History fades more with each passing day as all generations — but especially the youngest — let lessons from the past slide as immediate grievances gain salience. Across the globe, illiberalism has surged in nationalist movements, threatening the existing developed-world regime of democratic values and human rights for all regardless of immutable characteristics. Democracies have backslid to quasi-authoritarianism; other nations see far-right movements represented in parliamentary bodies and in presidential run-off elections.
In Poland, a country witnessing an erosion of liberal values at the hands of a right-wing populist party that’s curtailed only by mass demonstrations on the streets, the far-right movement has gained favor among neo-fascists angry at refugees and Islam. Their anger defies Polish history and shows pure and revolting hatred and a fascination — a lust — for the repressive regime that conquered and pillaged the country just 78 years ago.
These proclaimed nationalsiists marched a “white Europe of brotherly nations” and a “Pure Poland,” a “white Poland.” They demanded that “refugees get out.” Others carried flags depicting a 1930s extreme-right symbol.
Some also carried banners depicting a falanga, a far-right symbol dating to the 1930s.
The evilest of them hung a banner reading “Pray for Islamic Holocaust.”
These protests faced no official condemnation. “State broadcaster TVP, which reflects the conservative government’s line, called it a ‘great march of patriots,’ and in its broadcasts described the event as one that drew mostly regular Poles expressing their love of Poland, not extremists.”
The Interior Minister called it a “beautiful sight” and remarked that the government was “proud that so many Poles have decided to take part in a celebration connected to the Independence Day holiday.”
Polish history is one of repression. It only reemerged as a sovereign state in 1918 after European powers divvied it up to satiate expansionist desires and remained free for only 21 years before Nazi Germany’s invasion started the Second World War.
Nazi Germany initially placed Polish Jews in ghettos, leaving them to suffer from illness and die of starvation, walled off from the rest of civilization with bridges connecting disparate parts of the ghetto. Warsaw’s ghetto trapped more than 400,000 Jews, with 7.2 people per room. 300,000 Jews in the Ghetto died from bullets or gas; 92,000 others perished from hunger or hunger-related diseases. Another 250,000 went from the Ghetto to death camps.
Three million Polish Jews — 90 percent of the nation’s Jews — perished during the Holocaust.
This is the history Poland’s far-right marchers glorify. The symbols they borrow, the words they chant, come from a Reich determined to wholly exterminate an entire religion. And yet, despite the genocide committed within Poland’s borders, too many in Poland support an Islamic holocaust.
Too many Poles ignore this history and embrace ideas they don’t understand to express their irrational anger at a religion foreign to them, and so therefore scary. History fades and dies, because of it, people might, too.
Following the revelations, a number of high-ranking Republicans denounced Moore and said “if the accusations are true, he must step down.” This phrase has a hole the size of Texas: Allegations about improprieties made 30 years ago have little chance of being proven true in a court of law and exactly no chance of being “proven true” to any degree of legal satisfaction in the month preceding Alabama’s election. Republicans use this weaselly phrase to appear against Moore without actually calling for his campaign to end and for him to pay penance for past sins. As Mitt Romney correctly pointed out, while the burden of proof certainly does not fall on Moore from a legal standpoint, from a political standpoint, do Republicans and voters really want to support a man accused of molesting a minor?
Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections. I believe Leigh Corfman. Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside.
John Cornyn, Senate majority whip, proved his feckless leadership and detestable values by refusing to withdraw his endorsement of Moore after the Washington Post story. That a Republican would endorse Moore after his legal improprieties and disdain for the Constitution shows a true lack of judgment and an obvious ambivalence for the rule of law, but avoiding the best opportunity to right a wrong further proves that many in the Republican Party will tolerate any behavior as long as the political actor can help cut taxes for the likes of Donald Trump. Is the moral and political degradation of a nation worth a tax cut for your donors?
Sen. John Cornyn says he finds the WaPo story on Moore "deeply disturbing." Asked if he'll withdraw his endorsement, Cornyn said: "I think it's — the next steps are up to the governor and the people of Alabama."
More despicable still have been the responses from local Alabama Republican leaders. Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale reached out to each county chair and asked for reactions to the story. Responses shock the conscience and should make any respectable human nauseous. Here are some of the responses.
"Other than being with an underage person – he didn't really force himself," Alabama Geneva County GOP chairman Riley Seibenhener tells me. "I know that's bad enough, but I don't know. If he withdraws, it's five weeks to the election…that would concede it to the Democrat."
It’s strange to defend molestation by pointing out the 14 year old — a young high schooler approached by a 32 year old man — didn’t explicitly not consent to sexual advances. It’s stranger still to overlook this depraved action simply because he doesn’t want a Democrat (who prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan for murdering young black girls) from holding office.
Alabama Covington County GOP Chairman William Blocker tells me Democrats convinced these women to tell a fake story to damage Moore.
I told him the 14-year-old became a Trump voter.
"That's the typical background or profile of somebody they would be using for that," he said.
Sexual abuse can be ignored if it keeps the Senate seat in Republican hands. (And, of course, the story couldn’t possibly be true because the Washington Post wrote it, yet another example of how Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric has consequences more serious than the foolish president can begin to understand.)
