We warned the American people that electing Donald Trump would be a disaster. Unfortunately, too many Americans — from the political and media classes to everyday people — chose to ignore those warnings.
Our warnings were specific: Trump and his fake populist movement are a form of poison in the American body politic. Today’s Republican Party and the larger “conservative” movement do not believe in democracy. They are authoritarians, trying to impose an apartheid Christian fascist plutocratic state on the American people.
If Trump were elected president, we warned, he would set into motion a series of events that would create an existential crisis for American democracy and society. He was mentally unwell, perhaps sociopathic. The civil rights and human rights of Black and brown people — and other vulnerable and marginalized groups — would be imperiled. Women’s reproductive rights and freedoms, including the right to abortion enshrined in the Roe v. Wade decision, would be taken away.
All those predictions, and many others, have come true. At first, those of us who sounded the alarm about the coming American nightmare were called crazy, hyperbolic, reactionary or irrational. We were “haters,” desperate for attention, who suffered from “Trump derangement syndrome.”
As we now know from the draft Supreme Court opinion recently published by Politico, the end of Roe v. Wade is upon us, and abortion rights as a matter of constitutional law will no longer exist in the United States. The fall of Roe is a huge step forward in the much larger attack on human and civil rights in America by the Republican fascists, the “conservative” movement and the larger white right. Many Americans now find themselves trapped in the very nightmare whose existence they spent years denying.
Sometimes the ground moves beneath our feet. That is true for both societies and individuals. The challenge then becomes how to reorient ourselves
How did well-intentioned people in America’s political class, and ordinary citizens who believe in democracy, get this so wrong? How did they so greatly underestimate the danger of Trumpism?
“Normalcy bias,” meaning the belief that because things have operated in a certain way for as long as many people can remember, explains much of this error. Intellectual laziness and a culture of distraction played a big role as well. Trumpism, like other forms of fascism, is nothing new. The answers (and the likely future) were visible for all who chose to look for them.
The American people are also exhausted from a pandemic that has now killed more than one million people in this country alone. A decades-long attack on the American Dream and what remains of social democracy has also left many of us in a state of precarity, perpetual vulnerability and learned helplessness. People who are mired in negativity and feelings of despair can easily succumb to cynicism, distrust, religious extremism, conspiratorial thinking, anti-intellectualism and other unhealthy states of mind. These are the same emotions, thinking, and behaviors that nurture fascism and other forms of authoritarianism.
There is also the power of American myth, and our belief that we are an an “exceptional” nation, the “greatest” on Earth. According to that mythology, the American people are inherently good, and fascism and authoritarianism are problems that by definition can only exist elsewhere. Even in the wake of the Trump presidency, many Americans are still in denial about the fact that tens of millions of their fellow (white) citizens reject multiracial democracy and want to replace it with outright fascism or some other form of racial authoritarianism.
What about America’s political elites? What about the “thought leaders” in the news media and the commentariat, who are paid to be expert interpreters of political events? How did they fail to see this nightmare emerging?
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Such people have a deep and abiding belief in “the system.” To imagine that “the system” is failing is to call into question their own identities and futures relative to it. Few people want to reckon with their own obsolescence. At an even deeper level, many people who are part of that system reflexively resist confronting their own role in creating and worsening this disaster.
A person who is associated with the “system” or the “establishment” is also very likely a person privileged by that system, whether because of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, wealth and income, residency status, lack of disability or something else. So for many members of the media and political elite, it is not possible to conceive of this American nightmare in general, or the end of Roe in particular, as something that is real, possible and personal. Those people find themselves in an altered world yet are still in denial about it. The cognitive dissonance borders on being pathological.
Author and Daily Beast writer Wajahat Ali recently described this state of denial on Twitter:
All of us — who were denounced as reactionary and alarmist by those paid incredible sums of money to be analysts and influencers — were right. That’s the problem with the DC/NYC circle — it’s a small, closed, often homogeneous group who only hang out with each other.
