In 1926 Ernest Hemmingway published his novel The Sun Also Rises, which has this extraordinary bit of dialogue about how change happens in most aspects of life — and how governments rise and fall.
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
”Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
”What brought it on?”
“Friends,” said Mike. “I had a lot of friends. False friends.”
For some unfathomable reason, Democrats insist on calling their Republican colleagues their “friends.” They are not friends.
With few exceptions, they are systematically destroying American democracy with the clear objective of replacing it with strongman authoritarianism, a new and American version of what Benito Mussolini called fascism.
Right now they’re moving gradually:
— Taking over school boards and local boards of elections
— Firing principals and teachers who defend multiracial, multicultural democracy while banning books that contain such “dangerous” ideas
— Demonizing queer people and outlawing drag shows
— Working with Tucker Carlson and Fox “News” to completely rewrite the history of January 6th
— Gerrymandering states so regardless of how people vote, Republicans control the levers of power
— Changing election laws so they can both make it harder for city-dwellers to vote and to ignore and then change the outcomes of elections they don’t like
— Building media structures that will support the authoritarian takeover when it happens
— Organizing armed paramilitary militias, with back-channel connections to local police
— Creating legal organizations to sanitize and rationalize ending messy democracy
— Radicalizing average Americans through social media and an ever-growing network of hard-right radio shows and podcasts
— Spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories about Democrats and Jews using the dog whistle of “George Soros”
— Firebombing Texas Democratic Party’s Austin headquarters and threatening them that if they don’t stop trying to get Democrats elected worse will come
We’ve seen this movie before.
It was “the other 9/11.” Everything seemed normal until General Pinochet declared he was taking over the government of Chile on September 11, 1973.
The Chilean government had been run democratically since 1923, the longest in South America, but Pinochet (with help from the Nixon administration) had already infiltrated and gotten the loyalty of both the police, the army, and the civilian paramilitaries he’d spent the previous few years nurturing.
So when he rolled up to the presidential palace and declared he was taking over, nobody came to the defense of the elected president, Salvador Allende. The police were already loyal to Pinochet, including the police who defended that nation’s capitol.
Allende, along with around 30 supporters, held the palace for a few hours, gave a short national radio address, and then put a gun to his head and ended his presidency.
Gradually, then suddenly.
When Chileans poured into the streets, Pinochet swept them up and held them in the national stadium, where tens of thousands were tortured, murdered, or simply disappeared. One of the favorite tactics of his military was to throw “liberals” out of helicopters over the ocean to kill them, a practice celebrated by rightwing militia around the US today.
Pinochet’s democratic political opposition lost all its power and went underground; it would be seventeen years before anything resembling democracy would return to Chile, a process that is still pulling itself together.
If Mike Pence had gone along with Trump’s plan to imitate the election of 1876 and install the guy who lost both the popular and the electoral vote as president, America would be a very, very different country today.
Gradually, then suddenly.
Trump had previously proclaimed his desire to change the nation’s libel and slander laws so he could sue or imprison his political opponents and those in the media who opposed him; if he had succeeded on January 6th, that would have happened by now, and people like me (and maybe you) would be in jail.
Echoing one of Pinochet’s first 1973 laws, a Republican state legislator in Florida just proposed legislation requiring bloggers and writers to register with the state if they intend to criticize any elected official; had Trump succeeded we’d all be living under similar laws today.
Trump had previously promised his violent partisans that he’d pardon them and pick up their legal fees; if he’d held onto the White House, by now hundreds of Kyle Rittenhouse’s would have “defended themselves” against Black people, “Antifa,” and “commie liberals”without consequence.
If Republicans held a large enough majority in Congress, a constitutional convention like rightwing billionaires have been promoting and annually rehearsing in Washington, DC would be underway to rewrite our founding document. The right of all Americans to vote, separation of church and state, civil rights, protections of free speech and assembly, the right to due process and equal protection under the law, even the obscure Emoluments Clause would all be on the chopping block.
