“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.” – Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth
One of the insights that can be felt from the blossoming of fascism in America is that it is the efflorescence of something that already exists within all human societies. In the last 3 ½ years, this understanding of Homo sapiens has been driven home by the simplest of men: Donald Trump. And, somehow, we have grokked another insight about human societies: the social contract that we have relied upon to shield us from tyranny is no longer sufficient, no longer up to the task. The only solace that gives us a degree of comfort is the astonishing ineptitude of Donald Trump’s assault on our liberal democracy. But this is a cold comfort because it begs the question: What if Donald Trump had been smarter?
Currently, Donald Trump is a cornered animal, forced to growl and bare his teeth while recognizing that his armor of “indestructium” is about to collapse in on him with an inglorious soft squish. No tank parades, no statues to his manliness, not even a perfunctory salute. His only solace will be that at least he got to kill 200,000 people, and stash billions in off-shore banks that launder the plunder of the world’s other dictators.
But Donald Trump has left America in the midst of a cultural earthquake where social relationships, worldviews, and the intellectual structures that comprise how we process information, are being reevaluated, if not entirely abandoned. Does America really need all those rules if rules are made to be broken? The schema with which we organize our experience of reality is creaking under the weight of these departures from normalcy in the form of movements – feminism in the #MeToo era is on the ascendance – demanding equity for half of our population; racial justice in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement is breaching the walls of the city and is no longer willing to surrender to the depredations of jackbooted thugs in our ever-expanding police state. And our class structure in general is fragmenting, as the iniquities of a rapacious upper class have immiserated and enraged all other economic classes. We sense that we are increasingly becoming a nation without ethics. And we are observing the horrifying disintegration of our most crucial binding element – the system that facilitates and sustains social evolution.
We are losing the law. And without the law, we are not strong enough to fend off fascism. We are, indeed, strangers in a strange land.
But the social stability maintained by the rule of law is highly dependent upon trust. Trust that you will follow the law and not murder competitors, trust that you will pay your bills, trust that you will not lie. Without the binding element of the law, cooperative societies collapse into a more ancient structure characterized by violence and war. The law is everything, and the degree to which citizens adhere to its rules predicts how long it will last as a civilization. The law is our secret sauce. The Ten Commandments served the same purpose thousands of years ago in the late Bronze Age, and the 282 laws of the Code of Hammurabi was the way in which social cohesion evolved during the Babylonian Empire.
Among the countless assaults on our American Constitution perpetrated by Donald Trump and his Republican co-conspirators, the disintegration of our judicial system is perhaps the most consequential and the most predictive of a dystopian future. Voltaire, an advocate for free speech, and from whose philosophy America’s founders crafted the First Amendment, warned: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Republicans have been peddling absurdities for decades: from trickle-down economics to racist tropes like the menace to society brought on by parasitic “welfare queens”. It follows that: he who can convince 33% of people living in a highly structured, cooperative society like ours that they are drowning in “American Carnage” can probably convince you to support morally reprehensible ideas like white supremacy and religious zealotry in the service of freedom. He who can convince his countrymen that his six bankruptcies imply extraordinary expertise in business and negotiation can probably convince you that he will ensure your prosperity by transferring your wealth over to his swaggering style of Republican kleptocracy. And he who advocates that government is the problem and not the solution – can and will make America commit atrocities.
“This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.” – Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
Compromise is at the heart of our legal system – not intransigence. But refusing en masse to follow the rules that lead to compromise is a strategy of its own. While Trump assaults democracy with coercive force, the road to fascism is best stage-managed by Mitch McConnell, who quietly follows the first rule of Fight Club while “on little cat feet” and extinguishes the candles of democratic governance. With an old pol like McConnell, nothing has to be particularly bigly. And there are plenty more just like him.
So, I ask an impertinent question: Is our Constitution sturdy enough to weather another assault like this one – one that is better stage-managed? Yes, we can reassert rule of law in November. And yes, we can restore democratic institutions. But even if all these punks go to jail – how will we respond to the next assault on our 244-year-old experiment in self-rule?
image: Wikimedia, Rogério Timóteo