There will be a solar eclipse on Monday (August 21st). And while most of us will enjoy staring into a blinding corona of solar light, it will also be a half-decent metaphor for something far less temporary.
A different kind of shadow that’s been crawling across the country.
For decades now, the gloom of authoritarianism has been slowly spreading. And while some Americans can’t quite see what’s blocking out the sun, just about everyone can feel something ominous and overcast in their everyday lives. From increasing income inequality, to an ever-expanding police state, to a government that only seems to function for the very few – the clouds gather more each year.
And it’s starting to get a little too shady for some of us.
I genuinely believe in its psychic effect on our lives. That it’s created a kind of overarching sense of American dread that has disturbed us as a whole. Like an invisible version of Don DeLillo’s airborne toxic event. Or, some kind of American hyperobject that we can comprehend, but not entirely.
It hangs over us. And we feel it.
I credit its presence for America’s new wave of civil unrest; the root cause to a series of smaller bouts and skirmishes over its symptoms: Occupy Wall Street, The Tea Party, Standing Rock, the list goes on…
When it comes to America’s problem with authoritarianism, some of these efforts are right on the money (it’s about the money). While others are filled with an anger that’s totally justified, but terribly misplaced. An anger that bubbles to the surface and gets spewed at the easiest available targets. Targets that take no effort or thought to turn against: “OTHERS”.
A scary word when it comes to human history. (Also, “Lost” history.)
A quick trip through the annals and it doesn’t take long to discover that in many societies, when prosperity falters, civil rights and civil liberties are the first things to be trampled as people run for the exits of democracy. From Caesar’s rise to power in Rome after its civil war, to Erdogan’s newly minted dictatorship in Turkey – you can find a long list of nations that have turned on one another in search of a savior. If only because it’s easier than turning to each other and working together to solve their collective problems.
In America, the “others” talk has never been more fashionable than it is right now. And I can’t help but think it’s because we don’t want to do the harder kind of work that will actually solve our problems.
You know, like voting, and volunteering, and building bridges instead of burning them. Dumb shit like that.
Plato theorized that democracies create a level of prosperity that breeds complacency. That this complacency eventually leads to corruption. And that this corruption finally ends each democracy because its people have grown too lazy to fix it.
That’s when these democracies with a spare tire around the midsection go searching for the remote so they don’t have to get off the couch.
“What’s on the next channel? Oh, it’s authoritarianism! Let’s watch that!”
Plato called it “tyranny” but we have updated terms. “Authoritarianism” is accurate because it starts with a man offering “order” in place of any real solutions to a nation’s problems. As if such “order” were even possible. As if the word were anything more than a lie that gives him unchecked authority.
Tyranny. Authoritarianism. Call it what you like. For a country feeling lazy, what could be easier than pointing to one man and saying, “Save me!”?
It’s an accusation that we Americans are looking pretty guilty of at the moment.
Liberals who thought Obama would solve all of America’s ills probably liked the slogans “Hope” and “Change” because they mostly required wishing. As inspiring as they might have been at the time, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most people treated them like “The Secret”. (I say this from experience.)
In reality, we the people didn’t do anything but elect our first black president. A big deal to be certain, but not an act that would solve racism (wha???) or a long list of other problems that we kicked down the road.
Money in politics, the military industrial complex, climate change, this list goes on too…
Blame these problems on whomever you’d like. What truly matters is that we wanted someone else to fix them for us.
And we went back to that well in 2016.
We pulled up the bucket and found Donald Trump’s corn-haired facade reflecting back at us.
I use the word “we” and “reflection” because, like it or fucking hate it, Donald Trump is the president of our America. He is the result of a perfect storm of problems we ignored. And we can blame the people who voted for him all we want but that’s not going to solve their deep-rooted cause – our increasing comfort with Authoritarianism.
Fix it soon or we’re all in big trouble.
While Trump is already coming for our brothers and sisters in the margins – our fellow Americans who are easily classified as “others” because of their religion, their sexuality, the color of their skin – this is a list that will soon include all of us.
For those who think voting for him will warrant a reprieve – mark my words – no one is safe from the narcissistic tyrant, but the tyrant himself.
No one is safe from a man whose brain is filled with squirrels. A man whose very existence as President baffles me to this day. A man who is so comically unqualified to deal with any of the problems I mentioned above that I’ve been weeping in my bathtub every day for the last 7 months. (Now that’s funny.)
