6 min read

How American Democracy Just Went from Bad to Worse

How American Democracy Just Went from Bad to Worse

Or, This is What The Hardening of Social Collapse Is

Meet America’s new Speaker of the House. Mike Johnson, a died in the wool fanatic, crackpot, and full on theocrat. Or is the new Speaker of the House…Donald Trump? What does it mean to see democracy in these dire straits, and how narrow and turbulent are they, anyways?

Remember when America’s Republicans threatened to install Donald Trump as Speaker of the House, after failing to “overturn” the last election? Striding around any semblance of procedure, since he’s not a Member of Congress…just…installing him? It might be too much to say: “for all intents and purposes, Trump is now Speaker of the House.” But let’s think about it in percentage terms. Mike Johnson is to Donald Trump what a steering wheel is to a getaway driver. A tool. He was a chief architect of attempts to subvert the election. It’s fair to say that Johnson’s going to be taking marching orders from Trump. And in that respect, is Trump now…50% Speaker of the House? 65%? 75%?

What does this all mean? How bad is it to have a Speaker of the House like this, anyways? By this, of course, I mean the quotes that set the internet on fire with outrage, disgust, a kind of morbid glee (“Yes, the GOP really is this crazy”) recently. Here’s just a taste of some of the headlines.

New House speaker Mike Johnson praised ‘18th-century values’ in speech. “Johnson called homosexuality a “inherently unnatural” and “dangerous lifestyle” that would lead to legalized pedophilia and possibly even destroy “the entire democratic system.” “Experts project that homosexual marriage is the dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.” Here he is blaming abortion for…school shootings: “Many women use abortion as a form of birth control, you know, in certain segments of society, and it’s just shocking and sad, but this is where we are. When you break up the nuclear family, when you tell a generation of people that life has no value, no meaning, that it’s expendable, then you do wind up with school shooters.”

Whew. Go ahead and hold your head in hands, because this is Defcon Level One Lunacy. How did Mike Johnson—a veritable nobody—ascend to one of the most powerful political positions in the world? Because there was nobody else left. After a month of chaos, the GOP was left unable to choose a Speaker of the House, fanatics pitted against extremists. Finally, wearily, options exhausted, Johnson was the last man standing.

So here we see something notable: a nobody ascending to the heights of power. But a nobody of a certain kind. A hardcore fanatic—asked about his worldview, he says: “read the Bible.” A true extremist—remember, overthrowing the election. And a full on lunatic, who appears to really believe stuff like “same sex marriage will doom civilization.” How bad is that for a democracy? For a country?

Really, really bad. Mike Johnson is Trumpism’s Revenge. Maybe even that’s not fully accurate: he’s Trump’s revenge, too.

Why is this so bad? The Speaker of the House has very real powers. It’s hardly just a ceremonial position. Here, let’s take it straight from the source:

House Practice: A Guide to the Rules, Precedents and Procedures of the House

Chapter 34. Office of the Speaker

"The Speaker is the presiding officer of the House and is charged with numerous duties and responsibilities by law and by the House rules. As the presiding officer of the House, the Speaker maintains order, manages its proceedings, and governs the administration of its business. Manual Sec. 622; Deschler Ch 6 Sec. Sec. 2-8. The major functions of the Speaker with respect to the consideration of measures on the floor include recognizing Members who seek to address the House (Manual Sec. 949), construing and applying the House rules (Manual Sec. 627), and putting the question on matters arising on the floor to a vote (Manual Sec. 630).

The Speaker's role as presiding officer is an impartial one, and his rulings serve to protect the rights of the minority. 88-1, June 4, 1963, pp 10151-65. In seeking to protect the interests of the minority, he has even asked unanimous consent that an order of the House be vacated where the circumstances so required. 89-1, May 18, 1965, p 10871."

From the U.S. Government Publishing Office, www.gpo.gov

So the Speaker sets the agenda for governing…the country, by ordering the House’s proceedings. That goes right down to swearing in Congress. Then he administers governance procedurally, recognizing who gets called, calling for votes, managing debates, and so forth. During all of that, the Speaker’s supposed to be impartial, and “protect the rights of the minority.”

