The Rittenhouse syndrome: Has America crossed the Rubicon?

Although I participated in the countercultural "revolutions," antiwar protests and racial conflicts of the 1960s, it wasn't until August 2016 that I had my first truly unnerving intimations of a full-blown American civil war: Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump told a rally that if Hillary Clinton "gets to pick her judges, judicial appointments, nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people — maybe there is. I don't know."

By June 1, 2020, Trump's seeming afterthought about "Second Amendment people" had metastasized into something truly scary. He and combat-fatigues-clad Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with Attorney General William Barr, strode from the White House to Lafayette Park, where a peaceful demonstration had been dispersed brutally by National Guard troops.

Trump's insistence only days earlier that the U.S. Army itself should be sent against the protesters — a demand echoed by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton in a now-infamous New York Times op-ed — reminded me of Julius Caesar leading Roman legions illegally across the river Rubicon from Gaul into Italy in 49 B.C. to subdue Rome's own citizens and, with them, their republic.

Kenosha, Wisconsin's closest approximation to the Rubicon is the tiny Pike River, which flows from Petrifying Springs into Lake Michigan. Its closest approximation to a military crackdown was the police mobilization against violent protests after a police officer shot and paralyzed an unarmed young Black man in August of last year. Those police failed to challenge Kyle Rittenhouse, the illegally armed, 17-year-old "Second Amendment person" who shot three men, killing two of them.

And when a Kenosha County jury failed to convict Rittenhouse on even a misdemeanor, sending what the parents of Anthony Huber — one of the men Rittenhouse killed — characterized as "the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street," I couldn't help but wonder what, if anything, will stop armed "Second Amendment people" from showing up near polling places a year from now, as a Republican National Ballot Security Task Force" has done intermittently since 1981, although without brandishing guns.

More unnervingly and urgently, I wonder why a jury of ordinary citizens, along with thousands of others who approved and even celebrated the Rittenhouse verdict are walking themselves across a Rubicon to deliver the message I've just cited, even though they haven't been "demagogued" into doing it by a Caesar or driven to do it by a military force.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow has noted that Rittenhouse was the same age as Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black youth shot dead in Florida by George Zimmerman, who considered himself a "protector" of his neighborhood and who was acquitted of murder. Blow notes that although Trayvon Martin "was thugified" by Zimmerman and the judicial process, Rittenhouse was "infantilized" by the defense argument that a 17-year-old may be excused for misjudging dangers that he himself has provoked illegally. It's hard to imagine a similar jury accepting similar excuses for a young Black man with an assault rifle, even if he never fired it.

I've contended for years that swift, dark undercurrents are degrading and stupefying Americans in ways that most of us try not to acknowledge. More of us than ever before are normalizing our adaptations to daily variants of force and fraud in the commercial groping and goosing of our private lives and public spaces; in nihilistic entertainment that fetishizes violence without context and sex without attachment; in the "gladiatorialization: and corruption of sports; in home-security precautions against the prospect of armed invasion; in casino-like financing of unproductive economic activities, such as the predatory lending that tricks millions out of their homes; and in a huge, ever-expanding prison industry created to deter or punish the broken, violent victims of all these come-ons, even as schools in the "nicest," "safest," neighborhoods operate in fear of gunmen who, from Columbine to Sandy Hook and beyond, have been students or residents there themselves.

Stressed by this republican derangement, millions are spending billions on palliatives, medications, addictions and even surveillance designed to protect them from themselves. All those vials, syringes, home-security systems and shootings reflect the insinuation of what Edward Gibbon, the historian of ancient Rome, called "a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire" until Roman citizens "no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honour, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army."

Is it really so surprising that some of the stressed and dispossessed, too ill to bear their sicknesses or their cures, demand to be lied to instead, with simple but compelling fantasies that direct them toward saviors and scapegoats — into cries for strongmen to cross a Rubicon or two and for "Second Amendment people" to take our streets?

