Yearning for a Banana Republic
Emboldened by fever dreams of persecution, Republicans want nothing more than to anoint a strong man to punish their enemies.
What an amazingly stupid time this is.
Here’s an easy thought experiment. Imagine a Third World banana republic. A populist leader recently ousted in an allegedly “rigged” election is waiting in the wings, plotting a return to power. The current ruler sends armed agents of the state to search the ousted ruler’s home in the hope of discrediting his once and possibly future opponent, presumably to prevent him from ever threatening his rule.
This, according to everyone from Donald Trump to large swaths of the GOP and its loyal commentariat, is what happened this week when the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago. “Such an assault could only take place in broken, Third-World countries,” Trump declared. “Sadly, America has now become one of those countries, corrupt at a level not seen before.” His son echoed the sentiment: “Biden’s out of control DOJ is ripping this country apart with how they're openly targeting their political enemies. This is what you see happen in 3rd World Banana Republics!!!”
But let’s return to the thought experiment: What happens next? The ousted ruler and his representatives claim that this affront to his dignity is really an insult to all of his supporters. Like followers of Hugo Chavez or Daniel Ortega, they insist that only by returning their leader in internal exile to power can they avenge this travesty and purge the government of these enemies of the people.*
That’s the argument raging like a religious awakening across much of the right this week. Once Trump announces he’s running for president, Mike Huckabee insists, “We need to rally around him and simply say, ‘He is the candidate.’ He will be re-elected. That’s because he’s the only candidate who’ll have the guts to take on this incredibly corrupt machine. We must put him back in and let him do this. I’m convinced at this point that this is the only hope for our nation, to get it back to the point where people can believe in it.”
This isn’t an argument against banana republic politics, it is banana republic politics. Let’s put aside any consideration of primaries or policy debates and simply anoint a strong man to redeem our nation, purge corruption, and punish our enemies.
I’ll put it plainly: If your “belief” in our country is so fragile and pathetic that you will lose “hope for our nation” unless Donald Trump is given free reign to cleanse the land of evildoers, then you don’t actually believe in this nation. If your love of country is contingent on your preferred faction being in power, you’ve confused partisanship for patriotism. Taken seriously, all of this banana republic talk is un-American.
I don’t mean it’s a wrong or flawed argument or simply an argument I don’t like—though it is all those things. I mean it is literally an un-American argument because it fundamentally betrays the whole idea of this country. And I’d say this if the claims were made about any politician. Indeed, I did. When Barack Obama’s boosters claimed he would fix our “broken souls” (in Michelle Obama’s words), I spared no effort in denouncing them. When Joe Biden sermonized about how “unity”—under his banner—was the answer to all our problems, I trotted out all my arguments against the “cult of unity,” which constantly threatens our constitutional system of separated powers and divided government.
Presidents are not redeemers, messiahs, incarnations of mystical aspirations, or righteous settlers of seething grievances. They’re not god-kings or the fathers of our American family. They’re politicians elected to do some specific things as the head of one branch of one level of government. They get that job for a limited and defined period of time, and afterward they’re simply citizens.
It’s a source of constant consternation and amazement for me that so many people either don’t understand this or simply pretend not to.
I don’t know for sure which politicians and pundits yammering about our “corrupt regime” are truly ignorant and which are merely duplicitous demagogues chumming the waters with bloody nonsense. But I do know it’s dangerous, because whether they believe it or not, they want millions of people to believe it.
But let’s talk about our “regime,” a term these people use with Vizzini-like confidence and error.
In 2004, a lot of angry Democrats loved the phrase “regime change starts at home.” The idea was that voting George W. Bush out of office would constitute “regime change”—a term popularized by both Bill Clinton and Bush with regard to our policy on Iraq.
The stupidity of this talking point—later picked up in the Obama years by conservatives—begins with the fact that elections are how our regime works. A regime, by definition, is a system of government, not an administration run by elected Democrats or Republicans. When serious people talk seriously about changing a regime, they’re talking about changing the system of government. Regime change in Iraq meant getting rid of a totalitarian, terroristic dictatorship, not simply replacing Saddam Hussein with a more pliable and cooperative tyrant.
