I’m reminded of this piercing (and, pray, not prophetic) story now, as the world erupts around us, not only with the pandemic and hints of future scares but with the protests and violence that often accompany despair. If you were hoping for a pleasant day, now would be the time to stop reading.
The moment seems ripe, however, for a bit of dot-connecting as preview and prelude to Election 2020. Bereft of a better term, we seem to be at a tipping point, slipping gradually into a chaotic period that, if we’re not vigilant, could be followed by a time of authoritarian zeal.
You can read the signs in President Trump’s threats against looters in Minneapolis, his rumblings about shutting down the U.S. Postal Service rather than allowing mail-in voting; his vow to crush social media that threatens his grip on the free dispersal of false information. In their forthcoming book, “Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth,” Glenn Kessler and The Post’s Fact Checker staff catalogue the president’s misleading or inaccurate statements — and “flat-out lies” — since taking office. As of Jan. 20, Kessler and his team had documented 16,241 untruths. By April 3, the database had grown to 18,000 and counting.
Trump’s sudden disaffection toward social media comes as Twitter has begun flagging tweets the company deems inappropriate. When protests erupted in Minneapolis over the death of George Floyd, apparently caused by a police officer’s excessive force (his knee pressed to the prone and handcuffed man’s neck while he begged for air) Trump called the looters “THUGS” and tweeted that the military was poised to move in: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
In response to this, dare we say, thuggish posture, Twitter attached a warning to Trump’s tweet, its second in a week, this time for violating the company’s policy against “glorifying violence.” Whether this admonishment is apt may be disputed, but Trump, by tossing rhetorical grenades into incendiary situations, has become the fire-crier in a very crowded theater.
The president has never been one to measure words, which is part of his appeal to those who prefer bunker-busting to diplomacy. And, though social media’s policing power is an important debate to be continued, there’s every possibility that some Minneapolis residents overwhelmed by lawlessness may have appreciated Trump’s message more than his constant critics care to admit.
Therein lies the real threat, of course, as many on the right would see it — the acceptance by the fearful of what would amount to military occupation and permission to shoot. Whatever it takes to feel safe.
There is always tension between freedom and security. Having lived in Spain under Francisco Franco’s military dictatorship, I’ll admit I always felt protected from the usual predators and relished walking freely at night without fear. On the other hand, say a word about el generalissimo and the Guardia Civil would escort you to a destiny not of your choosing.
And then there is Minneapolis, aflame after yet another death of a black man while in police custody, this time for the alleged crime of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
How safe Americans will feel in a few weeks following the reopening of parts of the economy is another matter, while the unmasked man in the White House has turned mask-wearing into a symbol for sloganeers. Online discussions reveal that MAGA aficionados see the mask as a government test to determine which people are followers (Democrats) and which are freethinking, uppercase-P Patriots. (Trumpians).
How it came to pass that patriotism equates to flouting the White House’s own pandemic recommendations, which are contradicted by the president himself, is a mystery. Meanwhile, the obvious irony is that if there is to be an authoritarian federal crackdown — as in destroying the Postal Service so that people can’t vote by mail and shutting down Twitter or imposing liability restraints — it will come from the man they support.
A vibrant government of checks and balances, in which I once had faith, would quash any such ambitions. But given the GOP’s loss of direction and the Democratic Party’s geriatric frailty, a resurgence of lawful normalcy seems increasingly remote. Which leaves to the noble and the willing a duty to persist in sanity, ever-vigilant, and carrying “the fire” to Election Day — flickering though it may be — and to whatever beyond awaits.