Are these Trumpsters headed for history's dumpster? Don't count on it

Now, even as they find themselves voting against Donald Trump's ballyhooed call to send $2,000 to desperate Americans, most congressional Republicans, from Louie Gohmert and Jim Jordan to Mitch McConnell, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, are finally suffering the Trumpian contempt and public humiliation that executive-branch saps such as Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr suffered as they set themselves up for and squirmed under Trump's all-devouring narcissism.

And so another raft of Trumpsters — this time including a majority of Republican lawmakers — is thrown into history's dumpster. Or so we might wish.

But let's not set ourselves up for embarrassment. It's not yet clear that Trump's millions of diehard believers are learning anything from watching politician after politician bite the dust.

Even in the unlikely event that Democrats win control of the Senate by defeating Perdue and Loeffler in Georgia's Jan. 5 Senate runoffs, potential victors Jon Ossoff and/or Raphael Warnock will inherit, along with Joe Biden, a mess even more dreadful than the awful one that George W. Bush's Republicans bequeathed to Barack Obama and Biden in 2009.

And, once again, Democrats will have to survive a tsunami of unrepentant, unending poison and unquenchable rage.

We can anticipate this because it's happened so often in American history that we, no less than the congressional Republicans, would be setting ourselves up for shock and despair if we didn't take steps to counter it.

Too many Americans who voted for Trump and who crave easy answers and scapegoats for their distress are following the New England Puritans who hunted witches; the masses of desperately poor who swooned in revival rallies and Great Awakenings across the 18th and 19th centuries, prompting the satirist H.L. Mencken to lampoon preachers who dammed brooks by baptizing the faithful; and the lynch mobs and Klansmen and believers who followed such demagogues as Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and Sen. Joe McCarthy.

The journal Democracy has just posted my essay warning that it's happening again. (Salon posted my similar warning in greater detail four years ago, when Trump was rampaging through the Republican primaries and demolishing both parties' establishments.) Many others have issued similar warnings: Chris Lehmann's "The Money Cult" nails more Protestant theologians and preachers than I like to acknowledge as "court poets" of the vulturous capitalism that has deluded Americans throughout our history.

Trump's demagoguery, I write in Democracy, has "enlarged and exploited a social and moral vacuum that was already swallowing faith in the republic and a corporate-capitalist economy that has driven countless little stabs of heartbreak and self-doubt into our lives":

These forces have been dissolving our freedoms for decades now, not out of malevolence but out of mindless, routinized greed. Trump has focused free-floating, inchoate rage against these material and cultural assaults into a syndrome that substitutes Authority for democracy by feigning populist indignation and by scapegoating women and people of color. His true believers' growing violence won't recede or be reversed even if it's set back. ...
[S]omething like Trumpism will outlast him because the fabric of liberal-democratic and civic republican norms and institutions was weakened long before his presidency: Leaders who weakened citizens' trust in public initiatives and assets were market-fundamentalist economists such as Milton Friedman, James Buchanan (both of whom died before Trump even ran for President), and Arthur Laffer, who advised Trump's 2016 campaign; businessmen who've long meddled in politics, such as the brothers Charles and David Koch and private-equity baron Stephen Schwarzman; and media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and demagogues Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson.

What differentiates Trumpism from the mass delusions I've mentioned is that we no longer have even the ghost of an establishment that, for all its flaws, was credible enough to enough Americans — as, for instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt was — to buy off, deflect and sometimes educate enough stampeding witch-hunters, creationists, race rioters and rabid anti-Communists to give democracy another chance. Even conservative Republicans such as John McCain sometimes accomplished that. Where are they now?

This time, they — and liberal Democrats — have let torrents of casino-like financing and consumer bamboozling, which seem harmless and anodyne but are in fact unprecedentedly powerful and intimately intrusive, turn millions of potentially thoughtful citizens into impulse-buyers who demand to be lied to because they're desperate for easy answers. And so we find today's congressional Republicans, locked in a blind, swooning embrace of delusions about how wealth is created and about how it escapes from the working people who actually create it.

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