Perfect Political Storm

We’ve got God on our side
We’re just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
Fear’s a powerful thing, baby
It’ll turn your heart black you can trust
It’ll take your God filled soul
Fill it with devils and dust
          (Bruce Springsteen, “Devils & Dust”)

Update 1/6/21: the storm has broken. Early this afternoon, the House and the Senate were carrying out their 12th Amendment duty of counting the certified electoral votes. Thousands of protestors had gathered outside the Capitol to protest what President Trump frequently described as a fraudulent election, where he lost both the popular and the electoral vote. Around 2:20 p.m., protestors broke through metal barriers at the foot of the stairs to the Capitol. Police sprayed tear gas. Around 2:30 PM, a large number of protestors, some violent, some carrying weapons, forced their way into the Capitol. “Protesters could be seen marching through the Capitol’s stately Statuary Hall shouting and waving Trump banners and American flags” (Associated Press Timeline of events at the Capitol). The building was locked down, but not before one woman was fatally shot by the police. Three other people died from currently unspecified medical emergencies.[§] Congresspeople were eventually escorted out of the building. Around 8:30 p.m. the Senate resumed the electoral vote. Several Republicans withdrew their objections in light of the siege.

Update 7/26/22: the storm predicted below and outlined above was, indeed, worse than everything I imagined or documented thus far. The chant, “Kill Mike Pence,” which was tolerated by the Commander in Chief from the safety of the White House, epitomizes the gravity of the situation. Now that the Jan. 6 Hearings are underway, it is inconceivable that Donald Trump could be re-elected in 2024, but then this entire post is inconceivable before 2016.
My original post below overestimated the similarities between the parties and, to that extent, underestimated the anti-democratic actions of the President, as well as the anti-democratic and irrational response of the majority of Republicans among the United States Congress. Liz Cheney, Republican US Representative, Wyoming, has established non-partisan higher ground in the hearings, her role being as unimaginable to me as the violence that ensued on January 6.

(The following originally published October 6, 2020)
For the first time, I’m doubting the general welfare of the US after an upcoming presidential election. In the past, the new or renewed president would be uncannily like his or her predecessor or opponent, and I knew there would be segments of our society, usually marked by their low incomes or stature, who would continue to suffer discrimination in various forms.[1] The losers might be bitter and the winners might gloat, but the fabric of society would remain the same for better and worse.

But with November, 2020, we could see the demise of what still can be recognized as peace and freedom in this country. Whether J. Biden or D. Trump is elected, the number of citizens who will be outraged may tip the scales into a season of violence. Some cities have seen a considerable amount in 2020, usually amounting to peaceful black-lives protests followed by looting and vandalism followed (or led) by shows of disproportionate police force.[2] Unless the November election obtains unambiguous results that are accepted graciously—admittedly a stretch of the imagination—the protests will dwarf what we’ve seen.

There’s little original here. When I first started writing this piece fewer people were talking about this tumultuous election. Now it’s becoming common knowledge. A recent CNN report states, “Concerns range from isolated violent incidents to a long stretch of mass protests, violent confrontations between extremists and widespread property damage, if the outcome of the election remains unclear or is hotly contested for weeks or months, according to security consultants, analysts of extremism, police officials and local elected leaders who spoke with CNN.”[3] If this piece contributes anything, it’s the cautionary observation that violence creates twins out of ostensibly dissimilar enemies.

While I hope I’m wrong, frankly, I would wager that I’m right, something more damaging than localized protests but less widespread than an all-out civil war is becoming increasingly likely as tensions and partisan allegiances build.

The result of the violence will be, of course, authoritarian rule, whether on the federal, state or local level. Actions initially taken to promote freedom will disallow freedom, just as a desire to lessen the militarization of police will likely increase it.

Some of this violence is fueled by the angst and the constraints arising from covid19. Stir-crazy people across the political spectrum, some of whom think wearing a face mask violates their constitutional freedom, have an excess of energy and time that increases participation in protests and eventual violence.

More instrumental than masks will be the increasing distance between the two Americas (the nominally progressive and the nominally conservative). A few weeks ago I watched President Trump give a campaign speech in Moon Township, Pennsylvania—streamed live by Fox on YouTube. And I thought, “If he were the only source I listened to—why I might vote for him, since he apparently solves innumerable problems and creates none.” However, of course, I listen to many more sources than him, several of them international, and am aware that just about every claim to greatness he made is, for about half this country, a point that either results in jaw-dropping incredulity or ideological outrage.