America’s regime isn’t on any ballot. Symbolically, it is the ballot. More properly, it is the constitutional system that requires our leaders to be elected. But unlike in an actual banana republic or the Third World Marxist dictatorships Marco Rubio compares us to, electing a leader doesn’t change the regime. There are roughly 520,000 elected officials in this country. At the federal level there are 537 of them. The president is just one of them.
Like every other elected official, the president is subordinate to the Constitution, which is another way of saying he is not the regime, he’s a servant of the regime. None of those elected officials, including the president, is your boss (unless you’re on their payroll or serve in the military). Indeed, the president literally has no formal power to order any of those 536 other federal officeholders to do anything. He cannot make Congress—or even his vice president—do something they do not want to do because they, too, derive their authority from the Constitution and the people.
Even the people in the executive branch who do have to follow the president’s orders may not follow orders that are unlawful or unconstitutional. Because again, the ultimate political authority in our system is not vested in a person, but in a piece of parchment.
That’s our regime, and I love it regardless of who the president is.
Which brings us to the search at Mar-a-Lago. Like all the people bleating about the “Biden regime,” I have no idea if searching the former president’s home was a wise decision. But from every account I’ve read, it was a lawful decision. Dictators do not typically seek warrants from judges when they send police to search the homes of their political opponents. Heck, if the reporting is to be believed, the White House didn’t even know what had happened until after the deed was done.
Again, none of this means that the DOJ or the FBI didn’t make a terrible decision or otherwise screw up. We’ve seen plenty of evidence in recent years that they’re perfectly capable of both. But if J. Edgar Hoover’s stewardship of the FBI didn’t indict the legitimacy of the regime, I don’t see how this could, because government screws up all the time. That’s one of the reasons we have so many elections. James Madison’s whole vision was to use elections, at every level of government, as a regular and predictable cleansing tide to sweep away stagnant waters. In fact, if the DOJ actually had good reason to search Trump’s home, meeting all of the legal requirements of probable cause etc., we would have moved closer to a banana republic if they turned a blind eye. As Kevin Williamson writes:
If we really believe, as we say we believe, that this is a republic, that nobody is above the law, that the presidency is just a temporary executive-branch office rather than a quasi-royal entitlement, then there is nothing all that remarkable about the FBI serving a warrant on a house in Florida. I myself do not find it especially difficult to believe that there exists reasonable cause for such a warrant. And if the feds have got it wrong, that wouldn’t be the first time. Those so-called conservatives who are publicly fantasizing about an FBI purge under the next Republican administration are engaged in a particularly stupid form of irresponsibility.
By all means, vote Biden out of office. I don’t think he’s up to the job and I think most of his policies have been bad. Bring on the cleansing tide.
But what I can’t get my head around is the idea that the solution to our allegedly bananifying regime is to put that browning, mealy, giant banana back into power.
Let’s return—just one more time—to that thought experiment. What I left out is that the ousted ruler seeking to return to power whose home was searched had tried to steal the last election by spreading lies about its legitimacy and treating the Constitution like a dead letter. He declared victory despite being assured he lost by his own attorney general and campaign manager. He wanted the DOJ to simply declare the election corrupt so he could do the rest. He toyed with the idea of using the military to seize voting machines as some sort of pretextual theater. He railed at his Supreme Court appointees for their lack of personal loyalty when they failed to go along with his scheme. He wanted to appoint a deluded and pliable flunky as the head of the DOJ because he was willing to run wild with propaganda about the election being stolen. He invited a mob to the capitol to scare Congress into helping him steal the election and did nothing for hours when the rabble turned violent and even erected a gallows to hang his own vice president. He and his junta now talk about these criminals as if they are political prisoners unjustly persecuted by a corrupt regime.
If you’re worried about America looking like a banana republic, please don’t tell me that the first president in American history to defecate on the peaceful transfer of power is the antidote to the rot of Third World corruption of our regime. He is the rot.
Seriously, what the hell is wrong with you people?
*Correction, August 9: This piece originally misidentified Daniel Ortega as Manuel Ortega.