Was watching this ​Bill Maher episode, and he cracked a joke about how Trump can’t come after his weed because he needs to be stoned during, “these next four years,” and I’m sitting here going, “Dude, why does everyone keep saying four years?” 

Isn’t it eminently clear by now that’s not the goal? Bannon literally said at CPAC the cabinet selections were intentionally made with the goal to, “deconstruct the administrative state.” 

They have banned the press from the White House, thereby flouting the very first Constitutional Amendment. 

The NRA ran a commercial at CPAC calling on Trump supporters to take up arms for civil war. 

I mean … honestly, I think it’s just wishful thinking to say four years. Or hopeful thinking? Maybe denialism. It’s a way of trying to hang onto normalcy; to pretend the party in power respects the US constitution and democracy, that this is a phase, a dip, not the end of an era.

Mind you, it’s not just liberals who do this. Moderates/ independents and conservatives are also normalizing/ minimizing the situation by referencing term limits:

“I don’t know how I’ll survive four years of this!” – Liberals/ Progressives/ Moderates

“You’re overreacting; it’s only four years.” – Moderates/ Some Conservatives

“We survived eight years of Obama, you can survive eight years of Trump!” — Conservatives/ Trump supporters

Note, I don’t think most citizens (even conservatives or the majority of Trump supporters) are actually on board with the gutting of our Constitution and US democracy. I do think they’re in denial, because it’s a terrifying, unreal, and incomprehensible thing that’s happening.

I mean, it’s just easier to say, even if subconsciously, “Nah … it’s not that bad.  That’s a thing that happens in history books or documentaries or dystopias or apocalyptic TV shows or on the news in foreign countries. Not here. Not in our times. Not with our leaders.

When you think about it, in Western civilization, we have three mainstream touchstones that cross class and political boundaries to create a shared, generically American lens of what the fall of a democracy looks like:

  1. Historical docudramas, films, and documentaries; 
  2. Pop culture dystopian/ apocalyptic fiction and media
  3. News/ current events

Each of these representations of democratic downfalls/ rise of authoritarian regimes tends to focus on pageantry, violence against citizens, and the villain as recognizable “other”. 

History-inspired Dramas

Let’s start with the ever-popular genre of “historically accurate” docudramas/ films. 

Whether looking at Ghenghis Khan, the Roman Empire, Nazi Germany, Stalin, Lenin, or Mao Zedong, these types of “reality based” history programs tend to focus ad nauseum on the pageantry, crowds, oratory, careless cruelty, bloodsport, and those now-recognizable symbolis of the murderous anti-democratic regimes. 

The casual brutality is one consistent feature: it’s obvious, and in-your-face, and bloody. Sometimes the dictator or his henchman performs the murders, with blood splashing in brilliant scarlet arcs across their face and clothes as chilling, orgasmic pleasure twists their features. Other times, they’re depicted as prissier, standing back and wrinkling their noses or twitching their boots away from the viscera of torture; or ordering a death and leaving the room as the screams begin. The message is clear: dictators not only condone murder, they are directly involved in it.

Then there’s the pageantry, the symbolism. We’re so familiar with them that once those distinctive emblems flash onsceen, the viewer thinks, “So obviously evil! How did they not know? It’s a freaking skull/ giant bloody knife/ severed head! I wouldn’t have been dumb enough to stick around.”

But a lot of the more “obviously evil” symbols like skulls and whatnot were informally adopted by smaller organizations within the regime, while the primary symbolic regalia adopted to represent the movement, such as swastikas, sickles, inverted crosses, or imperial eagles were innocuous or even positive at the time of their adoption and only imbued with dark meaning by time and association. 

So, considering that, it is a fallacy of our historical lens to assume the intent of a leader can be recognized by the symbols they co-opt to represent themselves: American symbols can be co-opted by evil men as easily as any other.

Failures of Democracy in Pop Culture

Now, there are genres of partisan dystopian fiction — progressive writers fear authoritarian theocracies or corporate dominance replacing US democracy and the resultant oppression and wealth inequality; while conservative dystopian writers fear the fallout of terrorism from EMPs/ ecohippies/ mad scientists/ jihadis, or envision the nightmare of feminist-imposed matriarchies, or how the Rapture will play out. Those aren’t the type of “failure of democracy” pop culture examples I’m referring to, though, because the targeted audience is limited. 

