Do Americans Know How Much Trouble They’re In?

A President who invokes absolute authority to…pardon himself. An ambassador to Germany who declares he wants to…topple the German government. Senators — the most powerful people in democracy, save the President — knocking on the door of a “detainment center”, looking for kids separated from their parents, only to be denied by guards who…laugh at them contemptuously, call the police, and have them shooed away like nobodies.

Do Americans understand how much trouble they’re now in? How grave the threat to America’s constitutional democracy, its civil society, its place in the world, and its ongoing survival is? Now. When I ask this question, you’ll protest: “Of course I do!” (or perhaps “You’re overstating it!!”, in which case the answer is already…no.) But I don’t mean you, yourself. I am asking you to ask yourself about everyone else, perhaps the mythical average American.

Here is a truth you would probably rather not hear.

America is at a crossroads. A point of no return. A democratic society cannot really survive the three assaults above, and go on being one. They may seem like just daily events in the ongoing sad saga of a troubled nation — but they are not just that. They contain great significance to history, which I feel American intellectuals are doing a poor job of interpreting and presenting to the American people. Let me take them one by one.

When a society has a leader who claims to not just be above the law — but to be the law — then such a society cannot be a democracy, or a constitutional republic, a res publica, the “public affair” of the classical Greeks. When a leader has absolute power, then rights cannot be said to exist, and there is no point to voting, representation, or legislation. If the will of the people, or their representatives, can be abrogated at any time, by a leader who can “pardon” anyone absolutely for anything, beginning with himself, then democracy ceases to matter in any way whatsoever — that is how you get to “90% of people vote for Putin!”, every single election.

Now, I am sure that you have had similar thoughts. But I want you to really understand it. When a society crosses this line, there is usually no going back. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Rome was finished. When the Sun King declared “l’etat, c’est moi”, “I am the state”, the French ancien regime was finished — the revolution was a foregone conclusion. And the same is true in America. If this line is crossed, there is likely to be no way back to democracy.

But the same is true of Senators who cannot “access” a “detainment center” — an altogether too-polite euphemism for a concentration camp, a place where people, children in this case, are literally concentrated, with no recourse or rights, simply vanished and disappeared into thin air, into a black hole. That is the point of a concentration camp — to create a black hole that is impossible for anyone to see into, for press, intellectuals, citizens, or even leaders.

What is really happening here? Democratic representation is being made impotent — visibly and in public, so everyone can see just how powerless it is against authoritarianism. Authoritarians are demonstrating their absolute power to destroy the daily workings of democracy. Think about it: mere nobodies, flunkies, “guards”, call the police, who tell Senators, they must leave. They are able to render the most powerful people in society — Senators — utterly, totally, laughably impotent. But the Senators are the people’s most powerful representatives, and if they cannot gain access to children hidden away in dungeons, then who can? No one. But that is precisely the point. It is a form of intimidation. Meant to create a society governed by fear, anxiety, impotence, the expectation of powerlessness — not one governed by law, order, and a democratic distribution of power.

Like the last line, this line too, is usually irreversible — this line is the one of delegitimizing and disempowering the mechanism of democratic representation itself. Once Senators are made impotent, they do not easily regain the power to represent the people. Who in history was famous for such a thing? Caligula, of course, who once made his horse a Senator, or a consul, depending on legend. The point wasn’t just to mock the people’s representatives — it was to demonstrate how impotent they were. To demand their servility. To say that you are no better than yoked animals to me — and that is just how powerless you remain. I can find no example of history where once representation has been delegitimized, it is suddenly made powerful and strong again. It takes decades, usually — if it happens at all.

Now let me come to the third line crossed in just this one fatal day — the ambassador who told an ally that he is out to quite literally bring down its government. What is the effect of this? It is to make America a pariah state. An international outcast, shunned, reviled, a society that civilized ones keep its distance from, lest its weakness infect them, too.

And that is precisely what authoritarians want. Do you know how abusers isolate their victims — from friends, family, colleagues, twisting the truth, telling them that they are the only ones who are looking out for them, and the ones who genuinely care for them are the ones who will hurt them? In that way, isolated, alone, the victim is weakened, afraid, hesitant — and the abuser’s job is easy. That is just what authoritarians do, too.

Why did the Soviets bring down an iron curtain? It wasn’t really to protect people from decadent capitalism — it was to isolate them and keep them dumb, ignorant, and weak. Why do China, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea block and censor the internet and outside media? It isn’t to make people virtuous — it is to keep them isolated, so that they never form bonds with anyone but their rulers.

This line too cannot be easily uncrossed. Once a society becomes a pariah state, it isn’t as if people make friends with it again overnight. Think of how Russians are regarded by the world today. They are not exactly seen as the globe’s most civilized people (sorry — let us just be honest). They are treated with suspicion, a little hostility, fear, and shame, wherever they go. That is because Russia is a pariah state, and the people of pariah states are not so easily loved or trusted again by their neighbours and peers. Bonds are broken. Friends becomes strangers and aliens to one another. Trust disintegrates. But anyone who has ever had a relationship knows: trust, once it is lost, is the hardest thing of all to repair.

So. Let me ask you again. Do you think Americans know how grave their plight is now? That they are at a crossroads? That they face all these dangers? Let me summarize them. Becoming a pariah state, shunned by the world. Becoming an authoritarian state, the rule of law shattered, in which absolute power is taken away from the people, and concentrated among the most ruthless, vicious, brutal, and inhumane (remember those flunkies, those “guards”, laughing and calling the police on Senators looking for missing kids?). And going from being an open, vibrant, optimistic society, to being something more like the Soviet Union — a place that, most troublingly of all, had no road back to being a democracy at all.

So what do you think?

Tell us in the comments.

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