In the wake of the events on January 6th, I decided to take a look back at my notes during the 2016 election (which I covered on Purple). One of the pieces that I remembered and immediately pulled up was Andrew Sullivan’s op-ed in New York Magazine published on May 1, 2016. This was before Trump was even elected.
It’s entitled America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny, and walks the reader through Plato’s prescient writing about the weakness of democracies, and the potential for that weakness to be exacerbated to the point where a “demagogic, tyrannical character” would “seize his moment”.
That weakness that Plato described, is the democratic nature of democracy itself. Plato argued that inevitably democracies will become more “democratic” — freedoms multiplying, equality spreading, the withering of deference to authority, the authority of elites fading as the contempt for elites increases. He predicts the danger of what one might call “late-stage democracy”, where there is no kowtowing to authority, political experience or expertise.
Now you can imagine, in a society with a growing distrust for those in government, how this can happen. The idea of electing someone who isn’t a “career politician”, who understands the people, who pitches lack of political experience as a good thing, who is a “business leader” (you see where I’m going with this) is enticing when the folks in power continually disappoint the public. Side note: Trust in government is at an all time low.
Sullivan argues that “elites still matter in a democracy. They matter not because they are democracy’s enemy but because they provide the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself. The political Establishment may be battered and demoralized, deferential to the algorithms of the web and to the monosyllables of a gifted demagogue, but this is not the time to give up on America’s near-unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility.”
Indeed, we did see how the crumbling of the Establishment (aka elites) fed the Trump monster. His primary opponents spoke of him in apocalyptic terms:
- Ted Cruz called Trump a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.”
- Rick Perry said Trump’s candidacy was “a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded.”
- Rand Paul said Trump is “a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag. A speck of dirt is way more qualified to be president.”
- Marco Rubio called him “dangerous,” and warned that we should not hand “the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual.”
- Lindsay Graham called Trump a “complete idiot” and said he would “beat his brains out”, called him a “showman” whose “policy positions are complete gibberish”
And then, every single one of them turned around and endorsed Donald Trump. They encouraged Americans to vote for him. Mike Pence, who once commiserated with a former Bush appointee over the fact that Trump was “unacceptable” became his vice president. On the very day that a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building, Ted Cruz objected to the Constitutional process of counting the electoral ballots confirming Joe Biden as the new President Elect.
As Sullivan rightly admits, Plato wasn’t clairvoyant. His contempt for democracy was largely colored by the fact that democracy had executed his mentor Socrates. And despite all of his concerns about the weakness of democracies, American democracy has relatively thrived and shown amazing stability over the last 200 years.
This is partly because the Founders were fully aware of the weakness of “pure democracy”, which is particularly vulnerable to demagogues. In 1787 in Federalist Paper #10, James Madison wrote that “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”
The Founders of course were aware of this, which is why they constructed large, hefty barriers against this kind of thing. Voting rights were only given to a small number of elites (land-owning white men). The President and VP were not chosen by the people via a popular vote, but instead selected by the Electoral College whose members were selected by state legislatures. The Senate’s structure was designed to cool populist passions.
Now, as Sullivan clarifies, it’s not an inherently bad thing that our system has evolved and become dramatically more inclusive. To the contrary, it’s important and we still have a long way to go in achieving equality and inclusion. However it is precisely because of those strides that we need to be extra vigilant about our democracy’s specific, unique vulnerability: “its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.”
On January 6th, 2021, Sen. Pat Toomey said “We saw bloodshed, because a demagogue chose to spread falsehoods and sow distrust of his own fellow Americans.”
Back in May of 2016, Andrew Sullivan wrote:
Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.
He also wrote:
Every time Trump legitimizes potential violence by his supporters by saying it comes from a love of country, he sows the seeds for serious civil unrest.
I outline all of this because it makes it abundantly clear that the events of January 6th, 2021 were shocking, infuriating, depressing, and completely unsurprising.
Continuing to dig into my saved article archive, I found more.
Trump bears all the hallmarks of an early Hitler. A narcissistic demagogue who can hold a crowd, create a following and uses exactly the same techniques to manipulate people as all the previous dictators. People like Trump divide societies and create scapegoats, and that never ends well. Once you start a fight like that it will get out of control.
History does tell us some useful things. It tells us that demagogues and divisive politicians never work out well. Trump is a demagogue. He singles out minorities to focus people’s hatred. What he says about Mexicans and Muslims is, in a different historical context, no different to what Hitler said about the Jews in his earlier speeches. That should alarm anyone who thought that WW2 was a bad idea.
Shortly after Trump was elected in 2016, Ezra Klein wrote for Vox:
During rallies, Trump has exhorted his followers to assault protestors, and has promised to pay their legal fees if their thuggery leads to arrest. He has warned that the only way he could lose the election would be if it is rigged, and has suggested he may refuse to concede.
Miles Taylor, former chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security, anonymously published an op-ed while still serving in the Trump administration in 2018.
The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.
In addition to his mass-marketing of the notion that the press is the “enemy of the people,” President Trump’s impulses are generally anti-trade and anti-democratic.
Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.
Recently, a senior Republican told The Washington Post, “What is the downside for humoring [Trump] for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.”
Apparently the downside is a violent attack on the Capitol leaving multiple Americans dead.
I found myself reaching for a quote from Frankenstein while listening to Republicans in the House and Senate express their great surprise that a violent mob of insurrectionists would storm the Capitol. The violent monster asks Dr. Frankenstein:
“Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?”
Cut to Democratic Congressman Jason Crow telling Meet The Press this week that he has spoken with Republican colleagues who “broke down in tears… saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.”
On CNN Brianna Keilar said “for the last several weeks, and years for that matter, many in the Republican establishment here in Washington fed and nurtured a monster that was growing in their midst. Conspiracy theories, white supremacy, nationalism, violent political rhetoric, and the bastardization of the Constitution. They tried to harness the power of this monster, insisting that it wasn’t a monster at all… even as the monster grew out of control in clear view.”
It was after domestic terrorists, incited and encouraged by Donald Trump, stormed the Capitol that many Republicans finally turned from the monster in disgust, four years after that monster was elected into office. It took four years for Republican elites who had convinced themselves that Trump is taken “seriously, not literally” to realize that in fact, millions take him literally.
I’ll leave you with some words written by Ezra Klein wrote in the NY Times:
Trump’s great virtue, as a public figure, is his literalism. His statements may be littered with lies, but he is honest about who he is and what he intends. When he lost the Iowa caucus to Cruz in 2016, he declared that “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it.” When it seemed likely he would lose the presidential election to Hillary Clinton, he began calling the election rigged. When he wanted the president of Ukraine to open a corruption investigation into Joe Biden, he made the demand directly, on a taped call. When he was asked, during the presidential debates in 2020, if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the event of a loss, he refused. There was no subterfuge from Trump leading up to the terrible events of Jan. 6. He called this shot, over and over again, and then he took it.