11 min read

On the edge of the ledge

Letter No. 87: I am not comfortable as a political polemicist. The essays of TJM spring from whatever has been on my mind. But events of the last few days have crowded everything else out of my mind. This is my attempt to make some sense of it all. Bear with me. Thank you.
On the edge of the ledge
© Dale Keiger

If the supercilious overweening peremptory jackass who is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. receives millions of American votes in the November presidential election, those votes will be cast by two sorts of American: witless fearful dolts convinced they have a third eye for conspiracies, and disheartened voters who turned away from the recent televised debate with the awful feeling that neither major party candidate should be US President.

The first group might as well be disregarded because their numbers are not legion and you can’t reason with them anyway. The second group is right.

Joe Biden is a smart and decent man who has been a smart and decent and effective president but is too old for the job. The first three minutes of the debate made apparent that there will be days when he is not cognitively up to the challenge. Okay, he has bad days, but on his good days he’s sharp as ever insist his defenders, but that won’t save us the next time a domestic or international crisis coincides with some of his bad days. Donald Trump is a roiling orange ball of resentment and grievance with his own cognitive attenuation, a cowardly bully who hires other punks for the rough stuff. Stand down and stand by.

If you’re scoring the Cognition Games and trying to parse what Biden meant when he said, “We beat Medicare,” chew on this recent ramble from Trump, delivered earlier this year at a rally in Las Vegas:

By the way, a lot of shark attacks lately. Do you notice that? A lot of sharks. I watched some guys justifying it today. “Well, they weren’t really that angry. They bit off the young lady’s leg because of the fact that they were not hungry, but they misunderstood who she was.” These people are crazy. He said, “There’s no problem with sharks. They just didn’t really understand a young woman swimming,” now, who really got decimated and other people too, a lot of shark attacks. So I said, “So there’s a shark 10 yards away from the boat, 10 yards or here. Do I get electrocuted if the boat is sinking, and water goes over the battery—the boat is sinking; do I stay on top of the boat and get electrocuted, or do I jump over by the shark and not get electrocuted?” Because I will tell you he didn’t know the answer. He said, “Nobody’s ever asked me that question.” I said, “I think it’s a good question. I think there’s a lot of electric current coming through that water.” But you know what I’d do if there was a shark or you get electrocuted, I’ll take electrocution every single time. I’m not getting near the shark. So we going to end that. We’re going to end it for boats. We’re going to end it for trucks.

Even if you can ignore or rationalize all his other failings, is this the man you want in the Oval Office?

Our bigger problem, though, we citizens of this disunion, is not with a pair of codgers who should be in porch rockers writing their memoirs. Nor is it the conventional electoral choice between right-of-center or left-of-center politics, between political parties that, whatever they claim, both believe in big government and differ only in their ideas of where to spray the money. The upcoming presidential election will be a referendum on the government sanctioning violence against its perceived enemies. Because a joltingly large number of Americans sound intent on revenge for what they believe has been taken from them and what they believe they are owed. And millions who are not intent on committing violence themselves still say they will abide it if it comes.

If Donald Trump loses the upcoming election, I believe there will be violence, but with a crucial difference: the US government under a Democratic administration will oppose it and take measures against its perpetrators. If Trump wins, now that an arrogant, morally obtuse, and compromised Supreme Court has all but granted him preemptive immunity, the executive branch and much of the legislative branch will sanction and abet that violence. That is the stark choice facing the American electorate, at least as I see it—violence the government will work to protect us from or violence it will wield for its own purposes. I hope I’m wrong, and there’s a decent chance that I am. But there’s a bad moon rising.

In 2024, we face the convergence and perhaps the culmination of malign forces that have been building for decades, gathering and growing and turning darker before our unseeing eyes.

