Things We Lost in the Fire


A right-wing coup has taken hold of the United States government, or is soon to do so. If that seems outlandish, consider the following:

A candidate who refused to agree to accept the results if he lost, but did promise to lock up his opponent if he won, just became president-elect while losing the popular vote by perhaps 2 million votes.

He will have the opportunity to shape the balance of power on the Supreme Court, due entirely to the fact that his own party violated two centuries of tradition by refusing to even consider a replacement nominated by the sitting president—in essence, depriving the voters who reelected President Obama in 2012 of their say in the future of American law and society.

The same party retained a commanding lead in the House of Representatives for the second time in four years—despite their candidates winning fewer votes than the other party. Expert gerrymandering by the GOP after 2010, which journalist David Daley outlines in his book Ratf**cked, makes this possible.

In other words, a president and Congress that lack popular support are about to shred the legacy of the outgoing president, who won the support of more Americans than any president in history. (The second most votes were won by Hillary Clinton, the candidate who “lost.”)

This new regime promises to dismantle the social safety net and undo our international commitments.

Obamacare, gone. Millions losing their insurance.

Medicare, turned into a coupon.

Three of the greatest achievements of the current administration—the climate change accord, engagement with Cuba, and the Iran nuclear deal—are almost certainly over.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), for undocumented immigrats who were brought here as children through no fault of their own, over. Millions deported.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed by Elizabeth Warren to stop abuses by financial interests, dead.

Democrats could stop almost everything that Trump wants to do legislatively if they practice the maximum obstructionism that the GOP used to tie Obama’s hands for most of his presidency. But there are signs that they might already cave in advance.

Far scarier a thought is the idea that the GOP may disregard the filibuster that constrained the previous administration. If so, then we will see our country taken in a radically new direction without even the pretense of democratic legitimacy. (The ever gullible New York Times says Majority Leader McConnell faces a “hard choice” between “end[ing] the filibuster or preserv[ing] tradition.” Yes, I’m sure it’s agonizing.)

The GOP normalized the idea of a mandatory 60-vote threshold for all Senate legislation in recent years, preventing Democrats from pursuing much of their agenda in the two years when they held both houses of Congress and the White House between 2009-2011.  Liberals were frustrated to no end by this mechanism, but it seemed to mean that measures like the Affordable Care Act would be close to impossible to repeal once they had cleared that 60-vote threshold, even if a different party took power in the future.

If the GOP throws the filibuster to the wind, then the entire body of social reform legislation in the twentieth century is on the chopping block. Medicaid and Medicare, Clean Air and Water, Americans with Disabilities, perhaps even the Civil Rights Act. Do you think the man who first rose to prominence for violating the Fair Housing Act in his NYC properties will hesitate to flush it down the toilet?

Decades of political progress, negotiation, and democratic input could vanish, because of an email server and a system that lets the loser win.

Indeed, it’s a moral monstrosity: the Democrats can actually win but not get to govern, and the Republicans can lose while still getting everything they want.

Perhaps none of this will come to pass, or just part of it.  Any of it would be catastrophic, especially for the working poor, the elderly, immigrants, and people of color. Medicare privatization may be bad for Grandpa, but it seems highly likely that Republicans will design the reform so current old people retain their benefits, while future old people—today’s young and working adults—will get a coupon to go get insurance they cannot afford.

Indeed, Democrats might find some courage and hold the line against Trump’s reactionary program, but they probably won’t.  But what about the voters, though?  Will they stand for repeal of Obamacare, let alone the Civil Rights Act?

Well, thanks to yet another undemocratic feature of the system—the Senate, which overrepresents rural, white voters at the expense of Americans in bigger, more diverse states—maybe, maybe not. Everyone knew that the Democrats would have a difficult go of it in 2018, since the states that happened to be voting for senators that year tend to favor Republicans. So a backlash against Trump will be muted, if felt at all.

Indeed, I find it hard to believe that a majority of voters in Indiana will care so much about the loss of Obamcare subsidies for the working poor that they issue Trump a rebuke and retain their Democratic senator, Joe Donnelly, who narrowly won election in 2012. If the GOP gains in 2018, which most expect, it will be actually viewed as an endorsement of whatever dangerous course Trump has pursued.

Again, I am painting a maximally bad picture here—the worst of these things very likely will not happen, but that they are possible—possible in a way they were not even in the darkest years of George W. Bush, when the Voting Rights Act was routinely renewed by Republican senators—well, the mere possibility is terrifying, especially with a White House occupant who has shown a willingness to defy constitutional and political norms with abandon.

It is a source of boundless frustration to realize that we lived through 8 years of cautious, incremental reform by a president elected with a broad democratic mandate—and now an unelected president, with an unelected house, and a Senate that is structurally designed not to reflect the popular will, may very well dismantle what was accomplished—and possibly do much, much worse.

An interlocking set of undemocratic institutions has allowed the worst among us to get hold of power.  And the casual misogyny, the shameless race-baiting and hateful attacks, the encouragement of violence and the willingness to criminalize opposition and dissent, the bilious racism regularly spewed by the candidate’s supporters—all of this has been endorsed and indeed elevated in a way that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

Again, some of this can be prevented, if there is determined opposition both in the halls of power and on the ground.  But everything we have seen of the president-elect and his movement suggests that they will do whatever they can get away with—and if they can do the worst, they will.

Secretary of State Rudy Giuliani?  Imagine.