It's Munich In America
February 23, 2006
By David Michael Green
is it, folks. This is the scenario our Founders lost sleep over.
This is the day they prepared us for.
Outside the Philadelphia convention Benjamin Franklin was asked
what sort of government he and his colleagues were crafting. His
reply? "A republic. If you can keep it." And that is just
the question at issue today. Can we keep it?
Sure, it can sound melodramatic to use the f-word (no, not the
one Churlish Cheney hurled at Patrick Leahy), and I have mostly
avoided doing so for just that reason. Especially where the politically
less informed are concerned, arguing that America is slipping into
fascism can be the first and last point they'll hear you make.
But, nowadays, even George F. Will is worried. You know you're
in a seriously bad place when that happens.
America may not be a fascist country today, but it's not for want
of trying. I have no question but that through Dick Cheney's dark
heart courses the blood of Mussolini. No wonder the damn thing's
so diseased. And I have no doubt that Karl Rove has only admiration
and envy for Joseph Goebbels. Hey, why can't we do that here? (Hint:
America is not a fascist country (if it was, you wouldn't be reading
this), but pardon me if I don't defer to Bush defenders and ringside
Democrats who consider me hysterical for worrying about the direction
in which we're heading.
These are the same people who've spent the last two decades denying
the existence of global warming, while we now learn with each passing
week how much worse than we had ever imagined is that environmental
wreckage. These are the same people who said Iraq would be a cakewalk,
and planned accordingly. These are the same people who prepared
us for 9/11, the Iraq occupation, Hurricane Katrina and the prescription
drug plan, and who have set new records for ineptitude in responding
to those crises. These are the people who can't get body armor on
our troops, three years after launching the war, and who are getting
flunking grades in terrorism preparation from the 9/11 Commission
four years after that attack. These are the same people who have
turned a massive surplus into a record-setting debt, and coupled
it with equally breathtaking trade deficits. And now they want to
cut federal tax revenue even more.
Yes, he is the president, but golly gee, Sargent Carter, he sure
seems to make an awful lot of mistakes!
So forgive me if I don't trust their judgement on matters of rather
serious importance. Forgive me if I don't stand by hoping they're
right as the two hundred year-old experiment in American democracy
goes down the toilet. Besides, I thought being a conservative meant
taking the prudent course, anyhow. Even if there was only a one
in a hundred chance that a grenade was live, would you play with
it? Wouldn't it have been better to have acted 'conservatively'
with the fate of the planet at stake, and assumed that global warming
might be real? And, likewise, shouldn't we worry about what is happening
to American democracy now, while we still can?
The truth is, there is a government in office which seeks such
complete power and dominance that even some conservatives have started
to notice. Too blind to see the true intentions of this bunch, they
can at least figure out that an imperial presidency created by George
Bush might one day be inherited by Hillary Clinton (complete with
her plans for a revolutionary dope-smoking lesbian Marxist state
and global UN domination, enforced by an armada of black helicopters),
so now even these fools are getting nervous about where this goes.
They know that the only difference between the monarchism our Founders
so reviled and contemporary Cheneyism is that the technology of
our time allows George Bush to turn George III into George Orwell.
It's Munich in America, people. We can dream the pleasant dream
that if we just stand by quietly while the Boy King gobbles up some
of our liberties, he won't want any more, but that would be a lot
like Chamberlain dreaming that a chunk of Czechoslovakia would be
enough to appease Hitler. It wasn't, and it won't be.
Do I overstate the concern? The New York Times recently
editorialized "We can't think of a president who has gone to
the American people more often than George W. Bush has to ask them
to forget about things like democracy, judicial process and the
balance of powers – and just trust him. We also can't think of a
president who has deserved that trust less." The Times
should know. Between rah-rah'ing the war for Bush, sitting on the
Downing Street Memos as if they were banana import trade policy
documents, and covering for Judith Miller while she covered for
The Cheney Gang, they have about as much blood on their hands as
does Donald Rumsfeld. But if even the Times can work up the
concern to print a line like that, we're in a world of hurt.
And we are, in fact, in a world of hurt. Those shreds of parchment
on the floor of the National Archives aren't from Mrs. Washington's
shopping list, I'm afraid to say.