Let’s review. For 50 years, deep grievances, many of them legitimate, have been accumulating like kindling. There is no point source for these grievances. Rather, they are the unintended consequence of a complex skein of social, economic, cultural, and political developments. Blacks have grievances, women have grievances, immigrants have grievances, people in their 20s have grievances, gays have grievances, and they all deserve to be heard. But the aggrieved Americans who concern me here are white men.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan sold the American electorate on the idea that government wasn’t just clunky and frustrating and sometimes wrong—government was the problem. This notion acted like a virus that quickly mutated to government is the enemy, an insidious meme that in susceptible brains creates plaques as damaging as Alzheimer’s. This set up deregulation zealots to clear a path for capitalism’s worst invention, the financial sector, to build mountains of wealth on bad debt and toxic corporate consolidation and rapacious greed. Cynical corporate directors, especially in banking and various struggling industrial concerns, were allowed to shift risk to the sorry stiffs who couldn’t evade paying taxes—remember government bailouts of corporations “too big to fail”?—all the while doing everything in their power to marginalize tens of millions of workers who did the actual productive labor, effectively freezing their wages for 30 years or more, stripping them of their ability to bargain, and culturally and politically dismissing them.

Then, in the 1990s, we failed to take seriously the political emergence of Patrick Buchanan, David Duke, and H. Ross Perot, progenitors of the current cohort of demagogues polluting our national discourse. Buchanan was a smart but mean son of a bitch with formidable rhetorical chops, Duke was a racist asshole with a good haircut, and Perot was a proto-Trump, a cocky twerp whose business success disguised the fact that not only was he more lucky than shrewd, he was dumb as cabbage. They all lost and were forgotten, but they planted lots of bad seeds. They were a warning missed by just about all of us.

Loathe to regulate or do anything else that might guard the common interest from capitalism’s biggest flaws and worst actors, politicians opened the gates to a new gang of robber barons, first in finance then in digital technology. Elected officials, not all of them Republicans, abided the destruction of unions and the rise of monopolistic cartels and the off-shoring of profits and tax relief for the ultra-wealthy and even more erosion of working class income and security. As digital tech came to the fore politicians swept the path for the likes of Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, and Vivek Ramaswamy, people not exactly enamored of democracy and social justice and the concept of a public commons.

Meanwhile, life expectancy for tens of millions of Americans, especially white working class Americans, has been declining, and these are people with lives already so precarious they are one misfortune away from ruin. They fear that growing populations of African-Americans and Latino Americans and immigrants are not on their side. (About that they are probably right.) Many have become convinced that not only are they in danger of being displaced, they are in danger of being replaced and there’s a global plot to make that happen. Analysis of the January 6, 2020 insurgents found they were more likely to come from counties in which the proportion of the white population was in decline.

One last ingredient topped this toxic cocktail: indifference and condescension on the part of those who held political, cultural, media, and economic power. Back in 2016 a handful of reporters tried to warn a disbelieving news establishment that Trump could not be discounted because if you went to the trouble of driving a few miles out of any heartland community you would find Trump signs in yard after yard after yard. After Trump’s victory in 2016, people like me made smug judgements about MAGA Nation and traded glib explanations for what surely had to be an anomalous election. We never bothered to question our assumptions about who all those loud, vulgar people in red ballcaps might actually be. (Here’s just one of the many things we missed: Analysis by CPOST, the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats, of the January 6 protesters determined that more than half owned their own businesses or held white-collar jobs. So much for our easy assumptions about ignorant economic losers who got no further than a high school diploma.)

Our lazy labels and dismissive explanations were exactly the sort of patronizing bullshit that further enraged them. They had overturned the political establishment and we still didn’t take them seriously. The sage and observant Marilynne Robinson, writing for The New York Review of Books, noted:

This anger is entangled with resentments and revanchism and varieties of opportunism, including Trump’s, that are readily seen as discrediting the entire phenomenon of unrest. But this is the kind of mistake that comes with the idea that the old symmetry of opposed parties is in play here. The MAGA side really has no politics. Its broad appeal lies in its galvanizing resentment, which is what anger becomes when its legitimacy is not acknowledged.

Trump never gave a rat’s ass about them but they seem unable to see that, and he was a master at inciting them to do their worst on his behalf. We witnessed one outcome on January 6.

