They didn't wear jackboots, but the shutdown of government by an extremist faction of the Republican Party can only be described as a new phase in a very American coup. The barbarians of the far right are at the gates. Our democracy, I would say with no hint of dramatization, is under siege.
The immediate trigger of this assault was this faction's out-of-control obsession to defund the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans earlier had hoped that they could repeal this signature legislative achievement of President Obama in the wake of a sweeping GOP victory at the polls in 2010. But when voters, much to the Republicans' surprise and consternation, gave Barack Obama a second term and left Democrats in control of the Senate, that option evaporated.
With this turn of events, the most extreme faction in the Republican Party went back to the drawing board, where they concluded that they could not wait til 2016, the next presidential cycle, to bury Obamacare. By that time, they worried, it might have become so popular that any attempt to repeal it would prove futile, and even damaging to their political standing.
Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate and a part of this faction of roughly 90 House members (it goes beyond the tea party caucus), echoed this sentiment recently. "The reason this debt limit fight is so different is we don't have an election where we feel we are going to fix it [the Affordable Care Act] ourselves," he said at the end of September. "We are stuck with this government another three years."
Faced with this reality, a new tactical pathway to undo the Affordable Care Act became a hot topic of debate in the extremist wing of the Republican Party.
That it might entail violating the core democratic principle of majority rule, nullifying the last election, courting economic disaster in the midst of an already anemic recovery, and bringing on a political crisis of first rate proportions, didn't seem to bother these firebrands of the right. They were prepared to roll the dice.
What followed was predictable. Dialogue with counterparts across the aisle and the president yielded to brinksmanship. Obstruction gave way to reckless adventurism. Discussion grounded in at least semi-reality turned into non-stop demagogy, apocalyptic fantasies, and Orwellian doublespeak. And normal procedures like funding basic government operations and lifting the debt limit so that the federal government can pay its financial obligations became "forcing events," as we are now witnessing, to extract major concessions from the Obama administration, regardless of the economic and social harm they cause to tens of millions.
This wasn't a seat-of-the-pants, improvisational decision by an addled group of tea party House members a week or two ago. It is traceable to a meeting held earlier this year and reported by the New York Times.
A chilling report tells us that Ed Meese, zealous former Reagan administration attorney general and right-wing operative, and "a loose knit coalition of conservatives activists," some of whom have substantial holdings in oil and gas, met not long after the president's reelection and decided then that the only way to defund Obamacare was to shut down government this fall.
That plan found an eager audience and shock troops in the right-wing extremist members in the House of Representatives, and Ted Cruz and a few others in the Senate. They were ready to "burn the village down in order to save it."
This should surprise no one who is at all familiar with what has been going on in Washington since the 2010 mid-term elections.
This gang of wreckers doesn't fit on what might be considered the normal spectrum of U.S. politics. By temperament, outlook, and practice they are authoritarian, racist, male supremacist, xenophobic, and misogynist. They despise labor and are committed to restoration of the "White Republic" which would put people of color into a new caste system, not identical to Jim Crow but every bit as racialized, exploitive, and oppressive.
Some of them believe in millenarianist "end times." Most come from the South, but they also hail from the Plains and Rocky Mountains states. They consider their opponents illegitimate and un-American. And paranoia and panic, ramped up to the extreme by the inexorable trend toward a majority minority population, explain in no small measure their readiness to pursue politics by anti-democratic and unconstitutional means.
While its current reckless tactics have nothing close to the full blessing of Wall Street and Main Street, this rogue gang seems undeterred; in fact it appears to relish the opportunity to press its campaign to defund the health care law, challenge the president, and reverse the results of last year's election.
With the debt limit fast approaching it is anybody's guess if this right-wing extremist group and the leadership of the Republican Party will push the country over the brink and into an abyss in which no one quite knows what will happen.
If you listen to tea party zealots in the House, as well as Republican House leader John Boehner, you hear them claim that they are for negotiations, compromise, even re-funding nearly every government operation, except - and this is a big except - for the Affordable Care Act. In recent days, as a fall-back, they are adding demands for cuts in Medicare and Medicaid - steps toward achieving their long-cherished goal of eliminating these core programs.
So far the Obama administration has refused to accede to such "offers," knowing full well that to do so would only invite more extremist demands and actions in the future. It would effectively end his presidency, cripple our democracy, and legitimize the rule of an anti-democratic, anti-labor, militarist minded, racist clique.
President Obama has said he is ready to sit down with his Republican adversaries, but not with a gun to his head, not with threats of defunding Obamacare, blocking the normal operations of government, and refusing to lift the debt ceiling framing the discussion.
Any other position would be suicidal. It would only invite more "forcing events" from the Republicans to force down living standards, eviscerate rights, poison the environment, widen inequality in its many forms, and give a green light to Big Oil to continue to warm the planet's atmosphere.
When combined with the 25 states or so where right-wing Republican governments rule, display a secessionist mentality worthy of segregationists and slaveholders in earlier eras, evince contempt for every social gain and right secured in the 20th century, and run roughshod over democratic norms, structures, and values, it is fair to say that the nation faces threats to its democratic character that make Watergate, Irangate, and even McCarthyism pale in comparison.
The president, in taking a firm stance against the tea party/right-wing extremist crowd, including its band of reactionary financial backers, deserves the full support of every decent-minded American. And a loud voice needs to insist on no cuts to Medicare and Medicaid as part of a resolution to the crisis. The high-stakes drama playing out in Washington is the front line in the struggle to preserve and expand democracy.
Photo: U.S. Capitol building. Kevin Burkett CC 2.0