So Little Watched Over
David Frum's piece How to Build an Autocracy was the one I dreaded reading most. Somehow I knew - just knew - that this would be darkest of the dark. I put it off for about a week before dutifully downing it, like cough syrup, earlier this week. Unfortunately, it was as I expected. Thank you Mr. Frum for holding the glass right up to our noses so no one mistakes what we're looking at: not an overthrow of the US government; not an apocalyptic national seizure; not even an unpopular uprising. Frum's piece is devastating in its revelation that our liberal democracy, which we all assumed was battle-tested and unbreakable, has always been just one bad president away from unraveling like a cheap sweater.
It's not entirely hypothetical (cue Mr. Bad President over there), but it's still only a hypothesis. We're still early in this nightmare, and now that we know just how erratic Donald Trump really is, we have to concede that there's no telling how this will turn out. Frum's scenario, however, is believable to me for its Occam's Razor quality, whereby motives small and comprehensible (rather than grand and diabolical) aggregate into something truly grotesque.
The safest prediction, based on everything we know about this President, is that he will use his office to enrich himself and his enablers. It's his modus operendi and the only skill he seems to possess. Frum helps us follow along from there. With powerful people beholden to him, a daisy chain of venality ensues. Trump's corrupted personality, rather than being reformed by government service, infects it. His circle of protectors widens. His publicity stunts and Robin Hood fakery actually work, suckering gullible Americans through symbolic acts of largess. His nemeses in the media and Congress tire of taking shots that pass harmlessly though their target. All communication channels are trashed, but only to the exhausted frustration of a dismal few. Most shrug off new information with cynicism, not bothering to understand what's believed to be unknowable. The president grows popular. His reelection comes easily.
In these early days of the new administration, with half the country seething, the press corps digging in, the presidents' advisors butchering everything they touch and the president himself sulking over how Unfair! it all is, it would appear these clowns couldn't find Pennsylvania Avenue let alone build an autocracy. Don't bet against it though. Some faces will change and in time they'll learn what "works." They'll also have plenty of help. Frum notes that Republican Congressional leaders will become Trump's ethical bodyguard and most potent enabler as their long cherished plans move closer to presidential signature. The courts may throw up roadblocks, like the 9th Circuit did last week in striking down the Muslim Immigration Ban. But the judiciary is reactive, slow, and inherently bound up in argument. Excellent judges can slow the rise of autocracy; they cannot lead the column to defeat it. That role is reserved for one group only: we the people.
Frum's call to arms is actually a call to attention. Because Trumpism relies on public indifference and retreat into private life, it can only be undone by an unwearying vigilance over democratic institutions and the habits and conventions that sustain them. Heroic fantasies of armed resistance are quaint and totally beside the point. The threat to a modern bureaucratic state, says Frum, is the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. It's not our amateur firearms that will save us. Instead, we had better settle in for the long haul and get used to paying unceasing attention.
The problem is we aren't very good at that. In fact, we're accustomed to doing just the opposite.
The first time I heard Wendell Berry tell the story of the vanished black willow trees from the banks of his farmside Kentucky River was in the wonderful Bill Moyers interview that Wendell gave in 2013. (As lilting as is his writing, to hear him talk is even better. His gentle bluegrass drawl somehow communicates everything you need to know about the man). The full story, however, is told in the third section of Our Deserted Country in Our Only World. In 2003, Wendell notices that the Black Willow trees have all disappeared from the stretch of river near his home. There's a telling moment in the Moyers interview when the host asks the guest, "Why can't they live there?" Mr. Berry's response is quick and memorable for its conclusiveness. "I don't know." Now I understand why.
Wendell Berry, a very intelligent person and well known Kentuckian with access to all officialdom, did everything he could to learn about the trees' demise. He spoke with conservationists, water quality experts, university men and, when he could find them, local folk. Not only were the experts unable to locate the source of the problem, which Berry assumed was related to toxic runoff from upland fields, he was unable to locate anyone who even knew there was a problem in the first place. The reason, he finally figured out, was that the fisherman who used to tie their trotlines to these trees, had also disappeared with the times. The biologists and conservationists whose jobs (and perhaps affections) run with this water are not there, on the river, or if there occasionally, have not been there over time -- over enough time to notice the change. Like most people now, conservationists and university scientists are city people. They find their way to the country only occasionally, on vacations, or episodically, on research. In any event, their knowledge is not local. They will never know what the fishermen once knew.
The Willows do important work in stabilizing the banks of the river and providing shade for fish, and are lovely to look at as well, but Wendell's story, and his lesson, isn't about damage to the environment. It's about how our economic landscapes (that is, places where people live and want to live), are so little watched over now and lacking in stewardship. There are not enough eyes to look over those acres, or water miles in this case, and to believe that some conservation group or ph.d. botanist or biologist can keep vigil is to make a "characteristically modern mistake." Credentials, in the end, are a poor substitute for being there. By way of our education and our economy, we've been conditioned to forget this.
Perhaps serving witness to a corrupt government will be easier for us than has been the challenge of holding our subversive industries to account. Let's hope so, because otherwise our elected leaders will be free, like the industrial economy has been free, to do anything it can do. Crop yields uphill -- they count. Black Willows down by the water -- they don't. They aren't even discounted. The Willows aren't counted at all. You can't account for what you don't know. "This is the triumph of laissez-faire economics riding upon a triumph of laissez-faire science -- a science free to invent causes and free of worry about effects." Even when the effects of that indifference, are murderous.
Inventing causes and not worrying about the effects should sound familiar to anyone following our political scene these days. It would behoove us to remember the Kentucky River Black Willow in the weeks and years to come. They perished in the name of "growth" somewhere else. In the name of "progress," and surely "job creation," they, and whatever other plants and animals relied on them, have been lost or compromised. Their chance of survival was zero, because no one knew, or cared, that they were at risk. Experts were called in after the fact, only capable of conjecturing about the cause. Of course both the experts and the trees themselves proved absolutely incapable of checking or limiting a larger power let loose in their homeland.
And why did it happen? Well I'm sure the answer will depend on who you ask. But Occam's Razor says the simplest truth is the most likely. They were so little watched over.