There is a very popular television program in the United States, entitled “Stranger Things,” which is set in an idyllic Midwestern community in Indiana in 1983. Two worlds, or parallel dimensions, exist in precarious tension in the program: the normal, sunlit world of middle-class American families going about their daily lives, and a sinister, terrifying night-time world, called “The Upside Down,” where evil forces and shadowy governmental officials scheme in secret, creating a terrifying monster capable of sucking the life out of children, playing havoc with electrical systems, and even shapeshifting into a creature capable of oozing into walls and ceilings to attack people. More than a few people in my immediate network of friends and colleagues have remarked over the last two weeks that we are now living in “The Upside Down,” watching a horror story unfold before our eyes, and feeling powerless to stop it.
October is the month for marketing scary stories and tales of horrors in the United States. Halloween closes out the month, with costume parties, night-time processions of ghoulish characters wearing fright masks, and often low-level vandalism by teenagers. This year, though, the entire month has been frightening. October opened with the horror show of Bart Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States, despite credible accounts of his sexual assaults and heavy drinking during his youth, not to mention his erratic and uncivil behavior during questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The horror was compounded by dashed hopes that an FBI investigation would end the confirmation process altogether. In Trump’s America, the FBI has taken on new significance, strangely viewed as a potential savior of the Republic, as the Mueller investigation and federal law enforcement work to ascertain what, if any, illegal activities may have contributed to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
But it quickly became clear that the FBI’s investigation of Kavanaugh was a farce, limited from the outset by Trump, and hamstrung by a ludicrously short one-week deadline. Dozens of people who wanted to share their stories with the FBI were ignored, but the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, republican Sen. Grassley of Iowa, along with all of the Republican members of the committee, deemed the investigation fair, just, and complete. The ensuing rushed Senate vote to confirm Kavanaugh created a circus-like atmosphere, with protestors for and against the confirmation taking to the streets and shouting out in the Senate chamber, where Kavanaugh received the narrowest-ever confirmation vote for the Supreme Court in U.S. history. The anger, shock, and sorrow among progressives, women’s rights groups, young people, pundits, journalists, and average Americans was palpable.
At the heart of this horror is the growing realization that the rule of law no longer exists in the United States. All three branches of our government are now compromised and discredited. Elected representatives to the nation’s highest legislative body ignored evidence, pushed through a discredited candidate, and have now corrupted the nation’s highest court by empaneling a judge who is probably guilty of lying under oath, not to mention sexual assault. And all of this has been enabled and supported by the Executive Branch, often in vulgar public displays of disrespect by President Trump, as he attends dozens of rallies in the lead up to the November 6th midterm congressional elections. After initially stating that he found Kavanaugh’s main accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, a good and convincing witness, he could not resist stirring up his mobs of supporters by mocking her in a speech a few days before the FBI submitted its report to the Senate. More distressing still, the Kavanaugh crisis served to energize Trump’s base, and polling data now demonstrate that expectations that a “blue wave” of democratic victories could take back the House are probably unfounded.
But October’s horrors were only just beginning. While media attention during the first week of October focused on the Kavanaugh story, a darker and more sinister narrative of evil was unfolding in Istanbul, where Saudi dissident journalist and U.S. legal resident Jamal Khashoggi mysteriously disappeared into a consulate building, never to be seen again. Khashoggi’s friends, fiancée, and colleagues immediately expressed concern and outrage, pointing to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman as the author of this tale of horror. Then, like something from a terrifying Hollywood movie, Turkish sources began leaking reports that audio and video recordings proved that Khashoggi was murdered in cold blood in the Saudi Consulate, that his fingers were cut off while he was still alive, and that a forensic specialist wielding a bone saw expertly dismembered him to get rid of the evidence as a team of security guards sent from Saudi Arabia watched.
Despite the Saudi government’s attempts to deny it knew anything about Khashoggi’s fate, and their insistence for two weeks that he had left the Consulate an hour after arriving, no one with an ounce of sense was buying their narrative. Except Donald Trump, who contended that he found Muhammad bin Salman’s explanations credible, even after sending his Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to Riyadh to make inquiries. It was clear that the U.S. administration was in on the cover-up. Trump admitted that what happened was “bad,” but refused to countenance cutting off military sales and other financial agreements with the Saudi Kingdom, stressing that American jobs were hanging in the balance, and besides, the missing man was not an American, and this was probably a rogue operation, anyway…..
Over on Capitol Hill, a Congress that appeared to be irretrievably and permanently polarized during the Kavanaugh hearings suddenly began showing signs of bipartisan agreement: Democrats and Republicans alike found Khashoggi’s murder horrific and sickening, and claimed that this crime warranted some sort of sanctions, some form of punishment, to be meted out on the Saudi leadership. In other words, the Crown Prince should not expect business to continue as usual. The Saudi government’s continually changing story of Khashoggi’s demise would have been hilarious if the situation were not so macabre and tragic. What sort of fools do these Saudi royals take us for?, incredulous Americans began to ask. It’s not as though we can’t obtain oil without Saudi Arabia. We get most of our oil from Canada as it is, so what accounts for the Trump Administration’s resistance to calling out Muhammad bin Salman? Was his friendship with the president’s special advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner so powerful and important that it could deflect investigation and sanctions?
As the last week of October begins, Trump is now expressing doubts about the Saudis’ story, saying that “there have been lies and deception.” The Turkish government is threatening to release the audio and videotapes of Khashoggi’s brutal murder to the world, and the U.K., Germany, and France have come out with strong statements against Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the killing of a journalist. Meanwhile, the Crown Prince’s “Davos in the Desert” summit is losing the support and participation of key players, such as the International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director Christine Lagarde and several high profile corporate heads.
In every horror tale, the suspense builds to an excruciating pitch just before the dénouement. In the movies, all ends well, even if the body count is high and the blood is deep. The evil tormentor, be it human or supernatural, is tamed and vanquished by the time the final credits roll. But this is not a movie: this is the Upside Down– a world that Hannah Arendt warned us about in her monumental work, On Totalitarianism, when she stated that “the only thing necessary for complete tyrannical domination is to kill the juridical person in Mankind.” Strip away any hope that truth will out, justice will prevail, and laws will work, and all sorts of frightening things can and will happen.
Those who are hoping that the Khashoggi crisis will check the power of the U.S. administration or affect the midterm elections in favor of the Democrats are living in a dream world. Just last week, President Trump praised a political candidate in Montana for body slamming and injuring a journalist. The mob listening him to him laughed and cheered loudly as Trump crowed “Anyone who can body slam a journalist is my kind of guy!” And far away in Riyadh, you can be sure that Muhammad bin Salman was smiling. The only thing that could scare the world straight would be the release of the horror tapes by the Turkish government. But don’t count on that, given Turkey’s financial duress and susceptibility to deal-making. Welcome to the Upside Down.