come, are charged in a well-planned insurrection.
Too many Americans with the attention span I of fruit flies overlook blatant treachery, if not treason, and dereliction of duty. High crimes and countless misdemeanors go unpunished. In a country corrupted at the top, everything on down is up for grabs. Voters can filter out the tower of babble that obscures actual news, but even well-intentioned watchdogs often bark up the wrong trees. Too many focus on the present, ignoring the essential background.
A few examples illustrate the damage done by a megalomaniac who stamps his name on everything he can.
And now a Trumplican Party, savaging the Republican principles of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower, is working fast to corrupt the electoral system at every level. Newspapers and (truthful) networks provide ample detail. But far too many people pay little attention. A soundly defeated president, or someone possibly worse, may well win in 2024 to reign over America with kangaroo courts, a rubber-stamp Congress, state legislatures eager to edit the Bill of Rights, and schoolboards that tell teachers what young Trumplicans need to know.
In 2004, with much less at stake, British journalist Andrew Marr made the point in a book, My Trade. A lot of people he knew shunned newspapers and tuned out news to focus instead on their own busy lives and local affairs. “This is not good enough,” he wrote. “We are either players in open, democratic societies, all playing a part in their ultimate direction, or we are deserters.”
It is now or never.
The Big Lie: Wake the Flock Up
During a half-century of pursuing elusive objectivity as an Associated Press correspondent and editor of the International Herald Tribune, I value my hard-won credibility. My analyses are based on trusted sources rather than my opinion.
This one is different. It is long because detail and context matter. I’ve written about some of this before, but I’ve added fresh reporting to it. Please keep reading and pass this along. The link is at mortreport.org. Send me your thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trumplicans won’t listen, but independents and Republicans will. The key is a thundering turnout of voters who realize that ballots for write-ins or also-rans are wasted. William Lederer explored mass gullibility to political flimflam 60 years ago in A Nation of Sheep. Now, as bad shepherds lead a nation to the edge of a precipice, that new mantra again: Wake the Flock Up.
The crux is accountability. In a country where no one is supposed to be above the law, Trump ties justice in knots with legal tactics, stonewalling and contempt beyond any precedent. Goebbels once said Nazis could not have seized power without radio, a steady drumbeat that subliminally shapes opinion. Now there is also TV, the internet, prostitute newspapers and people who embrace “social” media but think “social” democracy means Stalin.
Trump has upgraded Hitler’s grosse Lüge, the Big Lie. He accuses those who cite facts of doing the lying. News media reinforce this, if not intentionally, by not explaining how crises of the moment took shape. Each president plays the hand that is dealt. Obama left Trump the booming economy he boasts about. He left Biden serial calamities.
Americans like to gamble on new faces, yet this is no time for on-the-job training. Consider the risks of undercutting Biden too soon. If no barn burner, he is a seasoned steady hand in turbulent waters he knows well. When checks and balances work as intended, presidents can lobby Congress for legislation or block laws with a veto that can be overridden. They don’t decide about abortion rights or other domestic issues on which so many voters focus. The main purview is foreign policy.
Despite all of America’s military might, it loses today’s “unconventional” wars, creating endless enemies bent on vengeance. Neither China nor Russia will provoke all-out war (at least not on purpose). No one would survive a nuclear High Noon. Its greatest strength is congressional and popular support for a president who merits it. Allies rally around, and adversaries don’t push too hard. Serious diplomacy must be private. Bearding any “strongman” in public, let alone Xi Jinping or Putin, hardens his position.
Running the free world is no job for amateurs, ideologues, religious fundamentalists – or unhinged narcissists. Had Democrats won a majority in Congress, Biden could have restored sanity and stability while grooming a successor for 2024. Now Plan B is up in the air. Voting is now more important than ever, all down the ballot. Democrats need a thumping midterm win. If America decides to change horses before then, odds are strong it will get a Trumplican horse’s ass in 2024.
Bannon’s strategy targets the most vulnerable part of representative democracy: people who oversee voter eligibility, ballot counts and certification in swing states. Zealots threaten death to nonpartisan city clerks and state officials, claiming they stole Trump’s presidency. New state laws and gerrymandering target Democrats. In Florida, one of 12 states where governors appoint the secretary of state, Ron DeSantis wants an election police force that can arrest poll workers for doing their jobs — helping voters to vote.
The threat is clear in Arizona where deviant politicians slithered out of snake dens to join Trump at a fact-free rally. “We gave Biden every tool he could want,” he said. “He’s incapable…Our country is being totally destroyed.” And enough voters believe him to sway elections.
Trump: Pitting states against each other and muzzling the CDC
I was reluctant at first to evoke Hitler. For all his demagogy, Trump showed few signs of reckless disregard for human life until he let a pandemic cripple the nation that he was sworn to protect. Based on interviews with experts, I estimate he is directly responsible for at least 500,000 deaths in America. Does the actual number matter?
U.S. law says death by depraved indifference in murder, even if not explicitly intended. Brazilian legislators are pursuing President Jair Bolsonaro for crimes against humanity. He did far less damage. Trump belongs in federal housing but not the White House. Trump himself told Bob Woodward he knew of the danger early but played it down. On January 31 in 2020, during trade talks and before he needed a scapegoat, he lauded Xi Jinping for his effective, transparent fight against a new coronavirus.
In February, he was furious when Nancy Messonnier did her job at the CDC, warning the public of a coronavirus that threatened “severe” disruption to American life. In mid-March, he tweeted that Covid was disappearing after a handful of infections. He pitted red states against blue and muzzled the CDC. He refused World Health Organization test kits and squandered billions on bogus dead ends. Remember his suggestion to drink bleach? Michigan goons plotted to execute the governor for trying to keep people safe.
Epidemiologists say well over a million Americans died before 2021. Their rule of thumb is that because of misdiagnosis actual epidemic deaths are double the official count – worse if someone wants to minimize them. They fault Trump for refusing a federal response with emergency powers to test, trace, isolate and provide states with medical necessities.
Laurie Garrett’s book, The Coming Plague exposed the threat 30 years ago, the first of her four books on global health. She worked in China for years where her brother is a renowned specialist. In a hourlong NPR interview just before omicron struck, she was blunt. There is still worse to come, Garrett said, because of “ the sheer scale of government incompetence, lies and refusal to take public health into consideration…in so much of the world.”
Asked about the United States, she snorted. “That,” she said, “would take two hours.”
Garrett traces the outbreak to wild animals in that Wuhan wet market. That has been the pattern since HIV-AIDs in the Congo. As climate change and deforestation shrinks habitats, she expects new pandemics as Covid-19 eventually settles into a lower-level endemic stage.
Local authorities hid the first cases from Beijing late in 2019. That’s how China works. Ambitious officials compete for favor by withholding bad news from the top. Xi Jinping imposed a strict lockdown in January. After courageous doctors defied his secrecy, he shared gene sequences and protective gear to curb a global spread.
Until immunizations and a cure are found, the only protection from mysterious new pathogens is not to catch them. Simply closing borders is futile. Viruses mutate fast. Unless all countries are protected, all are at risk.
In past deadly outbreaks, global experts turned to the gold-standard CDC in Atlanta and the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, where Tony Fauci has worked since 1968. Public guidance shifted as doctors learned more about mysterious pathogens. Obama posted health attachés in vulnerable places, including Wuhan. He equipped hospitals and stockpiled protective gear so doctors could act fast if cases reached America.
Among the handover briefings Trump ignored was a thick file on preparedness, at home and abroad. He recalled health experts whose personal contacts would have seen what was coming, and he let the emergency supplies dwindle.
Today, Fauci travels with a Secret Service guard because of death threats. Lara Logan likened him on Fox “News” to the Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele. Tucker Carlson called him “an even shorter version of Benito Mussolini.” Bannon said he should be beheaded.
Covid-19 is a blip compared to climate collapse. If less directly, and over a far longer term, Trumplicans endanger billions, not millions, of lives across the world. Trump’s push for fossil fuel hastened the time until humans cede Earth to cockroaches and jellyfish. The Paris Accords in 2015, a step in the right direction, set non-binding goals to reduce carbon emissions. Rich countries agreed to compensate poor ones for the economic impact. Trump opted out, giving coal and oil producers an excuse to renege on promises.
Republicans and those two faithless Democrats killed Biden’s ambitious green agenda. If Trumplicans take control, the country best placed to do the most to keep Earth habitable is likely to ignore the most important challenge in human history.
Trump’s capitulation to the Taliban: a disaster in the making
Nothing shows American misperceptions of the real world like the collapse in Afghanistan. Polls attribute Biden’s precipitous drop to what news stories from Washington or New York almost invariably call a chaotic, deadly withdrawal. Like Covid-19, that was all Trump.
Previous Mort Reports detail how Trump’s capitulation to the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s abrupt departure made the initial panic unavoidable. But U.S. forces organized an airlift that flew 123,000 people to safely within weeks, a stunning military achievement. It was, as Anthony Blinken said, “an extraordinary feat of logistics and coordination under some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable.”
Because Americans turned a rabid raccoon loose in the Situation Room, there is much more.
Every president inherits triumphs and failures. George W. Bush left economic collapse after needless wars that cost trillions and increased the terrorism he pledged to eradicate. Obama made his own mistakes but built the booming economy for which Trump claims credit.
Before 2017, Iran agreed to forego nuclear weapons and reengage with the world. Now Iran has enriched uranium to a terrifying level. Dialogue with China and Russia had limited conflict. Kim Jong-il was ostracized in his hermit kingdom. Palestine held out hope for an accord with Israel.
Trump trashed all of that, appealing to a racist base by demonizing Obama. He is not given to three-syllable words, but his Arizona rally was laced with the verb, denigrate. That was not lost on gun-packing rural dwellers who frequently use a similar sounding word.
The rally was in Florence against the backdrop of federal and state prisons, the inside of which neither he nor legislators who took part in the Capitol insurrection are likely to see. His endorsements for state offices smack of a tinpot dictator sanctifying like-minded cronies.
One indirect ally was not there. Krysten Sinema is supposed to be a Democrat. But her ad campaign across Arizona attacks Biden, and she promises to lower taxes.
Biden: Hard facts compared to the lies of his predecessor
A Trumplican drumbeat depicts Biden as a doddering old fool. Comedians depict him that way for laughs. Under the circumstances, it’s not funny. This is no time for a president who needs on-the-job training.
At his two-hour press conference last week. Biden answered each question with hard facts folded into folksy responses. He listened politely when a Newsmax shill asked why so many people say he has lost his mind. “I don’t know,” he said and moved on.
The usual Fox hounds declared his performance an embarrassing shamble. One said he kept yelling at reporters. In fact, he flashed a bit of steel only once, replying to a stupid question. Why, he replied, did you go into journalism if you aren’t interested in facts?
He sparked a storm when asked how he would respond to a Russian attack in Ukraine. Later, he clarified: any incursion will provoke a NATO response. Televised press conferences now play to the public, not reporters off camera probing arcane policy points. Putin knows that.
As elections approach, Republican hopefuls abandon their principles for Trump’s blessing. For instance, Nikki Haley said in 2016 Trump’s bluster would lead to violent tragedy, calling him everything she tells her children not to be. Now she heaps praise.
Watch the video of Ted Cruz groveling at Tucker Carlson’s feet, trying to unsay the Capitol assault was a violent terrorist attack. “It was sloppy, dumb phrasing,” Cruz said, A year ago, he denounced it in those same terms multiple times when that fit the national mood.
Trump assailed “Lyin’ Ted” in 2016, calling his wife ugly and claiming his father helped assassinate JFK. At an Indiana rally, Cruz berated an utterly amoral sniveling coward whose every other word is a lie, a narcissist at a level America has never seen. Echoing Halley, he said, “The idea of my two daughters coming home and repeating any word this man says horrifies me.”
And he concluded with this: “We are not a proud, boastful, self-centered, hateful, mean-spirited nation.” Now he sucks up to the man who personifies exactly that.
Without a resounding rejection of Trump and the elephants he rode in on, America had better prepare for an autocratic dis-United States living in what Bannon intends: a zone flooded with shit.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.