I wish to make three points which, hopefully, will lead a reader to accept my conclusion. The premises are: a) Donald Trump is a very mentally ill individual, and probably fascistic and authoritarian and criminal in his heart; b) political extremism on the Right is out of control and untethered to reality or decency; and c) far-Right extremism is buoyed by a noxious media echo chamber, fueled by white supremacy, and these individuals don’t seem to have much to lose. They are armed and they are endlessly aggrieved. The conclusion I draw is that America is facing unparalleled danger from far-Right extremists because they are buying this malarkey, have very little “reality-testing” (as psychiatrists call the ability to think critically and avoid delusional thinking), and are quite aggrieved. When combined with the fact that they tend to be armed and hostile and groupthink-y, it adds up to a powder keg of violent extremism.
Premise #1: Donald Trump is dangerously mentally ill, psychologically immature, and almost psychopathic in his reasoning and modus operandi. I could go on at length because there is soooo much evidence here; it is so plain to see, and yet so ignored by those who are essentially cult members in the cult of personality that is Trumpism. Let me just refer you to a couple sources to do the work for me.
The first thing to note is that he is a demagogue (a term that goes back to ancient Greece), and as well that Trump shares many hallmark characteristics with sociopaths, fascist totalitarians, and mob bosses. I’m literally not exaggerating. I will stop short of comparing him to Hitler, though that is not altogether inappropriate or indefensible….
One is this article in the great magazine Mother Jones. In it, Joshua Kendall writes:
“On the afternoon of February 1, 2016, as Iowa voters prepared for that evening’s caucuses, Bandy Lee, M.D. sat by the bedside of her mother, who was terminally ill with cancer. An assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Yale, Lee had been too preoccupied with her mother’s condition to pay attention to the nascent presidential race, so she was taken aback when she saw footage of a Donald Trump rally airing on the hospital room’s small TV. What shocked her was the way Trump interacted with the crowd. He said something about how his supporters should knock the crap out of hecklers, she recalls, and that if they did, he would pay their legal bills.
His belligerent behavior meant more to Lee than it might to a casual viewer. As part of her clinical work in prison settings, she had evaluated and treated hundreds of violent offenders, including leaders of prison gangs. A native New Yorker, she had assumed that Trump was just a shady businessman, Lee told me, but I suddenly realized that he had a lot in common with those patients. Trump was engaging in the predatory manipulation of his vulnerable followers. In some cases, gang leaders might ask their members to engage in violence and then issue bogus promises of protection. Like Trump, these leaders also often project extreme self-confidence, and that appeals to their followers, who tend to feel a deep emotional need for protection, connection, and identity.”
Gulp. This is the man that 48% of Americans thought would be the better candidate. As one person characterized the mentality, “I like Trump because he hates the same people I hate.” He is a seriously mentally ill con man who pulled one hell of a con on millions. Even today, about half of Republicans think Trump fairly won the election and the “deep state” is harrying him at every turn. It’s an appalling level of gullibility, foolishness, and bias.
Mary Trump also came clean on her uncle (link), and who could forget the way Michael Cohen dishes on his former boss (link). It’s all very compelling in that same way that the 1997 Al Pacino movie The Devil’s Advocate is.
It literally scares me – what we have let in the door of the American Republic. We let the guy who we knew spoke of women he liked with the phrase “You just grab ’em by the pussy….” get the nuclear codes and walk all over our norms. He attempted to undermine every custom and break almost every law in an effort to make the world his servant. We are all just bit players in the narcissistic vision of this dark-hearted weasel. It’s no wonder General Milley had to call his Chinese counterpart in the waning days of Trump’s power and assure him that no, despite the belligerence, there would be no preemptive nuclear weapon launch against China on our end. Think about that.
The man was impeached twice and will now probably go down for espionage and stealing state secrets for his nefarious purposes. It just couldn’t be much worse than this. It is so evident, and yet so many are so blinded and devoted; it is a sacred value of theirs that Trump is their guy; that he will avenge their pain and angst; and that they will support him come hell or high water – until one day when God does justice upon him.
The New York Times‘ Russ Douthat has written this pithy little insight about Trumpism: “I’ve learned to be unsurprised by Trump’s folly and venality, but also by his capacity to induce self-defeating blunders among people and institutions I would have considered relatively sensible before his ascent.”
Premise #2: Unfortunately, Trump is only the tip of the iceberg; the manifestation more than the cause.
