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‘But His Memory’ and the slow train wreck of American democracy

Feb. 8, 2024, is a date that will live in infamy for America's failures to stop fascism, from a corrupt SCOTUS to a broken media.

Supporters cheer as Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association's Presidential Forum in Harrisburg on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.
Supporters cheer as Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association's Presidential Forum in Harrisburg on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Some night around the year 2064, when the ragtag children of the last historians huddle around a cave fire and mix up some berries and the blood of their groundhog dinner to paint crude images of what the heck ever happened to the United States of America, they will probably render a depiction of Feb. 8, 2024 — a date which will live in infamy.

There are so many images to choose from — a corrupt and contented black-robed U.S. Supreme Court putting the last rubber stamp of cowardice on a nation’s failure to hold a coup leader accountable, or a White House press corps shouting like a pack of wild hyenas at President Joe Biden about his 81-year-old brain while ignoring the orange blob of Donald Trump as he plots the betrayal of Europe and a kind of American Kristallnacht against immigrants.

To see last Thursday unfold in real time was like watching the wreck of a slow-moving train, with democracy heading like Wile E. Coyote toward a cliff and nobody — not a Supreme Court bought and paid for by billionaires, nor a judiciary too easily gamed by inertia, nor a Congress engineered to produce only gridlock and gibberish, nor a gullible news media lacking backbone — throwing the switch to stop it. And the American people?

No one bothered to get off the couch.

Too many of us looked like the meme of Michael Jackson at the movies, shoveling buttered popcorn into our faces while watching the prime-time political theater of a suddenly energized White House press corps pummel Biden over a special counsel’s report that couldn’t find a crime in his mishandling of classified documents, so it made over-the-top swipes at the octogenarian’s memory. In a nation where more than half of voters can’t name all three branches of government, Biden’s inevitable verbal gaffe — calling Egypt “Mexico” — was gleefully treated by reporters and MAGA partisans alike as if they’d won a Super Bowl prop bet on a Travis Kelce touchdown.

The real import of what happened on Feb. 8, 2024, probably won’t be understood until it is too late: the Trump train of a U.S. dictatorship gained considerable steam. Once upon a time, it was unthinkable that anyone would make a serious effort to stop the peaceful transition of presidential power. It was unthinkable that the tools we thought existed to punish someone who did this — impeachment, constitutional sanctions, the courts — would not rise to the occasion. And it was most unthinkable of all that the coup plotter could run for president again, and win.

For a lot of folks, the 2024 election is starting to feel like déjà vu all over again, a replay of 2016. That year, the news media and a good chunk of the political establishment — so convinced America could never elect a buffoonish demagogue, determined to show toughness toward the expected 45th president — turned a mini-scandal over Hillary Clinton’s private email server into the second coming of Watergate. Trump’s victory, and the media’s complicity, led to a popular meme of a neighborhood flooded by six feet of water with a barely visible road sign, “But Her Emails.”

Eight years later, here we are again.

But His Memory.”

» READ MORE: 6 months in, Biden’s critics still go after his brain. I only care about his heart | Will Bunch

There are three ways to understand such a pivotal moment for the American Experiment. The first is to look with clear eyes at what actually happened last Thursday.

In the morning, a skeptical Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether Trump — after leading the call for an insurrection on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021 — can be disqualified from the ballot by states invoking the specific language in the 14th Amendment that aimed to bar an insurrectionist from holding federal office. It wasn’t much of a surprise that even the “liberal” justices are looking for ways to have voters, and not themselves, decide the election.

But hearing the first question from Justice Clarence Thomas — who recently recused himself from a case because of his wife’s own involvement in the run-up to Jan. 6, but inexplicably not from this case, and whose gifts from billionaires have made a mockery of the law — felt like a slap in the face of democracy. It all raises the question of whether Trump is actually above the law, in a nation too partisan for impeachment and too afraid of taking the Constitution literally, and with a judicial system that allows Trump’s lawyers to throw sand in the gears until he becomes 47th president and makes it all disappear.

Later that day came the unexpected bombshell: the final report of the special counsel, Republican Robert Hur, about the classified documents that turned up in Biden’s home and private offices, mirroring similar scandals with Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence. Hur did a good job in explaining why Biden — who cooperated with the investigation from Day One — was not charged while Trump, who labored to hide documents from probers at Mar-a-Lago, was indicted.

