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Liberal Democracy In The ICU
The extinction-level event is here — and the indictment of Trump proves it.
There are many times in attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon that I simply return to the lessons of his very first day in office.
On Inauguration Day in 2017, the crowds on the Mall were large but understandably not as huge as the masses who showed up when the first black president took office back in 2009. This was not in dispute by any sane person. You could see and compare the photos. The National Parks Service confirmed it. Yet Trump was unable to accept this. He insisted his crowds were larger. He got his sad little spokesman — remember Sean Spicer? — to reiterate this untruth to the press. Again. And again. Trump tried to force the NPS to revise their count. I think it’s fair to say that he still believes his crowd was bigger — with absolute certainty and mindless passion.
This is pathological narcissism to such an intense degree it renders an individual effectively insane. It is not lying in the usual sense — which depends on a shared reality that the liar knowingly distorts. As I wrote in my first column on President Trump back in February 2017,
Trump’s lies are different. They are direct refutations of reality — and their propagation and repetition is about enforcing his power rather than wriggling out of a political conundrum. They are attacks on the very possibility of a reasoned discourse, the kind of bald-faced lies that authoritarians issue as a way to test loyalty and force their subjects into submission.
This is who Trump is. It is why he cannot comprehend and will always directly threaten any democratic, legal or constitutional norms, if they do not echo his narcissistic desires. Does he realize this? The indictment has a handful of moments that indicate he does. One is when he publicly floated the idea of voting machines being rigged by an international conspiracy, after privately saying of Sidney Powell, who invented this crap: “She’s getting a little crazy, isn’t she? She’s really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It’s just too much."
Another example is when Trump tried to persuade his vice president that Pence can overturn or suspend the certification process in the Congress. When Pence refused, Trump said: “You’re too honest.” Another is a national security briefing when Trump calmly agreed not to take action: “Yeah, you’re right, it’s too late for us. We’re going to give that to the next guy” — i.e. president-elect Biden. Another is when the acting attorney general told Trump that the DOJ couldn’t and wouldn’t change the outcome of the election, and Trump replied, “Just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
Yet another is a statement released by Trump that “The Vice President and I are in total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act.” He surely knew that was a whopper, given Pence’s resistance just a few hours before Trump issued that statement, in a one-on-one meeting.
But that’s it. Surely if Jack Smith had more, he would have included them. Maybe there will be a superseding indictment, as in the documents case. Maybe some other private slips would help reveal Trump’s knowing mendacity. But I doubt it. Michael Wolff, who has observed Trump close-up, writes today that, in meetings with him after the election, “I don’t know anyone who didn’t walk away from those conversations at least a little shaken by his absolute certainty that the election really was stolen from him.”
My own view has long been that Trump is beyond truth and lies: his ego is everything; there is nothing outside it; it is the only reality he knows. If he were to acknowledge any facet of a reality that does not flatter his ego, he would have a psychic break. So he doesn’t. He is beyond accountability because he only lives in the moment, and reinvents the past at will. He is a truly postmodern man: no truth exists apart from his; and any alternative reality has to be attacked mercilessly. Because his whims oscillate, so do the non-facts he invents to satisfy them. He is a spluttering, glowering fusillade of fantasies. He is, in Wolff’s words, “a man whose behavior defies and undermines the structures and logic of civic life.”
For this view, I have been described as suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome” — as if it is a form of derangement to insist on reality, rather than to validate demonstrable, deranged, often contradictory falsehoods. Some regard it all as a harmless performance to be taken “seriously but not literally,” in the hilarious euphemism. And, as many have correctly pointed out, it is not a crime to be effectively insane. It is not a crime to tell lies so massive they undermine the foundations of democratic life. And it is not a crime to follow bad legal advice. There is a kind of insanity defense for Trump, however humiliating it would be for him to make it.
But the crimes outlined by Smith are not about these lies, except insofar as they provided the premise for a criminal attempt to overturn a democratic election. They are about a cack-handed conspiracy to organize fraudulent slates of electors in the Electoral College to counter the real ones in order to change an election result; about pressuring state officials to overturn legitimate election results with no evidence of fraud; about telling swing state leaders that the Justice Department had found evidence of fraud when they hadn’t; about threatening legal consequences for state officials if election results were not overturned; about demanding his vice president halt the certification of a general election — and consciously allowing Pence to be vulnerable to physical mob violence for refusing to do so.
Bad legal advice? Trump received excellent legal advice from everyone around him, including his own veep and AG and Republican governors, who repeatedly, insistently, with mounds of evidence, told him that he lost and should concede. He simply chose to find, in Pence’s words, “crackpot lawyers” who would tell him what he wanted to hear. Those lawyers were also often out of their minds, especially Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. (John Eastman is not crazy — just a partisan, treasonous fanatic, who should be tried as such.)
