Memorandum on 1/20/09: Paranoid Premediations
1. You’ve probably seen them by now—buttons, t-shirts, bumper-stickers. “1/20/09: The End of an Error.” The date refers to the inauguration of the next President of the United States. The error, of course, is the presidency of George W. Bush, an error which the nation first committed on 1/20/01, and which was repeated on 1/21/05. But “error” refers as well (perhaps more tragically and certainly more particularly) to the multitude of errors that have marked the Bush era: the failure to heed the warnings that preceded 9/11; the establishment of the U.S. Patriot Act; the obsession with Iraq as locus of Islamic terror; the creation of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; the mistaken intelligence about yellowcake from Nigeria; the doctrine of preemptive warfare; the invasion of Iraq; the absurdly premature declaration of “mission accomplished”; the mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the mistaken intelligence estimates about Iranian nuclear arms production. And the list goes on. But what if this error doesn’t end?
2. “1/20/09: The End of an Error.” These buttons, t-shirts, and bumper stickers are expressions of what I have elsewhere called “premediation,” the mediation of future events before they happen. These hopeful premediations of the departure of Bush from the presidency proclaim that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We will soon be able to correct this horrendous mistake. The end is near. And if Americans truly come to their senses, the next President will be a Democrat, someone who will commence in earnest to rectify the numerous errors of the past eight years. But no matter who is elected, the Bush-Cheney administration will be over.
3. “1/20/09: The End of an Error.” But what if the buttons, t-shirts, and bumper stickers prove themselves to be in error? What if the widgets you can download to your desktop, the widgets which count down the days, hours, and minutes until the inauguration of America’s 44th president, are wrong? Not that they are counting incorrectly but that they are incorrectly counting on the fact that there will be, as there has always been, a peaceful transition of power in the executive branch—that the inauguration will occur on schedule? What if Bush and Cheney refuse to leave?
4. I have been posing this arguably paranoid question to friends, family, colleagues, and students for the past couple of months, ever since I began to notice “1/20/09” messages on a semi-regular basis. The initial response is almost invariably a laugh, as you, too, might have laughed at the end of the previous paragraph. Laughter, which Freud characterizes as the release of unconscious psychic energy produced by the incommensurate meanings present in a joke. But to take my question as a joke would be to mistake my intention, to make an error in judgment. I am deadly serious about this question, or any number of related questions, such as this one: If Bush and Cheney were to declare that they were not going to relinquish the presidency, who would stop them? How would they be able to be stopped?
5. After laughter, the most usual reaction to my question is to invoke the Constitution. How could they refuse to leave? Doesn’t the 20th Amendment stipulate the 20th of January as the day that power is transferred from one president to the next? Well, let’s say it does. But this administration has spent the past seven years pushing the limits of the Constitution, revising it for their own purposes, expanding the role of the executive branch, increasing its power in ways not limited by what others think or have thought that the Constitution says. And given this single-minded arrogation of power to the executive branch, why should we believe that on January 20, 2009, Bush and Cheney will simply relinquish all of their executive power just because the Constitution of the United States says they should?
6. Thus, my response to the invocation of the Constitution is another question: Who would enforce the 20th Amendment?
7. Could the Congress force Bush/Cheney to leave office? Congress has already gone along with the administration’s war resolutions on Iraq and Iran. Congress has already passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2006, which allows the President to declare a state of emergency in the event of another terrorist act or natural disaster or any form of civil unrest. Congress has already indicated its willingness to follow happily the counsel of General David Petraeus on the conduct of the war in Iraq. The Senate has nearly unanimously condemned MoveOn.org’s criticism of General Petraeus (or by extension any sitting general) as an anti-American and unpatriotic act. Why should we expect the Congress to change its spots now?
8. But if Congress failed to act, what about the Supreme Court? If Bush were to declare a state of emergency after the presidential election, and after the electoral college vote, the President-elect could challenge the state of emergency in court. But would Justice Kennedy vote against it for a 5-4 decision? Would the Court that put Bush in office in 2000 remove him in 2009? And what if it did? What if the Court ruled that Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama was the rightful president? Who would enforce the Court’s ruling?
9. Would the Capitol police or the U.S. military follow such a ruling and forcefully remove Bush/Cheney from office? Would the sitting generals refuse to follow the orders of the commander-in-chief? And what if they did? The Emergency Powers Act authorizes the President to mobilize state-based National Guard units in the event of a state of emergency. Could we see National Guard units fighting against the Army? And what of Blackwater and other private militias, whose founders are loyal to the Bush/Cheney political axis? Even if the military or the national guard did choose to oppose the sitting President, Bush/Cheney might well be able to commandeer a well-funded, well-trained private militia in their defense.
10. But if the military failed to oppose this coup, what about the news media? Wouldn’t the media object? Perhaps. But what if the media were shut down, as we saw happen recently with the states of emergency in Pakistan and Georgia? In the US such a maneuver might not be necessary, indeed it might be a mistake. Instead the media could be used by Bush/Cheney as an ally, just as they served as allies in pre-mediating the run-up to the Iraq War and in perpetuating the fear of another terrorist attack. Indeed, the media have in some sense already served to premediate a state of emergency in the US through its coverage of the states of emergency in Pakistan and Georgia. The media have featured stories about the suspension of elections, and of courts, and of media themselves, and then showed how the daily lives of Pakistanis and Georgians, indeed how our own daily lives have gone on just the same.
11. But if the corporate news media don’t object, how about the blogosphere? Sure, the bloggers would blog, and there would be countless responses and track-backs and comments, as well as coverage on global televisual news and in the local, national, and international press. But would this do anything but produce more blogging, more trackbacks, more media coverage? How could this force Bush/Cheney from office?
12. Well, what about the people themselves then? Couldn’t social networking software mobilize people to demonstrate, to riot, to take back the White House? Perhaps they could try. But remember the massively orchestrated worldwide demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq on the fifteenth of February, 2003, and their failure to have any significant effect on US policy. As long as everything else goes on as it has, as long as businesses are open and schools go on and health care is practiced, as long as Bush/Cheney mobilize the media to reassure the American public that such an unprecedented action is necessary to protect our national security from the threat of terror or destruction, would sufficient numbers of people really resist? As long as the media itself continued, as long as the internet worked and cable and satellite TV continued to broadcast, and people could text and call friends on their mobile phones, would there really be a need to resist?
13. “1/20/09: The End of an Error.” Most likely it will be. But today we have, I fear, arrived at a point in the history of our nation where it is now possible, as it has never been before, to imagine a President who would refuse to admit that error, a President who would refuse to leave. How can we make sure that the bumper-stickers are right? How can we make sure that Bush and Cheney choose to follow the 20th Amendment and leave office voluntarily? Perhaps we can’t. But perhaps what we can do is to premediate their departure in every way possible, and to alert our fellow citizens, here and across the globe, to the paranoid possibilities I have outlined above. What you can do is to circulate this memorandum as widely as you can. Perhaps through these paranoid premediations of 1/20/09 we can succeed in launching our own preemptive attack—on what could be the greatest threat to democracy in the history of the United States of America.