Wednesday, 28 December 2005
So now, at last, the crisis is upon us. Now the cards are finally on the table, laid out so starkly that even the Big Media sycophants and Beltway bootlickers can no longer ignore them. Now the choice for the American Establishment is clear, and inescapable: do you hold for the Republic, or for autocracy?
There is no third way here, no other option, no wiggle room, no ambiguity. The much-belated exposure of George W. Bush's warrantless spy program has forced the Bush-Cheney Regime to openly declare what they have long implied -- and enacted -- in secret: that the president is above the law, a military autocrat with unlimited powers, beyond the restraint or supervision of any other institution or branch of government. Outed as rank deceivers, perverters of the law and rapists of the Constitution, the Bush gang has decided that their best defense -- their only defense, really -- is a belligerent offense. "Yeah, we broke the law," they now say; "so what? We'll break it again whenever we want to, because law don't stick to our Big Boss Man. What are you going to do about it, chump?"
That is the essence, the substance and pretty much the style of the entire Bushist response to the domestic spying scandal. They are scarcely bothering to gussy it up with the usual rhetorical circumlocutions. The attack is being led by the fat, sneering coward, Dick Cheney, who has crawled out of his luxurious hidey-holes to re-animate the rotting husk of Richard Nixon and send it tottering back onto the national stage. Through the facade of Cheney's pig-squint and peevish snarl, we can see the long-dead Nixonian visage, his grave-green, worm-filled jowls muttering once more the lunatic mantra he brought to the Oval Office: "If the president does it, it can't be illegal." This is what we've come to, this is American leadership today: ugly, stupid men mouthing the witless drivel of failed, dead, discredited, would-be petty tyrants.
But not even Nixon was as foul as this crew. When he was caught, he folded; some faint spark of republican conscience restrained him from pushing the crisis to the end. He was a vain, stupid, greedy, grasping, dirty man with blood on his hands, but in the end, he did not identify himself with the government as a whole. He did not say, "l'etat, c'est moi," he had no messianic belief that the life of the nation was somehow bound up with his personal fate, or that he and his clique and his cronies had a God-given right to rule. They just wanted power and loot -- as much of it as they could get -- and they pushed and pushed until the Establishment pushed back.
It has long been evident, however, that Bush and Cheney do believe their clique should by all rights rule the country -- and that anyone who opposes their unrestrained dominion is automatically "anti-American," an enemy of the state. For them, there is no "loyal opposition," or even political opponents in any traditional understanding of the term; there are only enemies to be destroyed, and herd-like masses to be manipulated. They believe that their dominion is more important than democracy, which they despise as a brake and hindrance to the arbitrary leadership of an all-wise elite -- i.e., them. They are the state; a police state.
Elections are just necessary evils, a way to manufacture the illusion of consent, shake down corporations for big bucks and calibrate the loyalty of courtiers. Democracy is simply another system to be gamed, subverted, turned to factional advantage -- in precisely the same way that Enron gamed the California electric grid. This accounts for the strange, omnipresent tang of unreality that permeated the last three national elections, in 2000, 2002, and 2004. It's because they were unreal: the results were gamed, sometimes in secret, sometimes in plain sight; the "issues" and rhetoric were divorced from the reality that we all actually lived and felt -- and the outcomes were as phony as an Enron balance sheet.
Dominion seized on such sinister and cynical terms will almost certainly be defended -- and extended -- by any means necessary. That is the great danger. The Bushists have already pushed on further than Nixon ever dared; will they "bear it out even to the edge of doom"? This is the crux of the matter; this is the crossroads where we now stand. Will the American Establishment push back at last? Will they say, This far we will go, but no further; this much we will swallow, but no more?
Some of us have been writing for years about Bush's piecemeal assumption of dictatorial powers. We have watched in rage and amazement as the Establishment meekly accepted Bush's repeated, brutal insults to democracy. Time and again, I've quoted the words of the Emperor Tiberius, after the lackeys of the Senate grovelled to do his bidding: "Men fit to be slaves." In one sense, then, the Rubicon was crossed long ago. Yet "we live in hope and die in despair," as my father always says. In the back of the minds of many an embittered dissident, there has been a spark of hope that somewhere down the line, one of the many, many Bush outrages would somehow take hold, gain critical mass, and force the Establishment to act, to rein in the renegade, break him, box him in if not remove him from office.
