Eschatology for Dummies

We live in apocalyptic end-of-the-world times – but we always live in apocalyptic end-of-the-world times. That’s just how we think. Maybe we’re all just drama queens, fighting our quite ordinary and cyclical rather meaningless troubles by pretending they are existentially dire and thus the most important thing ever. We did that with the War on Terror after the September 11 attacks – a core group of a few thousand nasty fanatics were the greatest threat we ever faced, greater than the Nazis and the Japanese in the forties, taking over much of the world with all their massive armies – thirty or forty thousand guys at best – and a far greater than the threat posed by the Soviets during all the long years of the Cold War, with their tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that could easily end all life on earth. Yep, all that was awful, but this al-Qaeda business was the real thing, finally.

That was mostly Dick Cheney, with a little help from Donald Rumsfeld, and it was nonsense. We had a new serious threat to manage, but that threat could be managed. There was no point in making it something bigger than it was. When you do that you can end up going all crazy, doing stupid things that squander all your resources, doing boneheaded things – clumsy military moves, invading and occupying the wrong country, and things like adopting torture and kidnapping as policy – that only make matters worse. It was time to put things in perspective. It was time to calm down and think about things.

We didn’t do that. We paid the price, but Americans like to think apocalyptically. And you don’t snatch that pleasure from people. They get angry if you try. Of course this is religious thinking of the sort known as eschatology – the study of end times. Each of the major religions has its explanation of how the world ends, and why it ends, and why it must end. It’s never pretty, but the world hasn’t ended yet. Everyone’s still waiting.

That’s okay. While everyone’s waiting for those Four Horsemen and Gabriel to blow his horn, and The Rapture and all the rest, there’s always secular eschatology – theories about the end of America and democracy. All discussion of America and democracy will be moot when Donald Trump cancels the upcoming election, and all future elections, because elections in America cannot be fair any longer, and then declares himself President for Life and every Republican says that’s fine. Democrats will sue, but Trump will own the Supreme Court in a few days. It’s his now and all the key justices owe him. But vote if you want. It really doesn’t matter anymore, one way or the other – the end.

Dana Milbank sees that, and he thinks historically:

With his repeated refusals this week to accept the peaceful transfer of power – the bedrock principle that has sustained American democracy for 228 years – President Trump has put the United States, in some ways, where Germany was in 1933, when Adolf Hitler used the suspicious burning of the German parliament to turn a democracy into a totalitarian state.

Overwrought, you say? Then ask Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a top authority on Nazism and Stalinism. “The Reichstag has been on a slow burn since June,” he told me. “The language Trump uses to talk about Black Lives Matter and the protests is very similar to the language Hitler used – that there’s some vague left-wing conspiracy based in the cities that is destroying the country.”

No one wants to say Trump is now another Hitler, no one usually does, but these seem to be end times, and this is the same thing:

Trump, as he has done before, has made the villain a minority group. He has sought, once again, to fabricate emergencies to justify greater powers for himself. He has proposed postponing elections. He has refused to commit to honoring the results of the election. And now, he proposes to embrace violence if he doesn’t win.

“It’s important not to talk about this as just an election,” Snyder said. “It’s an election surrounded by the authoritarian language of a coup d’état. The opposition has to win the election and it has to win the aftermath of the election.”

If not? There won’t be another “normal” election for some time, he said.

So the advice is this:

To avoid it, we voters must turn out in overwhelming numbers to deal Trump a lopsided defeat. The military must hold to its oath. Homeland Security police must not serve as Trump’s brownshirts. And we citizens must take to the streets, peacefully but indefinitely, until the will of the people prevails.

The first is possible. The rest is questionable. The odds are long:

It’s abundantly clear that Trump plans to fabricate an election “emergency.” First, he claimed mail-in balloting, a tried-and-true system, is fraudulent. Now his supporters are trying to harass in-person voters.

When Virginia’s early voting opened this week, Trump supporters descended on a polling station, waving Trump signs and flags, chanting and forming a gantlet through which voters had to walk. When the New York Times reported that this voter intimidation campaign began at a nearby rally featuring the Republican National Committee co-chairman, the Virginia GOP responded mockingly from its official Twitter account: “Quick! Someone call the waaaambulance!”

What? Milbank says this is 1933 again:

Let’s be clear. There is only one political party in American politics embracing violence. There is only one side refusing to denounce all political violence. There is only one side talking about bringing guns to the polls; one side attempting to turn federal law-enforcement officials into an arm of a political party. And Trump is trying to use law enforcement to revive tactics historically used to bully voters of color from voting – tactics not seen in 40 years.

