Home National Politics How Elite Cowardice Threatens America’s Future

How Elite Cowardice Threatens America’s Future

A large portion of the strategy of Trump and the MAGA movement is actually focused on stoking and leveraging elite cowardice to its own political and economic benefit.

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By Kindler (Please check out my Substack)

It is hard for me to express the sinking feeling I had the week before, listening to the oral arguments before the Supreme Court about Trump’s eligibility to run for president. It was like having been thrown off a ship and waiting for somebody, anybody to throw you a life preserver – but watching no one do so, not even the passengers you thought were your friends.

What bugged me was that none of them seriously addressed the issue of Trump’s insurrectionist act of attempting to overturn the 2020 election, including by inciting mob violence. Several of the right-wing Justices mocked and downplayed the idea that the horrific assault on our democracy culminating on January 6th, 2021 was anything unusual, with the supposedly more moderate Chief Justice John Roberts even claiming that “Insurrection is a broad, broad term.”

Really? Our nation’s highest authorities on what our laws mean and how to enforce them think that this Constitutionally proscribed, dangerous act is just plain undefinable? Any of us can in fact find a legal definition of insurrection on the Web within minutes – e.g., “A rising or rebellion of citizens against their government, usually manifested by acts of violence” – and with more time, can trace the history of how it’s been used in US history, as dozens of historians did in crafting amicus briefs to the Court, which appear to have been roundly ignored.

Why did even the Democratically appointed Justices shy away from discussing the grave danger that Trump poses to American democracy, instead diverting the discussion to all kinds of lesser issues? I’m sure that lots of commentators have lots of theories about it, but I would sum the biggest reason up in one word: cowardice.

It’s the Cowardice, Stupid!

Scholars of history and political science have long debated the philosophical question of whether history is written by the actions of individuals or by impersonal forces – demographic, evolutionary, climatic, economic, etc. – acting upon us. While the obvious answer is “a combination of both”, academia has long preferred to focus on the objective forces that they can measure, submit to statistical tests, and so on rather than having to evaluate and judge the messy actions of human beings.

But of course, this approach is both disempowering and causes one to miss many opportunities history has had to take a different course. Right now, as so many have observed, American democracy faces deep, unusual threats to its existence, and whether it succeeds or fails will depend on the decisions and actions of many people, from the humblest plebe to the most powerful patrician.

While all of us have a critical role to play, it’s no secret that some people have a lot more power over our society than others – namely, the elites of every field, from law to journalism to academia to business.  But the rise of Trump has laid bare our national leadership crisis – that a huge portion of the American elite lacks the courage to stand up to those who would threaten the foundations of our democratic society.  They don’t want to risk pissing off people who may threaten them with harm or even just verbally attack them on social media. Their reaction to bullies is to keep their heads down so that they don’t get bullied next – rather than trying to help all the victims who are way more vulnerable than them.

Stoking the Fears of Corporate and Republican Weasels

It’s important to understand this because a large portion of the strategy of Trump and the MAGA movement is actually focused on stoking and leveraging elite cowardice to its own political and economic benefit.

Take the so-called “War on Woke” (this word salad itself a war on the English language) and the related assaults on the corporate ESG (environmental, social and governance) movement. Republicans know full well that many corporate executives secured their positions not through anything resembling courage or even leadership, but to the contrary, have moved up the ranks based on their ability to avoid hard decisions or risks while keeping their own butts securely covered.

So right wing propagandists like Chris Rufo (mastermind of both the “CRT” and trans scares) know that if they can label anything they do not perceive to be in their interest as “controversial” and potentially costly to executives, they can count on these suits to run away from doing the good work that they have pledged to do.

Sacly, there is ample evidence that these scare tactics work.  As Bill McKibben recently reported, both Bank of America and British bank HSBC recently reneged on climate commitments they had made to stop providing financing to new fossil fuel ventures. He quotes the New York Times on the likely reason:

“Bank of America’s change follows intensifying backlash from Republican lawmakers against corporations that consider environmental and social factors in their operations. Wall Street in particular has come under fire for what some Republicans have called ‘woke capitalism,’ a campaign that has pulled banks into the wider culture wars.”

Cowardice, yes, or viewed from another perspective, cynicism – Republican politicians soaked in oil money giving corporate America cover to do what they want to do anyway, just focus on short term profits and not give a damn about the consequences of their actions on people or the planet.

Trump’s political and legal strategies are similarly aimed at stoking the cowardice and exhaustion of anyone who might oppose him. No, he’s not simply a random babbler, but he often says and does things for a conscious reason. His gangsterish taunting of Nikki Haley after the New Hampshire primary was only the latest of so many examples over his twisted political career:

“And just a little note to Nikki…She would be under investigation by those people in 15 minutes, and I could tell you five reasons why already. Not big reasons, little stuff she doesn’t want to talk about. But she will be under investigation within minutes.”

