Donald Trump's refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, though shocking, was no surprise. It's a dark, culminating step, although not the dark, culminating step, because that is still yet to come, of a long march, a step-by-step chipping away at democratic norms that long predates him.
At the heart of it: relentless attacks on the truth, large and small, year after year, decade after decade, until the point is reached where roughly 40 percent of the people still cling to truth, but another 40 percent have come to believe anti-truth, and the 20 percent in the middle don't know what to think. And that's how you put a knife in democracy's heart.
Small case in point. I watched about five minutes of Sean Hannity Tuesday night, and it was enough to get the drift. The segment was devoted to the lionization and martyrization of teenage Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, a campaign that’s been underway for weeks now.
Let’s make sure we have this right: A legal minor leaves his house in Illinois toting a semi-automatic weapon, crosses state lines into a state where it’s illegal for a minor to carry a gun except while hunting or at a range with an adult, saying it’s his job to protect the community (of which he is not a part), then he gets approached or accosted by two people who aren’t carrying guns and allegedly shoots them. This is what is what is being converted on Fox and elsewhere into an act of self-defense.
The obliteration of truth is essential to fascist movements. People who are fascists at heart know this in their bones, even if they’ve never read a book and don’t know Filippo Marinetti from Mario Andretti. They must destroy truth. Not by merely lying. They must tell anti-truths: things that are direct, frontal assaults on truth.
The reason is simple: Truth is a core value of democracy, and, importantly, of democratic power-sharing. In the golden age of American bipartisanship, from 1945 until maybe 1990, Democrats and Republicans disagreed on how to address a budget hole or a particular social problem. But they agreed that it existed. They agreed on the facts.
Yes, the country took a sharp turn to the right after 1980; and yes, certain non-truths were advanced then that from time to time one sensed a Weimaresque odor in the air: ketchup was a vegetable; trees caused pollution; Saddam Hussein was a good guy. But most of the time, Reagan accepted facts, such as that Social Security was in trouble in 1983, which is why he agreed to tax increases. George H.W. Bush did, too.
The effort to obliterate truth, and to elevate ideology and culture higher than factual truth, really began with Newt Gingrich. He was our first proto-fascist politician. He just said things, vicious things, out of thin air, complete inventions (one-quarter of Clinton White House staffers were taking illegal drugs), and he said them with intent—as a political weapon, to heighten the tension, divide us into camps.
This man is dangerous, some said. Oh, yes, he’s over the top sometimes. But you gotta admit he’s interesting.
Then came Rush Limbaugh. The entire purpose of his show from the beginning was to destroy truth and any sense of common, shared reality. And to get conservatives to leap from disagreeing with liberals to despising them. This, too, is a necessary ingredient of authoritarian power: domestic foes are evil. Subhuman.
This guy is way over the line, many said. Well, yes, in some ways; but look, bottom line, he’s an entertainer. People don’t really take him that seriously.
Then came Tom DeLay. Often overlooked these days, DeLay was a crucial soldier in this march to bury truth. He really started the aggressive gerrymandering and enforced the Hastert Rule—in other words, he made the first serious moves toward the anti-democratic stacking of the electoral deck to rig the game, which is the kind of thing you get away with, as DeLay knew, by accusing the other side of doing it. Then of course he was a key player in the Terri Schiavo madness, using that poor woman (in a vegetative state with no hope of recovery, her doctors said) as a bullet in the culture war.
And of course there was Karl Rove back in those days, too. John Kerry was a war hero, an upper-class Yale graduate who could easily have skipped the army but who volunteered anyway; who killed how many men for his country, risked his life how many times, we still don’t know. But Rove knew that he had to obliterate those truths in 2004, and the way to do that was to tell a morally sick anti-truth: to turn Kerry into a coward and a traitor.
DeLay and Rove, many of us were writing and saying, are taking this country to dark, unprecedented places. Oh, yes, some of this is pretty shocking, more hardball than usual. But creeping fascism? Don’t be silly.
On and on it went, too many steps to name here, each one taking us that much closer to the rendezvous with destiny that awaits us after Nov. 3. Barack Obama was a Kenyan, a Muslim. The antichrist, even. Subhuman, in other words. This was where Donald Trump started joining in, and from there, it made sense that each of those desecrations of truth led to Trump. I feel like an idiot today for thinking in the summer of 2015 that he’d fade in a few months. I didn’t understand how many millions of people had been persuaded to embrace unreality.
Now, it turns out the most important anti-truth of recent vintage was the one about voter fraud. This is what Trump will use to steal the election if he can.
If current polls hold, Joe Biden will win by maybe 6.5 or 7 points nationally, which could be as many as 10 million votes, and The Economist as I write these words predicts a 333-205 Electoral College majority for Biden. Trump and Bill Barr and Fox News and all the rest of them will call even this illegitimate—10 million votes, and 128 electoral votes. And they’ll pull every trick they can, from Nov. 4 to Jan. 20. That Barton Gellman piece The Atlantic posted Wednesday covered much of the grim territory.
They’ll say then the most outlandish things they’ve ever said, things that will shock us (even though we think we’re beyond shocking), because fascists know: The clearer the factual truth, the louder and more outrageous must be the anti-truth.
I can’t believe I’m writing this way about the United States. But then again, I’ve seen this coming for a long time. I just never really thought we would end up all the way here. But it’s where Donald Trump has brought us.