An “Existential Moment”

One of the political scientists whose work I follow is Thomas Mann. Mann, a Democrat, has received numerous awards during a distinguished career, but he may be best known for his collaborations with Norman Ornstein, who served in Republican administrations. Their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks documented the radicalization of the Republican Party and received a good deal of publicity.

Mann has a recent commentary on the Brookings website, in which he characterizes the election of Donald Trump as an “existential moment” The lede sets out the nature and extent of that moment’s challenge:

His candidacy, campaign, victory and actions halfway through the transition to governing, heretofore unimaginable, pose a genuine threat to the well-being of our country and the sustainability of our democracy.

As I write, the immediate concerns are the president-elect’s reactions to the Russian cyber attacks on the Clinton campaign; his refusal to takes steps to deal responsibly with the massive conflicts of interest his businesses pose to his conduct of his presidency; his designation of a prominent white nationalist as his chief political strategist and a trio of unlikely appointees to lead the National Security Council team in the White House who appear to lack the personal qualities essential to their critical role; a breathtaking contempt for the media evidenced by his refusal to hold press conferences and his Orwellian reliance on tweets and rallies to communicate with the public; and an assemblage of Cabinet nominees characterized mostly (though not entirely) by their inexperience in public policy and their contempt for the missions of their departments.

In the remainder of the article, Mann considers whether our traditional checks and balances-the rule of law, a free press, an institutionally responsible Congress, a vigorous federal system, and a vibrant civil society–are healthy enough to provide the counterbalance that will be required. He is not sanguine about the rule of law.

Trump’s choice for Attorney General was rejected by the Senate for a federal judgeship because of racist comments and has a history as a prosecutor more interested in prosecuting African Americans for pursuing voting rights than those trying to suppress their votes. His White House Counsel was Tom DeLay’s ethics counsel and demonstrated a blatant disregard for the law as chair of the Federal Election Commission. The courts play an equally essential role. The egregious partisan politicization of judicial appointments, which reached a nadir with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented refusal to even consider Merrick Garland’s nomination to fill the Supreme Court vacancy during the last year of President Obama’s tenure, has weakened the capacity of the courts to fulfill its responsibilities in the face of attacks on the fabric of our democracy.

The free press, as Mann notes and we all know, is in disarray (to put it as kindly as possible). We live in a “post-truth” media environment, surrounded by spin, propaganda and fake news. If the press is our watchdog, it has been de-fanged.

Congress? Mann points out that the “silence of Republican congressional leaders to the frequent abuses of democratic norms during the general election campaign and transition” has been deafening.

The risk of party loyalty trumping institutional responsibility naturally arises with unified party government during a time of extreme polarization. A devil’s bargain of accepting illiberal politics in return for radical policies appears to have been struck.

What about federalism? Can “states’ rights” be mobilized to constrain the incoming Trump Administration? Mann holds out some hope, but ultimately concludes

And yet the nationalization of elections and with it the rise of party-line voting has led to a majority of strong, unified Republican governments in the states, some of which have demonstrated little sympathy for the democratic rules of the game. For starters, think Kansas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. The latter has just pulled off the most outrageous power grab in recent history, designed to reduce sharply the authority of the newly elected Democratic governor before he takes office.

As many commenters on this blog have noted, and as Mann concludes, it really is up to us.

The final wall of defense against the erosion of democracy in America rests with civil society, the feature of our country Tocqueville was most impressed with. Community organizations, businesses, nonprofit organizations of all types, including think tanks that engage in fact-based policy analysis and embrace the democratic norms essential to the preservation of our way of life. The objective is not artificial bipartisan agreement, but forthright articulation of the importance of truth, the legitimacy of government and political opposition, and the nurturance of public support for the difficult work of governance. It is in this sector of American society in which citizens can organize, private-sector leaders can speak up in the face of abuses of public authority, and extreme, anti-democratic forces can be resisted.

I hope we’re up to the task.

Happy New Year….


  1. Happy New Year,
    Democracy will be stronger and leadership, as always, will come from where you least expect it.
    Thank you, for sharing your process in 2016, all the best as you continue.

