A few weeks ago, apropos of Republican efforts to subvert fair elections in this country, I wrote in these pages about the rising danger of autocracy in the United States.
File that under “dog bites man.” That has been a running theme in this blog for the entire four years of its existence.
And it is not merely the danger itself but its source on which I am fond of harping, which is to say: the extent to which tens of millions of Americans wholly support the authoritarian movement that is Trumpism, and how that strain in the national DNA—far more than one gaseous, orange-hued game show host-cum-tyrant manqué—represents the greatest threat to what we like to think of as “America.”
By now it should be painfully clear that Trump and Trumpism would not have risen without the support of this swath of our countrymen: a minority, to be sure, but large enough to do serious damage. And it is that same dangerous minority that is now enabling the Republican Party to carry out its wantonly anti-democratic attempt to disenfranchise millions of Americans and install itself in permanent power in defiance of the will of the majority and of basic principles of representative government.
But in a recent piece in The New Yorker called “What We Get Wrong About America’s Crisis of Democracy” (re-printed from its original publication earlier this year), Adam Gopnik reminds us that this formulation of democracy-under-attack is actually backwards.
Lurking behind all of this is a faulty premise—that the descent into authoritarianism is what needs to be explained, when the reality is that . . . it always happens.
The default condition of humankind is not to live in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.
He is quite correct of course.
From tribal chieftains to the crowned heads of Europe to tin-pot despots in various ideological garb, authoritarians of one type or another have always dominated human governance. Indeed, that’s what makes the American experiment—still in its infancy at a mere 245 years old—so unique and inspiring. Most of human history is like Lord of the Flies, with the bulk of the species cast in the role of Piggy, fighting off the Jacks of the world. Even amid our pioneering national experiment in liberal democracy, and despite the chauvinism of flag-waving, Lee Greenwood-singing American exceptionalists, the United States is no different, and has always had to contend with this same dynamic.
America itself has never had a particularly settled commitment to democratic, rational government. At a high point of national prosperity, long before manufacturing fell away or economic anxiety gripped the Middle West….a similar set of paranoid beliefs filled American minds and came perilously close to taking power. The intellectual forces behind Goldwater’s sudden rise thought that Eisenhower and JFK were agents, wittingly or otherwise, of the Communist conspiracy, and that American democracy was in a death match with enemies within as much as without. (Goldwater was, political genealogists will note, a ferocious admirer and defender of Joe McCarthy, whose counsel in all things conspiratorial was Roy Cohn, Donald Trump’s mentor.)
Goldwater was a less personally malevolent figure than Trump, and, yes, he lost his 1964 Presidential bid. But, in sweeping the Deep South, he set a victorious neo-Confederate pattern for the next four decades of American politics, including the so-called Reagan revolution. Nor were his forces naïvely libertarian. At the time, Goldwater’s ghostwriter Brent Bozell spoke approvingly of Franco’s post-Fascist Spain as spiritually far superior to decadent America, much as the highbrow Trumpites talk of the Christian regimes of Putin and Orbán.
To be clear-eyed about it, the US has always been a plutocracy, shot through with the cancer of racism to boot, and at best only tempered by the democratic mechanisms we revere (and a lot of idealism that we have only intermittently lived up to). Those democratic mechanisms require constant reinforcement, as they have frequently—if not constantly—been under assault from within as well as without.
(I’m speaking in terms of contemporary mores. We all know that the original form of American democracy enfranchised only white male landowners, with Black people not gaining the right to vote for almost another century, and women of all colors only within the lifetime of some living Americans. It may not have been fully autocratic, but it certainly was not egalitarian in the way that we define representative democracy today. The contemporary GOP seems keen to go back to that sort of system.)
It’s true, of course, that we have never devolved into a state of total jackbooted oppression approaching that of some other industrialized nations. Tom Wolfe once wrote mischievously about how the dark night of fascism was always said to be descending upon the US, yet somehow only ever managed to land in Europe. Fair enough. But the long tradition of liberal democracy in America, imperfect though it is, and perhaps only aspirational, is precisely what makes any kind of authoritarian in-roads on these shores so worrying.
WE’RE NUMBER ONE!