Go ahead and laugh-cry into your beer, coffee, and or wine. Do you really think that a guy who attempted to overthrow the last election is going to…do you really think a guy that thinks minorities are literally the devil...is going “protect the rights” of any minority?

So what you’ve probably already thought—and then dismissed, and maybe even scolded yourself for thinking it—is eminently true. Here we have something like Donald Trump’s brain in a body called “Mike Johnson.” Johnson appears to be completely incapable, notably, of forming a single independent thought—it’s either God or Trump calling the shots, and to many Trumpists, they’re more or less the same thing.

I’m not just slinging mud—let’s put all that more formally.

Here we have the hardening of social collapse. Mike Johnson is an aspiring theocrat par excellence, a figure who appears not to believe in modern freedoms at all. Worse, he’s a lieutenant for a demagogue and helped launch the last coup, the first in American history, and which came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding.

Way back when, as America went from crumbling to collapsing, I used to warn, as many of you did, too, that what we didn’t want to see was the hardening of collapse. What does that mean? In the early phases of social collapse—let’s call it Phase One—various kinds of authoritarians jockey for power. Fascists, theocrats, fanatics, conspiracists, lunatics, militants. It’s at that stage that intervention is already desperately required, because what happens in Phase Two is that these different groups begin to form coalitions. And in Phase Three, having formed coalitions, they ascend to power, and use—abuse—power, over and over again, to gain absolute control over a society.

America’s now in Phase Three. In Johnson and Trump we see theocracy and fascism joining hands in the service of authoritarianism. Remember, Trump already has a plan, as in, a literal hundreds-of-pages-long one, to fundamentally reshape governance. That’s an anodyne way to put it. “Plan 2025” basically calls for the gutting of American governance, replacing civil servants with Trump loyalists, making people take loyalty tests, and reorienting government towards a model based on shadow institutions. That means that, for example, “don’t say gay” becomes the point of whatever’s left of a Department of Education, not…education. Orwell rises from the dead. Think Ministry of Truth, Justice, and Peace.

One of the worst things a society can see happen to itself is for admixtures of strains of collapse to emerge. Toxic cocktails and poisonous, surreal blends. Of fascism and theocracy. Theocracy and conspiracy. Fanaticism and militancy. Extremism and bigotry and zealotry. Here we see the rise of a particular admixture that’s one of the most fatal of all: fascism, theocracy, and militancy. All oriented towards a shared goal: authoritarianism, for which there’s already a literal plan, to…

Finish the job. What happens at the end of Phase Three of social collapse? Implosion does. The coalition of the crazy and the cruel seizes absolute power, after failed coup attempts (check), forming coalitions (check), drafting sophisticated plans (check), and learning from their mistakes the first few times around (check). Having joined together, the whole is stronger than the mere sum of the parts. Democratic collapse ensues.

That's how dire the straits are that America’s in. A fanatic like Johnson rising to power, from being a mere nobody, in the service of Trumpism, with a careful agenda behind it, to literally collapse democracy the day after the next election—this is the toxic admixture of theocracy, militancy, and fascism in plain sight. I’m sorry to have say it, and to put it so bluntly, but nobody should doubt the stakes. Yes, it’s really that bad.

And it’s easy to see, how a figure like a fanatical, militant, theocratic Speaker of the House can easily influence politics towards that outcome, too. It’s within his power to do anything from refusing to swear people in to refusing to call Congress to session to ignoring the opposition to more or less kind of interference, withholding, machination, and delaying tactic under the sun. What happens if the Speaker, for example…refuses to…begin the certification of the next set of Presidential votes? Of course, in that case, things head to the Supreme Court. Another institution packed with theocrats, lunatics, and crackpots, legitimacy shattered, precisely because nobody much trusts it to safeguard democracy or the people anymore.

The simplest way to think about all the above is through the lens of risk. It's not that the above is inevitably going to happen. But it is very much the case that risk just took quantum leap to a whole new level. The risk of democratic implosion, of social collapse going all the way, sovereign, country, political risk, if you're into the way that economists put it, which just means: yes, this is bad.

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