White House, Red Caesar (with Will Bunch)
We are sleepwalking towards dictatorship. Will we wake up in time?
There was another Republican debate this week. For this fourth go-round, only four candidates showed up: Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Chris Christie, and Vivek Ramaswamy. The event was carried on NewsNation, a cable channel I’ve never heard of. As Seth Musket, who covers the GOP primaries at TUSK, wrote, “It’s fair to say that the public’s ability to watch this debate was not a particularly high priority for the RNC.”
And why should it be otherwise? No one was talking about the elephant in the room—and I don’t mean the GOP mascot. Donald Trump is going to be the nominee. He’s so far ahead in the polls that the race for second place is irrelevant. He so thoroughly dominates the field that he can sit out the debates, offering (previously recorded) interviews with Tucker and Hannity as counterprogramming. The challengers still standing are: one of his former Cabinet members, a former debate-prep advisor he gave covid to, a governor who has used him as a model, right down to the hand gestures, and a fire-breathing upstart who wants a Trumpian personality cult of his own. And 45 doesn’t even want to be the 47th President of the United States; he wants to be the first King of America: a Red Caesar.
Which would all be fine—it’s still a free country, and Trump can entertain whatever silly fantasy he likes: golden showers, golden arches, gold crown—except that Republican voters are not unopposed. They’re ready for a strongman. As I’ve written in my two-part series on the New Right, some of them expressly want democracy to die.
This has been a long time coming. For decades, the GOP has inched closer to authoritarianism.
“We’ve watched this remarkable development over the last 30 years or so,” says Will Bunch, the national opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast, “which is the Republican Party rejecting democracy. The Republican Party is an organization—is a group of people who are kind of united in their hatred and fear of liberalism, of losing their entrenched hierarchies. . . The goal isn’t to win these wonderful New Hampshire town hall free and fair elections; the goal is to hold power by any means necessary, to prevent those people from having their way.”
This isn’t hyperbole. Scholars who study fascism, who write books on Mussolini and Hitler, have been shouting from the proverbial rooftops for a while now. Liz Cheney, of all people, warned that America is “sleepwalking into dictatorship.” Prescient columnists like Bunch have sounded the alarm bells. The iconic neoconservative Robert Kagan, no woke tree-hugger, delivered a devastating op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend. “Let’s stop the wishful thinking and face the stark reality,” he begins. “There is a clear path to dictatorship in the United States, and it is getting shorter every day.” He continues:
For many months now, we have been living in a world of self-delusion, rich with imagined possibilities. Maybe it will be Ron DeSantis, or maybe Nikki Haley. Maybe the myriad indictments of Trump will doom him with Republican suburbanites. Such hopeful speculation has allowed us to drift along passively, conducting business as usual, taking no dramatic action to change course, in the hope and expectation that something will happen. Like people on a riverboat, we have long known there is a waterfall ahead but assume we will somehow find our way to shore before we go over the edge. But now the actions required to get us to shore are looking harder and harder, if not downright impossible.
The magical-thinking phase is ending. Barring some miracle, Trump will soon be the presumptive Republican nominee for president. When that happens, there will be a swift and dramatic shift in the political power dynamic, in his favor.
Trump has done nothing to assuage our fears that he plans to establish a dictatorship if he wins. Heck, he even said the quiet part out loud at a rally in Cedar Rapids last week: “We’ve been waging an all-out war in American democracy.” He and his lickspittles have talked openly about dismantling the civil service, ending all investigations into his crimes, even going after journalists, print and otherwise—the very same people who trip over themselves both-sidesing the candidates. Journalists actually wrote pieces debunking the provocative-but-true statement Trump himself made, claiming that he meant to say something else. Perhaps—but his actions suggest otherwise.
The media, by and large, is either in denial about our slow descent into fascism, or simply cannot, in its current form, figure out how to report on it accurately. We see this in the debate coverage. In our interview, Bunch talks about the assignment he and his fellow opinion writers were given after the first debate: to rank the candidates. In my inbox yesterday was the New York Times’ obligatory “winners and losers” feature, where all of their opinion writers weighed in on the four debaters. The primary is being covered like it’s the NFL, where there are won-loss records and playoff seedings and power rankings. Most years, that would be fine. But this time, it’s not like the NFL—not at all. On the Republican side, there is only one possible winner, and if he prevails, there won’t be any football ever again—and also, he will imprison all the sportswriters.
“The media is covering it like it’s a 1996 debate,” Bunch tells me. “And it’s not, because it’s not a party. It’s a cult of personality. And they already—their personality has already been selected: it’s Donald Trump.” What’s important, he says, is not that Nikki Haley “won” the debate. “What’s important is the antidemocratic—call it authoritarian, call it fascist if you want—this movement is rising, and it could overtake our democracy in a year or two, and what does that mean, and what are we going to do about it?”
For many voters, and shamefully, far too many Republicans in positions of power, the answer to that last question has been: not a damned thing. Cheney says we’re sleepwalking. Kagan uses the metaphor of “people on a riverboat, [who] have long known there is a waterfall ahead but assume [they] will somehow find our way to shore before [they] go over the edge.” I keep thinking of that famous scene in Modern Times, where a blindfolded Charlie Chaplin is on the second floor of the department store, roller skating backwards in wider and wider circles, blissfully unaware that he is inching closer to a precipitous drop. He managed not to fall; will we be as lucky?
Media coverage is critical, but ultimately, it’s not the media that will decide the fate of the nation. We are the final arbiters of that.
“The bigger question,” Bunch says, “is: even if the media does a great job and does everything right—are there enough voters who care?”
Greg Olear is joined by Will Bunch, the national opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. They discuss how the higher education system broke our politics, why the media fails to accurately report on the rise of American fascism, Trump’s ominous re-election plans, the far right’s dream of a Red Caesar, and whether the Eagles are a team of destiny. Plus: a new staffing agency.
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Photo credit: B via Flickr.