It is true, of course, that other presidents – even the best of
them – have taken enormous liberties with the Constitution, especially
during wartime. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, FDR jailed Americans
on the West Coast for the crime of having Japanese ancestry, Truman
and Eisenhower stood by while McCarthyism ripped a gaping hole through
American civil liberties, and Nixon and his plumbers went to work
on his political enemies in the name of national security. Of course,
we now look back on those episodes as among the most shameful in
American history. But the present crew is even more dangerous for
their intentions of creating permanent war to justify permanent
Already they've torn large chunks out of the Constitution.
Article One creates the legislative branch, that which the Founders
intended to be the most powerful and consequential. Today, we have
a president who makes the stunning assertion that he is the "sole
organ for the nation in foreign affairs." This Congress seems
mostly to agree, even though the Founders gave them the power to
declare war, to fund all governmental activities, to ratify treaties
and to oversee the executive. Who, us? Bye-bye Article One.
Article Three creates a Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes (especially
over governmental powers) and to protect the Constitution. But BushCo
can't be bothered to follow even the Court's tentative interventions
into due process concerning Guantánamo and beyond. And why should
it? By the time they get done with loading the damn thing up with
'unitary executive' fifth-column shills like Roberts and Alito,
it will be a moot court, just like the ones in law school. Once
the Supreme Court becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of the executive
branch (about one vote from now), it's bye-bye Article Three.
The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to assemble in protest.
But protest is a joke in Bush's America. People are kenneled off
into pens so far from the president he is never confronted with
any contrary views at all, apart from the odd funeral he has to
show up at but Rove can't script. The halls of Congress are ground
zero for American democracy, much boasted about at home and jammed
down the throat of the world (except when the results don't favor
American corporate or strategic interests). But go there and sit
in the balcony wearing a t-shirt with the number of dead soldiers
in Iraq printed on it and see how fast you get a lesson in Bush's
interpretation of the Bill of Rights. And that little display at
the state of the union address was no freak event, either. That
kind of thing happened all the time during the 2004 campaign. At
Bush rallies, people were getting arrested for the bumper-stickers
on their cars.
The First Amendment also protects freedom of the press. That freedom
has not been eliminated, per se, but it has been effectively neutered
beyond effectiveness. Between the White House intimidating most
of the press, coopting the rest, stonewalling information requests,
planting stories in the American and foreign media, and buying off
journalists, today's mainstream media has too often become a pathetic
megaphone for White House lies, and that includes those supposed
bastions of liberalism, the New York Times and the Washington
Post. Bye-bye First Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment guarantees "against unreasonable searches
and seizures" and requires that "no warrants shall issue,
but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation."
Can you say "NSA"? "Guantánamo"? "Abu Ghraib"?
It's bad enough that Bush has authorized himself to bug anybody,
arrest anybody, convict anybody and silence anybody, but his NSA
chief doesn't even appear to have read the Fourth Amendment. That
whole thing about probable cause was lost on him, as he and his
president simultaneously trampled the separation of powers and checks
and balances doctrines by eliminating two out of three branches
of government from their little surveillance loop.
Meanwhile, informed estimates repeatedly assert that the majority
of detainees rotting away in Guantánamo are there either because
they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time simply and
got swept away like so much garbage into a dustpan, or were reported
as al Qaeda so that one Afghan clan could use the US military to
burn another. And so there they sit, unable to be charged, to be
tried, to exercise habeas corpus, to have representation, to confront
witnesses – unable now even to starve themselves to death in protest.
If this wasn't precisely the fear of the Founders when they put
this language into the Constitution, then Dick Cheney is a poster
boy for the ACLU. Strike the Fourth Amendment.
And take with it the Fifth (no one shall "be deprived of
life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"), the
Sixth ("the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial
jury", the right "to be informed of the nature and cause
of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him;
to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor,
and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense"), and
the Eighth, providing against "cruel and unusual punishments").
Boom, boom, boom.
In a disgusting display of legal sophistry, the administration
would argue that these provisions don't apply because of jurisdiction,
which of course was the entire purpose for putting their gulag in
Guantánamo in the first place. As if it is not American territory
since we 'lease' it from Cuba. As if Castro could send in the police
to clean up the open sore of Bush's human rights travesty there,
and the US could do nothing about it, since it is Cuban land. Right.
But even if Fun With Domestic Jurisprudence is to be their game,
the actions of the administration also represent a massive breach
of international law, since the Geneva Conventions prohibit precisely
these sorts of horrors which the Creature from Crawford has visited
upon the poor SOBs caught in his dragnet.
