Nothing says “I’m not a Nazi” like pardoning a sadist accused of running concentration camps. Trump has done a lot of damage to our democracy over recent months, but his pardon of Joe Arpaio takes us over a critical threshold. Arpaio was a sheriff who used his power in a terror campaign against Hispanics in Arizona. Our president just told him and every other powerful racist in the country that under the Trump administration they won’t be punished for their crimes.
What will “decent” Republicans do about this? It’s a trick question, because there aren’t any. The people who stayed on this train after “pussy-grabbing” are exactly who you think they are. There are lots of polite, dignified people who still call themselves Republicans and will still vote to support this president and his enablers. These nice people have demonstrated that they will not lift a finger to protect you, your children, or anyone else from the worst that this administration and its racist supporters might do to you. They are entirely complicit. It is in our direct, material and physical interests to recognize these people for what they are before we blunder into further terrible mistakes.
Republicans at every level of government, have made one critical fact crystal-clear – our system of laws and our culture of democratic norms cannot be counted on to protect us. They might protect us. If I am white enough, wealthy enough, lucky enough, and possess enough connections to influential people, our system might still intermittently protect my rights. John McCain will not protect me. Hip-sounding, friendly Senator/Tweeter Ben Sasse will not protect me. The best I can hope for is that they will wring their hands at my plight and tut-tut at the injustice of it all.
No matter what Trump does, Republicans will not use their power to restore the old order if it creates even the slightest risk of loss to them. It’s over. We are on our own.
Last year, while still writing at GOPLifer, I posted a piece called “Do not stab the Nazis.” That advice was premised on the power of democratic accountability and rule of law. From that piece:
Everything we achieve through peaceful cooperation depends on our collective confidence that organized, legitimate violence will be available when we need it to enforce social and moral norms. Elevated by that understanding, we have developed cultural habits that make violence unnecessary in as many cases as possible. You can judge the sophistication and success of a civilization by how much public resource it takes to suppress private violence.
What happens when that understanding breaks down, when we can no longer count on the superior coercive power of government as a force for order and justice? The answer is simple, the moral calculus of private violence simply changes. To be clear, Antifa-style violence remains a bad idea, but not for any moral or ethical reason. Those reasons are gone. That kind of violence is a bad idea because it lacks a strategic focus, accountability, or a negotiable end-point. In other words, it exacts a high human toll toward no achievable goal. Morally, there’s nothing more wrong about fighting Nazis on American streets than there was fighting them on the streets of Hamburg.
I can no longer envision any peaceful end to this era. Even if Republicans removed Trump from office tomorrow, the damage to the legitimacy of our system is too deep for us to hope for a quiet return to normalcy. Donald Trump just burned our last bridge back to the old order while Republicans did nothing more than tweet their disapproval. No one seems to know where we’re headed now.
One fact continues to haunt me. As stark and frightening as this situation is, one is reminded that people of color in this country have always endured far worse. Brown bodies piled up in Joe Arpaio’s jails for decades and voters did not care. Black parents today warn their children against interactions with police, just as they have for generations. There is a sick sense of “chickens coming home to roost” in this unfolding tragedy that we each, to some degree, must own if we are ever to build something better. As a black friend who voted for Trump explained to me after the election, “You’re all black now.” White voters look on this situation with stunned horror, while black Americans shrug. What’s the most wrenching change Trump has brought? Now white people are learning to fear their government in ways minorities always have.
Private violence is still unlikely to influence the ultimate resolution of this crisis, but it will be a constant factor effecting our lives. What we really need to know now, more than anything else, is the loyalties and sympathies of major military commanders, and heads of key law enforcement agencies. We’re unlikely to get those answers until it’s too late, but the way senior officers choose to handle Trump’s campaign of transgender harassment may provide clues.
In the meantime, keep this in mind. No matter where you live, you can be confident that most of your white police officers are Trump supporters. Likewise, in dealing with border control and customs, your white officers are probably among the most enthusiastic Trump supporters you’ll ever encounter. Avoid them. Keep your passport up to date. If you have a renewal date approaching, try to renew now, before processing might be impacted by a government shutdown.
Speak your mind now. Remember that committed Trump supporters are few. Do everything you can to deny them a sense of comfort while normal political interactions remain safe. The less secure they feel, the better the chances that we can all look back on this post and laugh at my exaggeration. Create the widest possible perception of the cost of supporting Republicans, so that the most violent people out there will still feel they must hide. Most of all be conscious of the fact that in a pinch, your white local law enforcement will probably only resist illegal orders if they feel overwhelming community pressure to do so. Be mentally and materially ready for a more unstable political environment, because it has arrived.
PS – We have a lot of Houstonians in the Political Orphans community. What you’re experiencing this week is awful and I’m so sorry. Like almost anyone who grew up there, I’ve spent long hours ripping out soaked carpet and cutting away sheetrock to dry out walls. The bathroom doors in my parents’ house still have holes I poked in them with a screwdriver decades ago to drain out floodwater. Having a home ruined is terribly unsettling experience that remains with you. After a few hours of news coverage, the rest of the world moves on while you experience your own personal apocalypse. Good luck. Make safe decisions. And best wishes.