How “Checks and Balances” May Fail to Prevent the Totalitarian State
When Barack Obama was elected president, the Republican Senators set out to stonewall him in every way that it could, particularly on judicial picks. This is why, in 2013, the Democrats changed the rules so that judicial nominees could be confirmed by a simple majority (51 votes). When the Republicans regained a majority in 2015, Mitch McConnell blocked Obama’s judicial picks, including for the Supreme Court, which meant that Trump had many seats to fill. And he is filling them at a record pace.
The kinds of people being appointed to the courts, however, are not being chosen by their ability. They are chosen by their loyalty to right-wing, Evangelical causes. Often, the stated intent is that they are chosen “because abortion,” but this is mostly a cover. These judges are chosen based on their adherence to Dominionist thinking, in which white men maintain their privilege and authority, and “defective” groups such as people of color, the LGBTQ community, and anyone of a different religious faith (or no faith at all) are punished and treated as second-class citizens. Racism, misogyny, and intolerance are the principle tenets of this select club of radicals being appointed to lifetime positions.
In July 2018, the Polish right-wing government effectively purged its Supreme Court by lowering the retirement age. It was a naked attempt to stock the court with lackeys sympathetic to the government’s power grabs. Months of protests and the threat of financial sanctions from the E.U. forced a reversal in December, but the threat to democracy in Poland is far from over. The government will undoubtedly seek new ways to staff the government with sympathizers — just as the Republicans are now doing.
One can think of Dominionist white nationalists as a secret society, with the stated goal of creating “God’s dominion on earth” — that is, remaking the country and the world in their own image. When Donald Trump became the probable GOP candidate for president in 2016, the Dominionists pounced. Trump himself has no real ideology, aside from his own ego, greed, and racism, and he quickly molded himself into the Dominionist pretzel. Each side could readily use the other: Trump could enrich himself and his oligarch friends, and the Dominionists would stack the courts and push legislation sympathetic to their beliefs. As for Trump’s cult following, they would come along because, as Hannah Arendt states in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
From the viewpoint of an organization which functions according to the principle that whoever is not included is excluded, whoever is not with me is against me, the world at large loses all the nuances, differentiations, and pluralistic aspects which had in any event become confusing and unbearable to the masses who had lost their place and their orientation in it.
In other words, the disaffected tribe of white people, upset with their perceived reduction in stature and the general economic malaise that affects most average Americans today, wanted a salve for their misery. Dominionist Trumpism provides that because:
The claim inherent in totalitarian organization is that everything outside the movement is “dying,” a claim which is drastically realized under the murderous conditions of totalitarian rule, but which even in the prepower stage appears plausible to the masses who escape from disintegration and disorientation into the fictitious home of the movement.
Make America Great Again! And to do that, we all need to return to the days when women and minorities were either chattel or terrorized.
To further the “movement,” Trump Dominionists are working to ensure that the government is filled with party loyalists. Many government posts remain unfilled, but those positions that have been filled are occupied by unexceptional and often incompetent people who are loyal to the party alone. This includes our court system. It is no accident that Trump has been pushing the boundaries of our legal system to see what he can get away with. And given the Supreme Court’s decision to completely overlook the unconstitutionality of the “Muslim Ban,” he is succeeding. His “national emergency” for the wall is not about the wall at all, but rather about how far he can go. Trump has already been rebuked by federal judges for failing to reunite separated immigrant children with their parents, an order he has largely ignored. As Hannah Arendt stated, “It has frequently been pointed out that totalitarian movements use and abuse democratic freedoms in order to abolish them.”
Once the government is filled with enough group insiders and sympathetic ears in the judicial system, they can effectively do what they want. ICE and the militarized police state that we have allowed to flourish over the years is increasingly being allocated more power to harass ordinary citizens for the “crimes” of being black, brown, speaking Spanish, or broadly “suspicious.” While nominally there to protect the citizenry in general and the wealth of the few, the totalitarian police state ultimately exists to protect the regime itself, and laws become irrelevant. Hannah Arendt again:
In the early years of their power the Nazis let loose an avalanche of laws and decrees, but they never bothered to abolish officially the Weimar constitution; they even left the civil services more or less intact — a fact which induced many native and foreign observers to hope for restraint of the party and for rapid normalization of the new regime. But when with the issuance of the Nuremberg Laws this development had come to an end, it turned out that the Nazis themselves showed no concern whatsoever about their own legislation. Rather, there was “only the constant going ahead on the road toward ever-new fields,” so that finally the “purpose and scope of the secret state police” as well as of all other state or party institutions created by the Nazis could “in no manner be covered by the laws and regulations issued for them.” In practice, this permanent state of lawlessness found expression in the fact that “a number of valid regulations [were] no longer made public.”
It should be noted that some of the people ultimately found guilty during the post-war Nuremberg Trials were Nazi judges. A black robe does not connote benevolence.
The Republican party, strongly Dominionist to start with, has completely given itself over to Trump’s totalitarian impulses and disregard for the law and American norms of ruling. The Democrats and the remains of the free press remain frozen in time, behaving as though nothing has changed when everything has. They believe that if they simply go on as before, that we will return to the norms of 2015 as though nothing has happened, when in fact the wolves have moved beyond the door and are making coffee in the kitchen and sleeping in our beds. The Dominionists have achieved power, and they will not give it up easily, if at all. The corporate oligarchs, who make up the other wing of the former Republican party, will probably go along with anything that leaves them to pillage the planet undisturbed — at least, until the state police comes for them, too.
As Joseph Stalin said on July 29, 1936, “The inalienable quality of every Bolshevik under present conditions should be the ability to recognize an enemy of the Party no matter how well he may be masked.” When FOX News and assorted Trumpist politicians publicly proclaim Democrats and “liberals” to be the enemies of America and go so far as to pronounce them satanic, they are beating the drum of Dominionist totalitarianism, in which there is only one valid point of view and only one “real” party. And who is truly loyal to the party? Can anyone be loyal enough in the end? Stalin’s paranoia resulted in the Purges and the deaths of more than a million people. How many might the “very stable genius” kill if left to his own prejudices?
While voting matters and is important, the existential crisis we face means that we will all be called upon at some point to either defend (and hopefully improve) our democracy, or to face widespread tyranny and possible dissolution. The Democrats will not save us (note how hard some of them and the corporate free press are fighting against basic progressive change, such as providing universal healthcare or mitigating climate change). This is a battle that we are going to have to fight on all fronts. It is a spiritual battle, but not in the way that the Dominionists believe. It is a battle for decency and real freedom — a surveilled society in a police state is not free. It is a battle of love versus fear. And right now, the authoritarians want you to be very afraid. It is also a battle for the right to exist, however and whoever you are: black, brown, gay, straight, trans, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist.
It is time to wake up and see the wolf in sheep’s clothing before it decimates the herd.