Alabama Mobile County GOP chairman John Skipper: "It does not really surprise me. I think it is a typical Democratic – Democrat – ploy to discredit Judge Moore, a sincere, honest, trustworthy individual."
When partisanship inures you to sex crimes, you have a problem.
"It was 40 years ago," Alabama Marion County GOP chair David Hall tells me. "I really don't see the relevance of it. He was 32. She was supposedly 14. She's not saying that anything happened other than they kissed."
With these defenses of a possible sex crime — of saying they would support and vote for Moore even if it were legally proven that he committed a crime — it’s little wonder Moore defiantly denounced the story and even fundraised off it.
A year ago, Johnstown, PA residents gave Trump a timeline to fulfill his promises. “Six months to a year,” catering company owner Joey Del Signore told Kruse. “A couple months,” said another. “He’s just got to follow through with what he said he was going to do.” All had the same undertone: “or else.”
How things change in a year. Whereas one resident insisted she wouldn’t vote for Trump again if he broke promises, when asked a year into a so-far failed agenda, she remarked, “Support Trump? Sure,” she said. “I like him.”
Others recognize no change with the Trump presidency. We “didn’t see any change because we got a new president.” They remain infatuated. “He’s our answer.”
“His supporters [in Johnstown], it turns out, are energized by his bombast and his animus more than any actual accomplishments. For them, it’s evidently not what he’s doing so much as it is the people he’s fighting. Trump is simply and unceasingly angry on their behalf, battling the people who vex them the worst—“obstructionist” Democrats, uncooperative establishment Republicans, the media, Black Lives Matter protesters and NFL players (boy oh boy do they hate kneeling NFL players) whom they see as ungrateful, disrespectful millionaires.
And they love him for this.”
They love him for the fights he picks, not the policies he promotes. He channels their anger and legitimizes it; no longer must they hide their inner hatred — Trump accepts it and encourages it. In him, they saw a ringleader, the reverend of resentment.
Like most men carrying Gods message, Trump can do no wrong.
“Everybody I talk to realizes it’s not Trump who’s dragging his feet. Trump’s probably the most diligent, hardest-working president we’ve ever had in our lifetimes. It’s not like he sleeps in till noon and goes golfing every weekend, like the last president did.”
Others recognize the grim outlook for coal and surely must be able to read reports such as that issued by BMI Mining, which projects coal to grow year over year, but not because of “an expectation for President Donald Trump to revive the sector and our longer-term view out to 2021 remains decidedly downbeat.”
Still, with irrational exuberance, one Johnstown business owner expects a 30 percent jump next because of Trump’s “pro-business mood.”
Moods don’t grow the economy.
Others simply love the idea of mining jobs magically returning because it absolves them of effort. “Some of the later-in-life blue-collar workers who are still here can be loath to learn new trades. ‘We’ve heard when working with some of the miners that they are reluctant because they’re very accustomed to the mining industry,’ said Linda Thomson, the president of JARI, a nonprofit economic development agency in Johnstown that provides precisely the kind of retraining, supported by a combination of private, state and federal funding, that could prepare somebody for a job in Polacek’s plant. ‘They really do want to go back into the mines. So we’ve seen resistance to some retraining.’”
“Border security.” There’s no wall. “No fault of his.”
“Getting rid of Obamacare.” It still exists. “Well, he’s tried to.”
“Defunding Planned Parenthood.” Nope. “Not his fault again.”
Should Trump be blamed for, eg, his failure to repeal the ACA on day 1, as he promised?
“I’m not going to blame him. Absolutely not.”
A great businessman, an accolade these supporters wrongly apply to Trump, accepts responsibility for failures and owns shortcomings. Trump doesn’t and voters don’t hold their fashioned “chief executive” of the country responsible for anything.
Black athletes protesting police brutality during the national anthem really irks Trump supporters.
“As far as I’m concerned,” one said, “if I was the boss of these teams, I would tell ’em, ‘You get your asses out there and you play, or you’re not here anymore.’ They’re paying their salaries, for God’s sake.”
“Shame on them,”another told Kruse. “These clowns are out there, making millions of dollars a year, and they’re using some stupid excuse that they want equality—so I’ll kneel against the flag and the national anthem?”
The Declaration of Independence told us that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” To Trump supporters, this lines ring true unless you’re a black athlete.
In case you had any doubts opposition to such protests stemmed from racial animus, let Trump supporters dispel it.
“Well…I hate to say what the majority of them are….” Others happily finished that sentence.
“The thing that irritates me to no end is this NFL shit. I’m about ready to go over the top with this shit.”
The NFL is “niggers for life.”
“For life,” his wife added.
So the cult speaks and in their uncensored words we hear the true call of Trumpism and its not ideology, commitment to American ideals, or patriotism.
Republican vilification of minorities began in earnest with Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” which succeeded in breaking the Democratic stronghold in the Sold South after the party pushed and passed civil rights legislation. Nixon’s overtly racial campaign helped realign the South and welcomed to the GOP society’s most racist and hate-filled individuals, such as Strom Thurmond and the ardent supporters of Theodore Bilbo.