The same self-aggrandizement could be attributed to J. Biden perhaps, although he’s not nearly so persuasive as is Trump. As a result, he constructs fewer straw entities to be either enshrined or knocked down. In the words of Jim Gaffigan, a newcomer to the political commentary world, Trump is “Possibly the best salesman I’ve seen in my lifetime” (Facebook, 8/31/2020).[4]

The volatile futility of the two Americas is that they’ve nearly fully demonized each other. We expect the candidates to exaggerate differences between them, but this time around, the supporters are vilified by each other. Frequently, one hears that Black Lives Matter is organized by Marxists, implying that the goals of the BLM movement are Marxist and that participation in the protests involves being manipulated by Marxists. A more accurate statement would be something to the effect that two of the three founders of Black Lives Matter admit having Marxist influences, while most of the participants in the protests object to police violence against blacks do not identify with Marx.[5]

The example above applies to Republican vilification, and many more examples exist. The most obvious one involves a cluster of references to Democrats as representing the radical left, with the result that within the conservative discourse, Democrats, the radical left (whatever that is), Communists, and Antifa become equivalent terms. While Bernie Sanders was thoroughly “left,” he was clearly too far left for the DCCC to stomach (two elections in a row); hence, candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. However, chunks of Midwestern America probably think candidates such as Biden have Mao’s little red book sitting on their bedside tables—whereas in reality, any red-blooded voter with a deep commitment to social justice knows that Biden is far too right, meaning, far too easily controlled by corporate interests.

The Democratic misconceptions are far-reaching, too. There are numerous generalizations about the Trump supporters that are wrong and should have been dispelled by the 2016 election—such as that nobody in their right mind with a civil temperament would vote for Trump. The supporters are not primarily under-educated white men drinking Budweiser and driving around in pickup trucks with a confederate flag flying out the back. According to CNN exit polls, race marked the most significant difference between white-Trump supporters and multi-race Clinton supporters. Religion figured in a large way, also, with voting Christians supporting Trump. Education and gender provided less difference.

Some of my friends have not knowingly encountered a Trump supporter, whereas many of my other friends voted for him in 2016. Those who voted for Trump are often educated women and men, conscientious people—frequently Christians—who have such a mistrust in the Democratic party and such an absolute resistance to its pro-choice stance that they feel compelled to vote for someone who will at least give them lip service. The operative word here is that they are people, something that might be doubted by many Democrats.

Worse than the polarized differences between the two Americas is the increasing similarity between them. It is harping on differences that creates the worst similarities, such as a growing and shared intolerance for the other. Outwardly, two enemies become increasingly symmetrical the more they engage in battle, whether in hand-to-hand combat or wielding weapons—the word “duel” is etymologically related to “dual.”

Fight scene from the documentary 'Alt-Right: Age of Rage'
Fight scene from the documentary ‘Alt-Right: Age of Rage’—as soon as fighting begins, the differences give way to the similarities. The sign becomes a shield of sorts, the left arms become defensive while the right become offensive.

Inwardly and without necessarily involving physical expression, this intolerance manifests itself first as an unwillingness to listen to the other’s viewpoints and concludes with a desire to get rid of the other. One can get rid of the other many ways, some physically violent and others socially violent (such as through slander and gossip). There’s an energizing appeal to vanquishing one’s opponent, even if it means, in the words of Springsteen, that you kill the thing you love. That thing you love might be the cherished ideological difference that began the intolerance or it might be the now-broken relationship itself, whether between friends or family members. That thing you love might be relatively peaceful streets.

My apprehension that things could quickly get dramatically worse in our society is, as I mentioned, echoed by others. The following have specific slants.

The recent documentary on Netflix, /the social dilemma, argues that social media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, leverage to an unprecedented scale the polarization, isolation, and ultimate dismantling of our once democratic population (along with “some of the most ‘developed nations’ in the world [that] are now imploding on each other”).[6] The platforms understand their users’ values and they know that factitious stories are about six times more engaging than factual ones. As a result, they allow users to be provided with factitious posts, videos and adverts that reinforce the users’ points of view to the exclusion of other, more valid, points of view.

As one of the interviewees, Jaron Lanier, illustrates: when users of a given language view a Wikipedia page, they all see the same page. That is, when users view “United States” (the most frequently viewed page), they all see the same version of that page, not one tailored to their biases and preferences. When users of social media view a page, they often see a different page, one tailored to their profile. So that, for example, if a viewer is a known follower of one conspiracy theory (such as anti-vaccination), that viewer may be exposed to another theory (such as the claim that mail-in ballots are inherently fraudulent)—with a likelihood that the viewer may be roped in (and thus separated further from rationality). But this mechanism doesn’t require recognized conspiracies. It also includes the reinforcement of the conviction that Democrats are a danger to society (dished out to Republicans), just as Republicans are anti-social (dished out to Democrats).

