Say what you will about our modern obsession with James Bond movies, but their timing often seems impeccable. This fall’s release of No Time to Die, the 25th official film in the series, is the perfect moment to ponder the weirdness that is the Bond villain — tucked away in an impenetrable lair on a tropical island or an inaccessible Arctic mountain range, protected by (politically incorrect, often) goons and tinkering with a Doomsday Machine to destroy Planet Earth, usually for the most inscrutable of reasons.
If only the banality of evil in the real world was as interesting as the Hollywood brand. In 2021, the monster who is actually threatening Planet Earth with untimely demise is a Bond villain barely worthy of the title. His potential for a mountaintop lair in his home state of West Virginia has been flattened and stripped by a century of Big Coal, so his evil abode is instead a houseboat floating lazily in the Potomac River. His goon squad consists of oil company lobbyists and “Morning Joe” sycophants, and his only scar comes from repairing a sink aboard the “Almost Heaven.”
And yet make no mistake: West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has positioned himself to destroy the globe in a way that Auric Goldfinger, Ernst Starvo Blofeld, or Lyutsifer Safin could have only dreamed of. This Friday night’s news dump that Manchin will exercise his veto power as the most conservative Democrat in the 50-50 Senate to kill the lynchpin of President Biden’s climate change agenda — $150 billion to help utilities transition into clean energy and away from dirty fossil fuels including coal, from which Manchin and his family have earned millions — is a gut punch to the world’s environment. Manchin’s move means that the United States will limp into the looming Scotland climate summit without a credible plan to reduce greenhouse gases before global temperatures pass the tipping point.
“[Without] a clean energy standard in the reconciliation package, Biden admin[istration] cannot meet pledge of 50% reduction in U.S. carbon emissions by 2030,” Penn State climatologist Michael E. Mann wrote on Twitter after the Manchin news leaked. “And international climate negotiations begin to collapse.” The droughts, floods, rising sea levels, mass migrations and human misery that would result from this failure — triggered by a self-aggrandizing U.S. senator’s ego and massive greed — will surely surpass any mad scientist’s doomsday device.
In one sense, the Manchin power play is the oldest story in American politics — about the outsized power of money, greed and cynical ambition to kill progress, even if this time the stakes are a lot more cosmic than, say, Teapot Dome. But in another sense, the West Virginian’s obstruction felt like another downward leap in an American autumn of unrelenting disappointment turning into existential despair — just an extreme example of a U.S. political system that is so badly broken and incapable of doing the right thing that frustrated voters are no longer sure who to blame, or, more importantly, what to do.
I know that as a newspaper columnist tasked with locating the national zeitgeist, I’m having a hard time this weekend knowing where to channel my growing sense of angst and political fury. As horrific as that veteran Democrat’s cynicism — protecting his personal coal investment, while gambling that anti-Biden demagoguery could get him reelected in a red state in 2024 — may be, it wouldn’t succeed without 50 Republican senators who are every bit as callous toward the planet they’re bequeathing to their grandchildren as is Manchin.
And that’s not even the scary thing about the Republican Party of October 2021. As many of us feared even as we celebrated The Former Guy’s solid defeat in November 2020, the GOP — its delusional, conspiracy-fed base and the craven pols who follow their lead — hasn’t so much abandoned the personality cult of Trump but embraced it as a Lost Cause, and the cornerstone of a new American fascism built around a Big Lie.
That alarming reality hit a new low last week at a GOP rally in Virginia to boost base support for the party’s fall gubernatorial candidate, Glenn Youngkin, the archetype of the modern Republican who either distances himself or embraces Trump, depending upon who’s in the room. Youngkin was wise not to attend this rally, at which Trump himself phoned in and the keynote speaker was Steve Bannon, the criminal and anti-democracy (bleep)-stirrer whose 11th-hour pardon from POTUS 45 has emboldened him to defy Congress about Jan. 6. But that wasn’t the worst.