As always with this thug, he is not only threatening a rival to fall into line but sending a not-at-all subtle message to everyone else he can reach – kiss my pinky ring or I will end your career.  And Republicans, remembering how the likes of Reps. Lynn Cheney, Adam Kinzinger got drummed out of the party, respond like frightened sheep.  There are too many cases to mention, though Sen. Tim Scott’s self-abasement was a recent, painful example to watch.

Bullies and Victims

The terrifying logic of fascism divides society into two major groups: bullies and victims.  Both are essential to making this warped system work.  Attacking victims both verbally and physically is a regular fascist ritual that binds the dictators’ supporters together through the cleansing act of putting the scum in their place.

You can try to back away into a third category of bystander, but…lots of luck not being pulled in by the irresistible force of a society based on the foundation of forcing its citizens into perpetual conflict and misery.  So, while trying to hide from all the conflict –  turning away when you see immigrants or black people or whomever being beaten up –  may be the natural instinct of a coward, in fact it is a lot safer in a society devolving into fascism to show yourself to be one of the bullies.

Hence the nefarious tendency of fascism to push more and more regular people to become monsters in order to save their own skins.  The louder you shout against “the communists” or “the Jews” or “the illegals”, the less likely you will be viewed as an ally of these targeted groups and thus a potential target yourself.

Bullying thus becomes the last refuge of the coward fighting to secure his or her position in an increasingly chaotic society.  So the Republicans, corporate execs, media titans and others desperate to get the bullies off their back end up bullying the usual suspects as a way to show their loyalty.

Again, there are more examples than one can name.  Coming back to the Supreme Court’s oral arguments over Colorado’s bid to remove Trump from the ballot, Dahlia Lithwick correctly noted Justice Alito’s, Robert’s and Gorsuch’s bullying posture against the lawyer for the plaintiffs:

“And the thing…we hadn’t talked about enough is the mob-like threat that emerged from some justices, like—nice democracy you got, it’d be a shame if something happened to it. By that I mean, there was this subtle threat, right? And it starts in Jonathan Mitchell’s briefing, when he says there’ll be all sorts of chaos and mayhem and violence if Trump is removed from the ballot. There was a question from Chief Justice John Roberts about how, if the court sides with Colorado, Republicans are going to knock Democrats off the ballot next. It’s there in Justice Samuel Alito’s questioning about vexatious, frivolous lawsuits that will surely follow.”

You can see the bullying in Trumpist Special Counsel Hur’s gratuitous attacks on President Biden in his report, going well beyond his legal mandate. You can see it in the “Guardian Angels” beating up alleged immigrants in New York City live on Sean Hannity’s show.  You can see it in all the legal, political and personal attacks on trans people, a tiny minority that poses no threat to anyone but is easy to isolate and scapegoat.  You can see it in all the years of dishonest attacks on Dr. Fauci, a recently retired civil servant who dedicated so many years to his job – now serving as one of the foundations of Robert Kennedy’s conspiracy-theory driven presidential campaign.

The Value of Reward and Punishment

While many members of the elite – outside the GOP anyway – resist the urge to join the bullying frenzy, they too frequently enable it by failing to stand up to the bullies strongly enough to make a difference.  These are the people, quite frankly, whose spines we need to stiffen – by setting an example ourselves of speaking truth to power and by singling out for praise or condemnation whoever may do the right or the wrong thing.

On this last point, I have to note that every time on social media when I compliment the words or actions of someone with whom I or my allies may disagree frequently – say, Mitt Romney or Liz Cheney – my feed always includes someone saying that I shouldn’t do so because they’re wrong on [x] or did [y] bad thing in the past. These critics are missing the point of how much more bravery it takes a Republican to stand up to the MAGA crowd, when their entire party has been taken over by these violent, angry hordes.

If you want to see your leaders act bravely, you have to reward them for engaging in even isolated moments of courage. Those who choose to be in the public eye are rarely indifferent to how people feel about them, which gives us the power to at least sometimes influence their behavior by giving or withholding our praise.  I mean, it’s how most of us work, as do our babies, dogs and (well, occasionally) cats.

We similarly have to push our leaders – in all fields, from politics and the media to sports and entertainment – to move beyond their comfort zones and be braver in doing all they can to stop America’s slide toward fascism. Because having power often does mean being comfortable in life, which brings with it the risk of losing some of that comfort if you dare rock the boat.

But we are past the point at which anyone in America can just try to hide away and expect to ride out the storm at a time when we have a presidential candidate promising to be a dictator on Day One – the same guy who incited a violent rebellion that breached the U.S. Capitol, the center of US democracy, the last time he lost.

Cowardice is contagious, but so is courage. We need to find the latter in our hearts and spread it far and wide until enough of us stand up to the monsters to finally, decisively stop them in their tracks.

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