Tuesday, January 2, 2018

On Resisting Scandal Fatigue And The Importance Of Staying Outraged

But Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election. Trump will be only the fourth candidate in history and the second in more than a century to win the presidency after losing the popular vote. He is also probably the first candidate in history to win the presidency despite having been shown repeatedly by the national media to be a chronic liar, sexual predator, serial tax-avoider, and race-baiter who has attracted the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Most important, Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won. -- Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books, Nov. 10, 2016
Last year, after the unthinkable happened and a malevolent orange shit gibbon became the President of these United States, Masha Gessen wrote an important and much circulated piece entitled "Autocracy: Rules for Survival."  She criticized Obama, Clinton and other leaders of the Democratic Party for their far too conciliatory post-election reactions that pretended Trump was a "normal" politician to be given the benefit of the doubt.  She sharply observed that their magnanimous responses may have been meant to ensure a peaceful transfer of power but effectively closed off any alternative to despair and acquiescence by implying that there was no daylight between acceptable, indeed necessary, peaceful protest and a violent insurgency. 

We are now being cautioned by The New York Times' Frank Bruni and others after a year of enduring the complete abdication of political norms and attacks on our democratic institutions, the corruption and self-enrichment, the racism and xenophobia, the pathological lying and incoherent rambling, the obstruction of justice and abuses of power, that we should avoid hysteria and become more measured in our opposition -- that we should keep our collective powder dry for when Trump creates a true national emergency.  As Bruni puts it:  "When Trump’s opponents react to so much of what he says and does with such unfettered outrage, that howl becomes background noise, and it’s harder to make sure that his unequivocally foul maneuvers stand out from his debatably foolish ones."  Similarly, Ed Kilgore argues that "In the end, Trump’s critics and accusers will not be able to capitalize on any particular scandal so long as they treat his very presence in the White House as scandalous."

I respectfully but vigorously disagree.  In light of this call for modulating our outrage, it is well worth revising the six rules Gessen provided after the election which are more relevant than ever:

Rule #1.  Believe the autocrat.

Trump says a lot of ignorant and provocative things that one would not expect from any rational human being, much less the purported leader of the free world.  While, as Gessen pointed out, it is human nature to assume he is exaggerating and to reach for a rationalization, it should be clear by now that Trump means what he says.  When he taunts Kim Jong-un and threatens to obliterate North Korea we should not assume he is bluffing.  When he uses white nationalist rhetoric harkening back to the Jim Crow Era that includes support for the symbols of the Confederacy while condemning African Americans who protest police killings and mass incarceration as "sons of bitches," we should not assume he is merely firing up his base.  And when he repeatedly bemoans his inability to influence the Justice Department to shut down the Russia investigation and refocus on his political opponents, we should not assume he is merely venting and won't start issuing pardons or takes steps to fire Mueller when the walls start closing in further.  

Rule #2.  Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.

The bar is so low for Trump that anytime he reads complete sentences from a teleprompter without going on an off-the-cuff rant or responds to a crisis or national tragedy with an appropriate, if robotic, scripted response without drooling all over himself, the media is quick to remark that, at long last, Trump has acted presidential.  Mainstream pundits and politicians yearn, as we all do, for a calm, rational leader and many continue to engage in magical thinking, believing that any time now Trump will moderate his behavior and transform from mentally and morally unfit to fit.  But we can't be fooled by the occasional appearance of reasonableness.  As Gessen wrote last year: "Panic can be neutralized by falsely reassuring words about how the world as we know it has not ended. It is a fact that the world did not end on November 8 nor at any previous time in history. Yet history has seen many catastrophes, and most of them unfolded over time. That time included periods of relative calm."

Rule #3.   Institutions will not save you

The White House press corps dutifully lines up every day to ask questions of Trump's press secretary who enables the President by translating his crazy gibberish into something less insane and inane (but see #1), and by spewing lies that are then dutifully reported.  Any criticism of Trump or members of his Administration -- particularly if they have worn a military uniform -- is immediately characterized as disrespectful, not to mention "fake news."  Trump himself refers to the media as "the enemy of the people" and has threatened to shut down those outlets that he deems to be unfair -- or disloyal -- to him.  This has all had a corrosive effect on the public's view of what constitutes not only real news, but real facts.  As for other institutions, Congress, controlled by Republicans, has slow walked investigations that could lead to revelations of the Trump campaign's connections to Russia while pursuing trumped up scandals to undermine those revelations.  Republicans have determined to ignore Trump's corruption and unfitness for office in favor of tax cuts, deregulation and appointing right wing judges.  And speaking of those judges, the courts, are being stocked with lifetime appointees who are filling vacancies left open by unprecedented Republican obstruction during the Obama Administration -- not to mention the theft of a Supreme Court seat.  This may come in handy for Trump and his cabal as they challenge the arrests, indictments and subpoenas that are sure to come their way.

Rule #4.  Be outraged.

Every day there is something -- often more than one thing -- to be outraged about.  It is hard to resist scandal fatigue.  It is hard not to become inured to the arrogant abuse of power, the daily madness, the destruction of formerly accepted norms, the lies, the corruption, the cruelty, the ignorance and the instability.  The drip, drip, drip of the Russia scandal.  The Katrina-like failure to respond to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.  The nomination of unqualified judges who are avatars for the culture war.  The senselessly harsh and aggressive immigration tactics.  The attempts to sabotage the ability to obtain affordable health insurance.  The ethics violations from virtually every cabinet member when they are not otherwise destroying the agencies they were appointed to run.  The efforts to mine, drill, frack and otherwise exploit public lands while ignoring climate science and destroying the environment.  The self-enrichment and business deals by Trump's family in the face of massive conflicts of interest.  And on and on and on.  It is impossible to keep up. But, as Gessen reminds us, "in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock"

Rule #5.  Don’t make compromises.

We have already seen virtually the entire Republican Party sell their already very dark souls.  It is essential that we ensure that the Democrats resist and refuse to cooperate with an illegitimate president -- one who has still not disclosed his tax returns or revealed his myriad business interests and conflicts of interest; who, the mounting evidence suggests, cooperated with a foreign power to get elected; who is catering to a white nationalist agenda; and who has complete disdain for constitutional principles, democratic institutions and conventional norms.  "Those who argue for cooperation will make the case, much as President Obama did in his speech, that cooperation is essential for the future. They will be willfully ignoring the corrupting touch of autocracy, from which the future must be protected."

Rule #6.  Remember the future.

I can't say it any better than Gessen said a year ago:  "Failure to imagine the future may have lost the Democrats this election. They offered no vision of the future to counterbalance Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past. They had also long ignored the strange and outdated institutions of American democracy that call out for reform—like the electoral college, which has now cost the Democratic Party two elections in which Republicans won with the minority of the popular vote. That should not be normal. But resistance—stubborn, uncompromising, outraged—should be."

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