By Craig Axford | United States
Everyone wants to believe their country isn’t headed over the abyss. For Americans in particular, it is an article of faith that the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution are strong enough to prevent a demagogue from becoming a tyrant.
This faith that the founding fathers anticipated the temptation for leaders to abuse their authority, and adequately guarded against it, has ironically lulled many Americans into a false sense of security. Often we equivocate when we react to rhetoric attacking particular groups or government institutions, reassured by the comforting belief that our system was designed to withstand this kind of abuse.
We’ve seen this sort of behavior in electorates before. In his short treatise entitled On Tyranny, the historian Timothy Snyder quoted at length from an editorial published in a German Jewish newspaper shortly after the election of Adolf Hitler:
We do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends, now finally in possession of the power they have so long desired, will implement the proposals circulating in [Nazi newspapers]; they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this because a number of crucial factors hold powers in check. . . and they clearly do not want to go down that road. When one acts as a European power, the whole atmosphere tends towards ethical reflection upon one’s better self and away from revisiting one’s earlier oppositional posture.
This rosy assessment of the “check” woven into the fabric of German government and society turned out to be as inaccurate as the following years were tragic.
The quotation from the Jewish newspaper provided above also contains between its lines another assumption people within democratic societies often make. When it comes to our politicians we expect their rhetoric, to at least some degree, to be calculated to appeal to various constituencies. In other words, we think they are just telling certain people what they want to hear in order to get votes. Of course, we usually assume that with us our preferred candidate is being sincere.
Statements that make us uneasy or with which we disagree, however, are either ignored or rationalized as bones thrown to groups that must be won over to win the election. Once in office, we tell ourselves, the candidate will back off and the process of making law will dilute the more toxic proposals advocated on the campaign trail. But, as Germany’s Jewish population learned too late, Hitler and his followers meant every word.
While many prominent and smart German Jews comforted themselves with the false belief that Hitler was equivocating, many of the non-Jewish Germans that went to the polls to vote for him were undoubtedly equivocators. You know the type, or perhaps even are the type. These equivocators say they oppose the racism yelled from the dais, but they think the demagogue spewing it will be good for the economy or will nominate the kind of judges he/she supports to the bench, and so forth. Hitler surely welcomed their support in the election of 1932, just as Trump surely did in 2016. The vote of an equivocator counts just as much as that of a true believer.
After the election of 2016 equivocation became a bipartisan exercise. Republicans who had opposed Trump in the primaries, or even after he received their party’s nomination, and Democrats who had issued the starkest warnings about the consequences of electing him lined up in front of TV cameras and microphones to tell everyone that they wanted the new president to “succeed.” Under the twisted logic that conflates blind loyalty and patriotism, a president’s success equals America’s success, even if that president’s agenda threatens our most cherished institutions. No politician ever wants to seem unpatriotic.
But the success of the country is contingent upon the leadership putting the country’s interest first and foremost. Traditionally, both major parties have been led by people that believed in the process even if they disagreed about how best to use it to achieve maximum benefit for the nation as a whole. Now we have a leader that embraces disruption for its own sake. His entire presidency has been dedicated to eroding the last vestiges of faith Americans still have in their institutions in order to better exploit the office of the presidency for his personal gain. From the very beginning of his administration, no one should have been wishing him success.
The progressive activist Jim Hightower once said, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos,” a line that later became the title for one of his books. It’s not impolite or unpatriotic to argue forcefully on behalf of the principles and institutions that have enabled the developed democracies of the world to make it this far. No country or institution is perfect, of course, but Donald Trump and his most strident supporters would take advantage of every mistake and weakness to destroy them rather than improve them.
When the executive branch is exploiting its legal discretion to separate immigrant parents from their children, there’s only one side of the debate standing on firm ethical ground. When a leader dismisses the broad scientific consensus regarding climate change, their point of view is disturbing, not a reason to reconsider our faith in science. When a candidate has been caught on tape bragging about assaulting women, we should be united in our collective disgust instead of rationalizing his comments as “locker room talk.” When a president who took an oath to uphold the Constitution questions the legitimacy of elections and calls the press “an enemy of the people,” we shouldn’t make excuses.
These are the words and actions of a man that must be contained until he can be removed from office. Of course, the Republic may survive this test of its mettle even if all the equivocators out there keep giving cover to the bigots, misogynists and aspiring oligarchs that are finding encouragement in the president’s rhetoric and policies. But can we really risk finding out too late that it was all just too much for our institutions to bear?
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Other recent stories by Craig that you may enjoy:
We all need to ask ourselves the question Sarah Huckabee Sanders refuses to answer
Knowledge Is Asymptotic
Why the relativists and the absolutists are both incorrect (or why I’m tired of reading headlines about science being wrong)