Racial grievance then largely flew under the radar, but always emerged when Republicans worried about electoral success or needed to rally its base for any given purpose. Welfare queens, the ever-looming menace of gang violence, campaigns centered around toughness on crime always had a racial undertone. George H. W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad clearly shows the willingness of otherwise respectable politicians to race-bait for electoral purpose.
From Blacks to Immigrants
Recently, Republican race-baiting has shifted from African Americans to other minorities, especially immigrants and Muslims. The themes remain largely the same, but with the addition of “economic anxiety.” Economic anxiety stems from the loss of American manufacturing due in part to trade, but mostly from the computer and the upheaval of the economy as a result (transitioning from a manufacturing economy to a service one). For many, though, economic anxiety simply makes more legitimate underlying dislike for immigrants. Candidates and believers tie economic anxiety to immigrants — legal and illegal — by claiming those entering the country take jobs from “hardworking Americans,” despite this being an economic falsehood.
Democrats are moving in a similar populist direction. Socialist tendencies within the party, led by self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, leads to vilification of the rich, another small group that a mob-like majority can easily come to view as the enemy. In fact, it’s the vilification of the rich and the possibilities for “democratic excesses” to threaten their property rights that led the Founding Fathers to call a constitutional convention to strengthen the federal government. State legislatures, increasingly occupied by men the Founders considered rabble, pitted the poor against the wealthy and provided equal rights only to some.
While the Democrats have long toyed with class-based issues and often campaign on raising taxes on the wealthy to fund greater social programs, rhetoric has never slipped into obvious vilification of the highest socioeconomic class and hatred has never even simmered. This lack of development comes largely from weak class connections in America. Rarely have those with similar economic interests from disparate parts of the country united behind an economic or ideological platform that would pit their interests against those of the wealthy. That’s because race has often divided or defined coalitions. Poor blacks and poor whites don’t unite largely because poor whites from certain areas of the country have a predisposition to bigotry and support racial rhetoric more than class rhetoric.
The Democratic Party has now largely lost those not committed to full racial equality and so its internal coalitions and power structures no longer have to contend with the interests of bigots. Near unanimity in the race issue has allowed class-based grievances to surge into prominence with clear divisions between the party’s moderate and liberals who don’t favor class warfare and the leftists who seem eager to bring redistributive issues and anger to the party’s forefront.
Leftists want to vilify and blame the rich for stagnating wages and resultant economic inequality. They view the wealthy as having an outsized influence on government, so outsized, in fact, that many claim America has devolved into oligarchy. Large corporations control institutions and conspire to keep everyday Americans down. Sinister forces of an economic elite cause all of our problems, from war to climate change and poverty. The growing contempt and anger for the wealthy has led to a socialist resurgence that applies the same rhetoric as do Republicans that blame minorities for society’s woes.
Populism within both parties threatens political discourse and the norms of our society by blaming minority groups for all issues facing the country. These movements inspire hatred, fear, and disgust for forces they believe work to undermine America’s greatness and degrade our country into a Third World society or an evil oligarchy.
Democracy and politics don’t work when groups blame minorities for all problems. Tribalized majorities unified by hate rather than ideological belief does not lead to enlightened policy. It doesn’t lead to rational politicians leading the country dispassionately. It leads to demagogues who manipulate these fears to gain personal power (and often wealth) while eroding democratic norms and backsliding our democracy through authoritarian calls tolerated because these calls target a vilified group.
Both parties must expel from their ranks such populist anger and instead work towards unified moderation that addresses the real issues in our society without condescending to tempers and passions.
Trump wants his political appointees and hires to target opposition leaders over non-scandals — and, even if ever so slightly scandalous, not remotely close to illegal behavior. Imagine conservative reaction had President Barack Obama urged Loretta Lynch to investigate Mitt Romney for any contrived bullshit.
Imagine if Obama urged Lynch to investigate Trump’s tax returns! Conservative outrage would rightly dominate weeks of political coverage because this is not normal. But now right-wing media, acting as a state propaganda outlet, simply echoes these calls and promotes inane conspiracies about the opposition during widely-watched prime-time TV shows.
Imagine seeing this in another country. How would we — how would you — react if a far-right party in Germany gained power and then called for federal investigations into Angela Merkel or other centrist parties? I have to imagine it would chill you at least a little bit. Trump’s actions should do the same. We have a long history of liberal democracy and institutions designed well to withstand someone like Trump. But as the Founders understood, democratic faith and continuance comes from the people. When they stop believing in those norms, liberal democracy will slowly wither.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie barely defeated Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart to win the GOP nomination for Virginia’s gubernatorial election. No one expected the race to be close: Gillespie, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and candidate Mitt Romney, led all polls by at least 15 points and Stewart never impressed with his transplant knowledge of the state.
No one expected Corey Stewart to earn 42.5% of the primary vote because no one understood the true depths of irrational nativist anger that now defines a substantial faction — perhaps the most important faction — within the Republican Party. The GOP is no longer the party of conservatism. It’s the party of race-baiters.