That authoritarianism has never taken hold here is more likely a lucky accident than a testament to any special virtue on our part. The enthusiasm with which those millions of Americans even now thrill to Trump’s hatemongering, eagerly accept his mendacity, and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge his manifold hypocrisies, failures, and criminal behavior bluntly gives the lie to such juvenile self-regard.
In fact, much as we would like to think otherwise, there are some ways in which the US is especially vulnerable to an autocratic regime, though we have never flirted with it so openly as the past five years. Among these are parochialism, monolingualism, geographic isolation, the legacy of Puritanism, and above all, the pervasiveness of repressive and oppressive religiosity.
In other words, America is indeed exceptional among industrialized nations and Western democracies…..just not in the positive way that we flatter ourselves to think.
None incarcerates its citizenry to the appalling extent that we do. In that category, the US vastly outpaces even such garden spots as Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.
None has a healthcare system as deliberately Dickensian as ours, or that purposefully ties healthcare to employment in a capitalist-friendly form of almost feudal indentured servitude.
We are also a society whose political system can be held hostage by a small number of bad actors among our elected officials—the Senate filibuster being the prime example. As Peter Nicholas writes, also in The Atlantic, “In most democracies, a stubborn minority party cannot stop the majority from debating the nation’s worst problems, much less solving them. McConnell is one reason the United States remains an exception.”
When it comes to ways in which the US is an outlier among developed countries, we might also add vacations, sports, and the metric system.
The US also is, and long has been, rife with folks who believe in all kinds of batshit crazy conspiracy theories. In his book The Delusion of Crowds, William Bernstein notes that Americans are far more susceptible to wackadoodle conspiracy theory than almost any other industrialized nation, and cites the aforementioned religiosity as the reason why. That segment of the polis, and the reactionary belief system that animates it, is the very epitome of Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” a strain that has been in the American soul even before we were an independent, sovereign state.
How bad is it? A new piece on cults in The New Yorker reports that “A survey published in May by the Public Religion Research Institute found that fifteen per cent of Americans subscribe to the central QAnon belief that the government is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and that twenty per cent believe that “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.”
So, yeah, pretty bad.
While these factors have not (yet) brought about a true autocracy in the US, they have conspired to make the US considerably more conservative than most of our fellow First World nations, and the nature of that conservatism more extreme. In my previous blog entry, “Suppression and Subversion” (June 30), I noted a recent piece in the Morning Consult which found that American conservatives skewed harder right than their counterparts in the British Commonwealth countries, with 26% of the US population overall qualifying as “highly right-wing authoritarian,” twice the percentage of Australia and Canada, the co-silver medalists.
In that same essay I also quoted Robert P. Jones, author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, who seconds Bernstein in arguing that, as with conspiracy theory, the crucial factor that sets the US apart is the prevalence of white evangelical Protestantism, which has what he calls “a theological proclivity toward authoritarianism.” In its most extreme form, Jones writes, that Protestantism “is fundamentally anti-democratic and theocratic”…..that is to say, it hews to a white nationalist, patriarchal, Christian supremacist worldview that favors a “strongman” style of leadership.
Both the Bernstein and Jones observations came from a piece in the Washington Post by Jennifer Rubin, who offered the blunt assessment that encapsulates all of this: “The truth about many in the GOP base (is) they prefer authoritarianism to democracy.”
And we are seeing the toxic impact of that fact play out before our very eyes.
Throughout the Trump administration, including the election of 2020 and its aftermath, we have seen myriad examples of right wing America’s willingness to go full bull goose neo-fascist. Many of these examples—like the kidnapping of children as matter of national policy, the establishment of a gulag archipelago along our southern border, or the desire to turn the US military against American citizens—were previously unthinkable.
But when it comes to the unthinkable, there may be no better or more vivid example of the autocratic strain in American society than the Insurrection of January 6th, and even more so, the Republican Party’s attempt to whitewash it in the six months since.
Because there has been so much disinformation surrounding it, let’s be clear about what happened, ICYMI: A bunch of Trump supporters, encouraged by the dude himself, tried to violently overturn the election, and the Republican Party has since decided that it’s totally cool with that. (“Nothing to see here folks, move along.”)
Republicans are keen to compare the Insurrection to the BLM demonstrations of last summer, as if a violent attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power—fomented by the defeated head of state—is somehow equivalent to garden variety street protest, even those that involved scattered but limited property damage. But Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), one of the only sane Republicans left in office, made short work of that clumsy attempt at misdirection:
Some have concocted a counter-narrative to discredit this process on the grounds that we didn’t launch a similar investigation into the urban riots and looting last summer. I was called on to serve during the summer riots as an air national guardsman. I condemn those riots and the destruction of property that resulted. But not once, did I ever feel that the future of self-governance was threatened like I did on January 6th. There is a difference between breaking the law and rejecting the rule of law. Between a crime, even grave crimes, and a coup.
Based on my highly unscientific survey of right wing talk radio and other media, the alacrity with which Republicans are now setting their collective hair on fire over the House select committee suggests that they are REALLY worried about what is being aired there, as well they should be. An honest accounting of that events of that day in January—and the months and years that led up to it, and what has happened since—will reveal the bloody trail leading right to the GOP’s door. That’s why they’ve tried to block such an accounting at every turn.
The moving testimony of Capitol Police officers last week painted a gut-wrenching portrait of brutal violence by Trump supporters, vile racism, and mind-bending irony (e.g., the beating of police officers with Blue Lives Matter flags, the signs that said “Jesus Is My Savior and Trump Is My President”). It was, as some have observed, as close to an “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” moment as the modern Republican Party is likely to face.
Elaine Godfrey in The Atlantic:
This morning’s testimony (July 27) was the first time Americans have heard such a vivid and agonizing account from the front lines of the attack—the officers’ growing panic as the mob surrounded them, how the rioters called them “traitors” and threatened to kill them with their own guns, the realization that they might die right there on the marble steps of the Capitol.
It was a stinging riposte to the grotesque Republican insistence that it was a “peaceful protest” by a “loving crowd” of “people who love this country” and who behaved like “normal tourists.” (Alternate explanation that somehow co-exists in the GOP narrative: it was a false flag operation by antifa.)
Godfrey notes that “just as striking as the officers’ testimony is Republican lawmakers’ refusal to engage with it. The GOP response has been to minimize or even scoff at what occurred.” That, of course, is merely a continuation of its response since the fateful day itself. The GOP’s current attempts at damage control consist largely of trying to ignore the hearings, claiming that the committee is partisan (after they rejected a fully bipartisan commission set up according to rules they demanded, then turned down when Democrats agreed), and risibly insisting that Nancy Pelosi, not Donald Trump, somehow is responsible for the Insurrection. (Yes, I remember when she exhorted the crowd to march on the Capitol and “stop the steal.”)
But the GOP’s sweep-it-away approach will be difficult to sustain. According to Cheney, the select committee plans to investigate “every phone call, every conversation, every meeting leading up to, during, and after the attack,” which will keep the issue in the headlines for the coming weeks or months. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision to pull his appointees from the committee after Pelosi refused to seat Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana seems like it might have been a political miscalculation. Now the GOP has no one on the panel to counter or challenge the investigation. The only two Republicans on the panel are Trump detractors appointed by Pelosi—Cheney and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois—which will underscore that there are still members of the party who hold the former president and many of their colleagues responsible for the insurrection.”
To that end, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership cannily seem to be following the exact James Carville advised some months ago in an interview with Vox: Do not let the American people forget for even one moment the horrific events of January 6th, and just how horrific they were, and the Republican Party’s responsibility for them.
And I don’t mean that in a partisan/gamesmanship way. I mean it in an “Are we gonna save our democracy or not?” way.
But in attempting to rewrite the history of January 6th, many Republicans want to go much further than even the notion that it was a church picnic that just happened to get a little rowdy. In their version, the people who stormed the Capitol (terrorists, as Capitol Police officer Daniel Hodges correctly described them, by the dictionary definition) were not just misguided or a little rambunctious, but actual heroes.
We all knew that was where this was heading, right?
Among those promoting this Bizarro World vision—surprise!—are such monstrous clowns as Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Andy Biggs, and Paul Gosar, the usual suspects, who held a farcical press conferenceto denounce the “mistreatment” of 1/6 insurrectionists who have been charged with crimes, people whom they want us to believe are “political prisoners.” (This of a piece with the effort to turn Ashlii Babbitt—who was shot dead while trying to break into a section of the Capitol with a group of people who wanted to hang Mike Pence—into some sort of martyred heroine.)
Should we be surprised that the GOP—and not just these cretins but the so-called leadership as well—has moved from merely downplaying the Insurrection, to denying it happened at all, to now actively championing the actions of those who stormed the Capitol to murder the Vice President and overturn the election? That is the Trumpian pattern for all scandals, and we are seeing it yet again.
Because at the end of the day, the modern Republican Party is not the party of law and order that it claims, or the great defender of “freedom” that it laughably poses as, or even an adherent to core democratic values at all. It is a party that thrills to precisely this kind of brownshirt-style political violence, and wants uncontested control of the levers of power, which it intends to gain by any means necessary. We are kidding ourselves, with potentially lethal consequences, if we are foolish enough to think otherwise.
ROLLING THE ROCK UP THAT HILL
Recognizing that democracy is the exception and not the rule doesn’t make the struggle against autocracy any easier. It may, however, alter the way we view that struggle, and the means and methods we use to wage it.
(The fight also may get a little easier if Republicans continue to commit suicide-by-COVID-19 in massive numbers due to their anti-intellectualist, Know Nothing rejection of basic science.)
The way to shore up American democracy is to shore up American democracy—that is, to strengthen liberal institutions, in ways that are unglamorously specific and discouragingly minute. The task here is not so much to peer into our souls as to reduce the enormous democratic deficits under which the country labors, most notably an electoral landscape in which farmland tilts to power while city blocks are flattened. This means remedying manipulative redistricting while reforming the Electoral College and the Senate. Some of these things won’t be achievable, but all are worth pursuing—with the knowledge that, even if every box on our wonkish wish list were checked, no set-it-and-forget-it solution to democratic fragility would stand revealed.
The only way to stave off another Trump is to recognize that it always happens. The temptation of anti-democratic cult politics is forever with us, and so is the work of fending it off.
So in addition to addressing gerrymandering and the Electoral College (good luck!), what does this Sisyphean task look like in practice, in our current moment?
Republican efforts at suppressing and subverting the vote must be resisted with every peaceful means at our disposal. (Note: I say “peaceful,” not “legal,” as non-violent civil disobedience may be required.)
The massive right wing disinformation machine must be called out and countered, difficult as that is when the experts tell us that even debunking disinformation tends to spread it.
The Democratic Party must stick together, implement the Biden/Harris agenda, and in word and deed make it clear to the American people that there is only one political party in the United States that is in its right mind, and is actually accomplishing things that benefit the American people, from public health, to the economy, to the climate emergency, to returning us to a cogent foreign policy, to addressing inequality, to all the things that affect American families at the most visceral level.
And last but not least, the sins of the past, both recent and distant, must be reckoned with. That is why the right wing is so desperate to attack “critical race theory,” which is just a fancy way for them to deny that there is systemic racism in the USA. They might as well deny that the Earth is round. (Which some of them have done as well.) In that regard, their campaign is very much like their previous campaign against the teaching of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the theory of evolution. Though to be fair, some of them may not have completed the evolutionary process, so their skepticism is understandable.
In terms of accountability for more recent crimes, the House committee on January 6th is a start, as is the Manhattan DA’s investigation into—and indictment of—the Trump Organization and its former CFO Allen Weisselberg, along with the criminal investigation into Trump’s election tampering in Georgia, and other inquiries. One hopes those legal efforts will soon expand and broaden. In a piece called “Future Proofing the Presidency,” the editorial page of the Boston Globe recently called for the criminal prosecution of The Former Guy himself, stating, “Saving American democracy for the long run requires a clear condemnation of the Trump presidency. That means making clear that no one is above the law.”
Right on. Notwithstanding the risky precedent of prosecuting former heads of state (fyi: France is doing it right now), to let Trump off scot free—yet again— would send the worst possible signal to would-be future despots. And a failed coup that meets with no appreciable repercussions is just a dry run.
Autocracy may be humankind’s default mode, but you best believe that doesn’t mean we have to put up with it.
Illustration: Cover art for the 1980 edition of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, by Barron Storey