It is a desultory day in Washington, overcast and gray, with predictions of potentially catastrophic storms, flash floods and tornados, almost none of which are likely to happen. They are predicted every time a “storm” passes through. We persist. But the weather threatens to postpone the baseball game on which I have been counting to distract from all the other negatives – being alone on Saturday night, the air outside so heavy that it is hard to breathe (earlier the heat index was 111, now a refreshing 92), Chinese leftovers from last night for dinner (wasn’t great then, likely less so now), and so on.
And then there is the blow to my already dwindling hopes for our country. No doubt I am under the stultifying influence of having, foolishly I admit, undertaken to argue with a bunch of “business people” on LinkedIn, which has, sadly, become yet another forum for right-wing hysteria. At times the people involved have been vicious, but what is most dispiriting is that they, as classical Trump acolytes, simply cannot accept what I believe to be reality. One example: they reject the reality of the January 6 assault on the Capitol. One of them flat-out called it “all lies.” The videos are just “fake news” to them, further evidence that the “left” has stolen from them their rightful leader whom some still appear to believe will be “restored” in August. They think the violence following George Floyd’s murder is no different than the insurrection at the Capitol.
I have been seeking to understand that type of thinking for some time. For a while I was impressed by George Lakoff’s Moral Politics, that argues the core issue is different understandings of proper family life and hierarchies of morality and social order. And there are others that, at one time or another, seemed to be on to something.
Then, today, I finished Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy, subtitled The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. I didn’t much care for most of it; too much personal style and mostly about Europe, Poland in particular, but … near the end, I am afraid to think she nailed it. The book mainly lays out the ways in which authoritarian ideas emerge and irreparable divisions develop in societies that were seemingly oriented toward, if not in fact, functioning democracies. The stories are compelling if remote from my experience.
But the ultimate conclusion is something else again: it’s as if the explanation was staring us in the face, was so obvious, and the same time so frightening, that we didn’t see it.
Applebaum notes that Trump’s inaugural speech signaled the beginning of the revelation in its early and repeated references to the decline of America and its values, what he called the “American carnage.” He posited a state of fundamental conflict between the government and the people, and between the United States and the rest of the world. Trump’s solution: “America First.”
Applebaum tellingly analyzes Trump:
To the millenarianism of the far right and the revolutionary nihilism of the far left he adds the deep cynicism of someone who has spent years running unsavory business schemes around the world. Trump has no knowledge of the American story and so cannot have any faith in it. He has no understanding of or sympathy for the language of the founders, so he cannot be inspired by it. Since he doesn’t believe American democracy is good, he has no interest in an America that aspires to be a model among nations. [Twilight at 154]
Applebaum then observes that Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric translates directly to a form of moral equivalence. The essence of that equivalence is that all countries, certainly all governments, are corrupt in equal measure. If all are corrupt, then “whatever it takes to win is okay.” [Twilight at 155] This, she notes,
is the argument that anti-American extremists, the groups on the far-right and far-left fringes of society, have always made. American ideals are false, American institutions are fraudulent, American behavior abroad is evil, and the language of the American project – equality, opportunity, justice – is nothing but empty slogans. The real reality, in this conspiratorial view, is that of secretive businessmen, or perhaps “deep state” bureaucrats, who manipulate the voters into going along with their plans, using the cheesy language of Thomas Jefferson as a cover story. Whatever it takes to overthrow these evil schemers is justified….
This form of moral equivalence – the belief that democracy is no different, at base, from autocracy – is a familiar argument, and one long used by authoritarians….
… this is what Trump has proven: beneath the surface of the American consensus, the belief in our founding fathers and the faith in our ideals, there lies another America, Trump’s America – one that sees no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship. This America feels no attachment to other democracies … The unity of this America is created by white skin, a certain idea of Christianity, and an attachment to land that will be surrounded and defended by a wall. This America’s ethnic nationalism resembles the old-fashioned ethnic nationalism of older European nations. This America’s cultural despair resembles their cultural despair. [Twilight at 155-158]
This explanation flies in the face of much of the rhetoric of the Republican Party, including Trump’s most ardent acolytes who speak passionately, but falsely, after freedom and “the American way of life.” The relentless drumbeat of USA, USA and the flags and all the rest obscure the real message.
Applebaum’s book has many other insights to commend it for reading by anyone interested in the question whether we are in the twilight of democracy, but for me, she has encapsulated in the above quotes the true explanation of the Trump phenomenon. It comes down to the simple proposition that Trump and those who support him do not believe in the democratic principles on which the country was founded.
Some time back I had speculated that Trump’s election in 2016 led him to believe that he had somehow been granted ownership of the country, that he was owner and CEO of the United States vested, as he saw it, with unlimited power (“I can do whatever I want”). He is another dictator in the making, another Viktor Orbán (Hungary), another Vladimir Putin wannabe. Those men aren’t interested in democracy – they just want to rule. That is Trump as well, and the Republican Party now belongs to him, just as Don Jr. proclaimed a while back.
These people do not recognize the fundamental legitimacy of the legal and traditional arrangements that have been the foundation for our democracy since the Constitution was ratified. Think back to Trump’s statements and behavior. Trump does not believe in democracy. That is why Trump saw no real problem in proclaiming, against all the evidence, that the election was stolen and why he saw no problem in directing a mob of true believers to attack the Capitol on January 6.
This is not about policy disputes over immigration policy or tax philosophy or deficit spending. It is about the essential principles that must be respected if a democratic republic is to function. Thinking of this as just another, though perhaps more serious, dispute about political philosophy, fatally overlooks the reality that the Republican Party no longer operates under the rules and principles of a free democracy.
Democratic politicians who think that Trump is just a temporary phenomenon who can be dealt with by traditional political means are making a potentially fatal mistake. The danger of further attacks on the national government is very real. All elements of the government, including particularly law enforcement and the military, must be prepared to respond as necessary to put down any such assaults. The next time must be the last or surely we will lose our republic, just as Ben Franklin warned. It is past time for the government to demand accountability for the many crimes committed by Trump and his henchmen while in office. This is necessary to make clear that there will be no repeat.