Cultural historian and media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan offered a similar intervention, writing: “I can’t believe that there are people who have lived through the past six years in America who still believe we operate according to the democratic norms of the late 20th century. The rest of us are dealing with this full-on assault in the real world.”
At Mother Jones, Monika Bauerlein shared these insights about the power of denial among America’s media class, writing that Republicans were pursuing “minority rule” and that “sugarcoating” that fact with polite words helps no one:
In fact, there’s an argument that sugarcoating the abortion debate is part of what got us here. As the journalist Farai Chideya, who hosts the podcast Our Body Politic, wrote on Twitter, “Too many times I’ve been in newsrooms where a post-Roe and post-Voting Rights Act future was dismissed summarily as a possibility. So we as a profession created a dangerous filter bubble, dismissing individuals and groups as fringe when they were the tip of the spear.”
In a democracy, the fourth estate is supposed to hold the powerful accountable in order to help the public make informed political decisions. In this context, the fourth estate are the harbor masters of democracy, helping to navigate ships through dangerous waters. But in the dark and turbulent waters of the Trump era, the harbor masters have become confused. They keep driving vessels onto the rocks. The wrecks are piling up, but the harbor masters insist their maps must be correct.
We have seen this repeatedly throughout the Age of Trump and beyond: The country’s leading publications will shine a bright light on the Republican plot against democracy — but then, the next day or sometimes later on the same day, will pivot back to the very same both-sides coverage and horserace journalism that led to America’s democracy crisis in the first place.
It is no wonder, then, that the American people are confused, angry and disoriented. The voices who are supposed to make complicated matters of politics and society clearer and more legible have utterly failed to fulfill their responsibility.
Many Americans will march in protest after Roe is overturned. Activist groups will mobilize supporters. Democrats will try to turn the outrage to their advantage. But there’s a huge problem with that plan.
The imminent end of Roe v. Wade will pose a great test for American democracy. Many Americans will certainly participate in marches and other protests when the Republican-controlled Supreme Court votes to overturn Roe v. Wade, very likely next month. Civil society organizations are mobilizing their members and the larger public. The Democrats hope to use outrage over the Republican assault on reproductive rights and freedoms to mobilize their voters for the midterms and beyond. Organizations across the country are enacting plans to ensure that women and girls who choose to terminate their pregnancies can do so.
Inevitably, this mobilization for women’s rights and freedoms will be met by a powerful counter-mobilization from the right-wing. Extreme violence by the latter is a definite possibility.
This plan has one huge problem: Democratic mobilization is all well and good, but today’s Republicans and “conservatives”, and the larger white right do not believe in democracy and are actively seeking to destroy it. The nullification of Roe v. Wade is a stark example of the tyranny of the minority: The Supreme Court’s decision is widely unpopular and contrary to the common good. It also violates fundamental human rights and liberties and damages democracy.
In a functioning democracy, public opinion is supposed to serve as a barometer and guide for elected officials and their policymaking. Marches, mobilization and social movements are forms of pressure on elected officials and other elites. But the Republican-fascist movement and other “conservatives” do not care about that. They are creating a political system that allows them to advance their agenda without being limited or otherwise restrained by public pressure or democratic will.
To wit. The reversal of Roe v. Wade is the work of two anti-majoritarian and anti-democratic political institutions, the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court. To make matters even clearer, five of the nine current Supreme Court justices were nominated by Republican presidents who did not win the popular vote.
Three of those justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — were chosen by Donald Trump. He lost the popular vote twice, was impeached twice, attempted a coup and engaged in a long list of high crimes against American democracy and society. In practice, Trump is also a white supremacist, a fascist demagogue and a political cult leader.
As for the Senate, it disproportionately empowers smaller, largely rural “red” states over more populous, metropolitan “blue” states, where the vast majority of Americans live. The Republicans have also used the Senate filibuster to prevent the Democrats from passing major legislation, including popular measures to protect reproductive rights, voting rights and democracy in general.
To insulate themselves from public outrage about Roe v. Wade (and other unpopular policies) the Republicans use gerrymandering, vote rigging, voter intimidation, vote theft and other anti-democratic measures to restrict the voting rights of Black and brown Americans and other key Democratic constituencies.
