Are we in the Weimar period of our American democracy? By that I mean are we enjoying a spring of liberal and progressive values and legislation before a dark night of autocracy, chaos and repression descends on us? It ought to be clear by now that the threat to our democracy didn’t end with the election of Joe Biden and a Democratic Congress.
If that sounds unnecessarily ominous, consider:
- 74 million Americans saw fit to re-elect the 45th President despite his demonstrated indifference to the welfare of his constituents, his incompetence and lack of interest in administering the duties of his office, his hostility to our historic allies and his breathtaking daily mendacity.
- The Republican Party appears hell bent on perpetuating the Big Lie that the 2020 Presidential election was somehow fraudulently decided, “stolen” from the incumbent.
- The Republican Party leadership, in one legislative chamber at least, has purged from its ranks a member who insists that the 2020 election was fairly and correctly decided, that the incumbent was defeated for reelection. She argued, and continues to argue, that perpetuating the Big Lie endangers our democracy.
- A large segment of the population says it believes that the election was “stolen”.
- The number of private militia groups, who accept the false assertions concerning the 2020 election, are armed, hostile to government authority and have already demonstrated a willingness to carry out a violent overthrow of the government.
- Republican state legislators across the country, embracing the Big Lie, are loading the dice in their favor by passing restrictive voting laws aimed at suppressing minority voters.
- The Republican leadership now employs Orwellian rhetoric. Whatever they said yesterday was yesterday. Whatever Trump did is behind us. January 6 is over. This is today, and they have a new song, so stop singing the old tunes: Focus on the future and forget the past, except for the parts we want to talk about.
We have had fraught moments before in modern history. The historically close election of 1960, decided by fewer than 113,000 votes out of 68 million cast, was widely accepted after the losing candidate declined to contest the outcome. In 2000, when the loser received 500,000 more popular votes than the winner and only five fewer electoral votes, the loser gracefully accepted the decision of the Supreme Court which basically decided the election in the winner’s favor.
The failure of former President Trump to accept the 2020 election results isn’t the fundamental issue. The problem becomes a crisis because a significant part of our political establishment either honestly believes a preposterous narrative, or out of fear or some other motive embraces a narrative that it knows to be false.
Part of Trump’s appeal reflects the political immaturity of much of the American electorate. Millions of voters are understandably tired of our foreign entanglements which cost us dearly in blood and treasure. They no doubt bought Trump’s assertion that the rest of the world is laughing at us and playing us for a sucker, although the laughter really picked up with the election of a buffoon as President.
For much of the 20th Century, American Presidents—Democrat or Republican—have drawn upon elites to administer the federal government. Ronald Reagan took a somewhat different direction, but not entirely. Choosing James Baker as White House chief of staff and George Shultz as secretary of State kept Reagan from wandering too far off the reservation.
George H.W. Bush was a throwback to the elite tradition, and Bill Clinton maintained that pattern. George W. Bush, under the spell of Vice President Cheney and the attraction of voodoo economics, managed to get us into a war and break the bank at the same time. By the time W. broke free from Cheney, America was in a crisis from which we have yet to recover.
Obama was a conventional elitist. And then came Trump and his cabinet of the “best people”.
Trump was a disrupter, and though some of his disruptions might have been commendable (getting tougher with China), his motivation was personal rather than policy driven, and with the questionable exception of China, little good was accomplished and a lot of damage was done. Trump’s departure from elite governance fits in with his lack of experience, his temperament and his resentment of his perceived betters who have shunned him his entire professional life. As with Joe McCarthy, that estrangement from the establishment may be part of his appeal to his supporters who feel similarly disaffected.
The thrall with which Trump commands the fealty of Republican officeholders may be partially attributed to cowardice, but also probably reflects sincere devotion to him personally. That attachment has nothing to do with political principles because Trump has none, other than doing what he thinks will work for him. He miscalculated in 2020 despite his bogus allegations of fraud.
The Republican leadership’s position, along with its congressional members, has evolved from cowardice to craving. They see opportunity knocking. All they have to do to answer is embrace the Big Lie that Trump’s reelection was stolen. Beyond that they don’t believe in much of anything—certainly not fiscal responsibility after passing an enormous tax cut to benefit the rich and corporations, many of whom pay no taxes regardless of the nominal rate. Both for his congressional supporters and voters, they’re playing with fire. Or, to mix a metaphor, the person who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. Worse, perhaps, they don’t care.
Embracing the Big Lie, however, means they have to ignore and deny what occurred in plain sight. Trump did incite a mob. A mob, including conspirators who planned the actions they carried out, did invade the Capitol. Many of the insurrectionists did go hunting for legislators and the Vice President. Denying all of that, as the Republican House leadership now does, is an open invitation to the mob that invaded the Capitol January 6 to persist in their refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election, and quite possibly to a repetition of the violence that occurred that day. The Republican leadership on both sides of the Capitol has also opposed the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of January 6, likely condemning it. So we’re deliberately ignoring the past and doomed to repeat it.
More than likely many of the hundreds of insurrectionists who have been arrested will be tried, convicted and sentenced to prison, where they will meet fellow White supremacists, giving them an opportunity to further grow their numbers. Given the laxity of our gun laws, when they and their new members are released from prison, they will have a chance for a violent encore.
At the risk of repeating myself, I will say again: January 6 wasn’t the finale; it was the prelude.