The nation has survived this sort of turmoil before, though not without casualties (massive casualties in the 1860s), and apparently without learning much. I came of age during the Vietnam War years, and the FBI estimates that during an 18-month period in 1971 and 1972 there were 2,500 anti-war domestic bombings. That’s about five a day. But the 1960s radical bombers were intent on making a point, not killing people. Almost all the bombings were of empty buildings; the deadliest attack killed only four. Four dead is horrible but would barely register as a mass shooting today. What makes 2024 scary is that as a society we have allowed our most disaffected and dangerous elements to arm themselves like private armies and they don’t sound like they’ll be content to symbolically blow out some windows in an empty Selective Service office.

It’s hard for even the best-informed American to grasp how many guns are in the hands of anyone who wants one. Another analysis by the University of Chicago found that 46 percent of US households own at least one firearm. American Gun Facts collects data from various sources and estimates that US private citizens own 460 million guns. That’s about 135 guns per 100 people. (If you’re skeptical about those numbers and suspect they’re inflated or being misused by anti-gun advocates, American Gun Facts as an organization supports private firearm ownership.) Somewhere around 20 million of those weapons are the deadly AR-15 or its equivalent.

Demagogues, unburdened by conscience or a moral compass, incite the aggrieved to action. On January 6, Trump affirmed a violent response to the election in only six sentences: “Our country has been under siege for a long time, far longer than this four-year period. You’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The mob believed him and marched on the Capitol. The violence appalled us, but not all of us, not nearly all of us. Writing for The Atlantic, Tom Nichols cited public opinion polls:

A third of Republicans—and four in 10 voters who have a favorable view of Trump—agree with the statement that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” But violence against whom? We are not under foreign occupation. When people talk about “resorting to violence” they are, by default, talking about violence against their fellow citizens, some of whom have already been threatened merely for working in their communities as election volunteers.

The vast majority of gun owners have never fired at another human being and never will, no matter how frightened and pissed off they might be. But, all the same, if you want to scare yourself imagine all those Proud Boys, 3 Percenters, Oath Keepers, Christian nationalists, and militia members just waiting to be sanctioned by a Donald Trump now immune from prosecution to strap on their guns and body armor and take to the streets. Would Trump do that? I would argue that he already has.

Tens of millions have lost all faith in the ballot. As Barton Gellman wrote in The Atlantic:

Trump and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response.

… Trump has built the first American mass political movement in the past century that is ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its cause.

CPOST conducted a poll that asked if “the use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.” Eight percent of respondents said yes. That may not sound like a lot, but it corresponds to 21 million Americans. What worries me even more is that polls suggest that for every person who supports at least the idea of Trump calling for violence, another two say they don’t care. They wouldn’t raise a gun themselves, but they’d abide a Proud Boy doing so. Gellman quoted CPOST director Robert A. Page: “This really is a new, politically violent mass movement. This is collective political violence.” From the highest office in the land, Trump has told the Army of the Aggrieved that they are the true patriots, that they are the Minutemen of the 21st century, that they are both right and righteous. That’s what this election is about. Do we sanction the rule of law or the rule of the gun?

Maybe none of this will happen. We flatter ourselves by sticking sapiens at the end of Homo but however sapient we may be, we’ve demonstrated that we are not the least bit good at forecasting the future. Lord knows I’m not. In 1974 I was eating with my girlfriend in the Ohio University student union. It was Mexican Food Night and she said tacos would be the next big fast-food thing. I told her she was crazy. Well, there you go.

But I fear there are too many people out there who have worked themselves into an extreme state, people who have had four years to formulate a rationale that would justify pulling the trigger. We have people in power and on the verge of power who are poised to goad them yet again, either cynically indifferent to the consequences or naively convinced that once the smoke clears they will emerge unscathed and still on top. Then we can get back to some fanciful delusion they have of what America was like in the 1780s or 1870s or 1920s or 1950s.

Their utter disrespect and disregard for our 236-year-old experiment with constitutional democracy should enrage all of us. They have contempt for one of the greatest accomplishments in human history, the creation of the democratic republic founded on the rule of law. I leave the last word to Marilynne Robinson:

Americans have special obligations to reality. It is true and manifest that we will have an outsize part in determining the fate of the planet. If it should be that big problems cannot be solved and that we are left with the tedious business of managing them, we should discipline ourselves to patience and deliberation, the old courtesies that have made democracy possible. We have at hand the best resources that can be had to deal with our situation, if we can agree to respect them.