authoritarianism, Civil rights, History, Populism, Radical extremism

America, the panic room

Oct 5 2020

By Thomas Frank* – Le Monde Diplomatique, English edition

Both political parties in the US believe the other side is plotting a takeover of the nation that will end American democracy. The panic, fear, ranting and scolding has reached unbearable levels

In this, the worst year of everyone’s life, I had a very pleasant summer. For reasons of family necessity, I returned for the month of July to the house in suburban Kansas City in which I grew up — a slightly dilapidated shingle home that is situated in a neighborhood of vast green lawns and imposing fake-baronial mansions. There I spent the month reading novels about World War II, making minor repairs to the sagging homestead, watching old movies, drinking Missouri wine — and quite often I was able to forget that there was a deadly pandemic and a full economic collapse in the world around me. In the mornings the sun would be shining, the flowers intensely fragrant, the car traffic thin to non-existent. I would climb on my bicycle and ride the silent byways of what is probably the most beautiful city in America, and when I had completed my exercise I would turn on Twitter and grab the newspaper out of the driveway and…

Bang. There it would be, just like the day before: panic, confusion, accusation, denunciation. Videos of people yelling at each other in public, of people brandishing firearms, of people driving cars through crowds of protesters, of people hysterically reciting passages from the nation’s founding documents as they tried to cling to sanity.

New symptoms of degeneration every day, and above them all, the growing feeling that no one really knows what the hell is going on.

Two items from the Kansas City Star for 14 July 2020:

• At a barbecue restaurant near my family’s house, a man reportedly walked in wearing a bright red Trump hat but no antiviral face mask. When the kid at the cash register (the kid is paid $8.50 per hour, the paper notes) asked the man to cover his nose and mouth as per local rules, the man flipped up his shirt like Clint Eastwood in an Italian western to let the kid see that he was carrying a pistol.

• That day’s main front-page news item announced that the state of Kansas was experiencing ‘uncontrolled spread’ of coronavirus, a conclusion the Star reached not by sifting reports coming in from different parts of that state, but instead by looking at a national epidemic map on the Internet; it seems the distant authority figures who control this particular map had moved Kansas from the red category (bad) to the dark red category (worse). And that, plus some local details, was the story; that was the shocking headline for the two million people of greater Kansas City: something had changed on an official-looking website somewhere.

No one really knows anything

I am not saying that making a news story out of a map on the Internet is lazy journalism; on the contrary, it’s typical in America these days. Regional newspapers can’t sift through reports from all across the state where they’re situated, because generally speaking they no longer have enough reporters to do a job like that. Like many comparable news-gathering operations in America, the Kansas City Star has been sold from owner to owner for years, haemorrhaging talent all the while. It sold its landmark office building a few years ago. Its corporate owner went into bankruptcy in February. In July it was purchased by a hedge fund based in New Jersey.

That is where we are in America, year 2020: no one really knows anything for sure anymore, and the death of newspapers is only the beginning of the problem. Thanks to the unprecedented quarantine lockdowns across the country, personal interaction with other humans is problematic; public buildings are closed or highly restricted; murder rates are spiking; people are afraid to fly; schools are online only; people are acting out scenes from nightmare cowboy movies; Fox News is dazzling your elderly father with images of violent disorder; and the only reason his old-fashioned phone rings anymore is so a computerised voice can threaten him with imprisonment unless he wires thousands of dollars at once to the computer’s bank account.

Meanwhile, hurricanes are lining up to pummel Louisiana and there are so many wildfires in California the sky is orange. Everyone is depressed. Things are falling apart and there is no one to put them back together.

When I was younger, this country’s leaders seemed to specialise in reassuring people during dark times, but the current occupant of the White House has no interest in that, only in wriggling out of the blame. Self-absorbed, incapable of truthful utterance, Donald Trump has reacted to his people’s agony like a man watching a National Geographic TV show about the sad travails of some distant species.

The best summary I have seen of our epistemological predicament in Covidtime came from the mayor of Kansas City when the Star asked him to comment on a detachment of federal agents who had reportedly been sent to the city but whom no one had seen or heard from. Said he, ‘with frustration’, ‘You can’t verify it because nothing can be verified.’

Fears of the end of something big

When nothing can be verified, the imagination takes over. And it doesn’t require much imagination in Covidtime to launch our fears into the stratosphere. Americans are facing the end of the world, we imagine, or the end of our way of life, or the end of something big and important, something we can’t quite put our finger upon but that we’re really upset about.

