The term “Iconoclasm” stems from the Greek description of the movement to destroy cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious (Oxford English Dictionary). It is typically associated with opposition to the use of religious images (I.e., “icons”) as objects of veneration, but is equally applicable to cultural, political and other societal norms in general.
We are witnessing political iconoclasm today, as the Republican Party methodically embarks on a mission to demolish traditional norms and principles en route to completing the execution of democracy in the birthplace of modern democracy — the United States — and its over two centuries of Constitutional government.
Over the past five years, this anti-Constitutional momentum has accelerated at a breakneck pace. If I had to select a defining moment from a cast of thousands, it would be when Donald Trump stoked the idea during a 2016 campaign rally that if his opponent won the election there was nothing his supporters could do to keep their guns except perhaps “Second Amendment” solutions.
Thus was introduced the concept of violence against one’s political opposition (and frankly his thinly veiled cover of subtlety has never risen higher than middle school level). This remark, coming from no less than a candidate for the highest office in the nation, was an unmistakable warning sign of what was to befall our political system after the election.
And, predictably, we were indeed treated to barely disguised threats against political opponents, against media critics and against those who placed duty above the demands of the Party leader — such as whistleblowers and honest election officials — and overt undisguised threats and acts of violence by his followers became common grist on nightly news. For the first time in memory we experienced election overseers and volunteers at voting polls seeking police protection while they did their patriotic duty.
This new order of political non-etiquette reached its zenith on Jan. 6 (another date joining Dec. 7 on the calendar as historical days of infamy) when a mob was incited to storm the Capitol to prevent the transition of power to the president overwhelmingly chosen by the people to replace the rejected incumbent and his increasingly authoritarian agenda.
As this essay is being written, an ongoing Congressional investigation into this violent insurrection is unearthing evidence that the planning surrounding the Jan. 6 violence included a powerpoint presentation by highly placed officials and advisers occupying sensitive positions with access to the White House regarding details on exactly how the election results were to be nullified to allow the losing incumbent to remain in office indefinitely. The insurrectionists included those contemplating physical harm to targeted political representatives, which even involved executing some on a gallows erected nearby on Capitol grounds.
In the wake of this violent uprising against democracy we now are hearing talk about the looming spectre of civil war, secession and bloody internecine conflict as party members flash military weaponry in their Christmas greetings to constituents, asking Santa to bring more ammo (smashing the icons of peace and goodwill in a season that’s sacred to many and that’s already wounded by another mass school shooting at a high school in Michigan).
Beyond normalizing a violent motif, disparagement of certain racial, ethnic, religious and sexual identity has flamed like wildfire. Acceptance or even tolerance of the disfavored categories is scorned as “woke” sentimentality.
As to what remains of the Constitution after four years of pillage, the answer is very little. The rule of law has been effectively riddled with corrupt exceptions, the emoluments clause swept into the trash, the appropriations clause and its authorized spending pirated away to build a symbolic Great Wall or dangled before a foreign potentate to extort a black eye optic investigation of a domestic political opponent of the party leader.
Worst of all, the impeachment process which the founders envisioned to be protection against the tyrant they foresaw as our democracy’s greatest danger has been shelved, as that prophesied tyrant proved too strong for the branch of government the founders trusted with the task. The founders never dreamed that its carefully constructed political system would produce a party so subservient and lacking in principles that it would slavishly adopt a platform consisting not of fulfilling the will of the people — but only the whims of the party’s leader.
Indeed, the party is now at work to coordinate voter suppression, gerrymandering and a major facelift to the Electoral College system to create a model wherein the popular vote in the next presidential election cycle will be reduced to a mockery, entirely subordinated to the manipulation of party apparatchiks in state legislatures. Thus, in the event the party’s candidate is again soundly rejected by a majority of the people who actually vote or who are eligible to vote, but who are denied the opportunity by the party’s suppression tactics, their voices will be irrelevant.
This is truly the ultimate disassembling of the principles and foundational values of our Constitutional democratic system of government. Steve Bannon, one of the architects hoping to contribute to the new order that will emerge from the rubble of the old, refers to this demolition process as the “deconstruction” of the state. That is much too polite a term, and perhaps so is “Iconoclasm.” Yet mine is accurate enough to make the point. The party being diagnosed and soon to be judged by history is no longer attached to the guiding principles it once espoused. It is instead tearing down that venerated heritage and turning its direction towards what it previously regarded as heresy or treason — and in so doing it is destroying what our nation used to proudly represent.
Lastly, I do not want to overlook another “deconstructed” icon — the Supreme Court.
The party obstructed the President’s prerogative of nominating candidates to fill vacancies on the court in President Barack Obama’s last year of office on the basis that it was an election year, yet hypocritically reversed that premise in President Trump’s last few months in office. This maneuver changed the composition of the court to a supermajority conservative court for possibly decades.
Another norm was shattered, and the collateral consequences from this disrespect of tradition was the implosion of the court’s image as a non-partisan impartial tribunal above the fray of political ideology. In the public’s eye, and even in the words of some of the justices, the integrity of their decisions is at substantial risk.
This is no small blow to our Constitutional system of government. If we are not viewed as being governed under the rule of law, and if we lose the confidence that the law is being applied equally and correctly to all the people, we become a fake democracy where liberty is fragile and our Constitution negotiable. If the court were to suffer the loss of its institutional respect, the nation would lose its guiding compass.
The party is no longer recognizable. It has turned against the principles it used to embrace. It has become the Party of Iconoclasm, and we need to open our eyes to its transformation. That is the reality of Jan. 6.
To save democracy we must, at a minimum, recognize that truth. We must also have a sobering discussion with ourselves. Do we really want our political and ideological differences to lead us down a path that culminates in totalitarianism?
If anyone harbors any doubt about where the party desires to take America, please ponder its admiration for the policies of Hungary under strongman Victor Orban, who has transformed that country from democratic ideals to a de facto white supremacist authoritarian regime.
A conservative political delegation from America headed by former Vice President Mike Pence paid homage to Orban recently by making a pilgrimage to Budapest to do him honor at an ultra right wing nationalistic conference focusing on authoritarian anti-democratic agenda. Orban, some of us may recall, is notable for once having unilaterally dismissed his country’s parliament, which then later conferred virtually absolute power on Orban, including authority to imprison members of the media for criticizing him. The European Union has considered declassifying Hungary as a democracy.
And the Iconoclast Party sitting at Orban’s throne to take notes and learn from him is a frightening portent of its intended final destination. ν
Thomas Coffin is a retired United States magistrate judge. He served 24 years in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, from 1992 to 2016.