  2. “Community organizations, businesses, nonprofit organizations of all types, including think tanks that engage in fact-based policy analysis and embrace the democratic norms essential to the preservation of our way of life.”

    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE; will someone PLEASE provide a list of the above named sources we can trust, believe in, rely on, donate to, look to for facts and for guidance to lead us out of this racist, irrational Republican, Trump-led hell before this country and democracy are destroyed!!! It would be a major help to also have names of active members of the Democratic party, elected and unelected members, we can look to for guidance and as future candidates.

    “It is in this sector of American society in which citizens can organize, private-sector leaders can speak up in the face of abuses of public authority, and extreme, anti-democratic forces can be resisted.”

    I am a member of the “sector of American society” who is willing to follow good leadership; at 79 years of age, totally deaf and disabled, living on barely above federal poverty level income (and surrounded by Trump supporters in my small low-middle income neighborhood) and willing to resist but I cannot organize or lead. We followers outnumber those who can provide organization and leadership but we have lost trust in those who have failed us miserably. We can no longer trust the media for facts or truth and the president-elect is sucking up to our enemies and alienating our allies of many years standing.

    People; including myself and others on this vital blog, keep saying “do something” but not providing specific direction to those in a position to lead us. Do we have Democratic party members to go to?

  3. Are we up to the task? What task? The people of this country have voted for one party control of the Federal government, most of the state governments, and local control right on down to the county, twp, schools, villages, and cemetery boards levels.
    We now find ourselves under the control of religious extremists and dissolute immoralists who see the separation of powers as just than many more opportunities for contol
    There is no task we can undertake to throw them out of power until their own supporters tire of them, and even then, those who assume that power from them will probably be Republicans — of a slightly different stripe :: OR the WASP population just withers away to a level of insignificance.
    I’m sorry to be so negative, but I’ve lived in rural Indiana all my life, and I’m aware of attitudes in the great empty states.
    The system the Founding Fathers built through compromise in order to satisfy slave owners has become atrophied, and a I said in my Comment from an Indiana Teacher the other day, our Republic is going the way of most others in history.
    I hope I’m wrong.

  4. Sorry for the grammatical errors today. I thought I had proofread it, but I hadn’t.

  5. As always, another enlightening post.

    I began my muckraking experience locally, then state, regional, national and internationally. Our press has been replaced by public relations agencies whose mission is branding. They are not truth seekers, but spin artists. The father of spin was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, who used his uncle’s work in psychoanalysis, to manipulate the human population. It worked exceedingly well for Hitler’s purposes, and it has been used exceedingly well by the empire builders of the West – USA and Britain, NATO, EU, etc.

    I’ve been watching a short documentary on the Iran-Contra affair done by Bill Moyers. I didn’t pay much attention to the issue in the 80’s because I was too busy building a career and family. It’s almost surreal looking at it in 2017. Ronald Reagan is an icon for the right, yet I cannot understand how he wasn’t impeached and thrown into an international prison for the criminal acts he committed.

    But, let’s take an honest look at how our US presidents have acted since Reagan. Reagan LIED to the press. Bill Moyer showed his blatant lies during press conferences by countering his words with testimony in congress.

    His chief strategist was none other than Fox News CEO, Roger Ailes, who built the conservative movement in America primarily financed by the Koch brothers private political empire. Koch’s tentacles are deep in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kansas, and Indiana. Now, they’re entrenched in our federal government and 20 other states.

    Not only that, they have access to our security apparatus which will be turned against any journalist who dares to point out the truth in a Trump administration. Trump will most certainly abuse his powers since others have done the same without any recourse.

    When I exclaim I’m shocked that Reagan didn’t die in jail, the same can be said for every president since then, including Obama. Obama should have tossed GWB in jail for intentionally lying to the world about WMD, but instead he makes appearances with the president and his family while the American people just sop it up. Russia just made Obama look like a fool in Syria, but our newspapers and “free press”, are too busy spinning articles to make us look good.

