…I laughed when he rode down the escalator with Melania, too.
Do people know in the moment that they’re witnessing an inflection point in world history? Do they think of what’s happened in the past, see the obvious parallels, and realize that it’s happening again, in just about the same way – knowing that history, as Twain is supposed to have said, may not repeat, but it often rhymes? Or does it always sneak up, hiding under their disbelief, until it’s over, and they only see it later, years down the road, and realize: That was the tipping point. That was the moment it became unstoppable, and we didn’t even see it.
Is this such a moment?
I’ve been wrestling with this for a couple of years now. Beginning that awful November in 2016, the steely, clear-eyed, educated half of my brain first started whispering, then speaking more loudly, and more loudly and forcefully still, until now it’s pretty much screaming at the other half, the emotional, disbelieving, crawls-into-bed-and-pulls-the-covers-up-over-its-head half, that this is it. This is it, dummy! I’m still trying my damnedest not to listen, but this morning I woke up, read of the latest unbelievable Trump outrage, and had a mental image of the Reichstag burning in 1933.
Don’t give up, my few gentle readers, not yet, but I’m afraid I have to tell you now that this really might be it:
This is being derided in some quarters this morning as a stunt, another side of red meat being thrown to his Base in the run-up to the midterms, because as everybody knows, he can’t do that. The right to citizenship at birth is written right into the Constitution, in the 14th Amendment, and no Executive Order, indeed no Act of Congress, can overrule it. Yet Trump said this in an interview to the political journalists at Axios:
It was always told to me that you needed a constitutional amendment. Guess what? You don’t. You can definitely do it with an Act of Congress. But now they’re saying I can do it just with an executive order.
In Trumpworld, somebody is always saying something never spoken. He’s always hearing what a lot of people are saying. Now, apparently, he’s heeding the phantom advice of non-existent staffers in the White House legal department that he can erase something out of the Constitution. He can seal the deal with one of those absurd Trumpy signatures he scrawls in letters three inches high at the bottom of a sheet of paper, which he’ll hold up for the reporters to photograph at one of those absurd signing ceremonies.
Of course he can’t do that! But what if he does?
Right now, he’s using the U.S. Army as his political plaything, sending them down at brigade strength, 5,200 men, to secure the Southern border against an “invasion” of about an equal number of weary migrants, women and children, who are now trudging through Mexico towards the only hope they have left. Brute military force to the rescue! It’s the American way! The troops have to be deployed, he explains, as we must guard against the dreaded Caravan. The repugnant, evil Caravan. They’re coming to take away the livelihoods of good Americans, to fester within our communities, suck up our social services, they belong to gangs, they’re thugs and murderers, they certainly have “Middle Easterners” among them, bad people, very bad people, and they’re wracked with deadly contagious diseases to boot, oh yes: leprosy, they say, and smallpox.
This has actually been asserted on Fox News. Leprosy and smallpox.
This would be terrifying, except smallpox was eradicated from the face of the Earth in 1980, and now exists only as samples carefully preserved by the Centers for Disease Control, just in case we ever need to fight it again, and leprosy isn’t actually all that contagious. It takes repeated close contact with nose and mouth droplets from someone with untreated leprosy to catch it, and anyway it’s completely curable.
This is straight from the playbook, though, isn’t it? Stoke fear, turn fear into hatred, whip the crowd into a frenzy, manufacture a crisis, announce the requirement for emergency measures, take power in the name of law, order, and the good of the Republic, then become dictator. Trump is right on track, and now in order, he says, to stop the pestilence of “anchor babies”, the U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants whose automatic citizenship makes it harder to toss their parents out the door, he will scrap the 14th Amendment. Just like that. No biggie. Don’t you get the feeling that this is a trial balloon? Would you put it past him to give it a shot, just to see what happens?