Trump-friendly corporations would be running political purges reminiscent of the Republican “Red Scare” and “Blacklist”1950s all across the country as social media accounts were examined for evidence of “leftist” leanings; Johnny McEntee began that process when he was “Deputy President” to Trump and was firing people in the executive branch for “liking” postings by “leftwing” entertainers like Taylor Swift.
The process Trump started in Portland and Seattle in the summer of 2020 of unmarked vans and stormtrooper-like federal police with no identifying patches kidnapping people off the streets would have expanded nationwide; tens of thousands would be in custody without charges.
Private prisons would expand to take in the hundreds of thousands of people arrested protesting in the streets or for speaking out on social media. For most Americans who voted Republican or were completely apolitical, though, life would go on as normal (just like in the early years of the takeovers of Chile, Russia, and Hungary — or Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1930s).
A handful of high-profile progressive politicians would have been assassinated or survived assassination attempts; the police and the FBI, however, would have been as clueless about their killers (or complicit) as they were about 10,000 people planning to storm the Capitol and assassinate the Vice President and Speaker of the House on January 6th.
The Democratic Party would have been labeled the aggressors and as subversives by rightwing media; its ranks by now would have melted away as quickly as the union-aligned parties did in Italy and Germany in the 1930s or the Allende Socialists in Chile in 1973.
First abortion would be criminalized nationwide, then birth control, then women in business and politics would find themselves under constant attack in the media and the workplace. White male dominance would by now be close to reattaining the status it had in 1972 when women couldn’t legally get an abortion, sign some contracts, or even get a credit card without the signature of a father or husband.
Newsrooms across the country would be purged by now of liberals and running editorials in support of the “new patriotism” proclaimed by the GOP; the hedge funds headed up by rightwing billionaires — who today own over half of all the nation’s newspapers — would be snapping up the rest of the nation’s media like Viktor Orbán’s oligarch buddies did in Hungary.
Every time these sorts of coups happen, the nation’s people are shocked and surprised. They had no idea how far things had gone. It even happened that way with the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Gradually, then suddenly.
Trump’s supporters are today openly calling for the end of democracy, for book banning, and for public executions of Democratic politicians. The leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to even reprimand Representative Paul Gosar for openly celebrating his fantasy murder of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
A multimillionaire former head of The Carlyle Group with no political experience, running on a platform of auditing the 2020 election and not much else, won the governorship of Virginia by spreading the naked, racist lie that Democrats in that state were indoctrinating white children to feel ashamed of the color of their skin; not a single elected Republican and only a rare few in the media called him out.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt faced the fascist “America First” movement within the GOP, he went to political war with them and the Supreme Court that backed them.
“They hate me,” he thundered to cheers, “and I welcome their hatred!”
President Biden appears to think he can negotiate with these people who want to remake America in Pinochet’s image (with the same type of Chicago School neoliberal advisors who helped Pinochet turn Chile into an autocratic nightmare).
They are building their power and their organizations right now; armed paramilitary groups are expanding across the country as the GOP has become so radicalized that they even proclaim Liz Cheney as their enemy.
Billionaire-owned media properties like Fox “News” and hate-talk radio push naked lies to their viewers and listeners — all to make a buck and consolidate their political power — with no loss of audience.
And they’re packing our courts with young, hardcore rightwing ideologues.
Republicans are openly preparing for a second Civil War, calling for a “national divorce.”
Reuters did a major and shocking report on how police forces, presumably sympathetic to local neofascist elements, refuse to even investigate death threats against elections officials and Democratic politicians.
In Michigan, a militia group nearly kidnapped and killed that state’s governor; they were stopped by an insider who turned states’ evidence. Last week another group was found planning to murder that state’s openly lesbian Attorney General.
Meanwhile, all across social media, the word is spreading: “The storm is upon us.”
January 6th was a rehearsal; they’re now planning 2024. Coups build to an explosive tipping point, then suddenly appear as a fait accompli.
Unless we stop them in-process, this may be our last chance.
Gradually, then suddenly.