    Bill Clinton brought over an imam from Turkey accused of terrorist activities in the 90’s. Fethullah Guyen lives on a palatial spread in PA protected by the CIA. He was accused of the assassination of President Erdogan of Turkey last summer, and was blamed for the assassination of the Russian ambassador last week. By the way, Gulen operates a charter school in Indianapolis. 😉 None of this makes it to our “headline news”.

    Yet, when the CIA accuses Russia of “hacking into our election process”, Americans believe the Washington Post and our President. We are fools being played by sociopaths and thieves. We’re being conned during our decades long slumber.

    Chris Hedges believes it will take violent marches on Washington to overthrow these tyrants who’ve taken over our country. I think he’s right because laws, checks and balances, aren’t cutting it.

  6. JoAnn,

    Whoever told you you can’t be a leader? I suggest you pick a topic and start writing letters to the editor of the “Star” about that issue. Make it yours. Cogent, intelligent, well thought out responses to particular issues are important. Change one mind at a time.

  7. I am opposed to “violent marches” on Washington, which will do little more than reinforce the right’s view of liberal thugdom. Our problem, among others, is the spin control of the press by the likes of Trump and others whose primary motive is economic, however otherwise disguised as, for instance, making America great again and other meaningless mantras and twitter chatter designed to inflame rather than to inform.
    I think our best friends in the next four years will be some establishment Republicans in the Senate who are not going to stand for Trump’s sellout to Putin in return for a golf course and/or hotel on the Black Sea or whatever and wherever. Though dwindling as a result of Koch bucks, I think there are still some Republicans who understand, like me as a lifelong Democrat, that we were Americans long before we chose a political stance and that our democracy is by far the most valuable asset we collectively possess, one of the last few things left worth dying for (and far more important than the Dow and Zurich and Cayman bank accounts).
    I give up on Trump. He is mentally ill, living in his own world, and has committed impeachable offenses before even taking office, and many if not most of us are pretending that all of this is “normal.” It is not normal and we need not be framed into living in his world of narcissistic unreality. We have to resist anything he does or threatens to do in his alternate world that cannot be justified within the confines of the democratic process and the language of the Constitution.
    We are on the cusp of morphing from total corporate control of America (if not already) via corporate welfare and Citizens United elections to a new description under Trump – corporate fascism (which includes heightened corporate welfare via tax cuts and reduced regulatory control, the very policies that got us into our current budget and debt predicament). We must resist every such attempt to undo our democracy short of violence, in my opinion, and stand up for democracy and America – which will indeed make America great again.

  8. Peggy; the Star stopped printing my letters about two years ago, when I began speaking out against Pence and Ballard following Daniel’s game plan…which had been passed down from Goldsmith. I do try from time to time but to no avail.

  9. JoAnn, it’s like you read my mind some days. I was thinking while reading this post, HOW can I get involved? I have a lot to organize to move back to AZ in the next 66 days but I need to figure out where I can ‘land.’ In the meantime, after repainting and making lists of what goes and what stays and what to sell, I need a distraction for activating my political plan when I get there. I know that there are Tucson readers here so please (I think your name is David), please respond so that I can contact the Democratic Party or some other organization once I get there. Happy New Year!

  10. By the way, where is Marv? I haven’t read all of the comments in the past week but wondered where is Marv today?

  11. Find out who your pct chair is. If there’s not one, do it yourself. Have regular pot lucks or restaurant meetings. Get speakers. Advertise. Get stickers printed. Talk later. ….
    Also hear that Los Cruces is great.

  12. JoAnn, AgingGirl and others,
    I am inundated with emails from organizations that claim they are training resistors and organizers, that claim many things actually with respect to organizing at the local level. However, it seems most just want my money, not my involvement. I want to see exactly what they are doing and their willingness to take volunteers. Their websites aren’t always enlightening. What do my donations yield, if they don’t also want my physical involvement? I just moved to PA, and an organization with which I will get more involved is the Sierra Club (environment tops my list of issues). I have also discovered some regional environmental organizations that actually have meetings and invite newcomers. I found these through local business organization newsletters.