Some of what Trump and his lieutenants have been doing is merely unseemly: using the machinery of government to attack previous and current political opponents, likening pandemic public health restrictions to slavery, or threatening to overrule regulators if they question the safety of vaccines.

But embracing violence to resolve democratic disagreement is another matter.

Trump embraced the “very fine people” among the homicidal neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. He embraced as “very good people” armed protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol to intimidate lawmakers. He embraced his supporter who allegedly shot and killed two people at a protest in Wisconsin. He embraced the “GREAT PATRIOTS” who drove into Portland, Ore., hurling paintballs and pepper spray at demonstrators. He embraced officers who kill unarmed African Americans, saying they simply “choke” under pressure.

And finally there’s this:

Now he’s rejecting the peaceful transfer of power. Worse: Most Republican officeholders dare not contradict him. The Times reported that of all 168 Republican National Committee members and 26 Republican governors it asked to comment on Trump’s outrage, only four RNC members and one governor responded.

All of this snowballs, so it’s time for a little Eschatology for Dummies:

In Federalist 48, James Madison prophetically warned that tyranny could triumph under “some favorable emergency.” In 1933, Hitler used the burning of the Reichstag to do just that. Trump now, it appears, is aiming to do likewise.

America, this is our Reichstag moment. We have the power to stop it. Don’t let democracy burn to the ground.

It’s not that simple. Barton Gellman adds this detail:

The 2020 presidential election will be the first in 40 years to take place without a federal judge requiring the Republican National Committee to seek approval in advance for any “ballot security” operations at the polls. In 2018, a federal judge allowed the consent decree to expire, ruling that the plaintiffs had no proof of recent violations by Republicans. The consent decree, by this logic, was not needed, because it worked.

The order had its origins in the New Jersey gubernatorial election of 1981. According to the district court’s opinion in Democratic National Committee v. Republican National Committee, the RNC allegedly tried to intimidate voters by hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers as members of a “National Ballot Security Task Force,” some of them armed and carrying two-way radios. According to the plaintiffs, they stopped and questioned voters in minority neighborhoods, blocked voters from entering the polls, forcibly restrained poll workers, challenged people’s eligibility to vote, warned of criminal charges for casting an illegal ballot, and generally did their best to frighten voters away from the polls. The power of these methods relied on well-founded fears among people of color about contact with police.

It worked. It had to stop. It stopped. And now this has started again. Matt Shuham has the video:

Appearing haggard and hoarse, Donald Trump Jr. stared down the camera and began recruiting soldiers.

“We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation,” he said, the words “ENLIST NOW!” plastered next to his face.

“We need you to help us watch them.”

Trump Jr. wasn’t talking about an armed security force, at least not yet: No, he was recruiting volunteers for Trump’s Election Day Operations team, according to a website he boosted in the video.

Campaign spokesperson Erin Perrine, in another video on the site, warned that Democrats “will be up to their old dirty tricks on Election Day to make sure that President Trump doesn’t win.” Therefore, she said, the campaign wanted to “cover every polling place in the country with people like you.”

And so it begins:

Volunteer election lawyers and poll watchers aren’t unusual, but the Trump campaign has taken it a step further, including by suing in Pennsylvania to allow poll watchers to volunteer in counties other than their own. The state’s Supreme Court recently upheld the law requiring poll watchers to live where they volunteer.

In light of a federal judge’s 2018 decision that a 35-year-old restriction on Republican Party “ballot security” efforts would be lifted – a consent decree was instituted in 1982 after Democrats sued over racist voter intimidation practices – the GOP has aimed to recruit thousands of volunteers in key swing states.

One group, True the Vote, floated recruiting veterans as poll watchers, according to audio obtained by The Intercept in April.

Those would be the ultimate Guy with Guns forming a gauntlet at a polling place near you. No one would want to run that gauntlet. They’d see that, turn around and go home:

The idea seems to have percolated to the top: In August, Trump mused about using law enforcement as poll watchers. Earlier this month, Trump told rally goers in North Carolina to become poll watchers.

“Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do,” he said.

