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Stand down and stand by…


I didn’t watch the “debate” last night. Instinct told me it would be ugly; I don’t need that. And by all accounts, it was a shitstorm—Trump’s shitstorm. Instead, I went to cable T.V. and saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind, probably the dozenth time I’ve seen it over the years. But a great movie, like a great symphony or painting, is always worth revisiting.

The thing that really struck me was the part about the fake poison gas leak in Wyoming that the officials dreamed up as a way of persuading people to evacuate the region around Devil’s Tower so that the scientists could have secrecy at their alien-landing site. The movie—by Spielberg, of course—was released in 1977. It was a time of conspiracy theories. Watergate had just happened. The Vietnam War was over but still fresh in people’s minds. JFK was long dead. All three events caused a segment of the American people to seriously question the media and political parties; indeed, we can trace the current skepticism about “news” and “science” to that period. Only it’s much worse now.

I remember seeing the movie when it first came out and thinking that it was completely plausible the U.S. government and military would lie about a gas leakage. We’d learned by then that the U.S. government was capable of lying about everything. It had lied about the “domino theory” in Southeast Asia and dragged us into a pointless war that killed 47,400 American service members. Nixon had lied repeatedly to the American people about the “third rate burglary” and about his involvement in the coverup. Some people actually thought the 1969 Moon landing was filmed on a Hollywood back lot. And of course, the JFK conspiracy theories ran rampant.

Well, back then conspiracy theories didn’t kill anyone. Today, they do: the anti-mask crowd is criminally negligent in spreading COVID-19. Trump has emerged as the conspiracy theorist-in-chief: in his view there are plots afoot everywhere to undermine his legitimacy and each of those plots is run by—of course—the “Democrat Party” (can we start referring to the GOP as the “Republic Party”?). Trump’s rightwing allies are convinced there’s some sort of conspiracy to destroy America, but they’re hard-pressed to state exactly how that will happen or who the plotters are. Islamic terrorists? Gays? Mexicans? Liberals? Abortion doctors? Jews? Journalists? Bill Gates? Probably all of them, say the Proud Boys. And how will they destroy America? From within, they say. They take over colleges and the media, including Hollywood and New York. They promote something called “equality,” which means letting colored people and foreigners take the decisions away from the capable white men who have always run things. Only the rightwing (they say) can correct these mistaken courses, and if it takes compromising an election in order to preserve the privileges of white men, then so be it.

It will take a lot to overcome the skepticism of the American people towards government. After the damage Trump has caused, you can’t blame people for thinking that all government and all politicians suck. That is, of course, precisely what Trump wants. I’ve seen lots of news coverage lately of people saying they’re so disgusted with everything, they’re not going to vote. I heard the same thing four years ago. Lots of people didn’t vote, and look what happened: Trump got elected. I know younger people who subscribe to the “a pox of both their houses” philosophy. All politicians are power-hungry, greedy, lying bastards. Why waste your time voting for them?

This is the Steve Bannon school of thought: make everything so putrid that people drop out of the system, which then comes crashing down. That’s always been what Bannon and Trump wanted: total annihilation of the system: banking, politics, culture, media, schools, cities, businesses, values, the economy. Raze it all to the ground, and then build it back up again. And who will do the rebuilding? The Proud Boys and their ilk: the resentful white men, angry that the land of liberty has been stolen from them. They will rebuild America, and anyone who opposes them is the enemy. And the Proud Boys, like Hitler’s Storm Troops, know how to deal with the enemy.

Well, now I’m sounding like a conspiracy theorist! But does anyone have any doubt what Trump meant last night when he told the Proud Boys to “stand down and stand by”? That is a military order. “Stand down”…for now. “Stand by”…for later. How much later? As soon as Trump sounds the alarm. When might that be? The day after the election is as good a date as any we can guess. He loses substantially…his claim that mail-in voting was rigged cannot be substantiated and isn’t believed by anyone except the hopeless cases of the Proud Boys. The Republican Senate is going down in flames as Collins, Gardner, McSally, Ernst and even Graham lose races to Democrats. The walls are closing in on Trump and his family. He can pardon himself from federal crimes but he can’t do anything about those New York State cases, or about the umpteen civil lawsuits coming his way. And, as we now know, he’s a half-billion in debt. Trapped, encircled, freaked out, Trump mobilizes the Proud Boys. What slogan, what phrase will he use? It will be a simple phrase, consisting of only a few words. “It’s time,” he might say, or “Stand up.” Something like that. Whatever the words he uses, the Proud Boys are already listening. They’re locking and loading.

And this is what it’s come to: both sides catastrophizing, expecting the worst. Which is exactly what happened in the weeks before Fort Sumter and the beginning of the first Civil War. Then, the U.S. military was divided: some general officers elected to uphold their oath to the Constitution and remained with the Union. Others, most famously Lee, violated their oath and went over to the rebels. This time around, senior U.S. military officers are going to have to choose from among the same options.

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