January 30, 2006,
Practically everyone I know spends hours each day wringing his hands over George W. Bush becoming a fascist despot. But Bush is not the one to worry about as far as that goes -- anymore than Louis XVI was capable of acting like Napoleon Bonaparte. What they had in common was something different. Their regimes ushered in a loss of legitimacy.
Legitimacy is the quality that society vests in the individuals and institutions who run things, the belief that their authority is credible and deserved. Legitimacy can slip out from under authority all of a sudden, as a critical mass of the public loses faith at a deep level in the people in charge. Sometimes the result is the overthrow of government. Sometimes cultural authority goes out the window, too, as happened in the aftermath of the First World War in Europe, which produced a kind of nervous breakdown in the arts as well as the death of three dynasties (the Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburgs, and the Romanovs).
The last loss of legitimacy in American political life climaxed in Richard Nixon's resignation. It was an orderly process, enabled by the ingenious framework of the US Constitution, but the institution of the presidency suffered, too -- and that is one of the reasons why Baby Boomers who lived through it are among the greatest hand-wringers over Bush. To many of us over fifty, all presidents after JFK are to some degree assholes.
It is easy to see the potential loss of legitimacy among all the authorities in American life today. In government, it is the astounding denial of such obvious dangers as global warming, recklessness in finance, and the gathering permanent energy crisis. The news media also fritters away its legitimacy, as when CBS's "60 Minutes" show broadcast a mendacious segment telling the public that the tar sands of Alberta would immunize us from a global energy shock. The arts lost their legitimacy decades ago, leaving little besides irony over their failings.
But if the American public becomes subject to political despotism in the years ahead, it will come from somebody other than Bush and it will come because the public will demand it. The American public itself has been so grossly passive, complacent, and irresponsible in its raptures of credit-card shopping, infotainment, and easy motoring, that when our society runs into trouble due to the things we have ignored, the public will beg to be pushed around, they will crave to be directed toward some purposeful action to save their asses.
That's why I think it's ridiculous to waste time wringing our hands over Bush. One day, very soon, for instance, we will find ourselves in a gasoline crisis that will not end. We will not be able to transport people and the goods they need around our country. Our railroad system will be a shambles because leaders like John Kerry were too busy wringing their hands over other things -- so we'll be stuck with no alternative to the interstate highway system. Likewise when the housing bubble implodes and the public discovers that an economy based on cheap oil suburbs and credit for the uncreditworthy can't continue, and nobody warned them about it.
At some point not far away, we'll have a president who puts children in uniforms because their parents will have been scared to death by their own lifetime of slovenliness. It may not get us anything, except the illusion that we can regain what has been lost forever. And it may not last long, as the illusions finally fall away and we are left with only what we can do for ourselves locally. But it will not come from George W. Bush. It will come because of our own fantastic inattention to the things that really matter.