It’s time for Americans and, in particular, American Jews, to be very alarmed about the state of American democracy.
Yes, I am an alarmist. However, we will never know how many bad things have been thwarted by sounding the alarm and taking action. Alarmists always look like, well, alarmists, if they are effective.
Many democracies do not become stunted or destroyed by revolutions, violent or peaceful. Many destroyed democracies are the result of incremental steps, the drip. . .drip. . .drip. . .and then knee-deep water.
Many dictatorships or near-dictatorships or quasi-democracies maintain the trappings and look of a democracy—legislatures, distinguished-looking, robe-wearing judges, a “free” but cowered or kowtowing press, etc. etc.
The US has been experiencing the dripping destruction of major democratic norms for several years now.
The hallmarks have occurred largely in public view. The targeting of minorities and immigrants. The personal demonization of opponents. The firing of independent inspectors charged with exposing unethical and illegal conduct.
The dismissal and perp walk of loyal citizens who have provided testimony under oath, and the punishment of a family member (in this case, coincidentally but poignantly, two immigrants and two Jews among the targets). Commuting prison sentences for those who protect you by withholding testimony or by lying.
Members of Congress ceding traditional powers of inquiry and authority that prior generations of legislators would have guarded and utilized with enthusiasm. Congressional members and other leaders, educated and seemingly thoughtful people, rationalizing, denying, diverting.
Anne Applebaum, has spent most of her career exploring why most people go along with left-wing dictators (her book Iron Curtain, The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, is a masterpiece). She recently wrote an insightful and haunting essay in The Atlantic about why Republican leaders have abandoned their principles.
Others have recently written about the demise or death of democracies. The tell-tale signs are vividly on the American landscape today. There is no camouflage.
But just this last week the dripping changed. Democracy, if not drowning, is choking and grasping for air. What is it that set off the alarms for this alarmist?
Portland, Oregon. Unidentified, camouflaged, fully-armed, battle-ready federal officers, there against the wishes of local officials and the Governor, pulling people off the streets and throwing them into unidentified vehicles, ostensibly “for questioning.”
It is irrelevant whether or not the “interviewees” were guilty of an offense or not. It is even irrelevant whether they were violent or not. It is irrelevant whether these people hold the most obnoxious, even dangerous, political views, or that I likely would not like these protestors or their politics or tactics.
The oft-quoted Martin Niemoller put it eloquently: “First they came for the. . . .And by that time no one was left to speak for me.”
It turns out that the unidentified, fully-armed, camouflaged federal officers are employees of the Customs and Border Protection of the Department of Homeland Security, leading Applebaum to question on Twitter what they were doing there.
Plain and simple, this is not, or was not, how “policing” is done in America. In fact, this is not policing. It is the tool of intimidation and suppression and repression of dictatorships, of fascists and would-be fascists.
I generally reject comparisons to the Holocaust, which was unique in its horror and its targeting of one people for complete annihilation. But, sadly and frighteningly, unidentified state actors acting like hoods as they throw people into unmarked vehicles should strike a chord with anyone familiar with the behavior of Nazis in the 1930’s and ‘40’s.
For Jews, this shouldn’t be a drip. It should be a flood. For conservatives, the sight of the federal government, over local objections, extending its long and unidentified hands, should be repugnant.
But “Trump is the best president for Israel we’ve ever had,” say about 20 or 25% of American Jews. I have long said that we should acknowledge and express appreciation when President Trump does something we like, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. However, one can argue the real-life benefits for the average Israeli of such actions against the real-life costs of America’s withdrawal from the world, of an inconsistent and sometimes incoherent foreign policy, and of greenlighting of further Russian involvement in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.
What Israel needs more than any particular American position is an America that is strong, respected, healthy, united, unabashedly supportive of democracies, and persuasive to other countries. Sadly, that clearly is not the United States of America under President Trump.
In short, Americans, alarmist or not, should be very, very alarmed. Jews who know their history should be at the forefront of the alarmists. The drip. . .drip. . .drip of a democracy under jeopardy has become a torrent.
It is ironic that this latest assault on America’s democratic norms should come at the same time as Congressman John Lewis’ death. Lewis was one of the great champions of human rights and civil rights, as well as a great believer in friendship and connection between Jews and African-Americans. When asked why he refused to participate in Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March in 1995, he reportedly said that Farrakhan’s statements were “divisive and bigoted” and that he, Lewis, “followed his conscience, not his complexion.”
It is unfortunately telling that the Trump Administration’s use of the tactics of dictatorial regimes should come at the same time that Secretary of State Pompeo asserts that the United States should limit the human rights it advocates for on the international stage.