A week and a half later, on Saturday, a group of flag-waving Trump supporters showed up at a polling site in Virginia where early voting was taking place…

But that’s not 1933 at all. Kevin Drum chooses a different year:

It’s 1981 all over again. Trump Jr. is recruiting “an army” to provide “election security,” and I think everyone with more than a room temperature IQ knows what that means. It means descending in force on polling places in Black neighborhoods and trying to scare people into staying away. This is what Republicans routinely did until a judge stopped them, and it’s what they’re going to do again now that a judge has removed the leash. Apparently 40 years wasn’t enough.

Drum won’t speak of Nazis. He doesn’t have to. This is a mess:

Senate Republicans were left dumbfounded Thursday by President Trump’s latest self-engineered controversy, a suggestion there might not be a peaceful transition of power after Election Day, which left his GOP allies on Capitol Hill scrambling for political cover.

GOP lawmakers expressed frustration that a week that had started so positively with the Senate Republican Conference quickly unifying ahead of a Supreme Court confirmation battle had turned into a circus.

“The president figured out how to take an overwhelmingly good week and change the subject? Shocking. I don’t know what to say,” said one senior Republican senator, referring to the dismay Republicans felt over what they see as Trump’s latest unforced error.

“There’s a chance he doesn’t understand ‘peaceful’ as a concept. There’s a chance he thinks that means he’s going to feel good about it if he’s leaving. Who knows what he’s thinking?” the senator added.

That’s the problem. Everyone has to plan around this man’s impulsive irrationality. And the New York Times just ran a scoop on that:

Senior Pentagon leaders have a lot to worry about – Afghanistan, Russia, Iraq, Syria, Iran, China, Somalia, the Korean Peninsula. But chief among those concerns is whether their commander in chief might order American troops into any chaos around the coming elections.

President Trump gave officials no solace on Wednesday when he again refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power no matter who wins the election. On Thursday he doubled down by saying he was not sure the election could be “honest.”

His hedging, along with his expressed desire in June to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to send active-duty troops onto American streets to quell protests over the killing of George Floyd, has caused deep anxiety among senior military and Defense Department leaders, who insist they will do all they can to keep the armed forces out of the elections.

They don’t want to be the ones out there shutting down election boards, at gunpoint, to keep them from counting any more mail-in ballots, or shooting protesters (insurrectionists) dead in the streets. That’s not their job:

“I believe deeply in the principle of an apolitical U.S. military,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in written answers to questions from House lawmakers released last month. “In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law, U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military. I foresee no role for the U.S. armed forces in this process.”

His message was clear. Leave us out of this! But others want to drag them into this:

On Aug. 11, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, both retired Army officers and Iraq war veterans, published an open letter to General Milley on the website Defense One. “In a few months’ time, you may have to choose between defying a lawless president or betraying your constitutional oath” they wrote. “If Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order.”

Pentagon officials swiftly said such an outcome was preposterous. Under no circumstances, they said, would the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff send Navy SEALs or Marines to haul Mr. Trump out of the White House. If necessary, such a task, Defense Department officials said, would fall to U.S. Marshals or the Secret Service.

Yes, that was bullshit:

The military, by law, the officials said, takes a vow to the Constitution, not to the president, and that vow means that the commander in chief of the military is whoever is sworn in at 12:01 p.m. on Inauguration Day.

They’ll wait. Others will decide that. The real issue is a possible order by Trump to turn on American citizens and slap them around a bit:

Senior leaders at the Pentagon, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that they were talking among themselves about what to do if Mr. Trump, who will still be president from Election Day to Inauguration Day, invokes the Insurrection Act and tries to send troops into the streets, as he threatened to do during the protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Both General Milley and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper opposed the move then, and Mr. Trump backed down.

The concerns are not unfounded. The Insurrection Act, a two-century-old law, enables a president to send in active-duty military troops to quell disturbances over the objections of governors. Mr. Trump, who refers to the armed forces as “my military” and “my generals” has lumped them with other supporters like Bikers for Trump, who could offer backup in the face of opposition.

Several Pentagon officials said there could be resignations among many of Mr. Trump’s senior generals, starting at the top with General Milley, should troops be ordered into the streets at the time of the election.

Trump may have to rely on those Bikers for Trump and few armed survivalist and white supremacist militias and those neo-Nazi boys from Charlottesville a few years ago. “His” generals want nothing to do with this. They thought about this:

This year, Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor and a Defense Department official under Mr. Obama, led a group of about 100 former national security officials and election experts from both parties in exercises to simulate the most serious risks to a peaceful transition of power.