After all, he’s done everything he wants all his life, the law be damned, and he always gets away with it. Once in office, he started by shattering norms, refusing to divest his businesses, abusing his pardon power, raking in profits for his various enterprises by exploiting the prestige of the office, and the desire of so many to please him. That was painless, so he took it to the next level. He is now in open and notorious breach of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution – what of it? He’s officially an unindicted co-conspirator in the crimes of Michael Cohen. Yeah. So? He’s trying to help a foreign potentate cover up the murder of a journalist for the Washington Post – sure, and have you noticed that all the complaining is starting to peter out? A little while back, his Justice Department’s order to seize and immediately deport families at the border, including those who were presenting themselves to authorities at a port of entry to officially claim refugee status, was contrary both to US Law and international treaties to which America is a signatory. Oh well. It wasn’t legal to take children away from their parents, either, but he did. The courts then ordered him to reunite the kidnapped children with their parents, and he never really complied, not really. It’s hard, his officials told the court. We’re trying, they say, we’re working on it, but of course, you must understand, we made such a hash of it that a lot of the time we didn’t even take down the details, and we don’t know where the kids are. Heard much about that lately?
Of course he can’t repeal a part of the Constitution. He simply can’t.
But what if he does?
What if he fights it all the way to the Supreme Court – will the stacked court be with him, will his buddy Kavanaugh feel obliged to repay a debt? And what if he simply ignores a Supreme Court order, should it go against him? It’s happened before. Andrew Jackson, one of Trump’s heroes, did it while he was herding indigenous peoples to their deaths along the Trail of Tears. Worcester v. Georgia, look it up. “John Marshall has made his decision,” Jackson is reputed to have said, “now let him enforce it”. Or, as this fellow said today on Twitter:
Or, as the Onion put it:
Presumably, if an executive order is ruled unconstitutional, no court would recognize the decree under that order that a person is not, after all, a citizen. But one wonders, if Trump was to order his ICE agents to seize and deport people because he says they aren’t citizens anyway, would they do it? When it’s crunch time, will the people who form the tip of the spear remember that their oath was to the Constitution, not the President? Or will everybody just fall reflexively into line? Have you seen anybody refusing his unlawful orders so far?
This phrase keeps ringing in my ears: “I have to tell you now”.
It sounds innocuous enough. I have to tell you now. Yet these are among the most mournful words ever uttered. This was the phrase, recorded for posterity almost 80 years ago now, that served as the acknowledgement that the years of denial had been foolhardy, that the storm really had been coming all along, and the moment to do something about it had passed before anybody saw it for the last chance that it was, maybe in the Sudetenland, or during the Anschluss – or maybe it was never stoppable at all, not since that fire in the Reichstag.
They were spoken by Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister in the years immediately preceding WW II, who’d tried repeatedly to negotiate some sort of stable relationship – what we would today call “détente” – with Nazi Germany, which was then displaying its aggressive and expansionist tendencies. An accord reached in Munich granted the Nazis certain territorial gains in the “Sudetenland”, Czech territory populated by 3 million ethnic Germans, in return for peace. Chamberlain famously held up a copy of the accord at a press conference, exultant. Peace in our time, he assured his nation.
Hitler had of course fooled him, had merely played for time, and soon enough invaded Poland. I think there can be nothing sadder than Chamberlain’s radio address to the English people, given September 3, 1939, to tell them that Hitler was ignoring a Franco-British ultimatum to withdraw from Poland, and therefore Britain and Germany were now in a state of war, for the second time in only two decades. His voice conveyed a universe of lost hope. “I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany”. I have to tell you now. God knows he didn’t want to bear such news. He had to.
I heard it again last night, watching a documentary. It’s something everybody should hear, I think:
This time the enemy comes from within, his appeaser not the hapless leader of another country, but his own Congress, unwilling to stop him, oblivious to the mounting danger. We may never get an official announcement, as the British people did, that it’s too late, it’s happened, and the worst is upon us. We may just wake up one day and realize it’s so. Perhaps before long, an image like this will mark the death of the Republic, and then we’ll know:
Maybe the midterms will turn the tide. Maybe I’ll have a cheery column to write about there being, finally, a check on the budding tyrant’s power. I hope so, I’m still not ready to believe the United States has passed a point of no return in its slide towards dictatorship, but I have to tell you, now, that it can happen. But I’ve written this jeremiad before, haven’t I?