I’m actually thinking more in terms of the much more widely disseminated and consumed pop culture imagery, the stuff broadly accessible to and referenced by most Americans, regardless of political affiliation or social class. Things like, um, the movie Red Dawn (1980s or reboot), or the TV show the Walking Dead, or pretty much any superhero movie/ show — Batman, Men in Black, The Incredibles — which often depict the privacy and safety of unnamed civilians being regularly and casually violated, often by superheroes, secret government agents, or privately funded corporate agents, ‘for their own protection’.  — 

The latter normalizes the idea that the majority of citizens (to the viewer, ‘everyone else’) are easily panicked sheeple who must be “managed” or “handled” by a strong authoritarian decision maker — as the viewer, of course, we identify not with the nameless recipients of this questionable protection, but with the protagonists of the story, the heroes.

This is true of the former narrative, too, in which a hero or band of heroes navigates the unfamiliar landscape of society as we know it destroyed by invasion or unforeseen apocalyptic events. 

These types of pop culture narratives share other commonalities: an explosive/ recognizable inciting event (linking to the pageantry of the historical docudramas), an antagonist who is explicitly foreign or sympathetic/ loyal to foreign interests (British, German, Russian, Muslim, zombie, alien, supernatural, etc). Whatever they are, they either start out as not American, are revealed to be lying about their American origins, or are rendered not-American by infection/ transformation/ supernatural possession. 

The cumulative result is a shared cultural narrative that a failures of democracy will come loudly and through an obvious, external threat, that Americans unite under strong leadership, and that sometimes it’s necessary to lie to citizens for their own protection.

Current Events/ News Footage

Finally, there’s the news. CNN or Fox News, doesn’t matter; I’m not talking about opinions here. I’m talking about the visuals running in the background behind the talking head who may not be on mute on that TV at the restaurant or bar or gas station or doctor’s office when the average American is standing in line or checking out or sitting in the waiting room or eating their meal. 

You know the visual: if it’s a city, it’s in ruins, all bombed and shattered to a smoking rubble. It might be a village of thatched huts and straw cottages, though. Either way, its nothing like the view outside the window, where American buildings may be abandoned by industry, but aren’t bombed to rubble, and poverty may be on the rise, but at least from the outside, no one can tell that low income apartment complex hasn’t had running water or electricity in 5 years. Hey, it’s got a roof. It looks like every other building in the city — definitely not a thatched hut!

Onscreen, the viewer will see fires burning in the rubble as haunted-looking, dust-covered war refugees are herded from their homes, escorted by soldiers in military uniforms with distinctinctly un-American camoflauge patterns or colors. The names of far-covering cities and countries will flash onscreen, and the viewer might say, “Where’s that? China?”

“Nah, I think North Korea,” someone else might respond. They’re both wrong, but they’re not really interested anyway. The point of the question is, it’s not in a democracy. It’s not America, or Canada, or England, or Scotland, or Norway, or France, or any of the countries ranked subconsciously or consciously in our collective consciousness as “safe”. 

These may be current affairs, but they take place in locations foreign to the average Americans experience, and often involve populations dominated by people of color. Even when it occurs in white populations, the “otherness” of it is still marked by foreignness in their traditions and dress– hijabs, headscarves, or regional fashions strange to the American eye. 

It all combines in this subtle reassurance that authoritarian regimes are born in violence and noise, in foreign and unstable lands with poor leadership, and ushered in obviously via armed guard.

Cumulatively, you take all these narratives and apply them to the current moment, and no wonder so many people (of all political stripes) are referencing term limits near-constantly, whether in joking dismay or mocking dismissal of concerns.

Term limits are a talisman, a promise to a shared system of government. In a weird way, as our politics have grown more divided and partisan, term limits have almost come to function as a de facto treaty: Okay, fine. We’ll try it your screwed up way for a few years, but just you wait until it’s my turn! 

So even when our president and administration explicitly announce, “Hey. We are intentionally trying to destroy the government, and we’re ignoring the constitution to shut down free speech and free press, and we’re funded by wealthy corporate backers who support civil war on our behalf,” it’s so much easier and less frightening for everyone — liberals, moderates, conservatives — to refer with a knee-jerk regularly to presidential term limits when discussing the impact of this administration, as though invoking this cornerstone of US democracy breathes certitude into it and strengthens it.

The thing is — you gotta ask yourself, honestly speaking: Why would the guy who’s spent the two months since taking power undermining the judiciary branch of government, calling the patriotism of US intelligence agencies in doubt, flagrantly violating the first amendment; and intentionally dismantling the institutions of governance suddenly decide oh, term limits, yeah those are important. Can’t violate those. 

Really? Y’all think he’ll be totally comfortable trampling across the Constitution, ignoring the Emoluments Clause, enriching himself through his office,  and intentionally destroying the agencies and regulations comprising the actual government he’s been given charge of — but it’s a bridge too far to violate term limits?

 

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