Finding comfort in challenging times is the most human of urges, even if it means disconnecting from reality. My concern is that some of us are succumbing to escapism feigning as politics. The relentless focus on unsubstantiated Russian subterfuge is one iteration. Another comes in warnings of a hidden authoritarian plot by Trump’s inner circle.
In a widely circulated Medium article this week, Yonatan Zunger branded the first day of the Muslim and refugee ban as “the trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States.” Another piece from Jake Fuentes goes further, dismissing the ban as a “head fake” and the protests against it as “playing right into the administration’s hand.” While allowing that the White House is possibly “just doing what it said it would do,” Fuentes lays out a more “sinister” scenario: “the administration is deliberately testing the limits of governmental checks and balances to set up a self-serving, dangerous consolidation of power.” Fuentes points to the politicized reconfiguration of the National Security Council, the firing of top State Department officials, and the Department of Homeland Security’s refusal to comply with court orders slowing the ban’s implementation. “The immigration ban may be more viscerally upsetting,” he concludes, “but the other moves are potentially far more dangerous.”
It takes a hefty dose of indifference (tinged, perhaps, with subconscious white exceptionalism) to be less concerned about something actually happening—refugees abandoned, families torn apart, student dreams crushed—than about a plot “potentially” unfolding in the shadows. The latter produces an equally delusional conclusion: “Popular attention,” Fuentes instructs, “must focus less on whether we agree with what the government is doing, and more on whether the system of checks and balances we have in place is working.”
The prescription presumes that “checks and balances” are inherently sufficient. Proponents of this view seem to imbue institutions with transcendent qualities. The day after Trump’s victory, Vox’s Ezra Klein declared that “It’s now on America’s institutions—and the Republican Party—to check Donald Trump.” Despite acknowledging that Republicans “control everything—the House, the Senate, and, after an appointment, the Supreme Court,” Klein concludes that Trump is in fact “constrained,” by these very same forces, including, “in ways less formal but no less powerful—his own staff and party.” Because there are ample government positions to fill, the GOP “could potentially play a role in surrounding Trump with calmer, wiser advisers who could provide him better information and curb his worst impulses.” Klein also wonders, without elaboration, “whether Congress will attempt to check Trump elsewhere—on surveillance, on wartime powers, on trade.”
Why would this happen? Here Klein allows a lone mention of the citizenry, whom Republicans will have to answer to “in 2018, and then again in 2020.” Those contests could prove sufficient to stop Republicans from “[taking] health insurance from tens of millions of people without replacement, [ripping] open families and communities with indiscriminate deportation, [embroiling] us in disastrous wars or confrontations,” and “[sending] the economy into tailspin.” Despite making such efforts in years prior, Klein suggests Trump’s GOP may abandon them now because “the incentives of governance are different from the incentives of opposition.”
That’s one possibility. The other is that Republicans use their newfound control to push through as much as they can, employing the familiar palette of scapegoating, dishonesty, unconstrained campaign finance, and gerrymandered redistricting.
Our best response is what’s already begun: from the Women’s March to the protests at airport terminals, masses demonstrating in solidarity with those targeted by Trump’s policies. Such actions are already challenging Democrats to become a stronger opposition, and strengthening the bonds of solidarity required for a sustained grassroots movement.
The resistance will indeed be painful. But politics is a mirror of our personal lives: We don’t help suffering by avoiding it. While it may be comforting to escape into conspiracy theories or naive reverence for institutions, an effective fight back requires both feet on the ground—preferably marching in the streets.