But even here, it was not Trump’s listening to these loonies that was a crime. It was acting on their advice in order to overturn an election result, and stay in power, ending the American experiment in self-government. That it amounted to a creepy farce that ended in performative violence is irrelevant. That it was pursued by a man utterly detached from reality doesn’t matter. It remains the most egregious presidential crime in the history of the republic.
The 45-page indictment, in this respect, is simply sickening. But just as sickening has been the response from the right. National Review penned a disgraceful and error-ridden editorial, providing cover for behavior that no Constitutional conservative could ever defend. (At least they published an internal dissent from Noah Rothman.) The Wall Street Journal was mealy-mouthed. Right-Twitter was unhinged. Two desperate arguments were invoked: that the contrast with the prosecution of Hunter Biden by a Trump-appointed prosecutor proved a two-tier justice system (for all Hunter’s depravity and corruption, it does nothing of the kind); and that organizing an attempt to nullify a fair election was protected under the First Amendment (seriously?). Butters is even declaring that a jury is somehow invalid because of where it will be convened — another assault on the rule of law.
There is no rationality at work here; merely rationalization. But it is a rationalization powered by a tribalism so intense it now obliterates everything before it: truth, reality, civility, and every virtue, large and small, that keeps a liberal democracy intact. This is not a democratic debate or discussion anymore. It is not a fight within our existing system. It is the effective delegitimization of the entire system — because its procedures and norms cannot validate one deranged man’s sick psyche.
And because Trump has brilliantly tapped the deep wellspring of often justified contempt for the meritocratic elites, and sustained his delusions with the energy of the insane, he has half the country on his side — and is going to campaign next year for a democratic repudiation of the rule of law. If he loses, he will insist again that he won. The rhetoric he and his cohorts have used would justify mass violence in response.
Yes, others bear some blame for our crisis of democratic legitimacy. The “Resistance” has played a part in widening the gyre. I’ve not stinted these past few years in showing how the Democrats’ and elite-liberal whites’ adoption of left extremism in every single cultural dispute has deepened tribalism on both sides, and eroded liberal democracy and its institutions from within. Their overt race and sex discrimination, their embrace of critical race, gender, and queer theory, their insouciance toward borders, their censorship of dissent, and their undisguised contempt for half the country have made everything worse.
Maybe there was a time when we could have moved on, found a Republican who could channel justified resentments without destroying the entire system, or found a Democrat young and talented enough to change the atmosphere. Maybe Biden could have sought the cultural center, instead of backing his party’s extremists. That time appears to be over, however, which means the showdown between a liberal democratic order and an evenly divided tribal war is now very much on the horizon again.
Something might happen. Maybe the Hunter story will entangle his father. Maybe the conviction of Trump on a felony charge will convince enough Republicans to seek another path in 2024, as a Reuters poll suggests. Maybe the intense strain on two very old men will force one or both of them to withdraw. But it appears much more likely that the current cold civil war of attrition will continue, and every democratic institution will be delegitimized until the entire system dissolves into the chaos of Trump’s mind. An election resolves nothing in this context. If Trump loses again, he will again claim it was rigged.
In one vivid moment in the indictment, Smith relates a discussion about what would happen if Trump had succeeded in throwing the election result into chaos, as he hoped to do:
The Deputy White House Counsel reiterated to Co-Conspirator 4 that there had not been outcome-determinative fraud in the election and that if the Defendant remained in office nonetheless, there would be “riots in every major city in the United States.” Co-Conspirator 4 responded, “Well, [Deputy White House Counsel], that’s why there’s an Insurrection Act.”
That’s where we’re headed: in the absence of a legitimate democratic order. In the ashes of liberal democracy, institutions buckle, legitimacy disappears, violence breaks out, cold civil wars get hot, and the demand for someone to reinstate order will gain traction. Trump is already calling the indictment “reminiscent of Nazi Germany.” His fundraising email screams, “I could now face a combined 561 YEARS in prison,” and his Truth Social is whipping his base into a frenzy: “New charges against Trump carry DEATH PENALTY.” Even MAGA members of Congress are invoking “war.”
We are entering late-stage democratic collapse, where tribalism overwhelms reason, common trust evaporates, debate is gone, norms destroyed, and all that matters is the purity of the extremes, and who can win power by any means. The latest indictment of Trump — and more specifically, the reaction to it — is proof that the “extinction-level event” of liberal democracy is here. Future historians may look back and conclude, in fact, that it has already happened.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a debate with Josh Barro who defends the Biden administration; a slew of listener and reader dissents on a range of topics; eight notable quotes from the week in news — mostly on Trump; 17 pieces on Substack we recommend; another Mental Health Break from the great Louis CK; a somber window view of an American flag in New York; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
A newcomer writes:
Okay, Andrew, you got me with your appeal to non-subscribers. I have been reading your weekly column for some time now, and I’ve shared it a number of times with others. A) It’s fair that I pay for it because I do get value from it. B) It’s just the right thing to do, and on many occasions I’ve told my kids and grandkids that they should do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do. So, you got me.