Writing at Jacobin, Ben Beckett connects the impending Roe v. Wade decision to the larger Republican-fascist project, describing the current Supreme Court as the right’s “most powerful weapon” in establishing rule “against the people”:
While the Supreme Court is especially insulated from democracy and accountability, this authoritarian impulse has always been at the core of conservatism, and the Right has always had a tenuous relationship to democracy. Historically, it has only acceded to democratic demands kicking and screaming, and it has consistently tried to roll back democratic practices and revert power to unaccountable elites. …
While the desire to overturn Roe v. Wade long precedes Donald Trump’s presidency, Alito’s decision is best understood in the context of the broader counter-democratic movement that has been picking up steam for the past seven years….
There is no reason to think this will get any better, or to expect another outcome when it comes to other important issues. … There is a special sense of helplessness here. Anyone who pays even a little bit of attention to politics knows exactly what will happen, and knows that no one will stop it. The justices will surely continue to find reasons to strike down popular legislation and regulations that were enacted by “the people and their elected representatives,” just as surely as they will find reasons to return questions of individual liberty, voting rights, and freedom of assembly and expression to state governments dominated by conservative extremists sure to restrict them. … It’s all just motivated reasoning for raw power: they’re all for democracy, as long as they can first guarantee that they’ll win.
In a new essay for the New Republic, Katherine Stewart describes the impending reversal of Roe as “the direct consequence of the pact between the Republican Party and America’s religious nationalists”:
Tellingly, the authoritarian origins of the decision are written into the draft opinion itself, which … will serve as a model and platform for advancing a wider assault on individual rights and American democracy for the benefit of a privileged few. Women of childbearing age are among the first victims of the authoritarian movement that brought us a radicalized Supreme Court. They won’t be the last….
Depriving individuals of their rights is only half of the work of a court bent on paving the way for a Christian nationalist regime. The other half consists in dispensing privileges to favored groups….
Anyone who cares about the rights of individuals against tyranny should fight the court’s apparent decision on abortion rights. But unless we make the fight about the takeover of the court itself — and unless it brings about the changes that this corrupted institution requires—the existential threat to American democracy will persist.
Political scientists and other researchers have shown that Congress is largely unresponsive to the policy demands of working class and poor people and instead takes its directives from the plutocrat class and large corporations. That is another important aspect of the new America Republicans and “conservatives” are trying to create: a fake democracy where it will be virtually impossible to defeat Republicans by electoral means.
Does that mean the American people should surrender to the fascists, or hunker down and wait out the storm? Of course not. They must go beyond thinking of democracy as a matter of voting every few years, donating to causes or candidates, attending protests or marches once or twice year, writing letters to elected official or “liking” and “sharing” a news item, petition or political meme online.
We must go beyond thinking of democracy as a matter of voting, donating money or “liking” political memes on Facebook. Democracy is not those things.
Democracy is much more than those things. To defeat neofascism, the American people must come to understand democracy as a vocation and cultural practice. That means participating in local civic organizations and creating social change on an intimate, personal, community-based level.
This moment also demands a commitment to long-term struggle: winning back and protecting reproductive rights, voting rights and other essential aspects of democracy and freedom may well be a decades-long battle. Defeating the Republican-fascists and the larger white right will also require learning the lessons of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the LGBTQ rights movement and other freedom struggles. Corporeal politics, including strikes, sustained protests, boycotts and other forms of civil disobedience, potentially on an unprecedented scale, may well be required to win back American democracy.
This American nightmare is not going away anytime soon. The Republican-fascist movement will only become more aggressive with the end of Roe v. Wade. It is winning, and can sense larger victories ahead.
This test of democracy will not be a matter of one finite event, one year or one political campaign. Do the American people have the courage and fortitude for the long fight? Or will they simply convince themselves that this must be the new normal and therefore acceptable? America’s future depends on the answer to those questions.
Read more on the aftermath of the leaked Roe v. Wade opinion: