THESE ARE THE BAD TIMES. I typed that sentence—These are the bad times—and then went to bed and when I woke up it was worse. When I woke up Donald Trump and Axios were rolling out an unconstitutional plan to attack birthright citizenship, while also promoting the new Axios HBO show. Saturday morning, it was a would-be Nazi massacring Jews at prayer because the propaganda about the migrant caravan had convinced him the race war had begun.
Yesterday, in between, it was the armed forces being sent to the border. It’s all a stunt, now; they’re not shooting the migrants, now. We are talking about whether or not they’ll be shooting the migrants—of course they won’t!—because the administration has already pushed past the part where they declared that the legal, peaceful effort to seek asylum was an illegal act of war.
And that part came long after the part where the administration kidnapped children from their parents, locked them up in camps, lost the paperwork that would keep track of whose children were locked up where, and drugged the children who got upset about being lost in a prison camp system.
This country is failing, in action and in imagination, over and over again already. Our public conversation misses the fundamental point. The warnings and the rebuttals to the warnings have revolved around the drastic, epochal historical questions: Is this what it was like with the Nazis? Are we becoming the Third Reich? Is that where we’re headed?
What that line of debate overlooks is that going only halfway Nazi would be more than bad enough. Going a quarter of the way Nazi would be. What’s dangerous about authoritarian demagoguery, or ethno-nationalism with fascist overtones, or whatever you might call this brutish and corrupt government, isn’t merely teleological—that eventually, it could arrive at the most terrible endpoint, where the president grows a tiny mustache and they change the flag and the people who go into the camps are not just bureaucratic nonpersons but actually dead. The danger is also that right now, already, what’s happening is degrading and violent and evil. And it is getting worse.
Maybe it’s a function of American exceptionalism and belief in progress that we struggle to imagine anything but the extremes: a land of liberty and self-determination (regrettably a little off track at the moment), or a totalitarian death machine. Look around at the other possibilities. Try Turkey. Turkey still has elections. It also locks up hundreds of thousands of people in prison for their political positions or their social status. It went through an attempted coup and cracked down with martial law. Living under Turkish conditions—an authoritarian democracy, but certainly not the Nazi regime—would be an awful fate for Americans. We got a meaningful glimpse of the possibilities when the Turkish president’s security detail jumped off and beat up peaceful protesters on American soil last year. The Trump administration dropped the charges against most of them later on.
Or try the Philippines, where a loudmouthed Facebook personality is in charge, and in the name of law and order, his police are systematically murdering the people he says are drug dealers or drug users. Or Brazil, where the newly elected president, who also made his name by being a right-wing buffoon on television, is promising his own campaign of police brutality.
Then look at the territory where a police organization urges officers to “meet violence with violence and get the job done” and tells elected officials “We know whose side you’re on and it’s not ours.” That’s the newsletter of the Massachusetts Police Organization, where an executive board member rants about the troops at the border not being enough:
Meanwhile, a “caravan” of illegals is traveling up through Mexico to demand all the rights of US citizens when they get here. This is a “no‐win” for our troops. Can you see the reports on CNN? Our soldiers mixing it up with women and children who have been manipulated into thinking they can just show up here. Back on December 7th, 1941, a caravan of Japanese planes tried this in Hawaii. We shot at them.
The executive board member of the Massachusetts Police Organization is not saying the troops should shoot the asylum-seekers at the border. He’s just comparing the migrants to an attacking hostile empire that it was, at the time, proper and necessary to shoot at. He’s saying the idea of shooting the migrants would be an attractive one, if it were possible. He just wants his audience, the law-enforcement officers of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, to think about it.
The mail bomber, too, thought about what had to be done about the migrants. So did the killer at the synagogue, furious that a Jewish aid organization would want to help refugees. Television and the internet said the refugees were an invading horde. They’ve been saying this sort of thing for a long time now, that their America—certain people’s America, white America—is under attack. The list of people who got the message and decided to do something about it keeps growing.
It’s true, indisputably, that having freelance sickos murdering or terrorizing people, in the service of an ethno-nationalist agenda, is nowhere near as bad as it would be if we had professional government death squads hunting people down. It’s true that the ruling political party hosting an event for a street-fighting chauvinist gang, which then goes out and fights in the streets, is not as bad as if the party were hosting a gang of murderers.
How bad does it have to be? The president is winking and gloating and laughing it all off. The president’s party is standing with him. The party’s loyal television network is standing with the party—is still running segments about the migrant peril, telling the viewers the migrants could be bringing disease. Even after the slaughter in Pittsburgh, they are not stopping.
Notice this. However bad it has gotten, none of the people in charge are backing down. The only way it will go is further along the same road, however far that may be. The election is coming. There are federal judges to confirm—pushed through an empty chamber, in hearings that don’t even care how fraudulent they are. The president celebrates a candidate for body-slamming a reporter, and Ben Sasse, the most self-serious would-be statesman on his side, says it was playful. A regrettable joke, but not something Ben Sasse would do anything about. There is power to be grabbed and held, on behalf of an unpopular minority party, and Sasse and Jeff Flake and the entire rueful caucus are there to grab it and hold it.
What will take it away from them? The Resistance and the Democratic Party say “Vote,” but the voter purges have already been done, the polling places restricted, the prohibitive I.D. laws put in place. The national press is writing about it after the fact and before the election, when they can seem to take it seriously without changing anything.
For the press do anything more would mean moving beyond its crabbed sense of “politics,” to engage with the reality of the situation. The legacy media have been browbeaten into a perpetual terror of being seen as serving as partisans for the Democratic Party, until those are the only terms on which they understand the world and the work they’re doing.
Believe the president when he says the press is the enemy. And understand, in return, that Trump is the enemy. Saying Trump is the enemy doesn’t mean you’re campaigning for the Democratic Party. For a journalist, Trump is the enemy because he is a liar and a crook and a thug, and he sits in a position of the highest power.
When he praises the congressional candidate for body-slamming the reporter, your response to that doesn’t function as some bank-shot feat of electioneering in a political race that you have to be delicate about. It’s a defense of the basic right to live in a free society where politics isn’t reduced to violence, and where powerful people are accountable.
Outside governance and electoral politics, the press understands that you don’t have to respectfully give liars and crooks space to operate. You pound them, because your job is to tell the truth about things, and the truth about lies and crimes is news. If Trump were a slumlord, holding 10,000 tenants in misery by running his properties the way he runs the presidency, no one would challenge the right of a newspaper to crusade against him, to hammer every story about his corruption and abuse until his business failed.
Instead, because he’s in charge of the mightiest country in the world, the press treats his lies and abuses as the basic terms everyone else has to live under. He yells about the caravan, and the caravan has to be treated as a serious news story. He declares the Fourteenth Amendment void, and the smarmy Axios reporter smiles along—and then, as the story moves out into the rest of the press, the status of his power to nullify the Fourteenth Amendment becomes “unclear.” His lie that no other country grants birthright citizenship gets published verbatim, as news, and only after that does it begin to get desperately, retroactively fact-checked.
The cycle might happen a little faster now, but it still happens. People criticize and discuss the failures of the press as if we’re talking about a learning curve, as they’re making progress and someday will get it right. All the while, the target keeps moving. Trump gets even more dishonest and even more unhinged, and the political life and the daily life of the country goes along with him.
He’s not Hitler. He has no interest in conquering the world and subordinating it to his vision of the total political state, except to the extent that his only real idea about a total political state is one where rich people take all the money and trash everything with impunity. He is too lazy to run a government, except as an ongoing performance of nonsensical public gestures, for the grifters and schemers and fanatics around and below him to try (or not try) to turn into policies. In place of the Wehrmacht and its battle planners, he has a vast, bloated global deployment of troops and drones and mercenaries, carrying out history’s most expensive slow-motion defeat, with no oversight or purpose.
That broken war machine and its broken wars were not anything he came up with. It’s all too big for him to think about, so he lets the generals and the CIA run it, and promises them all more money and less oversight, while he tries to convince someone to squeeze the most interesting parts of it all down to a parade he can watch. The ethnic cleansing is the same thing: He’s a bigot but could never summon the mental effort to make a system of it. The steakhead ICE cops and the white-supremacist ideologues can work out the details.
One response to all this is to say that these bad things have always been with us, that Trump is the inheritor of historically racist institutions, unchecked nihilist capitalism, a monstrous military-industrial complex, and a political system bent to serve the greed of plutocrats. None of this is incorrect. And unquestionably it’s true that he is a figurehead for a party and a movement that were around long before his political career began, and that they rally beside him and go along with him because he’s going where they’ve always meant to go.
But that is why it is so important to recognize, at the same time, that he and they are moving. Getting the same things, but more of them, does not mean getting more of the same. It is worse now than it was last year, and last year was worse than the year before.
It doesn’t have to be new to be disastrous. The idea of American history as an uneven forward march toward greater democracy, despite occasional setbacks and errors, is flatly untrue. Immediately after the Civil War, black men were granted suffrage and were able to hold office, in a multiracial democracy. A successful campaign of terror, permitted by a compliant national government and supported by intellectuals, stripped the freed people of their rights and kept them in subjugation for most of the following century. The country went backwards, savagely and enthusiastically, and stayed there for generations. The Fourteenth Amendment was a set of words on paper, with no power to protect people’s rights or their lives against the racist laws and policies that had been put into effect. The results were so brutal and effective that by the 1930s, the Nazis were studying them as an example of where a country might be able to go.