New On The Dishcast: Josh Barro
Josh is an old friend, and a business and political journalist. He has worked for Business Insider, the NYT, and New York magazine. He currently runs his own substack called Very Serious, and he cohosts a legal podcast called Serious Trouble, also on Substack. We talk Biden — Josh’s political hero.
Listen to the episode here. There you can find two clips of our convo — on why Biden isn’t polling better despite the improving economy, and the “emotional terrorism” Hunter has wrought on his family. That link also takes you to commentary on our episodes with Lee Fang on tensions within the left, Matt Lewis on moneyed elites, and Patrick Deneen on his post-liberal vision.
Browse the Dishcast archive for another conversation you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: Michael Moynihan on Orwell and conspiracy theories, Vivek Ramaswamy on his vision for America, Sohrab Ahmari on his forthcoming book, Freddie deBoer, Leor Sapir, Martha Nussbaum, Spencer Klavan, Ian Buruma, Pamela Paul and Matthew Crawford. Please send any guest recs and pod dissent to email@example.com.
Dissent Of The Week: What About “Yes, And”?
A reader tweaks my latest column:
Instead of “Yes, but,” use “Yes, AND.” “But” often puts the audience on the defensive and implies criticism. “And” is more positive, so there’s a better chance your message will break through. For example: “Yes we should treat trans people with dignity, AND we need to avoid harming youth.”
I find it effective, though I haven’t tried it with any extremists, whom I generally avoid, and I sometimes default back to “but.” Using “and” takes a conscious effort.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about 20 of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as the improving economy, the moral abyss of the GOP, and AI going transracial. Below are a few examples:
Freddie on pop music and virtue: “The very concept of taste as taste appears to be dead.”
If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The deadline for entries is Wednesday night at midnight (PST). The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for this week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Last week’s contest was one of the most challenging we’ve had in a while, and one of our best sleuths provided his weekly history lesson:
What I could find about this island’s history ties in neatly with a few of our more recent contests. After Magellan’s voyage had failed to secure control over the Spice Islands, the Spanish sent a second expedition in 1525 of seven ships to finish the job. As this expedition fought through the Strait of Magellan in 1526, though, the vessels were battered by rough weather and became separated. Most turned back or were wrecked with only two making it to the Spice Islands.
But the fate of one remains a mystery: the San Lesmes.
Clearly it must have sunk somewhere — but its precise location remains a subject of great conjecture. One popular theory has suggested that the missing ship made its way to Polynesia and possibly even New Zealand and Australia — including Tasmania — before wrecking. The evidence here seems to be some technological anomalies found later in the South Pacific, like a lateen sail, which was common in Europe but not elsewhere. European accounts from the 18th century of meeting “white” and “blond” Polynesians have also fueled speculation.
Equally intriguing are Spanish artifacts found across Polynesia with no obvious explanation. A 1774 expedition to the Anaa Atoll, for instance, claimed to have found an aging wooden cross on the beach. A shipwreck discovered in 1990 off the coast of Australia was also found to have tools resembling those from 16th century Spain.
And then there’s Amanu. French captain Francois Hervé arrived at the atoll in 1929, hoping to map this far-flung island. In chatting with the local chief, Hervé expressed his surprise that there had been no wrecks near Amanu, unlike most of the surrounding atolls. Ah, replied the chief, but there was! Eight generations earlier, he said, a white man’s ship had run aground and the locals had devoured the crew.
The chief even offered to show the French captain the spot where it had happened. There, Hervé was surprised to find four “extremely old” iron cannons, supposedly of Spanish design, resting in shallow water. Hervé quickly extracted one and carted it back to Tahiti, where he gifted it to a local museum — though it was subsequently lost during the transfer of artifacts between museum sites.
In the 1960s, Australian researcher Robert Langdon stumbled upon an obscure reference to Hervé's discovery and began wondering if there might be a connection between the guns and the accounts of “white” Polynesians. Maybe they weren’t eaten, but instead had settled in the islands, intermarrying with the local women. By the time he reached Tahiti, two more of the cannons had been extracted and brought to a local museum, where he snapped pictures of them:
Langdon quickly ascertained that the construction technique used for the cannons was common in Western Europe only until about 1550, and he realized only one ship could have been carrying those cannons near Amanu back then: the San Lesmes! The discovery of strange stones on Amanu furthered his idea, and he eventually posited that the ship had gotten stuck on the reefs near Amanu. To free themselves, they jettisoned the cannons and some of their stone ballast before sailing on, leaving behind evidence of their successful crossing of the Pacific.
I mean, it’s a cool theory!
Thanks again for a fun week of searching. I really needed it, too, as I discovered this week that about half of the students in my summer classes used ChatGPT to create essays for their midterm exam, which was a bit of a shock. I get the sense that this is a tectonic shift underway in higher education and poses massive new challenges for educators.
Dish readers are the best. See you next Friday.