But the clearly ambitious GOP prosecutor didn’t stop there. Hur’s lengthy report was littered with over-the-top and seemingly gratuitous commentary about what his team believed about the 81-year-old Biden’s memory lapses, explaining at one point it would be useless to later try POTUS 46 since a jury would see him as “a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” It was the sentence that launched 1,000 New York Times hot takes, a bumper sticker of stunning cynicism.

Thursday night, the exclamation point came in the form of another Trump victory — in a complicated Nevada caucus process that had been rigged by party bosses for his benefit — with 99.1% of the tally, a number that Saddam Hussein would have envied. It reflected the anxieties of a nation where two-thirds of voters say they’re unhappy with the two presumptive nominees and yet no serious alternatives have been offered.

A second way to view last week’s events is through the eyes of a flailing news media. Hur’s official stamp on the perception among a lot of casual voters (although not people who’ve actually dealt with the president, from retired Gen. Mark Milley to journalist John Harwood) that Biden is too old for another term was an excuse for journalists to party like it’s 2016. Especially so at the Times, which littered its home page with a half-dozen riffs including the absurdity that Biden might end his campaign.

It’s not just that Trump is nearly as old as Biden and not only makes similar gaffes — like referring to Nancy Pelosi as Nikki Haley — but also veers into insane digressions like claiming “they” will rename Pennsylvania if he loses here in November. Or that some of the folks criticizing Biden last week, like House Speaker Mike Johnson or Fox News’ Jesse Watters, also confused nations or states, proving anyone can do this.

It’s the media’s failure to put Biden’s occasional slips into any meaningful context. Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan helped cement the idea of a president as performer-in-chief, when that’s really not the job. The person in the White House is CEO of an outfit with a cadre of whip-smart top aides and cabinet secretaries overseeing nearly three million federal employees. They implement policies set by what is in the president’s heart, not the speed of the neurons in his brain. No one is going to drop a bomb on Norway instead of Syria because POTUS said the wrong word in the Oval Office.

You say a jury would find Biden “a well-meaning, elderly man”? What will a jury — if it ever gets that far — say about Trump, who clearly does not mean well?

The press corps’ feeding frenzy over Biden’s brain is maybe the worst example we’ve seen in 2024 of reporters playing the odds of a political horse race, as defined by media critic Jay Rosen, while ignoring what’s at stake between the only actual choices we have, Biden and Trump.

That was driven home in what I would argue was actually the biggest story of the week — which, of course, received minimal coverage. That would be Trump’s confirmation that he and his anti-immigration guru, Stephen Miller, are advancing plans for a Day One policy in January 2025 of large-scale deportations of undocumented immigrants, bringing dead-of-night door-knocking terror to the neighborhoods where people who deserve a path toward citizenship are working and raising families. The huge number of deportees would require massive detention camps near the Texas border, in a grim echo of the worst of modern world history.

The current president thought for a split second that Egypt was Mexico, while his would-be replacement wants a war zone on the border with Mexico. Anyone see a difference here? And that’s just one of the many stakes of electing a wannabe dictator who, among other things, would surely have the “well-meaning, elderly” Biden indicted. Sometimes the media does hint at the stakes — as with Trump’s seeming green light to his pal Vladimir Putin to invade Europe, which ran lower on the page than Biden memory mania. But it’s not enough.

I want to be clear that, as a journalist and as a voter, I don’t think Trump’s awfulness means that Biden gets a free pass. I was, in fact, troubled by something the president said in his Thursday night news conference — not the Egypt-Mexico thing, but when he said Israel’s murderous assault on civilians in Gaza is “over the top” without addressing the measures like withholding weapons that he as president could do to help stop it. These are the stakes, not the odds. So many desperate human beings — from Central Americans seeking asylum to children in Gaza seeking to grow up — need us to get democracy right.

That’s why it’s painful to feel we are on that couch, watching this slow train wreck. If neither Biden’s age nor Trump’s neofascist policies are viewed from the right perspective, democracy will go over that cliff on Jan. 20, 2025. We need to listen to the famous words of the 1960s activist Mario Savio: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! ... And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop!”

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