Stewart ran a despicable campaign centered around issues of proclaimed heritage, by which he meant protecting the glorification of those who waged war against the Union in an effort to continue an engrained system of crimes against humanity. In other words, Stewart’s campaign drew on support for traitors.
His rallies became cesspools of Confederate-loving individuals wrapping their obvious bigotry in the high-handed guise of “preserving history” — the history of the Confederate flag, which so many displayed as they cheered a vicious know-nothing. Speeches descended to diatribes against proclaimed “political correctness,” a catch-all phrase used to decry those who think that states and localities maybe shouldn’t proudly display emblems of secession.
Even the Trump campaign, the same campaign that lead calls to lock up a political opponent (a highlight in banana republic campaigns) and which ran against the Constitution and the soul of our nation, tired of Stewart’s antics and fired him from his unpaid position.
But Trump’s ultimate victory — a victory made possible by voters overlooking bigotry, predation, and disturbing ignorance — emboldened Republican primary voters to free themselves of the Enlightenment’ shackles; hatred empowered, they no longer saw a need to keep up their facade of constitutionalism. So 42% of them voted for Stewart and far-right populism. Only the DC explants residing on Northern Virginia (briefly) saved the state from Stewart’s bombastic nativism (but he’ll be back, running for Senate against Tim Kaine in 2018).
With Stewart defeated by the slightest margin, Gillespie had two choices: Continue a campaign of decency wherein he would combat the most insidious factions of the Republican Party and try to shed conservatism of its fetish for demagogues or continue the campaign Stewart won. To his shame and that of the GOP writ large, Gillespie chose the latter.
Gillespie decided to further kowtow to race-baiters because today’s GOP is so rotten that any ambitious politician now has to adopt racially biased principles to escape a primary and consolidate support for a general election. That’s why actual conservatives such as Jeff Flake opt not to run for reelection. Values would have to be surrendered to the scourge of far-right populists yearning for a nationalism that legitimizes naked hatred of Mexicans and Muslims.
The Republican’s campaign has devolved into running clear race-baiting ads that feature heavily tattooed Latinos and the threats of menacing gangs, such as MS-13. “MS-13’s motto is Kill. Rape. Control,” screams one. “Ralph Northam’s policy? Northam cast the deciding vote in favor of sanctuary cities that let illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13.”
Sanctuary cities play a central part in Gillespie’s rallies. “Do we need to have sanctuary cities here in Virginia?” Gillespie asks rally-goers. “No!” they yell in response, not understanding that sanctuary cities don’t help criminals, do not led to increases in crime, but do help victims of domestic abuse and violence contact police without fear of deportation.
But there aren’t any sanctuary cities in Virginia.
What end, then, could these ads that link Democrat Ralph Northam with muscular, tattooed, Latino gang members serve? Race-baiting. Nothing else.
This is the Republican Party now. Candidates have to invoke racial fears, prejudices, and grievances to rally Lost Cause troops behind their campaign. The state that witnessed a Nazi drive through a crowd of protesters, killing one, now sees a gubernatorial candidate embrace the exact same principles — saving statues.
The election of 1800 pushed the young American republic to the brink of a constitutional crisis. Just the fourth election, and the first truly competitive one, the Federalist and Republican parties — though they would bristle at such a label — organized candidate tickets, John Adams and Charles Pinckney and Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, respectively.
This innovation, a devolution into faction which so frightened the Founders, threatened the Electoral College because prior to the 12th Amendment, Electors had no way of differentiating between the president and vice-president. Designed without parties in mind, each elector cast two votes and the top two electoral vote getters receiving at least a majority (in 1800, 70 votes) would become president and vice-president.
However, with a party ticket and partisan electors choosing from preferential candidates rather than dispassionately selecting a president from the population, electors had to coordinate votes to ensure that they didn’t each cast their ballots for the president and vice-presidential hopeful; one elector had to cast one vote for a third candidate lest the presidential and vice-presidential designee end up with the same number of electoral votes.
Failing to do so would throw the election to the House of Representatives.
A Republican Coordination Failure
Federalists managed this feat, no easy task given difficultly of coordination in a nation that moved at the speed of horses, with one elector giving a vote to John Jay, leaving John Adams with 65 electoral votes and Charles Pinckney with 64. Republicans failed to execute their similar plan. Their electors cast 73 electoral votes for both Jefferson and Burr and the tied election went to the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives, which threatened to overturn the election, nullify results, or even pass legislation to install an interim chief magistrate.
In the House, state delegations each cast one vote for president with a majority (9) needed for victory. While Federalists dominated the chamber — they lost their majority in 1800, but the new Congress would not be seated until March — they only controlled eight delegations, short of a majority. Republicans controlled seven states and one, Vermont, had a split delegation.
All knew that Republicans picked (or intended) Thomas Jefferson as their presidential nominee, but that did not bind Federalists, most of whom despised the former vice-president. They wanted to deny him the presidency and so a number of them voted for Burr: Six Federalist delegations initially voted for Burr (all seven Republican delegations as well as Federalist Georgia voted for Jefferson). Vermont, split, cast a blank ballot. Maryland had five Federalists and three Republicans in its delegation — four Federalists voted for Burr while one voted for Jefferson along with the Republicans, leading to a blank ballot. No president had been decided.