The worst came when the rally crowd cheered and swore allegiance to a flag they were told was carried into the “peaceful protest” (you know, the one where five people died) on Jan. 6. There’s actually no way of knowing if the flag was truly carried at the Capitol Hill insurrection or whether this is just another level of Trumpified lying, but the symbolism is terrifying to any student of fascist political movements.
In Germany in the 1920s and ‘30s, members of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party venerated the so-called blood flag, or blutfahne, which bore the swastika emblem and was said to have been carried in Hitler’s failed 1923 “beer hall putsch” in Munich, splayed with the blood of a party member who was killed in that failed coup attempt. Of course, the many who ridiculed the seemingly disgraced Hitler after 1923 were blind to the appeal and subsequent rise of a fascist “lost cause.”
As I and many others have feared, Jan. 6 has quickly become that beer-soaked “lost cause” for an American brand of fascism. You are seeing this when the insurrectionist flag is venerated, when Trump campaigns to turn the slain Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt into a fallen martyr of his movement, and when millions of Republicans now believe the Big Lie that Biden’s 2020 election was fraudulent. You are seeing this, so why aren’t you doing more to stop it?
The fascist formula — anger and even violence from middle-class citizens with a shared sense of victimization, exploited by vulture capitalists — is on full display in our wrongly named “off-year” election of 2021, in which Republican hedge-fund billionaires are teaming with grievance-soaked parents who see books about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or even wearing a mask as a threat to white supremacy they’ve branded as “freedom,” in a scheme to take over suburban school boards that has caught Democrats flat-footed.
As the United States seems determined to emulate the fall of Rome, it’s perhaps ironic that our political problems are layered like deadly volcanic ash. Right now, the forces of progress can’t even join the battle against right-wing authoritarianism because too much hope has been vested in a Democratic Party that is weighed down by the corruption of Manchin (or the even-harder-to-fathom Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema) as well as unforced errors by Team Biden, like the botched branding of its middle-class rescue plan.
The Democratic Party is in no position to save the American Experiment. Only the American people can do that — but it requires a sense of urgency that is disappointingly lacking in this moment of “blood flags” and real-life Bond villains. There’s a sense that too many of the voters who marched or rallied at airport terminals in 2017, knocked on doors in 2018 and put Biden over the top in 2020 have gone back to brunch in 2021. That may be just a media narrative (although the sense of ennui is palpable in the Biden-voting Philly suburb where I live) — we’ll know for sure after Nov. 2.
If you’re as concerned about the fate of U.S. democracy as I am, there are some things you can do after you’ve drained your last mimosa.
Vote in November like it’s a presidential year. The puppet masters of conservative politics — like the Pennsylvania hedge-fund guru Paul Martino, spending $500,000 or more on a right-wing takeover of school boards in my home state — are betting heavily on Democratic apathy to plant the seeds for a grassroots takeover of the body politic. And it’s easy to skip off-year elections — we’ve all done it — but in 2021 democracy depends on breaking that habit.
Did you protest in 2017-20? Get back out there! Democratic voters should have learned their lesson in the Barack Obama years — voting is only one step toward saving democracy. Despite a disgraceful lack of coverage in the media, hundreds of young activists were in the streets of D.C. this past week, getting arrested for climate change like there’s no tomorrow, since there may not be one. More people should be out marching again, to let both parties know that people want voting rights, a healthy planet, and economic fairness.
Treat Manchin’s corruption the way you want Republicans to treat Trump’s corruption. It’s a common refrain on the left — that too many GOPers put up with Trump’s utter lack of ethics because they wanted the perks, like corporate tax cuts and right-wing judges, that come with a Republican president. Yet many Democrats are too terrified to criticize Manchin because of fear his seat might fall to a Republican. That’s baloney — the long-term rewards of being ethical, and letting the chips in West Virginia fall where they may, are far greater.
Look, I understand why so many voters were praying for a return to normalcy when Biden took the oath of office in January. But that was an unrealistic hope, and it’s taken just nine months to see why. If you want a normal, healthy democracy — the one where you can enjoy a loaded omelette without thinking about politics — you’re going to have to fight for it. For the American Experiment and for an endangered planet, this is no time to die.
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