The GOP has been growing more extreme and desperate for decades now, and is now even worse than Nixon and his ilk – the level we all thought would hopefully be the moral and political nadir of the Grand Old Party! Remember, this is the Party that essentially brought us white supremacy and racial animus in the forms of Jim Crow and segregation; they are the heir to slavery, as well (a complicated matter that is a challenge to easily prove here).
The Machiavellian career politicians, the Senators and Congresspeople, still exist (your Ted Cruzes, Mitch McConnells, Steve Scalises…). These folks are positively Roman in their level of chicanery, immorality, and flouting of institutional and moral norms.
But now these national embarrassments are being joined by a reckless, unprepared, self-serving group of pretenders that essentially come from “the mob” – the ancient Greek word that describes individuals with far too little education and preparation, and far too much zeal and gullibility. Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, and Louie Gohmert are preposterously incapable of legislating or other prosocial, higher-level responsibilities. Some of these jokers gave tours to insurgents in the days before January 6th (!), asked for pardons from Der Fuhrer, and will do anything to feather their own nests – damn the cost to the Republic. This guy Herschel Walker running against the ostensibly upstanding and very serious Reverend/Senator Warnock in Georgia is an absolute joke.
Though almost comically inane, the following quotes illustrate what is now occupying the minds of both Republican leaders, and the dead-enders, Confederate sympathizers, and money-grubbers who still feel the Party is legitimate and reasonable:
As reported in [news magazine] The Week, “Cracker Barrel, the iconic Southern restaurant chain, received furious blowback for adding meatless “sausage” patties to its menu. ‘You just lost the customer base,’ said one typical commenter. ‘Congratulations on being woke and going broke.'”
And “Rep. Lauren Boebert warned that if Democrats ban assault-style weapons, Americans will need to eat dogs. ‘In Venezuela, they eat the dogs,’ Boebert explained, ‘and it started because they don’t have firearms.'”
Obsessed with guns much? Are these folks teeth-gnashing and pacing the floor about who is woke and who isn’t 24/7, or is it just me? Talk about extremism in thinking!
Indeed, instead of voting for bills that will help the American people out of the many predicaments in which we find ourselves, the GOP is just rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. They kvetch and complain and cavil ceaselessly while climate change swirls all around us (link), education is becoming further and further out of reach (link), and mass shootings and suicides have reached awesome levels (link).
A towering man in conservative intellectual circles, former Federal Judge J. Michael Luttig, has testified that:
“To this day, the former president and the Republican Party have insisted — and they persist in the claim — that the 2020 election was stolen, and not merely that, but they pledge to execute the same blueprint in 2024 that they attempted in 2020. But their every intention is if they do execute on that plan in 2024 that they will win in 2024 where they failed in 2020. …[The efforts by Trump to overturn the 2020 election amounted to] the most reckless, insidious, and calamitous failures in both legal and political judgment in American history.”
He also said, under oath, to the estimable January 6th Commission investigating the latest of Trump’s self-serving machinations:
“If the two political parties are going to be fighting literally over America’s democracy, that is a war that is endless, and it is destructive of the United States of America. And there is not a person in this country who can disagree with that.”
There are many disaffected conservatives and former Republicans who have seen the light, and folks from Joe Scarborough to Steve Schmidt to Rick Wilson to George Conway have come out and said the emperor has no clothes. It has been interesting to track the career (as politician and as journalist) of Scarborough, to see how he views the increasing extremism and inanity of his former Party (link). I could hardly say it better myself:
“We can throw away checks and balances, we can throw away the Bill of Rights, we can throw away the Constitution, we can just get rid of a government that has fed and freed more people throughout history, that’s liberated more people throughout history, that’s keeping the flames of freedom alive right now in Ukraine and in Central Europe than any other country on the planet. And we can replace the US government. That is the depth to which this cancer has spread among mainstream Republicans,” (Scarborough).
Scarborough also has said, “My Republican Party, the Republican Party of my youth, remains silent. I can never go back there.”
Indeed, the Party has gone out of its way to do some of the most inane things I have ever considered, from rolling back voting rights to privacy rights between a woman and her doctor (abortion) to calling for the defunding of the FBI because it is gestapoesque in its tactics. The worst men and women – with some notable exceptions such as Rusty Bowers. It’s a race to the Right – or to the bottom, as it were.
It is no surprise that individuals such as Liz Cheney are being pilloried and voted out of office, and apparently honorable and decent public servants such as Adam Kinzinger are on their way to greener pastures. Indeed, one gets the haunting feeling that what we are doing now is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic…
Frankly, the Right has made this Frankenstein for decades, and now the chickens are coming home to roost (to mix metaphors) (link) (link2). Trumpism is a cancer that the GOP thought it could control, but which is taking it over now. Death either has occurred, or is just around the corner.