These divisions — six states for Burr, eight for Jefferson, two blank — held for 35 ballots.
Hamilton’s History with Jefferson
Throughout the affair, Alexander Hamilton urged his Federalist colleagues to vote for Thomas Jefferson, his longtime nemesis, because he trusted Jefferson’s character and virtue whereas he found Burr unscrupulous and too self-serving, perfectly exemplified by his unwillingness to stand down after the election went to the House despite knowing his designation as vice-president.
It’s hard to overstate the depths of the animosity that flowed between Hamilton and Jefferson. Hamilton considered Jefferson’s political views as “tinctured with fanaticism,” and, as a person, “a contemptible hypocrite.” During the 1796 election, Hamilton wrote a series of some 25 essays under the pseudonym Phocion attacking Jefferson. The most notable of the works, all published in the Gazette, accused Jefferson of having an affair with one of his female slaves.
For his part, Thomas Jefferson lambasted Hamilton and funded James Callender, a sensationalist Republican journalist who frequented the muck to attack Federalists, primarily Hamilton. Callender helped destroy Hamilton’s career and public reputation through false accusations of corruption and the popularization of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.
The Callender Affair
In 1792, information came to light that made then-senator (and future president) James Monroe believe Hamilton used his position as Secretary of the Treasury to enrich himself through speculation. Such accusations naturally angered Hamilton, who prided himself on virtuous leadership that sacrificed his own interests for those of the country. That disinterested leadership defined his views of government and explains his eventual support of Jefferson over Burr in the 1800 election.
When Monroe and other Republicans confronted Hamilton, they learned Hamilton dallied with Reynolds, but did not act corruptly or abuse his powers. Monroe and his counterparts understood the distinction between public and private life, realizing that indiscretions in marriage did not equate to corrupt or insidious public action. The investigation ended without leaks.
Some four years later, Callender uncovered the papers related to the Hamilton investigation, perhaps leaked to him by Jefferson, though more likely released by former House clerk John Beckley, a Jefferson ally. He published the documents and further editorialized the affair, lambasting Hamilton’s moral standing and falsely accusing him of corruption.
Hamilton responded in a lengthy pamphlet that he assumed would end the confrontation and restore his stature — after all, the same defense and revelation of facts had ended Monroe’s intrigue. Unfortunately, the pamphlet, in which Hamilton admitted the sordid details of his affair but denied all allegations of corruption, reached a mass audience and that audience assumed Hamilton’s moral indiscretions exposed a rotten character. Callender’s efforts, funded by Jefferson, thoroughly disgraced Hamilton.
And yet, when it came to the tied 1800 election, Hamilton put his long-standing rivalry and antipathy towards Jefferson behind him and fervently wrote Federalist congressman urging them to make Jefferson, not Burr, president.
Hamilton worried that the country would suffer, that the government would be subverted or otherwise harmed, by “an unprincipled man [who] would exploit public passion.” He warned of a latter-day Catiline (a constant fear of Hamilton’s), the Roman senator who led a populist uprising against the Republic. Burr’s populism — he was the first (vice) presidential candidate to canvass for office and helped establish the first political machine in New York — and ambition made him such a man.
Federalists believed that Burr, who held few core principles and profited from the Hamiltonian economic system, would maintain the Federalist program. But Hamilton, who did so much to consolidate government and design the Federalist programs, willingly sacrificed their rollback for character in the presidency. “Great Ambition unchecked by principle…is an unruly Tyrant,” he wrote.
“As to Burr there is nothing in his favour. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandisement per fas et nefas. If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth.”
The Lesser of Two Evils
Jefferson, on the other hand, had greater ability than Burr and was not “zealot enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity, or his interest. He is as likely as any man I know to temporize — to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it. . . . Add to this that there is no fair reason to suppose him capable of being corrupted, which is a security that he will not go beyond certain limits.”
“He is of a temper to undertake the most hazardous enterprises because he is sanguine enough to think nothing impracticable, and of an ambition which will be content with nothing less than permanent power in his own hands. The maintenance of the existing institutions will not suit him, because under them his power will be too narrow & too precarious; yet the innovations he may attempt will not offer the substitute of a system durable & safe, calculated to give lasting prosperity, & to unite liberty with strength. It will be the system of the day, sufficient to serve his own turn, & not looking beyond himself.”
“The truth,” Hamilton wrote, “is that under forms of Government like ours, too much is practicable to men who will without scruple avail themselves of the bad passions of human nature.”
Hamilton put his hatred towards Jefferson and concerns over the longevity of his system to support a candidate with character fit to be president, eschewing his party in the process. He recognized the dangers posed by a self-serving individual without ideology of which to speak and no clear attachment to the constitutional system.