    I try to follow Bernie Sanders’ activities and see many supposedly related entities that claim to be organizing locally. Again I don’t want to donate until I see the actual physical activities and willingness to take volunteers.


  13. AgingLGrl,

    By the way, where is Marv? I haven’t read all of the comments in the past week but wondered where is Marv today?

    I’m just observing these days, especially JoAnn. She knows how to lead, you don’t need me.

    Happy New Year! to you all.

  14. Ginny; I have joined ACLU which is quite active but, like you I don’t want to donate to unknown entities. Also belong to Democratic National Committee, Indiana Democratic Party, AARP and Indiana Coalition for Public Education. Allowed my Planned Parenthood membership to expire, have waited months for a reply to renew. Receive messages from PantSuit Nation and Women 4 Change (local). There must be national organizations we can trust; this is why I asked for info, there are professionals on this blog so I thought it would be a good source.

  15. As usual Sheila says it best but IMO Trump’s election is a symptom of much deeper problems like the viability of democracy.

    The disease is the post-truth era the existence and extent of which Don the con apparently correctly diagnosed earlier than most here. Of course some would argue it to be a global problem the Brexit proponents diagnosed earlier than he, and others even that it began as local problems in pre WWII Europe and Russia.

    Democracy fails absent respect for truth.

    Unfortunately democracy is also the only source of freedom from tyrannical government so the failure of truth has implications that fundamental to society.

    What we have little experience with is recovery from it. Obviously in WWII global forces overcame local
    infections of post-truth at great expense but who will save humanity from a global infection?

    Some historians believe that the advent a couple of millennia ago of religion elevated truth in human dealings to a safe spot but perhaps unfortunately the church today is as much a victim of the culture as our other institutions.

    Once all (most?) institutions lose inherent respect for truth society fails and that in a world this crowded and interconnected cannot avoid chaos.

    Dystopia? I would love to be wrong.

  16. Dear Sheila,
    RE: “including think tanks that engage in fact-based policy analysis and embrace the democratic norms essential to the preservation of our way of life.”

    Which ones would those be?

  17. I want to confirm the bit about our congressional “leaders” being silent. So far, I’ve written two letters to our “conservative” house member, one specifically mentioning the fact that the Chinese can ruin the midwest farm economy in one fell swoop. I told him that we needed him to support us and confront Mr. Trump and his reckless remarks, but that I was concerned about the lack of responses from him and his colleagues. Sure enough. No response. So much for moral courage from these people who seem to be hiding behind a big rock while the whole place goes into the toilet.

  18. Actually, believe 2017 is going to be a very positive year for those who cherish democracy. We’re now involved in a FUNDAMENTAL political change and we have NOT made the appropriate ORGANIZATIONAL moves against it.

    A very similar phenomenon happened in college football back in the 20’s when the forward pass came into play. At first, no one knew how to defend against it, but eventually the changes were made. And it no longer had the same effect.

    All we need now is the RIGHT formation. Then Donald Trump’s “ass will be in a sling.” I guarantee.

  19. This stuff isn’t hard to understand, and it isn’t new. It is the Tories/Loyalists vs. the Revolutionaries. The ways of the past vs. the ways of the future. And therefore it is primarily the dumb vs. the educated. We have failed to ensure the education of the American population. A democracy cannot survive an easily manipulated population. Goodbye, democracy.

  20. Todd @ 8:39 am. Dark Alliance by Gary Webb, is a long and depressing book about the conjunction of the Contra’s and other reactionaries and the US Government involvement in the importation of cocaine into the USA to fund the Contras. Oliver North is mentioned repeatedly in the book.

    The ruling class may permit investigations but the high command has a Get of Jail Card. All of Bush the Younger’s lies were excused by bad intelligence. Now we are supposed to believe these same intelligence agencies have some proof the Russian Government is behind the hacks.

    Our McMega-Media has proved to all their purpose is not News, but ratings, and Trump was the gold mine. Truth got the shaft. We have false news. We have half truths, which are spun, and mutilated. There are many good Web Sites out there.