There are at least a dozen of these fear complexes running as I write this. Fear of what a thoroughly Republicanised Supreme Court will do. Fear of cops beating and killing without accountability. Fear of riots in the streets. Fear that people will lose their jobs for showing insufficient liberalism. Fear of people who refuse to wear masks. Fear of masks themselves as a kind of muzzle, a negation of your personhood mandated by some faraway power that you have never heard of.

This being an election year, the Number One fear is political: that American democracy itself is sick or is about to collapse into dictatorship.

By now this is a familiar tune, of course: liberals have been trying to scare one another with it ever since Donald Trump was elected (1). For years, celebrated journalists and social media superstars have denounced Trump as a Russian agent and described his every screwup as part of a diabolical plot against democracy. Comparisons of his tenure to Watergate have been commonplace since he was sworn in. A former Wall Street executive became famous in 2017 for enumerating the many tiny ways the idiot president was supposedly dragging us to authoritarianism; the next year, two Harvard professors got on the bestseller list with a scholarly book called How Democracies Die. This president, went the terrifying media story in those days, doesn’t respect norms or traditions, he doesn’t respect the media, he doesn’t respect the foreign policy establishment, and he lives to do what Vladimir Putin tells him to do.

Liberals don’t talk about ‘Russiagate’ much anymore, but they don’t really need to. The cultural rule of Covidtime — that everything must be cranked in the direction of maximum panic and urgency — has churned those old fears into a hurricane of anxiety which seems to gain strength the closer we get to election day. ‘I Fear that We are Witnessing the End of American Democracy’, runs a recent headline in the New York Times.

An essay that is now being passed around by my liberal friends bears the headline ‘We Don’t Know how to Warn you any Harder. America is Dying’ (2). The current cover story in The Atlantic magazine compares the upcoming election to 9/11: all the political experts can see that a disaster is coming — that Trump will try to discredit the results — but no one knows what to do about it. Similar warnings of impending political doom — including one written by retired Army officers — arrive over social media literally every day.

What makes this moment fascinating as well as horrifying is that Trump supporters claim to tremble at this same fear. A coup d’état is indeed coming, they say, only it is liberals within the administrative and media elite who are planning it. Ironically, the right derives its fear of this coming leftwing takeover… from liberal whining about a rightwing takeover! The Russiagate investigation, they argue, was in fact a coup attempt driven by ‘anti-Trump conspirators across the US government and in the press’, in the words of a popular 2019 book. And all these present-day liberal fears of a Trumpist assault on democracy, they argue, are merely evidence of the liberals’ own plans to assault a democracy that just happens to love Trump — a false pretext that is being built up so that action can be taken later on. The liberals, this argument goes, are dropping hints of their conspiracy now ‘so that when it happens you won’t think it was a conspiracy’ (3), a super-ingenious double-axel bit of reasoning performed for readers by Michael Anton, a former Trump administration official who gained fame in 2016 for comparing that year’s election to a rebellion of passengers on a hijacked airliner (4).

Pageants of panic

The Covid epidemic forced both Democrats and Republicans to cancel their in-person conventions, ordinarily the high point of the political year, and to substitute in their place two barely watchable TV spectaculars — basically, four nights of poorly produced solo performances by each party’s celebrities. In some ways the two spectacles were quite different from one another — the Republicans shouted and snarled, the Democrats put more emphasis on ethnic diversity and the moral virtue of their leaders. But in the broadest of senses these Covidtime convos were very similar. Both were pageants of panic that encouraged viewers to believe the absolute worst about their opponents and also to hope that cool sane normalcy might return, if only the right candidate prevailed in November.

For the Democrats, the panic part came easy. They merely had to reiterate what the mainstream news media have been saying for four years: that Donald Trump is a menace to our tradition of government; that he has a soft spot for bigots; that he has bungled the nation’s response to the pandemic; that he is obviously incompetent; that he has cast doubt on the electoral process in all sorts of ways. This was especially easy for the Democrats to do because each of these charges is more or less accurate.

Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic senator from Illinois, called Trump a ‘coward in chief’ who has failed US soldiers with his insufficient hawkishness towards Russia. Pop singer Billie Eilish announced that ‘Donald Trump is destroying our country and everything we care about.’ Andrew Cuomo, governor of the state of New York, reprising his well-known role as the embodiment of administrative competence (5), implied that Trumpism itself was a kind of virus.