Another interviewee (and in ways the central character), Tristan Harris, continues the argument:

It’s not about the technology being the existential threat. It’s the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society… and the worst in society being the existential threat. If technology creates… mass chaos, outrage, incivility, lack of trust in each other, loneliness, alienation, more polarization, more election hacking, more populism, more distraction and inability to focus on the real issues… that’s just society. And now society is incapable of healing itself and just devolving into a kind of chaos. This affects everyone, even if you don’t use these products.

Concerning the outcomes of these trends, Tim Kendall, former executive at Facebook, states bleakly: “I think, in the… in the shortest time horizon… civil war.” Jaron Lanier continues: “If we go down the current status quo for, let’s say, another 20 years… we probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance. We probably fail to meet the challenge of climate change. We probably degrade the world’s democracies so that they fall into some sort of bizarre autocratic dysfunction. We probably ruin the global economy. Uh, we probably, um, don’t survive. You know, I… I really do view it as existential.”

There we have it from /the social dilemma: civil war and/or extinction. A different viewpoint that stops short of extinction is from the BBC broadcast, HARDtalk, aired on September 9, 2020. BBC’s Stephen Sackur interrogates “the veteran Republican party pollster and consultant Frank Luntz” about the obstacles facing D. Trump in the upcoming election.[7]

After reviewing some of Trump’s strengths and weaknesses within the polls, the interview leaps toward a dismal speculation. It begins around 7 minutes into the interview:
Sackur: Now Kellyanne Conway who is now departing the White House but as senior advisor to Donald Trump said on August 27, uh she said, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety on law and order.” That key phrase, “the better it is”—did you find that sickening, or not?
Luntz: I found it chilling…because in the end, nobody wants the country to come apart. And I’m very concerned about our democracy. If you want to know where things are … we will discuss the state of American democracy, which I believe is at a weaker point, at a more dangerous point than at any time in my lifetime. And I’m particularly afraid of what’s going to happen on election day.

What happens on election day is that a preponderant number of polling-place voters are Trump supporters. Conceivably by midnight or later, when all the votes are tallied, Trump has won. However, the mail-in ballots are still being counted, perhaps for days. When the counts are finished, conceivably Biden wins. America now has two presidents according to the various minds of its constituents. Two presidents, like two popes, never work out well.

On election night, it is likely the Democrats will be angry, because the results will appear weighted toward Trump. But as the next day or days pass, Biden may catch up to and then surpass Trump, with the result that the Republicans will feel thwarted and will think the election fraudulent. According to Luntz, “It is essential, in a democracy, for the loser to acknowledge the victory of the winner. . . . to accept it and then prepare for the next election.” When Sackur asks Luntz about Donald Trump’s May 26, 2020 tweet (“There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent”) Luntz responds, “That does concern me [sighs], it’s why I’m so afraid, it’s why I’m so upset. . . . As a pollster, you cannot look at this election and feel good about it. You cannot say to your kids in the next generation, ‘this is how they should be waged and this is how it should be won.'” Luntz continues a little later, “To me the health of a democracy is more important than any one candidate.” Luntz is “frightened” by the state of the electoral system, the democracy being less stable than it has been since 1968.

The outcome if things go badly? According to Luntz, the future of America “is unclear and undefined.” Like me, he is more concerned that we elect a president than he is concerned about which one we elect. The outcome, I might add, in the words of President Trump during the first presidential debate is: “This is not going to end well.”[8]

So we’ve heard from Silicon Valley and from an esteemed Republican pollster. My final example is a pastor in Kentucky, Dana Coverstone.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., Coverstone had a dream. Unfortunately, it was not a happy one. Putting aside questions of inspiration, it reflects an anxiety in our country that things really are not going to end well. The dream tilts in favor of Trump (whose merit is a given among many in Kentucky) in the following passage: “I saw [in November] blue helmets of the UN. I saw a military things taking place. I also saw no sign of President Trump. I saw no sign of leadership in Washington DC.”[9]

These premonitions are not, I think, confined to the worries that one’s candidate might not win. They reveal something deeper that troubles many of us, whether or not things sink as fast and badly as one can imagine (and Coverstone certainly can do that). His dream reveals the deeper anxiety:

The minute the finger underlined November three times instead of tapping it, I saw a fist ball up and it hit the calendar. And literally, the calendar exploded into the wall, the numbers seem that they were 3d and they were falling everywhere. There was a cloud of chaos that started in there. The next thing I saw was … armed protesters. I saw fighting in the streets, I saw people pummeling one another. I saw businesses shuttered and shut up.

