The January 6 storming of the US Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election has left many of us pondering the future of democracy in the United States. The symbol of American democracy withstood the onslaught this time, but the question remains whether the rule of law, free elections and a free press will prevail, or whether the country will succumb to the whims of mob rule and authoritarianism? The outcome of the second impeachment trial of former President Trump on charges of insurrection will shape the answer to that question.
We have watched the rise of authoritarianism in Poland, Hungary, Brazil and other former democratic regimes, assuming that our institutions and our Constitution were too strong to be compromised by right-wing populist movements. Looking back over the past five decades, it is clear we missed or misread the signs of the coming storm.
Will American Democracy Perish Like Rome’s?
Beginning with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” to Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem,” to the acceleration of neoliberalism and globalization under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to the rise of the Tea Party during the Obama administration, the threads of extremism were being woven into the tapestry that Trump donned in 2016. This underlying malaise became the core of the movement that erupted in insurrection on Capitol Hill.
Knowing the history of its evolution does not explain why the passions associated with each of these threads created a violent revolt. One author who was particularly prescient on this question is Eric Hoffer, sometimes called the working man’s philosopher. Writing not from the ivory tower of an elitist, but from his working-class background, in 1951, he articulated in “The True Believer” what has been described as the best analysis of the origins of fanatical or extremist movements. Two points are particularly salient in understanding Trumpism and today’s political environment.
First, Hoffer writes, “though hatred is a convenient instrument for mobilizing a community for defense, it does not, in the long run, come cheap. We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out.” The language of the extreme right has become more vitriolic as individuals become caught in the information vortex of social media. In the echo chambers on the internet, ideas become overwhelmed by angry rhetoric demonizing those who have legitimate differences on issues.
The vocabulary of dissent becomes more hateful, a rigid us-versus-them construct is formed, and a collective narcissism fed by a narcissistic leader emerges based on a sense of aggrievement. Differences become reasons for a “war” or a “battle” to reclaim control of the future so that it will resemble the past. The language of war cheapens the values of democracy, which, while encouraging passionate stances on issues, requires resolution through thoughtful and respectful dialogue and the rule of law.
The language for fomenting an insurrection has been there for all to read prior to the emergence of Trump as president, but as a nation, America ignored the warning signs, content that the future would advance securely without addressing the social fractures of its past. After all, we have been reassured by Francis Fukuyama that we are at the end of history. What we seem to ignore — what Hoffer recognized in 1951 — is that a leader with authoritarian tendencies can give shape to an insurrection movement by stoking the seething discontent and perceived injustices of the past, a leader with clearly definable traits. Hoffer’s enumeration of the required traits of such a leader is chilling for it describes Trump so clearly:
“Exceptional intelligence, noble character and originality seem neither indispensable nor perhaps desirable. The main requirements seem to be: audacity and a joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials); unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness; a recognition that the innermost craving of a following is for communion and that there can never be too much of it.”
Given what we know about President Trump’s character and leadership style and compare it to Hoffer’s list, his role in encouraging, throughout his time in office, what finally transpired on January 6 is not surprising — nor should his unprecedented second impeachment be. Now the challenge to secure a resilient democracy is to learn from our recent history. The outcome of the impeachment trial and the Republicans’ subsequent behavior will determine the resolve of our political system to thwart authoritarian passion. Democracy requires a Republican Party grounded in principles and policy rather than one guided by personalities, conspiracies and seditious impulses.
More broadly, how do we transform groups with collective narcissistic mentalities into proponents of deliberative democratic action? How do we stay alert to the ascent of autocratic leaders with the character flaws Hoffer has enumerated? If we do not address these two questions, the ashes of the Capitol Holl insurrection will be the foundation for future mass movements of violent political disruption. Maintaining a vibrant democracy in the United States requires vigilance and the recognition that exceptionalism does not make us invulnerable to the autocratic impulses of our past.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.