I added that, “I feel sorry for Americans who laugh off these warnings and say ‘It could never happen in America.’ Democracy only survives if it is defended, if people stand up and demand it, if, like the teen survivors of the Parkland mass shooting, they ‘call bullshit’ when they see it. The truth is, that it is happening, right under our noses. The United States is courting the policies of authoritarianism and the personality cults of fascist designs.”
I am sad to say that my perception of what has taken place over the past four years has not changed, except to grow worse with each passing day of the Trump administration. And although I was labeled “an alarmist” back then (which seems like a hundred years ago), and even “anti-American”, and was accompanied by only a handful of observers in denouncing the Trump administration for what it was—a would-be authoritarian regime that had usurped one of the country’s two main parties and was willing to go to any lengths to perpetuate itself in power—today the majority of Americans are finally waking up to the fact that something really grave has happened here.
I’m not saying, ‘I told you so,” but...I told you so.
Optimists will say that, in the end, there is reason for celebration: Democracy willed out. And on a very limited basis, I agree. But there can be little doubt that it has done so by the skin of its teeth and despite scores of traitors in the midst of the very Congress that is charged with the protection and exercise of democracy, elected representatives, a minority to be sure, but a far too large one, who know the truth but are willing to perpetuate a criminal and treasonous lie for their own selfish political ends, because they are morally and democratically bankrupt.
Certainly not the least of these—in fact, a ringleader in the Trump conspiracy to remain in power—is a politician from my own state, Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, who has been one of the most aggressive supporters of Trumpian authoritarianism. I can only hope that my fellow Ohioans will be wise enough to vote him out in the next possible by-election if he hasn’t been censured and expelled from Congress as a seditionist by then. There are already petitions being circulated to seek the removal of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri for their roles in perpetuating blatant lies about the 2020 election, which served as the main catalyst for this month’s insurrection at the Capitol Building in Washington DC. These petitions will include more than a dozen Trump-or-die members of the House as well. Hopefully, Jordan will be among them.
I indeed have high hopes for the next four years, although I am sure they will be very difficult ones. How could they be otherwise, with Trump and his cronies having spent millions and millions of their supporters’ dollars on propaganda and apocryphal lawsuits in order to convince his followers that the election was stolen from them when everyone perpetrating and perpetuating that lie—except, perhaps, for Trump himself, who is, arguably, delusional—knew it to be untrue? The victims of that ruse weren’t Democrats, but Trump-Republicans, who fell for it hook, line and sinker, becoming the tool Trump sought to use to overthrow democracy and remain in power for another four years—at least.
So loyal is this core base to the Trump brand and to the Trump personality
cult, that despite over sixty lawsuits thrown out of court for lack of merit or
evidence and two Supreme Court presentations flatly rejected (by a High Court
on which Trump himself had named three of the justices), and despite
certification of the vote even—especially—by Republican state officials, the
Electoral College and the United States Congress, they continue to take their authoritarian
leader’s word above all. Perpetuation of that Big Lie (as the Nazis called lies
told to the people in order to ensure their loyalty) is what earlier this month
triggered an attempted coup in Congress and is still wreaking havoc across the
This among all of the wrongs that Donald Trump has done to his nation, is the greatest wrong of all—having abused the loyalty of his base and imbued them with falsehoods that have prompted them to betray their country while feeling sure that they are doing just the opposite. They have been grifted, and they have been, and continue to be used.
Over the last several years, I have more than once written my observation that, under the Trump administration, the United States has been at its most divided since the Civil War. That too was seen by many, rather than as an honest warning from someone familiar with authoritarianism and how it works, as hyperbole and as intentionally incendiary. But since the tragic events of January 6th, many people, sadly enough, have been forced to come to the same conclusion. As I write this essay, Washington DC is on lockdown. Nearly twenty-five thousand troops have been deployed in the nation’s capital to prevent further attempts at insurrection.
That’s about ten times the number of US troops currently stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan and five times as many as are deployed in those two war zones combined. It is a staggeringly bigger military operation than the one mounted in Washington following the Nine-Eleven foreign terrorist attack in 2001 that targeted the former Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in the capital that left over three thousand Americans dead. Back then it was only deemed necessary to activate six hundred troops to secure the city.
But this time the National Guard is not there to protect the country from foreign invaders. Its troops are there now, as Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulten told an interviewer, to protect the country “from the president and his mob.” Moulten was one of the people hunkered down in the Capitol on January 6th, waiting hours for police and security agents to drive back the Trumpian invasion and make it safe for Congress to continue with the business of certifying the results of the November 3rd election. From the office where he was barricaded in for the duration, Representative Moulten told a telephone interviewer, “We’re going to be okay. We’re going to pull through this. But I’m not sure that our country, at least since the Civil War, has ever been in a more precarious position. And never has it been under more assault from within.”