I saw schools close. I saw school rooms with cobwebs hanging in them and like things like papers falling off the wall and posters… like no one had been in them for months.

I saw banks. Bank buildings with the roof being taken off. It looked almost that alien abduction because money was flying through the roof into some type of like a vacuum cleaner. It sounds kind of strange, but I was watching wealth, just being taken. I saw politicians in back rooms, making deals with people. Patting people on the back and laughing and smiling and smirking.

Really, I’d dismiss Coverdale’s dream as grist for Hollywood except for this: a long train of events shows that, first, our democracy has become an oligarchy guided by a plutocracy, and, second, that more and more people are looking toward the president to help, even as the help offered will inevitably divide the country.

My prediction is not so severe, not this November at least. Yes, there will be some pummeling, as there will continue to be smirking politicians in back rooms patting each other on the back, whether or not the vaccination is discovered. To the extent violence occurs (including verbal violence), enemies will look more and more like each other, while some kind of authoritarian rule will be exercised to contain the violence.

We’ll experience further fragmentation of our society until finding common ground becomes valued more highly than claiming the higher ground. Put differently, increased violence and a backlash of authoritarian control are coming our way to the extent we do not make peace, which, as I understand it, involves resisting the impulse to imitate our enemies. But we are imitative creatures and violence is the easiest action to imitate.

I’m not sure that when the tide rises, all ships rise, but am certain that when the bottom of the oceans falls out, all ships sink. I just watched a video of a pickup truck driving through a crowd of protestors and thought, “The tide is definitely falling.”

The rules of destruction, then, are to first consider oneself wholly different from one’s enemies, as this scene from Alt-Right: Age of Rage so nicely illustrates (and it doesn’t matter whose side the speaker is representing):

Another scene from the documentary 'Alt-Right: Age of Rage'
Another scene from ‘Alt-Right: Age of Rage’: being absolutely right makes the other absolutely wrong.
Next, engage in some kind of violence, which will result in becoming indistinguishable from each other. Finally, step aside as the iron heel of authoritarian force lands, and realize you’ve lost the thing you love.

It’s not that I think all ideologies, values or presidential candidates are equal—far from it. It’s that the people of the US are being played by a game that pits citizens against each other, and that’s a game I hope I can refuse to join. Agree to disagree. Disobey civilly. Exert force through large protests and strikes if necessary. The less you look like the enemy, the worse the enemy looks. And remember Lincoln’s words: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Even then, we won’t like every one, but we won’t limp through life entangled in toxic stereotypes.



[§] The woman who died was a protestor and an Air Force veteran. The next day a police officer who had been injured also died.

[1] For a look at the bipartisan contributions to the discrimination against poor blacks, see the documentary entitled 13th.

[2] The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project claims that 93% of the BLM demonstrations are non-violent, although 42% of the respondents to a poll suggest that “most protesters [associated with the BLM movement] are trying to incite violence or destroy property.” Moreover, early in the year, police refrained from heavy-handed tactics, at times joining the protestors, but as the year wore on the incidents of brutality along with the involvement of federal military increased.

[3] Cities, states and businesses brace for election unrest in US was last updated October, 2, 2020.

[4] You can read the entire missive in a PDF I saved from Facebook: What I’ve Learned Since I Lost My Mind

[5] Patrice Cullors, one of the founders, owns her Marxism, Ideology and Policy Position (Wikipedia), which cites an interview in which she was asked if she supports violent protests, to which she answered: “that she believes in ‘direct action, but nonviolent direct action,’ and that this was also the belief of the Black Lives Matter movement”; see the PolitiFact statement on BLM and Marxism: Is Black Lives Matter a Marxist movement?

[6] For quotations from /the social dilemma, I am referring (with gratitude) to the transcription on Scraps from the Loft.

[7] Both this quotation and the audio of the interview can be found on BBC Sounds.

[8] This was said in the context of the election results at the time stamp of (01:05:34) according to the transcript on Rev.

[9] The video and the transcription can be found here: “Brace Yourself” – Pastor Dana Coverstone Was Shown What Is Coming In The Months Ahead, And His Video Is Spreading Like Wildfire.

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