Former president Barack Obama was professorial and sober as he summarised the dangers of Trumpism. He allowed that he had expected the TV billionaire to rise to the job of chief magistrate once Obama had handed it off to him. ‘But he never did,’ Obama intoned. Trump ‘has shown no interest in putting in the work. No interest in finding common ground … no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.’ Obama proceeded to blame the entire coronavirus death toll on Trump, as well as the destruction of our ‘proud reputation around the world’, whatever that might be. Addressing the Republicans’ professed concerns about election integrity, Obama topped the right’s double axel with a triple: ‘That’s how a democracy withers,’ Obama intoned. ‘Until it’s no democracy at all.’

What a friend we have in Joe Biden: this was the convention’s other outstanding theme. Obama called his former vice-president ‘a brother’. Bernie Sanders applied the words, ‘empathetic … honest … decent’. There was little discussion of Biden’s long career in Washington, in part because Biden’s actual record on trade and crime would send voters reeling in disgust, but also because in Covidtime all conflicts must come down to good versus evil. Or, as Biden put it himself, the striving of light to ‘overcome this season of darkness in America’.

‘All elections are important,’ Biden told viewers, in his lovably clumsy way. ‘But we know in our bones this one is more consequential.’ It ‘will determine what America is going to look like for a long, long time. Character is on the ballot, compassion is on the ballot, decency, science, democracy, they’re all on the ballot.’ The former vice-president did descend briefly into the realm of fact: America during the pandemic had shown ‘by far the worst performance of any nation on earth’. But overall he tried to keep things on a spiritual plane, a place where abstract concepts fought momentous battles: ‘May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight as love and hope and light join in the battle for the soul of the nation.’

Where did the inequality talk go?

In decades gone by, Democratic conventions always had a very predictable grand theme: this was the party of the middle class, the ones who looked out for your economic interests and made sure the powerful played by the rules. As the years passed, the message conformed less and less to reality, but this was the party’s historic brand image, and they were careful to remind you of it.

Not this time. Yes, there were references here and there to people suffering in the downturn caused by Trump’s pandemic. But by-and-large, the middle class theme was not emphasised this time around. For someone who has spent their life writing about business and labour and deregulation and inequality — about class — it was a little bit disorienting. What happened to all that stuff I used to care about? Where were the Dems who used to talk so compellingly about inequality? Where had that idea gone in Covidtime?

One place it went was the Republican convention, held the next week. Indeed, the Democrats’ old theme came up in the very first speech on the very first night. Right after the Pledge of Allegiance, the stage was taken by young Charlie Kirk, founder of a college group that denounces leftwing professors, who urged us to enlist in the class war. ‘For decades, ruling-class leaders in both parties sold out our future,’ he told viewers. ‘To China. To faceless corporations. And to self-serving lobbyists.’ (Yes, a Republican denounced corporations and lobbyists.) ‘They did it to preserve their own power. And enrich themselves. All while rigging the system to hold down the good, decent, middle-class patriots striving to build a family and pursue a decent life.’

The following speaker then assailed teachers’ unions.

Panic is the sexy, sobbing frenzy-theme that everyone wants to claim for their own this year, and while Democrats had warned of systemic racism and the danger Trump posed to democratic institutions, they were hopelessly outgunned in the panic challenge. Republicans are masters of the world-turned-upside-down nightmare And they played upon the ambient anxiety of 2020 like Vladimir Horowitz upon a Steinway concert grand. Put these liberals back in charge, they proceeded to warn, and you would get not just a threat to democracy, but the end of civilisation itself. You would get riots, like the handful of violent protests that broke out over the summer. Property would be destroyed. Statues would be torn down. The suburbs would be legislated into nonexistence (a classic racist trope). And none of it would be reported fairly because the news media as well as experts of every category have been utterly hypnotised by the ululating cry of senseless, anarchic liberalism.

• Thus Jim Jordan (a US Representative from Ohio): ‘Look at what’s happening in American cities’; ‘crime, violence, and mob rule’; ‘Democrats won’t let you go to work, but they’ll let you riot.’

• Thus Mark and Patty McCloskey (a wealthy couple from St Louis, Missouri, who became famous for pointing guns at protesters): ‘They want to abolish the suburbs altogether’; ‘your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America’; ‘the mob, spurred on by their allies in the media, will try to destroy you.’

• Thus Kimberly Guilfoyle (TV personality and Trump family intimate, who roared as though she were speaking in a crowded stadium rather than an empty room somewhere in DC): ‘this election is a battle for the soul of America’; ‘they want to destroy this country, and everything we have fought for and hold dear’; ‘America! It’s all on the line!’

• And thus Donald Trump Jr: ‘In the past, both parties believed in the goodness of America … This time, the other party is attacking the very principles on which our nation was founded. Freedom of thought. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. The rule of law.’

