America doesn’t exist in any real sense of the word. The greatness this country has achieved—and I do consider it the greatest boon to the condition of humanity the world has ever seen—is due entirely to our belief in the shared myths of our Constitution, institutions, and man-made, God-given rights. Yuval Harari identifies shared myths as the uniquely human means of advancing our species and the myths the Founders built the United States upon are the most sacred to all of man. In reality, any government capable of regime change or annihilation of any nuclear-armed, million man army abroad can completely control its citizens’ speech, fully control the press, search and seize with abandon, fabricate trials and evidence, and generally trounce upon the so-called freedoms under which we all believe we live. The myth of power derived from the people, the unquestionable belief in a government beholden to and composed of the governed is all that stands between America and tyranny. The belief in the rights of the people and not the rights themselves is the source of American greatness. The rights do not exist but for the earnest and widespread belief in them.
We live in a world constructed of entities that exist purely by common knowledge. My belief that everyone believes x makes x real. When that ceases, once a crack opens to expose that reality has been based on a rotted and no longer common knowledge belief, the fabric of society crumbles. The USSR didn’t succumb to foreign invasion or an internal, coordinated offensive; the elements of the population who held the common belief that the rest of the population believed in the power of the state dipped below the critical point and the world crumbled all at once.
It is from this vantage that we consider Trump and 2020 America. Trump never spoke like a president. He fought the establishment in words, demeanor, and action from the beginning and found a receptive audience in the American people, tired of the increasing hypocrisy of an aristocratic elite leaching off of the toil of the people, in full command of the government of, by, and for the people. Trump showed a disdain for principle and philosophy. I didn’t realize it then but he ignored, wholesale, the power of our shared myths, perpetuated for centuries by the decorum and norms of our offices and institutions, diligently hewn to by every prior occupant thereof.
What I saw in the early years of his presidency was a guy with an inflammatory and divisive message, building a cult of personality, but generally pursuing a domestic policy (deregulation, reduced taxation, and begrudging acceptance of private impetus) better than the alternative (something approaching total socialism). The trade war with China was dumb and unprincipled but less destructive than placing all healthcare under state control or confiscating wealth. His immigration policies were largely destructive but, unlike every other realm of government action, I cannot construct a coherent moral or principled argument one way or the other on immigration. I believe immigration is generally good but I don’t see it as the job of government to encourage the furtherance of the good. It is the role of government to construct the bare minimum system of constraints within which individuals can pursue their privately-defined notion of virtue. Anyway, his supporters urged, judge the man by his actions and not by his words. Uncomfortably, gullibly, I did. I took pride in the fact that Trump supporters left a conversation with me thinking I was anti-Trump and Trump haters assumed I was a MAGA hat-wearing rally-goer. I believe that philosophy and principle matters in governance and on that basis, both sides were bankrupt but at least Trump hit the better of bad options by accident more often than would the average Democrat. I couldn’t bring myself to vote in 2016 but I didn’t consider the outcome to be the world-ending disaster my peers and polite, civilized, elite society considered it to be.
Then came 2020.
In truth, Trump did little and I believe that in many cases, his actions (or inactions) were nearly passable, though some were among the most awful we’ve seen in our country’s history. On national lockdowns and compulsory masks, intrastate commerce and free movement of people aren’t the federal government’s to police. Then the protests started. There were riots. There was property destruction. Antifa and the SJW censors really do exist and really are evil. But none of that will ever justify the president of the United States of America sending out his thugs to gas and beat and charge and shoot American citizens peaceably gathered in front of their seat of government. Theirs and not his. The use of force by our government against us must be the most solemnly considered act of any person charged with governance under the Constitution. He made the call without hesitation and laughed it off in the style of a common tyrant. He may occupy the office for a time but no president before Trump ever considered the White House theirs. The office is greater than any occupant. The office belongs to the people. Yet the people were targeted by its lowly occupant for a propaganda photo shoot for Trump’s play at cementing as common knowledge the lie that he is strong and the federal government was proceeding with business as usual. From the Wikipedia entry on the Romanian Revolution in the fall of the USSR, “Party officials took great pains to make it appear that Ceaușescu was still immensely popular. Several busloads of workers, under threat of being fired, arrived in Bucharest’s Piața Palatului (Palace Square, now Piața Revoluției – Revolution Square) and were given red flags, banners and large pictures of Ceaușescu. They were augmented by bystanders who were rounded up on Calea Victoriei.” Trump employs actors at his rallies. Trump is a communist dictator in style, focus, and tactics.
What he did was evil but all politicians of our day espouse and dream to enact some evil. I would have had a hard time weighing Trump’s evil of gassing and roughing up of a few against the socialist evil of starving thousands in pursuit of fanciful equality.
And so we turn to what he said. What he said cannot be forgiven and constitutes the gravest threat to the greatest source of prosperity man has ever created. What he said endangers the future of humanity. At every turn, Trump says that he is omnipotent (whether by virtue of his office or his former TV show ratings is unclear). If the states and cities don’t do his bidding and gas and beat—and, what the hell, kill a few—protesters, he’ll send in the army to do it for them. Donald Trump threatened civil war at the drop of a hat. Donald Trump sowed division among our people, he pointed to a few as the source of the pain and cause of the fear of the masses. No one could accidentally make so many references to white supremacy, Hitler and Nazis, and symbols of violent hate. He is purposely turning American against American and he’s doing it because he cares much more about his own re-election than the sanctity of the office he embarrassingly holds. He speaks as though freedom of speech and a free press exist only because he has determined, for the time being, to exercise restraint. If he wanted to, of course, both could be snuffed out. His disdain for the people and the media shows through every time he responds to a direct question with his signature “I haven’t made a decision yet but I will make a big one very soon,” challenging the world to doubt his complete rule by whim. He tweets that he, as if from his own checkbook, is sending aid to cities and public projects. He demeans and perverts any media outlet that shows him in his true, unflattering colors. He aggrandizes himself at every opportunity.