Your scissors are probably getting a bit dull by now, but this
means that not only is international law in scraps, but you can
also go ahead and cut out Article Six of the Constitution as well,
which provides that "all treaties made, or which shall be made,
under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law
of the land". Ah, how 'quaint'. How very 'obsolete'.
Such treaties may be the supreme law in some land, but apparently
not in Bush Land. Or, at least not if you don't mind another cute
legal charade, in which a new category of POWs called "unlawful
combatants" is fabricated with the intention of rendering –
with disingenuousness extraordinaire – the detainees as falling
outside the Geneva provisions.
That's precious, as if a 'lawful' Bush all of a sudden got religion
for the fine points of international jurisprudence. Except, of course,
when it came to the need for obtaining a Security Council resolution
to invade Iraq. Except when it comes to the International Criminal
Court, which the Bush junta has been desperately trying to undermine
at every opportunity (gee, I wonder why, given the Court's mandate
to prosecute war criminals). Except for nuclear nonproliferation.
Except for the use of white phosphorus in Falluja. Apparently the
only legal distinctions these guys follow are the ones Bush orders
Alberto Gonzales, that paragon of legal independence and the rule
of law, to create for him out of whole cloth. That international
There's not much left of the Constitution now that these guys
have tortured it as if it were some personal project in Lynndie
England's basement. Of course, they've made damn sure that the Second
Amendment is fully protected, to the point where John Ashcroft wouldn't
investigate the gun purchase records of the 9/11 hijackers. You
gotta love that. I wish they gave the rest of the Bill of Rights
a tenth of the attention the Second Amendment gets. Heck, for that
matter, I wish they'd even interpret the Second Amendment properly.
Maybe in my next lifetime.
Meanwhile, arguably the three most brilliant inventions of the
Constitution are separation of powers, the guarantee of civil liberties,
and federalism. Even the latter – which has least to do with foreign
affairs or checking executive power, and therefore has been least
assaulted – is under duress as the Bush Gang attack state power
any time it strays from their regressive political agenda, for instance
with respect to euthanasia, medical marijuana or affirmative action.
In fact, all three of these key constitutional doctrines are suffering
under a brutal assault from a regime which finds democracy and liberty
fundamentally inconvenient to their aspirations for unlimited power.
The administration absurdly claims to be bringing democracy to the
Mid-East. (After that whole WMD thing went MIA, and Saddam's links
to al Qaeda proved equally credible, what the hell else were they
going to say?). But far from the ludicrous claims that they are
agents for the spread of democracy abroad, they are busy unraveling
it with furious industry here at home.
It is, I'm afraid, Munich in America, and now we must decide whether
to appease the bullies and pray for happy endings, or fight back
to preserve a two hundred year-old experiment in democracy. Despite
all its flaws and failures, Churchill was still right about it:
Democracy is the worst system of governance except for all the others.
And that makes it worth fighting for.
But the spot we're in now is actually worse than Munich, because
there will be no Normandy in this war, and no Stalingrad. No country
with the deterrent threat of a nuclear arsenal can ever be invaded
by another country or group of countries, regardless of the magnitude
of the latter's own military power.
That means we're on our own, folks. If we flip completely over
to the dark side, nobody will be storming our beaches and scrambling
up our cliffs to liberate us from our own folly. Hell, if they weren't
so worried about the international menace we represent, they'd probably
be laughing at us, anyhow, thinking how richly we deserved the government
But there's nothing funny about this situation. Hitler dreamed
of a thousand year reich, but didn't count on the resilience of
an endless army of Slavs, or the technological prowess of a nation
of shopkeepers' great-grandchildren hammering his would-be millennium
down to a decade. If the US goes authoritarian (or worse), on the
other hand, who will play Russia or America to our Germany? The
answer is no one, and it is not apocalyptic paranoia to fear a very,
very long period of unrelenting political darkness, once the curtain
Is this the beginning of the end for American democracy? Maybe.
I have no doubt that unchecked Cheneyism intends precisely that.
It's therefore up to the rest of us to stop it. It's up to us to
say yes to Philadelphia, and no to Munich. Because there will be
Now we find out if we can keep Mr. Franklin's republic, after
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at
Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers'
reactions to his articles (email@example.com),
but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond.