The Acts of the Cornered
Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 23, 2022
This suddenly seems the season for witnessing the reaction of those cornered by their circumstances.
In a world of fight or flight, we’re seeing a lot of stiffened resistance, regardless of right and wrong. Perhaps it’s a measure of indominable human spirit under pressure, but it has felt more like the rage of endangered animals.
Mauled by the poor response of his own troops and unexpected solidarity with brave Ukrainians, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is turning yet more defiant in threats of use of tactical nuclear weapons and ordering the conscription of 300,000 additional reserve soldiers to throw at the slipping Ukrainian front.
Putin has used these threats as added weapons to secure concessions of land and sovereignty, so far to little avail against a Western alliance that has remained resolved.
And from Donald Trump and his closest allies, now under ever-increasing legal pressures from criminal probes over his theft of classified documents, the building cases growing out of conspiracies over baseless election fraud claims and the violence of Jan. 6, and as years of financial and tax fraud allegations arising just this week from a massive New York lawsuit, we’re hearing open threats of violence in the streets and increasingly wacky ideas — including the notion that a president only need think the word declassification of secret documents and it happens magically.
Trump has used his promise of violence to forestall prosecutions, though the new New York lawsuit aims to undercut his businesses and his ability to get business loans as much as to suggest more criminal liability. Of course, Trump will continue to use political donations to himself or to the Republican National Committee to pay for his legal bills
The twin threats from Putin and Trump mirror irrational tantrum declarations from leaders in North Korea, Iran and other sanctioned authoritarian states — a willingness to threaten the destruction of their world in trade for an acknowledged right for an accountability-free life.
We’re hearing it in smaller ways from election candidates who find themselves under specific pressures over the positions they have staked out or from Republican members of Congress who can only see months of vengeance ahead if they take on their most annoying critics.
Eerily, we’re seeing President Joe Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland and the FBI reacting in such calm that it feels as if they are in a different world from Putin and Trump. Biden and Garland managed to speak out in this week of contention to brush aside the threats in almost robotic, routine voices kept at conversational level.
Biden was spirited in his United Nations appearance, but almost routine, in repelling Putin’s threats and accusing Russia of “extremely significant” violations of the U.N. charter and calling for a united defense of democracy as a way to govern.
In his national address, Putin announced he will call up as many as 300,000 reservists and referred threateningly again to Russia nuclear weapons. “With a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, to protect Russia and our people, we of course will use all the means at our disposal. This is not a bluff.”
Biden retorted that it is not Russia under attack, but Ukraine — by Russian troops.
For his part, Garland, who also is under enormous pressure, used a speech this week to rebut the threats of civil violence by Trump, insisting as is his usual message, that this is a country built on laws, not on personalities. He suggested that threats from MAGA have not intimidated him and that we should be protecting one another and our democracy, defend our Constitution, and seek to make real the promise of equal justice under law.
“That we will do what is right,” Garland added, “even if that means doing what is difficult.”
The threats of violence are more like the dangers from a slow seep of hot lava than from a fast-moving forest fire, but no less real.
The point is not the magnitude of the specific threat, but that they are coming as various leaders feel they have no choice but to strike out.
The international pressures on Putin and from him are measured in months rather than days, but they emerge as Ukrainian nationals are pushing back against Russian troop lines and Russia already has lost more property that it had gained in the first months of the war. The literal and figurative trials of Trump are going to take much more time than the average American patience clock can stand. But Trump’s contentiousness — a personality feature, not an unusual bug — is accentuated by finding himself losing legal alternatives towards walking away unscathed.
Already we are hearing Trump acolytes running for office in November promising even now that they will not accept a losing margin; we’ve already seen some who lost in their primaries demand recounts and pitch fits over losing vote totals.
In Washington, Republican senators are withholding a vote to enact something they favor to speed energy permit promises because the bill to do so is being carried by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) rather than their own bill to do similar things. The migrant busing orders from border states to identifiably Democratic cities (and island) are, in part, the result of governors who see themselves cornered by federal policies they oppose.
People are quick to say that an animal is most dangerous when it feels cornered. It’s a central holding for negotiations of any sort, of course, spurring the idea of leaving the other party believing that there are ways out of the current situation.
But it should make us remember these days as if we increasingly are unable to isolate the caged animal in us from whatever passes as brain.