    The problem is at some point the words must be transferred into action. I do not expect the Democratic Party Leadership today to lead us to a Progressive future away from their allegiance to Corporatism.

    Just a thought, it is tradition for the out going president to show up at the inauguration. Obama should call in sick and be a no show.

  21. The overall defeatism on this blog, I believe, is coming from the notion that the VIRTUAL world is the whole “ballgame.” That’s just not so. The PHYSICAL world is just as important and maybe more so.

    “The people who surface in the next wave of dissident leaders will be the ones who can command a following and crowd-source their online support, who have demonstrable skill with digital marketing tools, and CRITICALLY, who are willing to put themselves PHYSICALLY in harm’s way. Digital activism, especially when done remotely or with anonymity, LOWERS the stakes for would-be protesters, so true leaders wiLL distinguish themselves by taking on
    PHYSICAL risks that their VIRTUAL supporters cannot or will not.”

    “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business” by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) pp. l25-6.

    [Eric Schmidt is executive chairman of Google, where he served as chief executive officer from 2001 to 2011 and Jared Cohen is director of Google Ideas]

    I’ve cited this same excerpt a few months ago.

  22. Marv, I think you have some excellent and encouraging points. I hear, “think smarter, not harder”. One idea I heard, for example, is not to do loud and nasty demonstrations but to attend his rallies and laugh, with everyone scattered about the crowd. When he says something outrageous or untruthful (which will be a lot) recognize it, and laugh loudly like it’s a Stephen Colbert presentation. It’s not physically threatening and it’s even more effective than nonviolent sit-ins, especially with him. For someone who wants to be the one in power and who probably loves it when people get angry, this would drive him crazy. He’s an angry person who knows how to deal with other angry people. Just watch him melt. If people think outside the box and get organized, this is a beatable foe. You just have to think crazy. But just be glad he’s a crazy demagogue, not a sane one. Now, that’s really dangerous.

  23. Stuart,

    “But just be glad he’s a crazy demagogue, not a sane one. Now, that’s really dangerous.”

    Exactly Right, as I’ve said from the beginning Trump is, a real life, Santa Claus. If he hadn’t stepped in, we would be facing Ted Cruz. Now that’s someone who would be really dangerous.

    “If people think outside the box and get organized, this is a beatable foe.” I agree 100%.

  24. Stuart,

    Unfortunately, because of our organizational problems we will more than likely be too late as were the Allies at the beginning of WW II.

    The “Phoney War” period began immediately following Germany’s blitzkrieg attack on Poland and the formal declaration of war by Britain and France. Public expectation was that similar attacks would immediately follow, but for some months neither side in the war seemed to be doing very much.

    During this time, Germany was slowly occupying Poland. German submarines were sinking British boats, including the battleship HMS Royal Oak and the passenger liner Athenia (which was sunk by mistake). Britain was conducting air raids in Germany with propaganda leaflets instead of bombs and a form of martial law was instituted in Britain. Each side in the war established a blockade against the other.

    The term may have been coined by Senator William Borah of the United States. This period of time was referred to as the “sitting war” by the Germans and the “twilight war” by Winston Churchill. It was later stated by German commander Alfred Jodi at the Nuremberg trials that Germany would have collapsed if France and Britain had attacked during this period.

    Nothing has been happening except useless talk since the Trump victory in early November. If we don’t ORGANIZE effectively with competent leadership before the 21st of this month, we will never have a chance of turning around this dreadful situation.

  25. Why does Trump tweet at 3 a.m.? This is a question about which I claim considerable expertise. Every man of a certain age finds his sleep interrupted at that time almost every night. Once the pressing problem is solved, getting back to sleep is seldom easy. Trump exhausts himself by coming up with 140 characters of nonsense which he mistakes for insight. Intellectually spent, he shuffles across his marble floor to his Louis XVI bed and falls into the arms of Morpheus like the innocent babe we know him to be.
    Give him an unlimited supply of Saw Palmetto pills and we won’t have to listen to any more wee small hour tweets.

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