Creeping Dictatorship


I miss the days of smoke-filled rooms when crooked pols chose corrupt presidential candidates who were approximately sane. Today we have a sort of presidential bus-station lottery. We choose as ruler any beer-hall putz who can shake hands and grin his way successfully through New Hampshire. This, plus the deep rot of the American political framework, is allowing the rapid conversion of the United States into something previous Americans would hardly recognize.

“Ricky, Ricky he’s our man. If he can’t do it, nobody can. Goooooooooooo Plesiosaurs!”

Permit me a foray of a paragraph into psychojournalism. It fascinates me to know that George Bush was a male cheerleader at Andover. Yes, it could have been worse. He might have been a table-dancer. But most of us who were in high school when he was recognize that you either came to watch football, or you came to watch the girl cheerleaders. There was something odd about a boy who wanted to be one.

We are ruled by a male cheerleader who favors torture. I wonder what things twist in the inner fog.

Given a president who seems chiefly concerned to display his indomitable manhood, the question arises: What restraints keep him from absolute control of a formidably armed nation of three hundred million? The Constitution, noblest of fables, was designed to do just this. But absent the will to enforce them, checks and balances do not exist, and laws, principles, and constitutions mean nothing. If no one says “no,” the president simply behaves as he wants. The genius of the strange little man in the White House has been to recognize this, to divine the weakness of the American political order.

When he wanted to attack Iraq, he simply lied, and lied again, and shifted his ground and lied again. It worked. When he didn’t want to follow the Geneva Conventions in his treatment of captured Iraqis, he just declared his prisoners of war not to be prisoners of war. Torture? He just did it and faced down the country and the world. Disregard of civil rights? Spying? He just did as he chose.

Here is the great discovery of the little man who doesn’t read. America is not the land of the free, nor of the brave, nor of the politically sentient. Nor is it a country of laws or of principles. It is a country of those who just do as they want. A president can do anything he chooses. Who will tell him no? Nobody has.

Today there is speculation as to whether he will make war, perhaps nuclear war, on Iran. The universal assumption seems to be that if he wants to, he will just do it. The legislature, already having given up its authority to declare war, seems to regard the military as the private guard of the president. Is it not interesting that one dim, pugnacious, ignorant little man can bring on nuclear war all by himself?

When Mr. Bush gets caught lying or breaking the law, he shows no embarrassment, contrition, or sense of having done anything wrong. He seems to have no conception of right and wrong, of principle. He is not accustomed to being told “no,” and accepts no constraints on his power. All that matters to him is that he get his way. He gets it.

Where will this lead? Obviously, to vastly increased police powers. But I wonder. If, down the pike, Bush announced that to protect us from terrorism he would have to postpone the presidential elections and remain in office—what would happen? Suppose he came up with a bit of supportive theater. If just before the elections something blew up, and were attributed not to the CIA but to Terrace, what then? The Reichstag has burned before. The public, the congress, the judiciary are so very, very easily manipulated. All it takes is the will to do it.

And that the little man has.

A tribal rite in the column racket is the discovery of darkness in the hearts of presidents, or witlessness, and we discover away industriously. I have done my share. I thought Clinton a bright, libidinous lout, Jimmy Carter a moralizing cipher, Reagan a sort of Grandfather Barbie and, by contrast, Eisenhower a wise man hiding behind remarkable syntax. None was evil, or mad. Bush is something new in presidential politics, genuinely dangerous and genuinely out of control. The time is ripe for him. America no longer has the institutional defenses to say "no."

What would happen if a president just refused to go? To remove him, someone would have to act. Who? Little would be necessary to stop a coup, granted. A couple of helicopters of Marines landing across the street from the White House would be enough. The various federal police bully civilians well (ask Steve Hatfill), but would find fighting real men another thing. But who in the military would have the courage to do it?

Would the public do anything? I doubt it. The Born Agains would support him, the suburban Christians suck their thumbs and wait, blacks ignore the matter, conservatives see it as necessary to stop Tersm, and most people would watch football on television. The necessary strength is not in the country. The timbers are rotten.

A popular uprising I cannot imagine. Who would rise? Overweight people with Volvos do not become urban guerrillas. Again, conservatives, who tend to be armed, rank among the most ardent supporters of Mr. Bush. In any event, how does one rise? Would upset semi-heterosexual professors at Cornell hold a Take Back the Night march? Oh joy. After three days the vigilists would become bored. Back to the television set.

The Supreme Court certainly would, and could, do nothing. The court consists of insular antiquities who so far have shown no disposition to stand up to Bush. The termites have hollowed the judicial woodpile.

Congress? It does what is paid to do, by anyone. What could it do? Some might say that it could shut off funding. With the threat of imprisonment at its collective head? It would huff, fumble, and hold committee hearings. But a coup would have to be squelched immediately or not at all.

My impression is that much of the public wants authoritarian rule, or would be perfectly content with it if it even noticed its arrival. No, I can’t prove it. But what do most people care about beyond television on screens that grow ever larger, beyond porn, beer, and the competitive purchase of grander SUVs? I ask this not as a lifelong curmudgeon being tiresome (though doubtless I am both) but seriously. Who in a sprawling TV-besotted country cares about the Constitution? A comfortable police state is after all comfortable.

I do not predict that the reigning curiosity will stage a coup (which should it occur would not be a coup but “an emergency measure,” necessary to protect us from Terrace). I do say that what is happening today is unlike anything that has happened before, and that people do not always see what is coming. If you read books from the Germany of the 1930s, you will find that people were uneasy, divided, unsure of things, but had no idea just what the squatty little man with the voice had in mind for them. He just did it. The unimaginable does sometime occur. We notice only afterward.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.