And that was just Day One of the Republican convention, reader. Other evenings were dedicated to constructing an alternate vision of reality in which Trump was innocent of every charge. He had done as well as anyone could with Covid, the Republicans said. They blamed the pandemic on China, insisted that economic recovery was just around the corner, and asserted that Trump was not a racist, a task that was undertaken by a succession of black professional athletes. Needless to say, these interventions were not nearly as successful as the party’s prolonged paean to panic.

‘The people’s president’

To really understand this year’s election, though, you must first understand the way the mainstream news media in this country have been dumping on Donald Trump for four years now. The Washington Post routinely publishes three or four op-eds per day trashing the man in the harshest possible terms; news stories in respectable outlets constantly label his statements as falsehoods and outright lies. The object, obviously, has been to wreck Trump’s popularity with the public, but it has also had the ironic effect of setting the bar for Trump himself pretty low. Here is a man Americans have heard described, day in and day out, as a human worm, as a man without virtues, as the lowest grade of despicable, maybe even a traitor. What if the Republicans presented evidence that he was actually a good guy, a man who cared?

The zillion-volt jolt of cognitive dissonance this would deliver to the cerebellum of the nation must have seemed like payoff enough to make such an effort worthwhile. And this is what explains the Republican convention’s one moment of unambiguous triumph: the grand finale, when the long succession of boring words uttered by unmoving speakers from an empty room gave way suddenly to a video of Ivanka Trump, the president’s stylish daughter, striding out of the White House between ranks of American flags, applauded by an actual, live, unmasked audience — a shocking gesture of Covid defiance.

As a slight breeze ruffled her perfect heiress hair, Ivanka stepped before a microphone set up on the south lawn of the White House and ushered us into an alternate reality where Donald Trump — ‘the people’s president’, the ‘champion of the American workers’, the ‘voice for the forgotten men and women of this country’ — was the good guy and everyone else in media and politics were the assholes, the liars, the deplorables. The president, she told us, is beloved by his grandchildren. He is beloved by ‘stoic machinists and steelworkers’ who tear up when they meet him. He has ‘a deep compassion for those who have been treated unfairly’, especially the imprisoned. He will, she told us, do anything for the dairy farmers of Wisconsin. And just imagine how bad it made him feel when he had to sacrifice ‘the strongest, most inclusive economy in a lifetime . . . and close it down to save American lives’.

Donald Trump himself then made his way out to the podium and, after accepting his party’s nomination and assuring viewers he felt normal human emotions, inverted Joe Biden’s Manichean imagery: ‘America is not a land cloaked in darkness; America is the torch that enlightens the entire world.’ Biden himself, Trump went on, was precisely what Trump himself is often accused of being: a fraud who has deceived the working class. He ‘took the donations of blue-collar workers, gave them hugs and even kisses’ — this a reference to Biden’s well-known habit of displaying unwanted affection for the women in his audience — ‘and told them he felt their pain, and then he flew back to Washington and voted to ship our jobs to China and many other distant lands,’ the president charged. Everything you thought you knew was wrong.

And the ‘political class’ of the country? They are scoundrels, every last one of them. ‘Washington insiders,’ Trump pretended to recount, ‘pleaded with me to let China continue stealing our jobs, ripping us off and robbing our country blind, but I kept my word to the American people.’ Oh, these villains were demonic, vituperative, treasonous, in love with power — and they would enact a programme of pure madness if you gave them a chance: they would ‘eliminate’ the country’s borders (‘in the middle of a global pandemic’), give illegal immigrants ‘free taxpayer-funded lawyers’ while defunding police departments, encouraging riots, and releasing ‘400,000 criminals onto the streets and into your neighbourhoods’. Let the old ruling class have its way again and it would soon be the end of the world as they set happily about consigning proud Americans to eternal lumpen-hood while bathing themselves in moral splendour.

These liberals, the president charged, ‘want to eliminate school choice while they enroll their children into the finest private schools in the land. They want to open the borders while living in walled off compounds and communities and the best neighbourhoods in the world. They want to defund the police while they have armed guards for themselves. This November, we must turn the page forever on this failed political class.’

Tiny truth behind the bullshit

There is a reason I don’t brush off these preposterous lines of Trump’s as empty falsehoods, fact-check failures to be clucked at and dismissed, and that is because beneath his billows of bullshit there is a tiny kernel of truth.

Everyone knows that a certain kind of left politics is fashionable among society’s upper crust; the radicalisation of America’s prestige media and its fanciest colleges and its elite cultural institutions in the last few years has made this obvious. A leading example of the last few weeks: NPR, a highbrow radio network much beloved of white-collar America, recently lent its gigantic megaphone to the author of a book called In Defense of Looting. Another example I saw with my own eyes a short while ago: a super-expensive, high-fashion T-shirt with these words printed on it: ‘We should all be feminists.’