Obviously, Trump is not fit for office. He promotes falsehoods, lies to the American people, and blunders about without a clear understanding of policy, domestic and foreign. About 1/3 of his presidency is spent on properties he owns, mingling with donors and lobbyists who pay companies in which he maintains a financial stake hundreds of thousands a year simply to have access to the president. The Founders never wanted such a businessman to be president because that individual would have innumerable conflicts of interest and act on in a self-serving manner; the fears Hamilton had of Burr come true in Trump.
Our institutions do constrain him, and that’s a testament to the efforts of Hamilton and other Founding Fathers to create precedents of separated power and checks and balances, not risking the early republic for personal or factional interests, but instead recognizing the gravity of their decisions. Precedents can be overturned and the normalization of an authoritarian president coupled with weak congressional opposition does not bode well for the country going forward.
Hamilton acted for the country, not for himself. He worked ceaselessly to protect the country from the dangers of an ambitious and self-serving character. Republicans need to learn from Hamilton’s actions and recognize that our country would be best served by abandoning Donald Trump.
For more on election of 1800 and the histories of Hamilton and Jefferson, checkout Gordon S. Wood’s “Empire of Liberty.” Click the image to buy.
Donald Trump appealed to millions of Americans through sheer primal dominance. His bluster, his unpredictable and easily inflamed temperament, his agenda driven by extreme narcissism, and his story of (white) American warriors constantly fighting in a Hobbesian world of (racial and cultural) change made him appear as an alpha male, a force with which to be reckoned. But really, Trump’s psychological appeal that preys on those who lust for authoritarianism makes him the alpha male of the chimpanzee colony that is now the Republican Party.
Prestige Psychology and Statesmanship
In an ideal polity, humans embrace prestige psychology, a somewhat recent evolutionary gain that has prepared our brains to respect honor those with culturally valued skills. These skills usually contribute to a society’s well-being and are wielded for benevolence.
Prestigious individuals apply their talents not for self-aggrandizement, but to help others. Members of society respond by elevating these individuals to positions of leadership and revere; they seek to emulate these cherished individuals and to respect the prestigious leader’s proclivity to collaborate with other experts (prestigious themselves) and act with degrees of “magnanimity, generosity, forbearance, and dignity in their leadership roles.”
Today, we would call those individuals patricians, or statesmen. Such qualities can be attributed to some of our best presidents, including, namely, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, two men whose actions created and saved the Union while furthering liberty for all.
Donald Trump, of course, shuns statesmanship and his appeal did not draw on prestige psychology. He won because his rhetoric appealed to primal human psychology: Social dominance.
To understand Donald Trump’s appeal, we have to look at chimpanzees. Chimpanzee societies are dominated by a single top-chimp – the alpha. He earns his position through a mix of aggression, intimidation, and threat (which will often devolve into outright violence to squash insurrections and to completely assert social dominance through physical injuries). The alpha chimp also manages to forge coalitions of pragmatism, allying himself with other forces to maintain leadership or, once dethroned, instantly supporting the new alpha in order to keep some vestiges of power.
Humans often act in similar ways. Affinity for social dominance hails from from our ancient history – whereas prestige psychology developed around 100,000 years ago, social dominance became engrained some 5 to 7 million years ago. It’s this truly primal psychology that explains Trump’s appeal.
Trump’s intemperance and (mental) instability means he’s constantly at risk of exploding – he often does this while watching Fox News in the mornings or evenings. His looming aggression and stalking during the second presidential debate show an aggressive man lusting to pounce or charge his opponent. Early morning Twitter tirades insult opposition (often with violent undertones), vent, and relentlessly self-promote such that the uninformed are almost bullied into believing Trump’s competency.
Fear, too, permeates chimpanzee politics – and Trump’s success. Alpha chimps must instill in their potential challengers a sense of fear, a belief that any attempt to overthrow the existing regime would be futile, resulting in pain and even death. Trump uses fear in two ways: To solidify standing among his base and to bully other Republicans into acquiescence.
Trump portrays certain minorities as rapists (Mexicans) and terrorists (Muslims) who hope to destroy the American experiment and undermine Western civilization. By identifying entire groups – large groups, nonetheless – as existential threats to continued existence, he instils in his base a sense of fear. They obviously want to alleviate this fear and so flock to Trump because of his harsh rhetoric towards those groups. And, when irrationally scared, the ends always justify the means. That’s why people supported Trump even after his announcement that he would ban Muslims from entering the country and floated shutting down Mosques and establishing a Muslim database. Anything would be justified to make us safe.
With a solid base unwavering in their support, Trump can bully Republican lawmakers by the implicit (or explicit) threat of a primary challenge. Politicians are cautious creatures. They fear losing and will go to great lengths to avoid real challenges, even if it means compromising on principles (as with most Americans, politicians don’t understand statistics and thus greatly overestimate the probability of losing to a primary challenger). Trump can threaten to endorse and campaign for a rubber-stamp challenger and his base, so the argument goes, will follow him. To avoid that, Republican legislators, in fear of the chimpanzee base, rally behind the president.
This same alpha will also be willing to enter coalitions so long as they benefit himself. He views all relationships as transactional and will end any connection once it ceases to be useful. Hence why Donald Trump ran as a Republican despite having little in common with the party – he needed its resources.
