America has weathered many storms in her 246 years. She’s been a participant in foreign wars and been attacked on her own soil. The winds of change have blown, sometimes at hurricane force, but she has withstood and persevered and come back stronger. Yet America faces a challenge now that she hasn’t seen before and that is erosion from within. The very social fiber which has held this union together for two and a half centuries is under attack, democracy itself.
This is the era of strongman worship in the United States. We have never seen this before, at least not in these numbers. But we see it on Fox News, where Viktor Orban takes Tucker Carlson on scenic tours of Hungary and at CPAC where accused sexual molester Matt Schlapp proudly proclaims he’s going to keep reporters out of the proceedings.
CPAC stands for Conservative Political Action Committee and it used to be a congregation of the intelligentsia of conservative thought, the best writers, the deepest thinkers and policy makers. Only now is it turning into a closed door enclave, a la Eyes Wide Shut, where nobody really knows what is being discussed because journalists can’t get in. Journalists couldn’t get into CPAC in Hungary and apparently Florida is going that way as well.
Saying “we’ve decided to go a little bit Hungarian,” to deal with controversy swirling after a lawsuit was filed against him for sexually assaulting a male GOP staffer, Matt Schlapp announces he will ban journalists from CPAC “who just want to go after people and attack people.” pic.twitter.com/k6cr77fwtp
— Ron Filipkowski 🇺🇦 (@RonFilipkowski) February 2, 2023
This begs the obvious question, what does it mean when what is being discussed at CPAC is of such inflammatory nature that it has to be done behind closed doors and in secret, rather than having the press report it, as in days of yore? What has changed? The commitment to democracy in this country, that’s what has changed. Letters From An American, Heather Cox Richardson:
Democracy stands on the principle of equality for all people, and those who are turning away from democracy, including the right wing in the United States, object to that equality. They worry that equal rights for women and minorities—especially LGBTQ people—will undermine traditional religion and traditional power structures. They believe democracy saps the morals of a country and are eager for a strong leader who will use the power of the government to reinforce their worldview.
But empowering a strongman ends oversight and enables those in power to think of themselves as above the law. In the short term, it permits those in power to use the apparatus of their government to enrich themselves at the expense of the people of their country. Their supporters don’t care: they are willing to accept the cost of corruption so long as the government persecutes those they see as their enemies. But that deal is vulnerable when it becomes clear the government cannot respond to an immediate public crisis.
That equation is painfully clear right now in Turkey and Syria, where more than 380,000 people are homeless after Monday’s devastating earthquakes. The death toll has climbed to more than 23,000, and more than 78,000 are injured. So far. Just a month ago, Turkey’s president President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised that the country had the fastest and most effective system of response to disaster in the world.
But that promise has been exposed as a lie. As Jen Kirby pointed out in Vox yesterday, Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who have been moving the country toward autocracy, rose to power thanks to a construction boom in the 2010s that both drove economic growth and permitted Erdoğan to hand out contracts to his supporters. The collapse of more than 6,400 buildings in Monday’s quakes have brought attention to cost cutting and bribery to get around building codes. At the same time, since a big quake in 1999, homeowners have been paying an earthquake tax that should, by now, have been worth tens of billions of dollars, but none of that money seems to be available, and Erdoğan won’t say where it went.
“This is a time for unity, solidarity,” Erdoğan told reporters. “In a period like this, I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest.” He has shut down media coverage of the crisis and cracked down on social media as well. Elections in Turkey are scheduled for May 14. Erdoğan was already facing a difficult reelection.
“Negative campaigns for political interest.” Sounds just like Matt Schlapp talking about CPAC, does it not?
It doesn’t stop there, by a long shot. We have a right wing in this country that is openly pro-Putin, because they approve of his anti-LGBTQ stance and his supposed belief in Christianity, which is a farce. But don’t tell that to the evangelicals, they’ll get upset. Somehow they find it plausible that a murderous KGB agent holds the values of Jesus Christ sacrosanct. Incredible but true.
Elon Musk is in on this pro-Putin ideology. Heather Cox Richardson reports that Musk’s SpaceX CEO admitted on Friday that the company has blocked the ability of Ukrainian troops to use the Starlink satellite system to advance against Russia. And in October Musk made headlines for proposing a “peace” plan that would give Russia the territory it has claimed from Ukraine.
On Tuesday, Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Putin, openly declared plans to attack Poland after conquering Ukraine. It was time, he said, for the West to fall to its knees before Russia, according to Cox Richardson. There are plenty of people in the American right wing who are all for it. Trump idolizes Putin and his MAGAs follow suit.
This is the true crisis in America today. It is not about Republican v. Democrat. It hasn’t been about that for a long time. It’s about one functioning political party v. a collapsing political party, and where that latter party is going. It doesn’t appear to want America to remain a democratic republic. The latter party wants an autocracy in America. This is what we face. This crisis is existential.