In one, they contemplated what would happen if a president ordered National Guard units or active-duty military personnel into cities to “restore order.” There was no clear result, but the exercise itself attracted sharp criticism from far-right groups, which accused the organizers of trying to undermine Mr. Trump and interfere with the election.

Inside the Pentagon, whose leaders are well-known for making plans, Defense Department officials said there had been no preparations for military force during the elections.

No, they were not planning a coup to rid the nation of Trump and all White people. They were just curious, but that might not be enough in these end times:

“The planning they should be doing is how to prevent playing a role,” said Devin Burghart, the president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and an expert on white nationalist movements.

Others who worked at the Pentagon agree. “I know that Milley is trying to think his way through, but I have my doubts he can,” said John Gans, who served as chief speechwriter to the defense secretary in the Obama administration. “The problem is that when the military doesn’t want to do something, they don’t like to think about it.”

He added: “The Pentagon plans for war with Canada and a zombie apocalypse, but they don’t want to plan for a contested election. These are huge questions that have an impact on the reputation of the institution.”

But they already know that:

The confrontation in Lafayette Square near the White House in June crystallized for the Defense Department just how close to the precipice the military came to being pulled into a domestic political crisis. Military helicopters and armed members of the National Guard patrolled the streets next to federal agents in riot gear so that the president, flanked by Secretary of Defense Esper and General Milley, could walk across the square to hold up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Current and former members of the armed forces were outraged.

“It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel – including members of the National Guard – forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama, wrote in The Atlantic. “This is not the time for stunts.”

Both men, but General Milley especially, were so sharply criticized by former military and Pentagon leaders for taking part in the walk that they spent the days afterward in serious damage control.

They did what had to be done:

Mr. Esper held an extraordinary news conference in which he broke with the president and said that active-duty troops should not be sent to control protests. His words so angered Mr. Trump that the president had to be persuaded not to fire him, aides said at the time.

General Milley publicly apologized for the walk across the park. “I should not have been there,” he said in a video address to National Defense University. His apology also infuriated Mr. Trump.

Both men are still in their jobs for now.

That may not last. These are end times, but Michelle Goldberg offers some perspective:

Trump may be behaving like a strongman, but he is weaker than he’d like us all to believe. Autocrats who actually have the power to fix elections don’t announce their plans to do it; they just pretend to have gotten 99 percent of the vote. It’s crucial that Trump’s opponents emphasize this, because unlike rage, excessive fear can be demobilizing. There’s a reason TV villains like to say, “Resistance is futile.”

Calm down. Do not let him win. Be not afraid. Go vote. That’s not futile. Just put things in perspective. That’s what Goldberg does:

This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be alarmed. I’m alarmed every minute of every day. Trump is an aspiring fascist who would burn democracy to the ground to salve his diseased ego. His willingness to break the rules that bind others gives him power out of proportion to his dismal approval ratings. He blithely incites violence by his supporters, some of whom have already tried to intimidate voters in Virginia.

Yet part of the reason he won in 2016 is that so few of his opponents thought it possible. That is no longer a problem. Since then, when voters have had the chance to render a verdict on Trump and his allies, they’ve often rejected them overwhelmingly. Under Trump, Democrats have made inroads into Texas, Arizona, even Oklahoma. They won a Senate seat in Alabama. (Granted, the Republican was accused of being a child molester.) Much attention is paid to Trump’s fanatical supporters, but far more people hate him than love him.

In the run-up to the 2018 election, many people had the same fears they have now. Analyzing its survey results, Pew found that “voters approached the 2018 midterm elections with some trepidation about the voting process and many had concerns that U.S. election systems may be hacked.” After 2016 it was hard to believe polls showing Democrats with a lead of more than eight points. But the polls were right.

And the polls are still right. This isn’t 1933 in Germany:

Trump would like to turn America into a dictatorship, but he hasn’t yet. For over four years he has waged a sort of psychological warfare on the populace, colonizing our consciousness so thoroughly that it can be hard to imagine him gone. That’s part of the reason he says he won’t leave if he’s beaten in November, or even after 2024. It’s to make us forget that it’s not up to him.

So don’t forget that none of this is up to him. This is not the end of America.

Consider that the key lesson from the nation’s current crash course in Eschatology for Dummies. Nothing is ending unless everyone agrees to end those things. And no one agrees on anything now, so we continue on, arguing, as we should. The end of the world will just have to wait.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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