Similarly, after spending months denigrating the RNC and his competitors, he gleefully accepted their endorsements and help; most notably, after claiming that Ted Cruz’s father had been a part of the JFK assassination, Trump accepted Cruz’s endorsement when Cruz ignored his own “vote your conscience” convention speech. It also explains why Trump abandoned Jeff Sessions after the latter’s recusal from the Russia probe: Sessions no longer had anything to offer Trump.
Trump’s appeal, in its primacy, relied on authoritarianism. As mentioned, Trump’s hostile rhetoric towards minorities created a good versus evil false choice in which members of the proposed in-group – (white, Christian) Americans adhering to traditional values – came into conflict with the out-group, bad people (Mexicans and Muslims) who wanted to end the American way of life.
At worst, authoritarianism results in the utter dehuminziation of the out-group. This is how violence and genocide happen. The out-group becomes a subhuman with no natural rights and which must, by all means, be destroyed.
As humans think about conflict with out-groups – whether naturally or at the prompting of a malicious actor – support for highly dominant, authoritarian leaders increases.
Authoritarian Personalities among Voters
Authoritarianism defines the alpha as well as his followers. The (right-wing) authoritarian personality – the best predictor of Trump’s electoral support – desires nationwide values that revolve around traditional norms, submission to (strong) authority figures to either embody or reinforce those norms, and virulent antipathy to those who dare challenge the existing social order.
Trump perfectly fits the needs of those with authoritarian personalities. His extraversion (social dominance, gregariousness, reward-seeking) and low levels of agreeableness (humility, altruism, care, empathy) cultivate a strongman image seemingly dedicated to a strict and traditional social order.
With no political philosophy, Trump acts out of pure narcissism. He wants, above all, to promote himself. This plays into the authoritarian dynamic as those looking for salvation and safety in an authoritarian figure feel vindicated in their choice when the leader believes himself to be a savior, that his “his superior intelligence, his charismatic dominance, his single-minded devotion to a grandiose self will triumph in the end.” That, of course, perfectly defines Trump, a man who constantly (and wrongly) brags about his intelligence.
Donald Trump is the primal president, a man whose support and ascent to power can best be understood by studying chimpanzee politics. He’s an authoritarian who seized the fascination of those with authoritarian personalities and expanded that solid base through fear, intimidation, and coalitions of practicality. His support does not come from political philosophy or long-held ideology. It’s not because of his prestige and skills or natural statesmanship. It’s because Donald Trump tapped the tribal dominance that we evolved millions of years ago but thought we had left behind after the Enlightenment and with the embrace of civil, democratic societies.
Across the globe, illiberal democracy has emerged as a potent force. The discontents caused by the Great Recessions, coupled with other structural economic issues that exacerbate inequality while failing to lift the incomes of the middle and working classes, have left many yearning for change of any sort. That desire has manifested itself in a resurgent populist movement, both from the left and the right. Unfortunately, most so-called populist candidates have a decidedly authoritarian bent that challenges liberal democracy, though not democracy itself.
Liberal democracy refers to a representative democracy in which a constitution bounds the actions of lawmakers and preserves the fundamental liberties of individuals to protect any given minority from the possibly tempestuous whims of a majority coalition. Citizens choose lawmakers in free and fair elections in which all who qualify have the equal opportunity to participate. The system thrives of vibrant discourse and national unity largely free from identity politics and grievances. It does not refer to a government controlled by a left-wing political party.
Illiberal democracies have the opposite values: Lawmakers rarely feel meaningfully constrained by a constitution which can be easily amended or simply ignored and that does not guarantee the rights of all residents. Instead, minorities can see liberties abridged by the majority. This typically happens for easily defined groups based on ethnicity, but can extend to religion, economic status, or any other discernible characteristics. Though such polities have elections, they are not typically free and fair. Citizens may find it difficult to vote either because of limited polling access, voter intimidation, or brute voter suppression. At worst, elections exist for show only with the outcomes already predetermined by the in-power party (who, in most cases, acts to consolidate and preserve attained power). It’s a system that can quickly devolve into authoritarianism.
Yet politicians who believe and embrace such illiberal principles have recently seen electoral success in western democracies (or democracies that, in recent decades, have sought to be considered western). Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and the United States all exemplify ascendent illiberalism.
Hungary has seen a popular lurch towards authoritarianism, with Prime Minister Orban winning a “landslide” reelection despite his known illiberal attitudes. Orban himself, inspired by the likes of Russia, China, and Erdogan’s Turkey, declared he will build a new, “illiberal state” in Hungary to lead the nation “in the great global race for decades to come.” His tenure has seen “an erosion of the independence of the judiciary, the packing of courts with political loyalists, a wholesale political purge of the civil service and the chief prosecutor’s office, new election rules that advantage the governing coalition and the intimidation of the news organizations (who can be issued crippling fines for content deemed “not politically balanced” by a government-appointed panel).” When stopped or challenged, he’s simply used a large parliamentary supermajority to amend the Constitution. Freedom House proclaims the upcoming 2018 elections to be a critical juncture for Hungary: If Orban emerges victorious, Hungary may become the illiberal state once thought to be confined to Europe’s dark past.
