In the week when Senator John McCain was being praised everywhere but the White House for a lifetime of principle and honor, the president of the United States was talking of violence against Democrats and journalists.
On Monday he told evangelists in Washington that if Republicans lost the mid-term election, Democrats “will overturn everything that we’ve done and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence. When you look at Antifa, these are violent people.” Did you notice his emphasis on violence?
On Thursday he told a rally in Indiana that “today’s Democrat Party is held hostage by left-wing haters, angry mobs, deep-state radicals, establishment cronies and their fake-news allies. Our biggest obstacle and their greatest ally actually is the media.”
A well-armed man in California seemed to have been listening. For also on Thursday the FBI arrested and charged him for making a series of profane telephone threats over the course of a month to kill Boston Globe journalists. The man praised Trump and used his phrases. On the same day, as if he were applauding that man’s effort, President Trump repeated the toxic phrase in a tweet: “I just cannot state strongly enough how totally dishonest much of the Media is. Enemy of the People!”
You’ve seen them, haven’t you? Those angry mobs of left-wing haters surging through the streets under flaming torches looking for peaceful white people to frighten? Of course you haven’t. That scene played out in Charlottesville last year and the cast of characters was reversed. This kind of distortion is a well-known psychological phenomenon.
Trump accuses his opponents of the very characteristics he fears in himself. This week he tweeted that journalist Carl Bernstein, “a man who lives in the past and thinks like a degenerate fool, making up story after story, is being laughed at all over the country!” Psychologists would call that projection.
What conclusion can we draw from his behavior this week but that Trump quite deliberately was suggesting violence and especially against journalists? There’s a word for that too. It’s called incitement.
No one in authority calls on him to stop it. It is condoned, enabled, and excused by elected Republican office holders nearly without exception.
Lindsey Graham stood on the Senate floor and offered an emotional tribute to his friend McCain, telling us tearfully how much he had learned from McCain and what a great example McCain had set for his Senate colleagues.
He taught us, Graham said, how “principle and compromise are not mutually exclusive,” how the other side in a negotiation has to get something too. How honor and imperfections must exist in equal measure, that it’s OK for a politician to say “I screwed up, I made a mistake and I want to make it right.” Graham said “there’s a little of McCain in all of us.” He said he hoped that he had a little of McCain in himself.
But he does not. John McCain had the political courage to criticize Donald Trump, even with his vote, when he thought Trump was wrong. Lindsey Graham began siding with Trump again even before McCain died, slyly suggesting for example that others—Lindsey Graham perhaps?—could easily replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general only days after warning against firing Sessions.
The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who argued so righteously that President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee should not receive a vote within a year of an election is suddenly in a hurry to get Trump’s nominee confirmed before November.
The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argued powerfully last Monday that the death of democracy underway now in Poland and Hungary “could all too easily happen here. There was a time, not long ago, when people used to say that our democratic norms, our proud history of freedom, would protect us from such a slide into tyranny. In fact, some people still say that. But believing such a thing today requires willful blindness.”
Let’s say that again. To believe that our norms and our history will protect us from the slide into tyranny requires willful blindness. Long-time readers of this blog know that since it began on Jan. 2, 2017, I have warned repeatedly of that slide into tyranny. Today we are closer than ever before.
Trump’s interest in violence is a flashing red light. He may seize the smallest provocation—or create one himself—as justification for extrajudicial measures in the name of “security.” It is an old trick, used repeatedly by the tyrants and dictators of the last century. Then there comes a day when the tyrant drops the pretense of democratic norms. He simply uses government power to enforce his will. His party won’t stop him and no one else can.
That is why the coming midterm election is the single most important election Americans will ever face. The Republican Party has become the defender of Trump. The Democratic Party is not unified. But this election is no longer about politics or policies or programs or economic growth or foreign policy. It is about saving our democracy and only that.
I believe in the two-party system and accept in advance the inevitable criticism for what I’m about to advocate. But just this once, and only once, must Americans vote only for Democrats in November. No split tickets, no third-party candidates, no write-ins, because only Democrat votes can defeat the party of Trump.
The polling place, while our votes still matter, is the best remedy for the slide toward tyranny.