Frank Bruni of the New York Times recently wrote about how Kansas got its stuff together and declared loudly that the people think the efforts to ruin a woman’s right to choose is a bridge too far. This is remarkable since a book was written, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, about how extreme the voters can be when it comes to social/cultural issues.
Bruni wrote, “There’s nothing the matter with Kansas this week. Its citizens chose common sense and individual autonomy over theocracy and the subjugation of women. That makes me just a little less worried about the direction in which this country is headed.”
“But it leaves me all the more perplexed by what happened on [recently] in Arizona, which veered as much toward extremism as Kansas did away from it,” he added.
He points out that, “The Republican Senate primary there was won by a young provocateur, Blake Masters, who vilifies immigrants, fetishizes firearms, called Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson a ‘pedophile apologist’ and recently predicted — or did he boastfully pledge? — that Anthony Fauci ‘will see the inside of a prison cell this decade.’ Naturally, he says that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Of course, he enjoys Trump’s blessing.”
When it comes to these antidemocratic, undereducated (in many cases, but as with individuals like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, they are Ivy League educated and highly educated, but nevertheless grossly unaware of the principles and norms that have made American institutions at times great). I recall the woeful inadequacy and far-Right extremism evinced by George W. Bush and his cadre of elitist and unmoored scofflaws, and when presidential candidate Rick Perry simultaneously forgot the names of cabinet positions and was up front about the fact that he wanted to defund and dismantle some of them, such as the Department of Education. Now they are anti-law enforcement (since Jan. 6, 2020) and going after the IRS. There is no conspiracy theory or subversive tactic out of bounds for these folks. They are like the embodiment of a nightmare had by Margaret Atwood.
What is also interesting is, as mentioned, Trump shares many hallmark characteristics with fascist totalitarians, sociopaths, demagogues, and mob bosses. In a country of 320,000,000 people that has been absolutely wracked by the love of money and the wholesale moral decay of institutions (especially politics and politicians), sure you’re always going to have Trumps, John Eastmans, Bernie Madoffs, and Rudy Giulianis. That’s just how statistics works. There are going to be a few million sociopaths; a number of schizophrenics; millions of lawbreakers, but there will also be hundreds of thousands of downright saints, compassionate individuals, and moral exemplars. Again, statistics. But what really stands out is how far the whole GOP has sunk since Eisenhower. Seems to me like Joe McCarthy crept up like a little jackal, then think tanks started working on how to overthrow the reigning Keynesian economic structure that made society fairly egalitarian since World War II, and then Reagan changed his stripes and set out to fundamentally alter the political landscape (and the very fabric of the society). Fast-forward to folks such as Tom Delay, Dennis Hastert, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Grover Norquist, the Kochs, Phyllis Schlafly, etc. and you can see the writing on the wall as to how the GOP has created a Frankenstein of itself and of Trump – or to mix metaphors, a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle. Pandora’s box works well, too…..
Premise #3: the far-Right extremists are primarily aggrieved, undereducated, authoritarian-minded, conspiratorial-thinking, gun-owning white males. The ranks of these disaffected and often economically marginal folks (largely from rural areas, and high-school educated) are in no small way made up of current/former military and current/former cops. It is as though the shootings at Ruby Ridge and other issues in recent decades made Timothy McVeighs and Ted Kaczynskis out of hundreds of thousands of gun nuts and white supremacists. They are scared; they are overwhelmed by globalization and economic/demographic changes, and they are ready to rock and roll. A minority of perps of mass shooting incidents are from outside this demographic (arguably), and more than a few are bona fide militia members (which tend to be somewhat associated with white supremacy and are always marked by extreme libertarianism).
And, they are armed. To the teeth.
I presume that the majority of the 400,000,000 firearms in this country are owned by these folks. They are itching for a fight – as the repugnant extremism evident in the “Unite The Right Rally” in Charlottesville, VA, or the January 6th mob, make plain.
Extremism combined with firepower and non-stop far-Right media channels run by bad actors such as Alex Jones, Steve Bannon, and Roger Ailes (thank goodness Rush Limbaugh is now silenced) and funded by dark souls like the Koch brothers and you’ve got yourself a Molotov cocktail for the public square – a stick of dynamite for the bridge that joins Left and Right, suburban and urban and rural, male and female, educated and blue collar.
