This moment of great danger calls for huge vigilance, more than continuing outrage

Is a ‘wag the dog’ crisis around the corner? A few weeks ago I decided not to use this blog as a platform for short-term political commentary. However, from the vantage point of distance (I have been in South Africa for the past few weeks, a place that is hardly without governance crises of its own….), I find myself even more concerned about what is unfolding in the USA than I was when I flew out of Washington DC. So, after reading another of the NYTimes Charles Blow’s articulate expressions of outrage, I find myself compelled to write this piece.

Articulate outrage may not be helping us prepare for the moment of  great danger that may be around the corner. It risks  understating the danger, misdirecting energy — and dulling us to impending crisis  We (Americans, and the world at large) find ourselves in an unprecedented situation, filled with volatility, unertainty, and HUGE risk. As I know from decades of work on challenges of governance worldwide, state capture is (sadly) hardly uncommon. But I can think of no parallel example where the institutions of a seemingly healthy constitutional democracy, in a relatively prosperous era,  have been handed over to a leader with zero respect for these institutions.  We know from many countries how long, slow decay unfolds — and how autocracy and fascism can emerge out of crisis. But we simply do not know how resilient even seemingly strong democratic institutions will prove to be in the face of the unprecedented assault that is now underway.

And I fear that we have not yet seen the worst. Not only is much of the DT agenda not being implemented, the Mueller special-counsel investigation seems likely to uncover more than a little nefarious activity — if not outright electoral collusion then, I suspect, a long history of very, very dubious financial relationships between the Trump (and Kushner?) real estate organizations and Russian oligarchs (New York-based and otherwise). One way to interpret DT’s seemingly increasingly erratic behavior is that he and the most deplorable of his allies (Alex Jones, Steve Bannon, Sean Hannity and the like….) are laying the ground for an assault on institutions and truth in the face of the continuing emergence of increasingly inconvenient truths (on both the political and venality fronts). One classic way for this to unfold is through a ‘wag the dog’ fabricated crisis — though one likely to be tragically more real in its real world consequences than the ‘war with Albania’ in Barry Levinson’s movie.
And so I end with a plea for  huge vigilance – and perhaps fewer emotionally cathartic expressions of outrage.  When the crisis moment comes the role of Republicans will be crucial. How can those of us who are not R’s help prepare the way for the crucial support that we will need from R’s — fellow citizens, congressional representatives, senators? If R’s recognize ‘wag the dog’ for what it is, and we speak together with a unified voice, then a coming moment of extreme danger can end with American institutions in reasonably good shape. But if R’s continue (out of a combination of fear and political opportunism) to enable what is unfolding, then I don’t think that I am overstating things in saying that the result could be the end of the USA’s 240-year experiment with constitutional democracy.

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