For let's be clear about this: only the Establishment -- the institutional powers-that-be -- can break an outlaw president. Millions marched in the street against Nixon and the system; whole city quadrants went up in flames in those days; but none of this was decisive in the corridors of power. (Nor to much of the American public, to be frank; after Kent State, after My Lai, after Cambodia, Nixon was still re-elected in a landslide.) It was his insult to the institutions -- the Watergate break-in of Democratic headquarters, the subsequent cover-up and subversion of the legal system, the defiance of Congress -- that led to his downfall. He pushed too far, tried to grab too much -- and the Establishment pulled him short.
And it will have to be the Establishment that breaks Bush -- or he won't be broken. All the blogs in the world won't bring him down, no matter how much truth they tell, how much bloodsoaked Bushist dirt they expose. Yes, perhaps if we had millions of outraged citizens marching in the street day after day across America, a sustained mass movement and popular uprising for liberty and democracy, this might obviate the need for Establishment action. But we all know that such marches are not going to happen. If there was sufficient fire for liberty and democracy in America, there would have already been a popular uprising -- and Bush would never have garnered enough public support to keep the election results close enough to be fudged. No, it will be the Establishment -- or no one.
That's why the spy scandal is so pivotal. Because it is a direct, open and unignorable challenge to the institutional life of the American Establishment. In it, the Bush Regime is saying to the various powers-that-be, especially in Congress and the courts, but also to centers of power and influence outside government: you no longer have any power. All real power is now in our gift. Your laws, your institutions, your traditions, the whole complex infrastructure of checks and balances that have sustained society are now essentially meaningless. As in ancient Rome, we will keep the old forms, but the life of the state has now passed into the hands of the autocrat and his court. His arbitrary will can override any law -- although of course, strong law will still be applied to his enemies, and to the riff-raff in the lower orders.
How will the Establishment deal with this direct challenge? The past few years give little grounds for hope: the Democrats spineless, conflicted, co-opted and corrupt; the Republicans slavish, bellicose, cruel and criminal; the media timorous, witless, corporate-controlled; big business absolutely rolling in gravy from the autocrat's larder; academia cowed, silenced, ignored, demonized; the military acquiescent in criminal aggression, top-heavy with time-servers currying autocratic favor. Only the courts provide some stray sparks of hope, although they too are now loaded with political sycophants, corporate bagmen and knuckle-dragging throwbacks produced by the Right's decades-long devolution of American jurisprudence. Prosecutors like Patrick Fitzgerald and Elliot Spitzer "keep hope alive," but their efforts will mean little in a system where lawlessness at the top has been countenanced by the rest of the Establishment. And in any case, the outcome of their work lies ultimately with the Supreme Court -- the same court that shredded the Constitution in awarding power to Bush in the first place, and which is now led by a Bushist apparatchik.
Still, you don't go through a constitutional crisis with the Establishment you want; you go through a constitutional crisis with the Establishment you have. And this sad, sick crew, ladies and gentlemen, is all we have. If they swallow the spy scandal, if they don't push back now -- and I mean really push back, not just make a lot of harrumphing noise or hold a few toothless hearings or get a couple of underlings offered up as ritual sacrifices to save the Leader -- then we will have well and truly and finally lost the Republic that Franklin, Jefferson and Madison gave us so long ago.
The next few weeks will show us if there is still some hope of restoring the Republic through the old institutions, or if we will have to follow the course laid out by Bob Dylan some 40 years ago: "Strike another match, go start anew." Who knows? Maybe we can make a better republic next time: one not born of blood, greed and fury -- those all-too-common elements of human organization -- but made from a new compound of mercy, justice, communion and liberty. Still imperfect, of course, still corrupt -- because that's our intractable human nature -- but with our worst instincts restrained by enlightened, ever-evolving law, and the predatory ambitions of the rich and powerful reined by elaborate checks and balances.
It's just a dream, of course; probably a vain one. But we will need some vision to guide us if, as seems likely, we must soon set forth into the unknown territory of an openly declared American autocracy.