Moulten is a member of the House Armed Services Committee who served as a Marine Corps Infantry Officer from 2001 to 2008, after graduating from Harvard and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Asked to assess the current risk to democracy, he says that it is “a dangerous position for the country to be in” when members of Congress have been involved in a seditious plot to overturn an election by violent means. And it also worries him that, according to reports, about a dozen members of the Armed Forces appear to be involved in the anti-democratic movement backing Donald Trump’s authoritarian aspirations. While that may be few, he says, “the number should be zero.” Moulten described the scene this weekend in DC, ahead of the Inauguration next Wednesday, as looking “like the Green Zone in Baghdad”. He had expected it there in a war zone, but to see it in Washington was frightening and surreal.
This week images from Washington looked to me much like Buenos Aires did in March of 1976, when I was covering the military takeover there—a usually bustling downtown area locked down and deserted, with military trucks, armored personnel carriers and troops in fatigues on every corner, bridges into the city road-blocked, and with anyone going into or out of the area being subject to strict security measures. Seeing the same sort of military lockdown in the capital of my own country, once known as the seat of the greatest democracy on earth, is heart-wrenching, but a dose of reality about the age we are living in. At a time when much of the developing world has turned toward ever greater and more inclusive democracy, traditional Western democracies, and particularly the US, are struggling with the rise of a new strain of populist fascism.
Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, whose studies for the past three decades have focused on extremism and populism in the US and Europe, recently wrote in The Guardian, that he had never seen such movements more emboldened than they are today. “To be clear,” he writes, “this is not just about Donald Trump or the US.” He explains that just last year anti-vaccine protesters tried to storm the Reichstag in Germany and also faced weak police resistance. And he goes on to say that, since 2019, the Dutch Farmers Defense Force has been destroying government offices and threatening politicians in The Netherlands.
But he adds that, while Trump may not be the initiator of neo-fascist populist movements like these, “(he) has been a major catalyst of this process.”
“Obviously,” Mudde adds, “racism and racist dog-whistling have been key to the party since they launched their infamous ‘southern strategy’ in the 1970s, which brought white southerners to the Republican Party, but this goes far beyond that. The radicalization is not just ideological, it is anti-systemic.”
As for how we have arrived at this point, Mudde’s conclusion is the same as my own: “First and foremost, through a long process of cowardice, failures, and shortsighted opportunism of the mainstream right. Already in 2012, in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, by a longtime prominent neo-Nazi, I wrote, ‘The extremist rhetoric that comes from so-called law-abiding patriots should be taken more seriously.’”
Mudde says that back then he had advised Republican leaders to “be more careful in choosing their company and insinuations”. What happened, however, was, he says, just the opposite: far-right ideas and people were mainstreamed rather than ostracized.
Experts like Mudde clearly see the phenomenon I mentioned earlier, and that I have been trying to hammer home since the 2016 election that brought Trump to power. Namely, the far right’s grifting of a disenfranchised segment of the white population by speaking to their worst fears—immigrants, greater empowerment of minorities, the disappearance of their traditional jobs as technology replaces people, the advancement of science over “beliefs” and ever greater adherence to freedom of conscience that has removed Christianity (and particularly evangelism) from its former pedestal—and telling them that right-wing populists “have their back”, that they are “the real people”, the formerly silent majority that have now been given a voice. The traveling partners for this neo-fascist movement to replace representative democracy with single-party authoritarianism have been the far-right “conservative” media, from right-wing talk radio to Fox News and from Breitbart to One America News and Newsmax, and a still highly influential religious right.
Six months ago, I’m fairly sure that if, in the manner of Rod Serling introducing a new episode of The Twilight Zone, I would have written, “Imagine if you will,” that Donald Trump loses the election and, instead of leaving office quietly, decides to lead an insurrection as a means of remaining the president despite the will of the majority of the people of the United States, even many of my readers would have said that I was being argumentative and unrealistic, and that Trump might grumble and moan but that a smooth transition of power had always been guaranteed, throughout the history of the United States. Again, I apologize for being right and couldn’t be more saddened by the truth.
The original sin, however, is not just Donald Trump’s. It is the failure of politicians in general to create a democratic society that is ever more inclusive, that provides equal possibilities for an excellent education to everyone, that ensures that people don’t die because they can’t afford proper health care, that no one goes hungry or sleeps on the street in America, that the electoral system isn’t gerrymandered to repress the segments who most require representation in a patently unfair society, that Americans are safe to walk their streets and expect to be protected by law enforcement rather than victimized by it.
A people that is proud of the democratic system that governs it and feels that it is a part of an all-inclusive project designed to improve its members’ standard of living to an ever-increasing degree isn’t a people that votes for a Donald Trump. If his shameful and undemocratic legacy is to be definitively buried as of next Wednesday, the rebuilding of democracy must start on Day One with reconstruction of a compassionate and socially all-inclusive democratic society.