This extremism is marked by nationalism, white supremacist values/beliefs, fascism, conspiracy theories and disinformation, media complicity, and Christian fundamentalism (link). People are scared, and there is a well-known phenomenon whereby when the majority group faces a loss of power, it can cause a violent and fascistic reaction. It’s as though social justice, racial progress, and the rule of law were gravely disturbed by the elections of Barack Obama, and myth/disinformation is combining with the actual institutional issues/deterioration that plague this country, making for some very angry folks.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and even the FBI realize how dangerous far-Right extremism and domestic terrorism are. Christian nationalism and fascism have to a large degree merged with a culture of extremism and violence that says, essentially, If the government or anyone else goes too far in your opinion, it’s time to take up arms and do battle. It makes a riot over social injustice seem like a parade. Here is a source and here is another.
Being from Madison Cawthorn’s district in mostly conservative Western North Carolina keeps me up at night. As a Jew I am very sensitive to political movements that scapegoat groups, that involve a massive amount of poorly-regulated firearms, and which have no decency or moral limits.
The stuff you hear nowadays on not just Fox News but more extreme, secretive and darker chat rooms and YouTube rant sites favored by the “alt-Right” are horribly unsettling. Listen to the testimony and the evidence about the insurrection that occurred on January 6th, 2021 (unearthed marvelously by the January 6th Commission) or think of the threats and violence against law enforcement and you’ll get the picture.
Conclusion: Extremism probably isn’t a strong enough word for someone who votes to overturn a legitimate presidential election, gallivants around the country doing nefarious deeds like Rudy Giuliani, or floats absolute nonsense that is tantamount to fascism and oligarchy (John Eastman).
The bottom line is: we’re not in Kansas, anymore. George Washington, John Adams, Tom Paine, and James Madison must be turning over in their graves. George Orwell is probably having a martini with Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury in heaven, lamenting how damned right they were. And Howard Zinn is no doubt commiserating with Edward R. Murrow about what the hell happened to the country they loved.
This is a poison that millions of Americans willingly imbibe daily now. The volume is turned up way high, and there are already serious consequences percolating up from the depths. These events and undercurrents are unprecedented in how brainless it makes those who believe this shit seem! (link) (link2) (link3)
The case of Rusty Bowers is startling and ominous. He was the head of the Republican-led legislature in Arizona. You may recognize him from the January 6th hearings. Rudy Giuliani and Trump and John Eastman did a “good-cop/bad-cop/something-below-a-cop” routine on Bowers, trying to strong-arm him into discounting, throwing out, or neutralizing the narrow victory won by Biden in the state. Bowers said he looked into it and found no election malfeasance, and noted that the vote-counting was done by independents, Dems, and Republicans – superbly, he noted. He has a fascinating story to tell in an article written by Ed Pilkington in The Guardian of 8/21/22. Here are some of the awe-inspiring take-aways and quotes:
“As January 6 approached, and the cries of stolen election reached fever pitch, the attacks on Bowers became personal,” Pilkington wrote. He continued: “A ‘Trump train’ of angry fanatics blaring their horns in pickup trucks festooned with Maga flags turned up at his home in Mesa, some bearing digital boards proclaiming him to be a pedophile. To protect his family, he would step outside the house and confront the protesters. One man had three bars on his chest, signaling he was a member of the far-Right militia group the Three Percenters. The man was screaming obscenities and carrying a pistol.”
“I had to get as close to him as I could to defend myself if he went for the gun,” Bowers noted.
“It’s a party that doesn’t have any thought. It’s all emotional, it’s all revenge. It’s all anger. That’s all it is,” he admitted.
The guy has some serious bona fides. “He identifies as pro-life, sees the US constitution as being inspired by God, and voted for Trump in the 2020 election,” Pilkington points out. “I campaigned for Trump, I went to his rallies, I stood up on the stage with him,” Bowers said.
Pilkington then indicates, “Somewhere along the line, though, things started to come unstuck. A rift opened up between his old-school Republican values and those of a new cadre of activists who were energized by Trump and his embrace of conspiracy theories and strongman politics.”
“I’m not a professor of constitutional law, but I get the idea. They want me to throw out the vote of my own people,” Bowers revealed. He added, when pressed by Giuliani, “Oh, wait a minute… So now, you’re asking me to overthrow the vote of the people of Arizona?”