Poland, too, has moved in an illiberal direction under the leadership of the far-right populist “Law and Justice” party. The party, legitimately elected, has broken “the constitution, both in letter and in spirit,” by undermining the constitutional court, politicizing the civil service, and subverting public media. These actions create cronyism and a government that serves the party, not the people. Once all institutions have been coopted, they can be successfully turned against opposition, thereby creating a de facto one party state. Luckily, Poles have not bowed down to such illiberalism. While a large percentage of the country supports Law and Justice and its illiberal aims, a large, liberal sect of the population widely protested laws that would fundamentally overhaul the constitutional court’s composition, subserving it to the will of the ruling party. The Polish president vetoed both bills because of the popular backlash. More judicial reforms, however, have been promised. Poles need to continue resisting illiberal intentions and not let Law and Justice create an illiberal state.
Lastly, America, democracy’s shining beacon, has moved in an illiberal direction with Donald Trump’s election. Trump campaigned on a variety of illiberal themes and identity politics that relied on vilifying an ever amorphous “other” — in his case, illegal immigrants and Muslims comprise that villain/enemy group. He’s attacked the judiciary and questioned its legitimacy. His belief in US intelligence agencies remains doubtful. He fired James Comey because of the Russia investigation and has sought other methods to curtail its scope and authority, even threatening to fire special investigator Robert Mueller. Trump’s routinely attacked the press and even labelled them “enemies of the American people.” Many of his campaign positions would violate the constitutional rights of minorities. And yet he retains the support of almost the entire Republican congressional caucus and most Republicans in the nation. His clearly illiberal bent should worry Americans, but thankfully, unlike in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, our institutions have thus far been resilient to Trump’s illiberalism.
Illiberalism is ascendent. The above cases only mention the most obvious — other examples of illiberalism include UKIP’s influences in Britain, Alternates for Deutschland in Germany, and the National Front in France. Across the western world, these populist movements manifest themselves in illiberal forces that all traverse the road to authoritarianism. We must resist these populist temptations and instead stay committed to the long-standing liberal values that promote and defend our natural liberties.
Voter Refusing to Trust Experts Leads to Demagoguery
Tom Nichols’ new book, “The Death of Expertise,” comes at an important point in America’s political development. 62 million citizens cast a ballot for Donald J. Trump, whose entire campaign built on the idea that experts – whether in the “political establishment,” media, or academia – ignored the wants of common Americans and instead pushed some sinister, self-serving agenda. Decry it though we might, for many, the death of expertise has set in. To them, experts should not and will not be trusted.
That creates many problems for a democracy, chief among them the electorate’s susceptibility to (often extremist) demagogic appeals. Voters wary of experts tend to be uninformed by virtue of doubting or entirely avoiding the analysis of experts. Long-form journalism, the professor on CNN, knowledgeable elected officials cannot reach the voters who instead dwell in sources of alternate information that, at best, misinforms through low-quality output or, at worst, deliberately misleads those inclined towards non-mainstream views.
Such voters, as Nichols points out, fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect in which they are overly confident about their abilities to understand complicated policy. Thus when an ignorant candidate enters the race and espouses overly simplistic (and often entirely wrong) policy viewpoints, Dunning-Kruger voters embrace him or her whereas more sophisticated voters – those who still trust experts – shy away.
Nichols writes that
Americans have increasingly unrealistic expectations of what their political and economic system can provide. This sense of entitlement is one reason they are continually angry at ‘experts’ and especially at ‘elitists’…When told that ending poverty or preventing terrorism is a lot harder than it looks, Americans roll their eyes. Unable to comprehend all of the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame experts, politicians and bureaucrats for seizing control of their lives.
The demagogue, whether through true ignorance or a unique ability to manipulate people, recognizes this outlook and tailors a campaign around it. To pay obsequious court to the people, the demagogue often condescends to simplicity, using rhetorical appeals such as “I alone can fix” or “How stupid must [they] be to not solve these easy problems?” or otherwise boiling down complex issues into few-word soundbites that may energize the ignorant, but offer no solutions.
Donald Trump perfectly exemplifies this. He is truly ignorant, but his ignorance connects with a relatively large portion of the population that, like Trump himself, disdains experts and expects simple answers to all political questions. While other elements played into Trump’s ascension – racial anxieties and underlying sexism, to name a couple – his ability to connect over ignorance furthered his perceived populism and helped forge a lasting connection with millions of voters.
This problem lies in large part with the voters, an argument from which Nichols does not shy. He contends that such disdain for experts and its accompanying willingness to make one’s nest with an ignoramus simply because (s)he speaks a similar langue “is a self-righteousness and fury to this new rejection of expertise that suggest, at least to me, that this isn’t just mistrust or questioning or the pursuit of alternatives: it is narcissism, coupled to a disdain for expertise as some sort of exercise in self-actualization.”
Voters must recognize the consequences of willful ignorance and see how it can hurt democracy. Only by accepting experts and the lessons they can teach – and only by experts maintaining their credibility and legitimacy – can a democratic political society resist demagoguery and adhere to its liberal founding principles.
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