In short, for the first time in the history of our country, we have a president who believes that action and a facade of strength matter more than decorum and restraint. Nothing could be more antithetical to the spirit of American liberty. Left unchecked, by this path will we allow the snuffing out of the last vestiges of our freedom.
Freedom derives only from the common knowledge belief in the restraint of government. Nothing in reality serves to ensure government restraint. We believe and we know that everyone else believes and those in power believe that those with the guns believe. Freedom is preserved by a threat. At any moment, should the world see that that threat is left unfulfilled, freedom evaporates. We live freely but always on the brink, no different than Ceaușescu before he failed to make good on his threat against the people of Romania. The fall of the USSR proceeded prosaically: a common knowledge threat left unfulfilled led to a rapid collapse in that common knowledge and the immediate dissolution of the threat that maintained the old order. All shared myths that project a feature into reality rely on the same mechanism of common knowledge and our freedoms and system of government are no different. We sit, poised always on a precarious precipice, a raucous shout or untoward order away from revealing a threadbare, hollowed out, once-was common knowledge, precipitating disaster and the loss of every freedom that, just a moment before, we believed God granted us. Our rights are anything but inalienable; they are a most convenient and incredible fantasy, a delusion that exists only because we all believe it exists.
Some in the military are awakening to the realization that now is the time they must make good on the threat that underlies American freedom but it is up to us, the people, to enforce our demand of freedom from government tyranny or to sit peacefully in silence as sheep, letting the last few grains of great liberty slip through our hands.
Once the police or army carries out an order abridging our freedom by a president lacking the circumspection to stop him from ignoring the court, we have been forever alienated from our rights.
Once a president proves to just enough of us or just the right people that the rules apply by his whim alone, we have been forever alienated from our rights.
Once a president demonstrates to the world that, regardless of the scribbles on some old parchment, he truly is restrained only by the limits of what orders his attendants and functionaries will carry out, we have been forever alienated from our rights.
Donald Trump is the first president in the history of America to call into question the foundation upon which our freedoms rest. The foundation of our liberty is air and faith. Donald Trump has shaken our faith by passing once unspeakable words through our air. For that, he cannot be forgiven.
I have spent my life believing that socialism and the tyranny of the majority were the gravest threat to my life and pursuit of virtue and gain. I never dreamed that the foundation of liberty would face graver threat from a rejection of the decorum and norms of office and the disavowal of any form of principle or philosophy. Trump has threatened the philosophy–the air and faith–supporting American liberty. So faced, I intend to gleefully vote for socialism, incredibly, much the lesser of two deep evils. I hope that we haven’t yet passed the critical point. I pray for the sake of the future of humanity that Trump has not yet tipped us past the boiling point, liberty poised to evaporate barely a bit and then all at once.
Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem. This is the bedrock of our freedom and the unique mark of our nation. Rarely is the choice so stark but, once confronted, we only have the luxury of choosing wrongly once before all choice is ripped from us. Now is the time to choose dangerous liberty over peaceful servitude.
Well that was fast. Trump has sent federal forces to invade an American city, make obviously unlawful arrests, gas, shoot, and beat those deemed guilty by association or by where they choose to protest, and all while they wear “uniforms” and drive grab vans with less identifying information than our soldiers fighting real terrorists.
Maybe you believe that this situation warrants an invasion to protect Americans. Based on the videos I’ve seen, it seems like a primarily offensive rather than defensive force but let’s just assume you believe that this is actually a means of enforcing “law and order.” Even accepting that framing in arguendo, to have a president publicly speak about this invasion callously and make clear that he’ll do whatever the hell he wants to the American people to fight political opponents (i.e. democratically elected, “far left” mayors) is a wildly dangerous precedent. Even if you believe that today’s invasion is justified, you must fight against the lowering of the bar of justification for future such actions. A real president would solemnly address the nation and somberly make the case for deploying troops against our own. A real president would recognize that he commands the troops only as the proxy of the people, that their consent is his only license to act. Our president sent in the troops and spoke about it only as part of jabs to try to gain political points with his base. So perhaps you still subscribe to the mantra of judging him by what he does rather than what he says and perhaps you believe that what he’s doing in Portland is somehow justified. If you do not denounce this action by this president you have no right to denounce any future invasion by any future president undertaken in any similarly callous and flippant a manner. To believe in freedom in America is to place the man and the moment in subservience to the office and the limits of power. To believe in American-style personal freedom and allow the horrors of Portland and this president’s use of force against the public at whim to proceed un-condemned is to live as a hypocrite.
The genius of the American system was that the institutions and offices mattered more than the people holding them at any given time. The American system recognized that, in software terms, the interface, the set of capabilities and responsibilities accorded an entity, mattered more than the implementation, the actual functioning of that particular entity. The occupant–the implementation in this analogy–changes every few years. The interface–the rules that that occupant must work within and the responsibilities the occupant must uphold–is nearly eternal. We have survived good presidents and bad because, in every case over centuries, we have kept the interface sacrosanct. Donald Trump is destroying the interface of the American system of governance. The interface is America. Donald Trump is destroying America.