Yes, that is exactly right: Mafia tactics combined with a page from Joe McCarthy’s playbook, with inspiration from Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale mixed in for good measure…
“In hindsight, Bowers now recognizes that the opening shots of the conflict were fired not around the 2020 presidential election but earlier in the year, in the initial days of COVID-19,” Pilkington points out – and I couldn’t agree more! “Trump-fanatical Republicans in the Arizona house displayed in their anti-mask antics the same disdain for the rules, the same bullying style, that was later to erupt in the stolen election furor,” Bowers adds. Yes, extremism comes in all shapes and sizes, as representatives such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger can attest. In fact, of all the Republicans who voted with Dems to certify the 2020 election, all but two have either been forced out or have chosen not to run in the next election.
“The Constitution is hanging by a thread. Revealingly, Bowers also admits: “The funny thing is, I always thought it would be the other guys. And it’s my side [the GOP]. That just rips at my heart: that we would be the people who would surrender the constitution in order to win an election. That just blows my mind.”
Sir, my mind is being blown daily now. One thing we have in common, though, is interesting (and I also have remarked how much I have come to respect Cheney – a dyed-in-the-wool cultural conservative, and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) who is much more conservative than I am) …it’s interesting that common cause can be made with conservatives who reject extremism and are afraid of what supporting fascism will mean for the future. By this I mean that it was moving that Bowers said this: “I never thought of backing down. I have always resisted bullies. I DO NOT LIKE BULLIES!,” he said emphatically.
The GOP gave Bowers his waking papers. As more and more of this occurs, and as more totally unfit leaders are elected to offices – from local school boards all the way up to Senators – the only face of the GOP could be that of fascism and extremism. Then, Hitler references will be spot-on, and The Handmaid’s Tale will be jaw-droppingly prescient.
We do not want it to come to that because that is a bridge too far; we might not come back from that. We might be the very Americans who let democracy slip through our greedy, fat, uneducated fingers.
The New York Times‘ Michelle Goldberg commented on an issue front-of-mind (as of this writing): Trump being investigated for stealing important documents relevant to national security and keeping them for some nefarious reason, and then lying about doing so, and not turning them back over willingly. Some commentators lamented that going after the ex-president cult leader that he is would only embolden his supporters to threaten, berate, and even act out violently. Against law enforcement, which boggles my fucking mind. Anyway, her take on this extremism and blackmail was:
“No doubt, Trump’s most inflamed fans might act out in horrifying ways; many are heavily armed and speak lustily about civil war. To let this dictate the workings of justice is to accept an insurrectionists’ veto. The far right is constantly threatening violence if it doesn’t get its way. Does anyone truly believe that giving in to its blackmail will make it less aggressive?”
The answer, of course, is no. These individuals can hardly be reasoned with in this late hour; they are already organized and ornery, armed and angry and aggrieved and aggressive and agitated. The best that can be done is to cut the cancer out and deal with the consequences. They must be dealt with. Perhaps moderates and progressives now can make common cause with law enforcement and realize the magnitude of the danger we are facing. We literally almost lost the republic shortly before and on January 6th, 2021. A day that will go down in infamy, perhaps only second to December 7, 1941. Never forget the flags those armed insurrectionists led by Trump, the “Proud Boys” and the “Oath Keepers” were flying as they lay siege to the Capitol, beating and assaulting law enforcement officers, seeking to hang Mike Pence and overthrow the election…
Indeed, we are in quite a fix. As lyricist Neil Peart penned, “When they turn the pages of history/ When these days have passed long ago/ Will they think of us with sadness/ For the seeds that we let grow?”
This level and kind of extremism must be stopped and quickly. The fabric of this country is being destroyed not from without, but from within. This is how democracies fall. We should not consider ourselves an exception to the rule. A true, urgent form of education and social reform and progressive principles must sweep over the land like when the two towers fell (in the Tolkien book). We do not have the luxury of a do-over, or of unlimited time, or of ceaseless goodwill from the Creator. Far-Right extremism, white supremacy, and a culture of grievance and immorality must be dealt with, and fast.
As Jefferson lamented, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
Here is a story about perhaps one of America’s greatest individuals, Benjamin Franklin. Julie Miller tells it like this:
In the aftermath of the violent events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Senator Amy Klobuchar and other federal legislators reminded us that we have “a republic,” but only “if you can keep it.” The source of this quotation is a journal kept by James McHenry (1753-1816) while he was a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention. On the page where McHenry records the events of the last day of the convention, September 18, 1787, he wrote: “A lady asked Dr. Franklin, ‘Well, Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?’ – ‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it.’”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Here is another blog about the dangers posed by far-Right extremism and domestic terrorism.