‘They are coming after me because I am fighting for you,’ Trump said in his speech accepting the nomination. ‘That is what is happening.’

Uh, no. Trump is not fighting for us. But ‘they’ are indeed coming after him: that part is true. And if ‘they’ hate Donald Trump, well, for a lot of people that’s good enough. He is the enemy of their enemy. And we welcome their hatred.

For much of America, I suspect, this is Conflict Number One of these horrible years. Not Russiagate. Not the president’s smashing of norms or his inappropriate use of the military. Not even his incredible bungling of the Covid pandemic, in which his incompetence can be measured in the tens of thousands of corpses.

No, it’s this peculiar class conflict: Trump versus the more enlightened reaches of upper America. We have watched them come together against him with a kind of upper-class solidarity that most of us have never seen before. Their hate for him does not make Trump a good president — he is objectively an awful one — but it does help to rally people around him who would ordinarily have nothing to do with a vain fool of his ilk.

The scorn of upper America is just about all Trump has left. His proud, roaring economy is now a piece of smoking metal wrapped around a tree; the brave, industrious citizens he used to hail are now watching TV in the basement while they wait out a deadly disease that other industrialised countries have brought under control. Fear of judgmental liberals is literally all this man has going for him as he heads toward election day.

Why do Americans despise liberals? The answer is in our face, all the time.

Liberal leaders may have given up talking about the middle class, but they have become absolutely adamant about their own goodness; about their contempt for their less-refined inferiors. The liberalism of scolding is the result, and it is everywhere in Covidtime, playing constantly on a social media outlet near you. As I write this there is a video making the rounds in which a throng of protesters for Black Lives Matter (a cause I happen to believe in) corner a woman eating at a sidewalk café; they shriek at her, demanding she raise her fist in conformity with them. Watching it, one starts to understand what living in the McCarthy era must have felt like (6).

Similar but larger episodes — society-wide paroxysms of accusation and denunciation — seem to sweep over social media every single day. Three acquaintances of mine — all of them well to the left of liberal — have seen their reputations attacked in episodes of this kind, and in each of them the judicial process by which they were declared guilty was outrageously unfair, more like a political show trial than a judicious weighing of arguments. I would hazard a guess that millions of other Americans know of similar stories.

Granted, this doesn’t have much to do with Joe Biden, who has spent the last month reaching out to moderate Republican voters in the suburbs. To Biden’s credit, he seems to be a decent individual, a relic from a culture that found a way to tolerate or forgive the moral failings of ordinary citizens. Ordinarily such a man would easily defeat the bungling incompetent who currently sits in the White House. But the broader political picture makes things slightly more dubious.

That liberalism has become a politics of upper-class bullying and of character assassination is an impression that daily becomes more and more difficult to avoid. To say that people regard this form of politics with hate and fear would be a vast understatement. Panic, confusion, accusation, shrieking denunciation: that is the world into which we are descending, and plenty of Americans don’t blame Trump for it. They blame liberals. They blame the rich. Reader, they blame you.

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* Thomas Frank is the author of Listen, Liberal, or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2016.

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 (1) Elizabeth Drew, ‘Is this Watergate?’, 6 February 2017.

(2) Umair Haque, ‘We Don’t Know How to Warn You Any Harder. America is Dying’, Eudaimonia, 30 August 2020.

(3) Michael Anton, ‘The coming coup?’, 9 April 2020.

(4) These fears are much older than the present administration. Many liberals argued that George W Bush ‘stole’ the 2004 election and warned in 2008 that he was preparing to do it again. Conservatives, for their part, have fretted for decades about a takeover in which leftists press down a Stalinist system on freedom-loving Americans. In 2009 and 2010, you will recall, Glenn Beck became a TV superstar warning that President Barack Obama embodied this very threat.

(5) Cuomo is widely admired among liberals for having appeared on TV looking proficient and knowledgeable in the early days of the epidemic. His actual record, however, is closer to that of a Trumpian bungler. In March 2020 Cuomo ordered the elder care facilities of New York State to admit coronavirus patients without testing them to see if they were still contagious. Since much of the American death toll from the disease has been among nursing home residents, the wisdom of Cuomo’s order is, to say the least, much questioned.

(6) See Lauren Victor, ‘I was the woman surrounded by BLM protesters at a D.C. restaurant. Here’s why I didn’t raise my fist’, 3 September 2020.

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