Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. John Donne, “Devotions on Emergent Occasions, Mediation 17”
In one fell swoop, we’ve repealed the Constitution and done in democracy. In their places, an autocrat empowered by a consortium of Chamber of Commerce types, feckless conservatives, dutiful Republicans, political careerists, seething low-wage earners, and rubes, an assortment of racists, misogynists, and xenophobes.
Donald Trump will be sworn in as the forty-fifth president, but the title won’t befit him as institutions crumble in his wake through demonization, insults, and intimidation. He began by cowing the Republican leadership and remaking that party in his image. Then, he emasculated the press, which he played as useful idiots in his climb to ultimate power.
Withering-if-not-dead detritus in his wake: intellectualism, science, evidence-based inquiry, empiricism, thoughtful discourse, reason itself. Thriving in their places: raw emotion, hate, fear, fantasy, anti-intellectualism, narcissism, and ignorance. Stupid now the new cool.
The cult of the leader in place. His followers are legion, marching out of board rooms, suburbia, and the woods, some armed and ready to do his bidding should the leader call.
A dystopian depiction? Perhaps. But a dystopia need not be a mythical Orwellian construct. Sometimes reality can bite.
A guiding principle is to accept reality. Days prior to the election, I expressed discomfort to friends and family members, the ones not part of The Movement. My gut said worry. I did. And now I worry for our republic.
Rome was once a great republic. The first. Res publica – the public matter. Already teetering, Julius Caesar did it in. He crossed the Rubicon was received in triumph by worshipping masses. Then he promptly proceeded to destroy what remained of it.
Senators, led by Brutus, finally did him in, but they, in turn, paid with their lives. Julius’s nephew Octavius completed the deed. Hashtag #Augustus: Long live the empire.
Our founders knew that history. They had read their Plato who warned about a democracy’s demise being inherently within it. From its ashes, tyranny invariably arises.
James Madison, knowing democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention,” and “have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,” attempted to construct a firewall between an angry populace and the republic. Ironically, it was one of the firewall’s bricks—the Electoral College—that facilitated the undoing of Madison’s creation.
Madison also understood democracies depend upon non-democratic principles and elements to protect them from themselves: respect for authority and deference to elites among them. When authority and elites—teachers, faith ministers, journalists, law enforcement, public officials and leaders—are discredited, disillusionment with institutions of which they’re part—schools, church, press, government—follows. The leaderless non-elite finds itself directionless and becomes ripe for the picking by intellectual hucksters.
Fiction becomes fact. Information is received uncritically in tweets and sound bites. Mental discipline becomes vapid. Attention spans dwindles. “You don’t know nothing,” becomes the scorching rejoinder of the intellectually impoverished. Frustration gives way to one’s lesser angels. Bullying and assault, physical and mental, become primary modes of conveyance.
Blend in rising inequality, massive disparity in wealth, the middle class’s collapse, disintegration of behavior, respect, and civility, hyper-fear of “the other,” and the Internet. The perfect storm. Cue the storm troopers.
Six months prior to the election, political philosopher Andrew Sullivan posited, “Neo-fascist movements do not advance gradually by persuasion; they first transform the terms of the debate, create a new movement based on untrammeled emotion, take over existing institutions, and then ruthlessly exploit events.” Since then, done, done, done and soon to come.
“Tyrants, like mob bosses,” he continued, “know the value of a smile: Precisely because of the fear he’s already generated, you desperately want to believe in his new warmth. It’s part of the good-cop-bad-cop routine that will be familiar to anyone who has studied the presidency of Vladimir Putin.”
For Trump, it’s time for guile, photo ops of the benevolent father. But the smile is neither warm nor sincere.
A weakened and compromised Hillary Clinton was all that stood between republicanism and autocratic rule. Now, it’s left to the citizens. Attention must shift from policy to survival, not for ourselves but of the republic.