We don’t have a word for the type of coup d’etat where democracy is dismantled using its own tools and its accumulated weaknesses and fault lines. But this is exactly what happened in the USA in the 5 weeks since the Trump’s inauguration. With the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, the coup d’etat was sealed. In the days since, it has just been a matter of mopping up the rest, dismantling more and more checks and balances from the key departments of government who could possibly still act in defense of the democracy, in defense of any interests other than those of the plutocrats. Trump and Congress Republicans have appointed to key departments (Justice, Education, Environmental Protection, etc — and soon — Energy) people with long track records and deeply vested interests in eliminating the functions of those departments they are now in charge of. They are there so that justice can better be subverted, so the President and his appointees don’t get investigated, so that the masses can be better indoctrinated, so that the nation’s natural resources can be better exploited by the billionaire polluters and destroyers who are part of their families, social circles or donors. And so it is being done, department by department, incapacitating any tools for accountability and opposition that were built within the system and that our taxes are supposed to be going to. Out taxes now are going to pay for the dismantling of our democracy.
Let’s call it “viral coup d’etat”, maybe even “AIDS virus coup d’etat”, because of its similarities to how a virus can disable the key functions of an organism, even it’s own defense system against viruses. Its similarities to how a virus penetrates an organism and silently reproduces itself, parasiting the very nutrients, organs and communication systems of the victim. In the case of the USA, it is the wealthiest nation in the world, so the virus grew enormously powerful in the last 40 years, while democratically minded citizens coocooned in their complacency and in illusions of the safety of their institutions. No wonder so many are shocked and say: I didn’t believe this could happen in the USA!
There were some prophets of this doom: I heard several of them, not in any fringe group, but from Bill Moyers’ guests in his TV program “Conversations with Bill Moyers”. They told me about Republican’s strategies, dating from at least Regan’s presidency, to manipulate every elected position from schoolboards to state legislatures and introduce bills everywhere that were Troyan horses for increasing their control without the public noticing what the bills were really doing. They told me about ultra-conservative “think tanks” which orchestrated their long term strategies; of conferences on manipulation where well targeted elected officials were dined and wined; of secret, exclusive organizations like “The Family” aka “C Street House”, and much more. Putting this together with the weaknesses I saw for myself, it was clear to me that the US democracy was failing and in great peril.
The endemic weaknesses were: Outrageous and growing economic inequality, a rigged financial and economic system, a low quality and segregated educational system generally; a third of the electorate not even voting, and a majority of those who did vote, being so easily swayed by fallacies and emotional appeals; the ease with which ‘divide and conquer’ methods could ensnare the ideologies of minorities who otherwise would be stronger in alliance; institutionalized racism; a judicial system severely skewed towards those with the most money to pay lawyers; outrageous and ever growing influence of money in politics eroding the representativeness of elected officials; manipulations by Republicans of the Senate’s procedures as well as of the Congress’ constitutional duties; re-districting manipulations; a media geared to attract consumers rather than inform and educate; even greater corruption of journalistic standards in media like FOX news, yet they were allowed to use public airwaves; a culture of “spin” not only in politics and corporations but in media, workplaces, government bureaucracy from the local to the federal, health care facilities, judges, educational institutions, etc.; the Anglo-liberal tendency to not say what one thinks and be compulsively polite even when confronted with blatant lies – and especially the passivity, laziness and complacency of the masses of the public as long as their personal situation didn’t get too bad. When it did get really bad (job and home loss, lack of needed healthcare, unjust judicial, etc) they were mostly on their own because that very complacency in others which eroded any real social solidarity, or truthfulness from institutions and corporations.
Despite all this many believed that the US culture and democratic institutions would be resilient enough to continue to more or less function, with pendulum swings, as they had long done. And hence the shock that,in a few weeks, it could be disabled to such an extent so it can also be dismantled, piece by piece, from the inside. Trump, a severe narcissist, is only too happy to seal a compact with Congress Republicans where he will enact the agenda the plutocrat GOP has been pushing for — including nominating top officials that will carry it out – and in exchange the Congress Republicans will confirm his nominees without fail, especially those nominees who will prevent any serious investigation of his shadowy dealings and those of his associates and accomplices. Thus the viral coup d’etat can be accomplished in a short few weeks.
In his book ”The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow State”, Mike Lofgren tells us that both Aristotle and Machiavelli talked about such processes. In fact, Cicero certainly understood them in his unmasking of the populism of Catilina and the transformation of the Roman Republic into a dictatorship by Julius Cesar. It happened in Germany too with the rise of the Nazi party and Hitler’s dictatorship. Interestingly, the very conservative journalist Edward Peter Garrett, in his book “The People’s Pottage” (1954) had a concept he called “revolution within the form”. The Republican manipulators of the last four decades had no shortage of historical sources and examples, as well as present talent in marketing, psychology, brainwashing and demagoguery methods.
The massive, loud, straight-speaking, and creative mobilization by millions of people nationwide in resistance to the Trump agenda is refreshing, inspiring and it clearly is here to stay. If it remains mostly in the form of demonstrations, articles and speeches, it will be “too little too late”. The resistance must remain peaceful but must encompass as comprehensive and radical a strategy as that which those Republican anti-democratic strategists of the last 40 years deployed. It must then go further to repair the tissues and strengthen the weaknesses that led to conditions where demagogues could take control. That strategy will be developed elsewhere. But it cannot be developed if we do not strive to understand the problem realistically, as it is now and what led to it. This is the purpose of this article, in which I also invite other thinkers to look with me at the bigger picture and describe what they see, so together we can see more clearly.
By Claudia Chaves, author of “Why People Don’t Think For Themselves – How to Renew a Failing Democracy.”