At a time when America needed a brand of leadership that asked something of its people, we got a used-car salesman who bullshitted his way to a sale with faulty promises. He told us he could take care of problems that only we could solve. That the answers were simple and the fixes were easy.
In other words, he spoke about politics the way a person would if they didn’t have the faintest fucking clue what they were talking about. And he got away with it because we didn’t know shit either. (See: America’s spare tire.)
After all, there’s only one way a guy gets a job he’s so obviously unqualified for: he lies on his resume. And in the end, it’s the boss’ mistake for hiring him. It costs the company, not the employee who snaked his way in.
So yeah – having such an unqualified liar as president is bad enough. But having such an unqualified liar as President at this moment in history is a borderline catastrophe.
In a country where the facts are getting harder to find – Donald Trump is more interested in destroying the truth than helping us discover it.
In a country where the rule of law works mostly for the privileged few – Donald Trump is an entitled asshole who thinks he’s above it.
In a country where the American dollar is so often valued over actual Americans – Donald Trump used the golden spoon up his ass to sell out his country for financial gain.
In a country where 1/3 of the people don’t care, 1/3 of the people are misinformed, and 1/3 of the people are finally feeling compelled to fight – Donald Trump is urging us to give into a democracy’s worst impulses and turn on one another.
If we’re not careful, he might get his way.
Trump is a man pulling at the loose threads that are fraying off the fabric of America – just to see if the whole thing will come apart. What’s worse, he’s doing it simply because it benefits his number one cause: Donald Trump.
A fact that has never been more obvious than after the events in Charlottesville. His remarks on the tragedy were his greatest display of shittiness yet. Remarks that, hopefully for some, crystallized his complete lack of empathy.
And yet – Trump’s comments also achieved their goal. They further deepened the divide between his supporters and most everyone else. They made it even harder for some of us to sympathize with anyone who sympathizes with him.
So what are we supposed to do?
As the divide that is Trump deepens, the road ahead will only grow more treacherous. And judging by our response to Charlottesville and the event itself, it appears America may be headed down a very dangerous path.
It’s a path where our faith and resolve in American values is fractured and we choose violence as an outlet. Just as we did this weekend. Only worse.
Now, before you say, “But Doug, the people in Charlottesville were Nazis. Are you really advocating for the high road here?”
Let me just say this: fuck Nazis.
Every single walking jar of mayonnaise that was out there in Charlottesville deserves every ounce of hate that he or she gets. They are victims of nothing. They earned their disdain. And that is (and always will be) the fundamental difference between them and us. The alt-right, the neo-nazis, the fascists – they are reaping what they sowed.
I don’t want you to think I’m here to make some wussy-ass argument that we should always be peaceful and that, “Violence doesn’t solve anything.” I am well aware that violence solve lots of things. It solved World War II last time I checked. And I never gave my grandfather a hard time for his lack of pacifism.
For that reason, I will never blame or criticize or look down on anyone who starts throwing hands in the face of such hatred. It’s completely justified. It is.
As America tries to undo its unjust and racist and bigoted past, and move toward a country that is more accepting and tolerant and inclusive – an armed group of radicals marching around the streets saying “no” to this concept is basically an enemy occupier declaring war on everything our country stands for. I understand why people feel like it’s time to fight. Telling people not to is asking them to be cowards in the face of something they know is undeniably wrong.
What are you supposed to do when a group that has everything is marching around the streets demanding more?
Why play fairly against an opponent who has no interest in fairness?
But let me also add this: these people are owned by fear. And there is nothing that can fix that except their own minds. We could beat their ass a hundred times, and they still wouldn’t have the courage to change. Not in a way that would help anyone at least. Just like like their micro-penised leader – they’re too chicken-shit to admit they’re pathetic – because they know they’re too weak to do the work it takes to get better.
Which means the work to get better falls on us. For no other reason than no one else is strong enough to do it.
Just like the right-wing hawks who want to blow everything in the Middle East to high-hell just because they’re scared of brown people, violence doesn’t always equal strength. It’s takes way more strength to do what’s right in the face of those doing wrong.
And therein lies the reality of this situation: right now, our violence isn’t going to help anyone. Not them. Not us. No one. And isn’t helping others our goal?
I know this line of thinking feels unfair. I know it feels unsatisfying. I know it feels like total bullshit. But I also know what is right. And if I gather up everything I’ve ever learned about the world and people and politics, and I look at it as honestly as I can, I can only see one true path…
We have to lead by example.
If we start going to protests with violence as our goal – real change will be lost.
As shitty of a reality as it may be, we have to keep in mind that there are still reasonable (misinformed, but reasonable) people in the undecided column of Trump’s presidency. Despite what happened in Charlottesville.
As shitty of a reality as it may be, we have to keep in mind that there are still reasonable people who don’t care about Trump’s presidency. Or politics at all. Despite what happened in Charlottesville.
And as shitty of a reality as it may be, we have to keep in mind that we need these groups on our side for a real victory. The kind of victory that actually solves the problem of fascism instead of satisfies our urge to fight it with a quick fix.
Violence against Nazis is good. But it isn’t victory.
If the side that’s advocating for the rule of law (AKA fairness) starts breaking laws central to the heart of our nation (non-violent protest), then all bets are off. We lose our position on higher ground. And in a conflict that still drips with the blood of the Civil War, any American general who fought from 1861-1865 could tell you how valuable the top of a hill can be.
If the rioting and chaos continues, and the hate intensifies, then these conflicts will present the exact kind of opportunity this administration and its cronies on the authoritarian-right are looking for. They will see these events, not as advocacy for justice, but as an opportunity to advance their perverse version of “order”. They will turn that shadow of authoritarianism that I mentioned into pitch black night. And guess who the darkness will fall on?
Spoiler alert: it’s not the angry racists.
At least not at first.
The history of a democracy tells us that the majority of darkness will fall on those who turn violent against “the state”. The history of a democracy tells us it would be creating an environment where the “others” we’re trying to help would suffer most. The history of a democracy tells us that starting a conflict in our own country would be to abandon it completely.
And that means Donald Trump would win.
And we can’t let the biggest piece of shit in the history of American politics win.
We just can’t.
We have to keep our eye on the prize and remember we have bigger fish to fry. Because when I say that Trump will “win”, that’s not just a value statement about the hearts and minds of Americans. No, it is also a political reality. Like, Trump and his authoritarian, right-wing cronies will use chaos to win elections. In 2018, in 2020, and possibly beyond.
And if that happens, there’s no amount of punching that will save us.
Look – I’m not saying the day won’t come when we have to fight for what we believe in. Depending on what happens in those elections that day may be fast-approaching. I’m just saying we may want to exhaust all other options before violence becomes one. Because the day we choose violence is the day we choose a different path for our country.
It’s the day we take the road to civil war. And it won’t be the kind where we beat up all the Nazis and win back our freedom. No, it will be the kind with various factions and competing interests and anarchy. People will die. And the conflict will end in a new version of America. One that will no longer be America at all.
The day we should turn to violence is the day the country we love – for all its many faults – will be lost. And everything our ancestors sacrificed in the face of the first Nazi wave will be for not.
And there’s nothing American about that.
I know I don’t want it to go down that way. I have strong loss aversion when it comes to the sacrifices made on behalf of the betterment of humanity.
Their sacrifices demand ours. And not punching a Nazi until 2020 is a sacrifice to be sure.
The good news is, right now, America still has a chance to win. We still have time to win elections and pass laws and come together. We can still choose the one true path over decking some khaki-colored dweeb carrying a lawn ornament.
Because – be honest – what sounds better?
A) Watching Trump die in jail as we salvage and restore the rule of law (and continue our quest for fairness)?
B) Back-handing some “whatabouter” who thinks it’s an immigrant’s fault he’s never had oral sex?
Obviously, that’s a win-win scenario. But I know which one I’m picking. I want to win win.
The only way to do that is to reach the people who are still reachable. It’s talking to that 1/3 of people who don’t care and telling them why they should. It’s reaching that percentage of Trump voters who have not fallen too far into the FOX News fever dream. It’s making it crystal clear to the low-information voter who is on the right side of history. As unsatisfying as it may be, it’s us turning to each other.
You want to punch a Nazi? I say go for it. But maybe try being an ambassador for the America you want to live in first. Start selling your potential allies on its virtues and choose violence as a last resort.
It’s the only way we come out on top. There are no other options that leave the America you’re fighting for intact.