Is Donald Trump a mafia boss steeped in corruption and crime? Is the Supreme Court no longer a legitimate judicial body, but strictly a partisan and political one?
Years ago Robert Yarber painted a long series of falling figures that did more than evoke vertigo. The larger context around and beyond the figures could also be felt. We feel it now, without the actual figures. A couple of decades later Jean Curran drew the same feeling out of a still from a classic Alfred Hitchcock film, “Vertigo.” Or take Bruce Nauman's "Fish Fountain," which both places us in their underwater habitat and blows the animals up into ours. If it wasn't so disorienting the dry humor would flatten the impact. But where is the ground on which to rest our perceptions? The answer in each case: cut out from under us.
Jean Curran, from “The Vertigo Project,” dye-transfer photograph inspired by
Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Vertigo”. Courtesy of James Danziger Gallery, New York
A process set in motion election night 2016 (and decades before in many respects) has gained so much momentum that, if not halted (not slowed down, but halted), it will carry America and perhaps the world into a new dark period from which we may not re-emerge. But even if we do, it will not be before we suffer a staggering number of casualties, radical change (for most very bad) in the lifestyles to which most of us are accustomed, and deep psychological scarring. If you are unhappy with the changes of the last six years, the January 6th Committee and the Supreme Court (in virtually opposite ways) have confirmed that this country has entered into a new and very much more dangerous domestic phase.
The January 6th Committee has now wrapped up its June public hearings, and it is clear that the prosecutorial work has barely begun. We can only speculate about the progress thus far made by the Department of Justice, and of course hope that those folks are closer to a number of fresh indictments than is evident. In particular, no matter what individual states might be doing, the only thing worse than indicting Donald Trump, many commentators have observed, is NOT indicting him. The sheer scale and moral turpitude of this man, the measurable danger in which he has placed so many Americans, the lack of any remorse about the suffering he causes let along the criminal activities themselves, these traits magnify the scale of the man’s lawlessness and faithlessness to both country and Constitution. Should he regain power he will prioritize personal vengeance as his public policy. He has already constructed the apparatus by which he bilks his voters; they are only too delighted to part with some of their money to benefit this guy. What a cash cow.
Robert Yarber, “Big Fall,” 1984, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum, New York
A trait of this traitor that is sufficiently remarked upon is that his only interest is in himself, the corollary of which is his disinterest in governance. His most passionate engagements are his performative lie-fests, his aggressive bullying, and his telethons in pursuit of personal benefit. To his devoted brownshirts this is admirable and to be emulated. Such a moral virus used to be called Social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest. In raw form we see a movement of barbarians: violence is not merely to be tolerated, it is to be celebrated. And exercised (with the encouragement of the current Supreme Court). Watch for it to continue to build. But after the 2024 election is when it will explode. Arrests will be made and casualties will occur not based on criminality but on opposition. In the American South, not a century ago, white men were privileged to murder Black men and women with legal impunity, and overt racial and gender discrimination blanketed the entire country.
The unique American mix of major operating systems has distributed a lot of fresh and vital energy coursing through most of the country, in the decades since the World Wars, in the form of bright and educated young talent. Those systems include our legal system, education system, water and energy distribution systems, and so many, many more. Making those systems work on their own as well as in tandem with multiple other systems is a marvel of the post-world war world. Should Mr. Trump regain the White House, and should Republicans gain majorities in the House and Senate, the unraveling that suddenly stopped when Joe Biden became President will resume, but now the likelihood of converting our system of government to a single party autocracy will become very difficult to prevent. Should Mr. Trump retain his health he will not be a “soft” or “partial” autocrat. He will be impatient to assume and exercise full dictatorial powers. His regard for anyone but himself and the people around him who offer fealty and service (but only for as long as they do) is nil. He is not only well prepared to dispose of millions of people, he will be impatient to do so if it’s necessary to his purpose because he does lack the luxury of time. He will not live long into his rule. Solomon was followed by his former official Jeroboam and his son Rehoboam.
Bruce Nauman, “One Hundred Fish Fountain,” 2005, ninety-seven bronze
fish, suspended with stainless steel wire from a metal grid, 300 x 336”
All of this can only be mitigated if Mr. Trump is indicted and convicted and/or if his Republican allies are rejected by voters — and the electoral apparatus has not been hijacked. With the help of state-level indictments the man’s personal wealth can be made transparent and effectively stripped, based on his many illegalities. But “mitigated” is not “prevented.”
Do we return to “normal” at that point? No, that is now a generational issue and will require struggle and perseverance such as few people alive have been called on to endure. Look at Ukraine. Most folks really didn’t see the totalitarian Putin coming. We’ve had loads of advanced warning about Trump; but too many of us still don’t get it.
President Biden’s underwater polling is not a product of his failings as President; he’s mostly done his job and done it well. His polling began to unravel with an ill-considered withdrawal from Afghanistan, Far too little was gained for national security or the economy at far too steep a political cost. That decline has been exacerbated in the year since by a series of problems that his administration did not create (but is working seriously to address, as it should). Biden’s problem is twofold. Too many would-be Democratic voters feel discouraged, a factor that locked in with the failure to pass voting rights due to the failure of two rogue Democrats to join their colleagues. Second is the President’s advanced age, relatively speaking, which now works as a liability. In 2020 it was an asset; he was reassuring and we wanted a return to normalcy. It is now a handicap that rests mostly on general impression, not on anything specific about compromised ability. It is such a large political problem that, given the year-and-a-half Biden has to consider his and the country’s position, I believe that he will step aside. The obvious replacement would be Kamala Harris, but there are several others who would also be strong candidates. There would be a contest.
Tom Petty, “Free Fallin’,” 2009, still from video (see full video below)
I think Democrats now understand the unfortunate Ruth Bader Ginsburg Principle. Breyer, most visibly, stepped aside for Brown Jackson to take his place on the Supreme Court. Many already insist that Biden step aside for the good of the country. Democrats will do well not only to put country before party, but to broadcast they are doing exactly that. They have a lot to broadcast about in 2022, and will again in 2024. If they go passive or defensive, as happened in 1980, it will cost us all dearly. But if they stand on principle and explain the cultural values of the Democratic coalition loudly and clearly, they will recover from current polling and win.
That brings me to the singular failure to which Mr. Trump is most susceptible: he loves to play autocratic ruler games, but despises the practice of governance. The January 6th hearings have conveyed how Mr. Trump had no interest in any aspect of the government other than deploying it to support his own election. Beyond that, he is always and eternally for sale. If the moment is not about him personally he has no interest, gathers no information, and is not engaged. “What’s in it for me” is the one grounding principle of what will be passed off as policy. He will make time to call (repeatedly) and harass a disloyal henchman. Hundreds of such calls, is his godfather-like idea of a good time. He remembers every slight. Every one. And files them away for later use. There are his creatures, a few up close, many more operating at a remove, but always prepared to take action from words and symbols. But when it comes to understanding how to operate the levers of the federal government and how they are to be used by the president to further the good of the country, that is a function of the fealty others offer him. The only real crime is the breaking of that fealty. To Mr. Trump best let the government run itself, preferably with only hand-picked staffs and at a very reduced price. The rest are basically would-be enemies who should be let go. That is something that he enjoys selling; a great con artist can project emotional conviction when he or she has none. Particularly when he or she has none. No one is better at that deceit than Mr. Trump.
If the former President is not currently working on his first advice book since “The Art of the Deal,” I suggest “The Greatest Fleecing Ever Sold.”