Save us from ourselves

Insurgents storm the Capitol, January 6, 2021. (Photo: Mel D. Cole)

Trump is being held accountable for his words like never before. The first president to be impeached twice, Trump is leaving office with an approval rating of 29% and his personal brand in shambles. He has been banned from most social media platforms. And he may ultimately face criminal charges for inciting the riot at the Capitol.

I wrote these words last year after the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, the culmination of Trump’s disastrous presidency, fueled by white nationalism, racist nativism, toxic masculinity, and maniacal egoism. I genuinely believed that Trump, finally, had been — and would be — held accountable for his words and his actions that had brought us to this dangerous precipice.

I was wrong — and I was not alone. Today, sirens are blaring for calls to save our democracy. On this first anniversary of the assault on the Capitol, pundits and politicians alike — from Karl Rove to Jimmy Carter — have concluded that Trump and his supporters are, in fact, in a better position to achieve their undemocratic goals in 2022 and 2024 than they were in 2020.

A resurrected Trump candidacy may not have the advantage of incumbency to press his case, legally and practically, but his supporters have been studying his moves and missteps and working to ensure that the result is different in 2024. On nearly every battlefront, to control the vote — statehouses, state election authorities, courthouses, Congress, and the Republican Party apparatus — Trump’s position has improved since a year ago.

Polls show the Big Lie is only gaining potency among Republicans. Trust in our electoral systems and democracy is declining. As of December 31, 2021, only 35 percent of Republicans said they had at least some trust in the U.S. electoral. That’s down from 43 percent a year ago, and 69 percent prior to election day 2020. Aggressive disinformation campaigns continue to pit Americans against each other. Nineteen states have passed new voter restrictions with more to come. And Trump’s purge of disloyalists is succeeding. Three of the 10 House Republicans who voted for Trump’s second impeachment have announced their retirement. The others stand to face Trump-backed challengers.

According to Barton Gellman of The Atlantic, Trump has built the first American mass political movement in the past century that is ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its cause.

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Even before the January 6th insurrection, from Waco and Ruby Ridge to the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the state government, the right has shown it is willing to use violence cloaked in the name of freedom and the symbolism of patriotism. While there are violent actors on the political left, Stephen Marche, author of “The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future,” writes “Left-wing radicalism matters mostly because it creates the conditions for right-wing radicalization.”

The success of the progressive left, such as it is, has ultimately led to the dramatic radicalization on the right we see now. And the Republican party has been happy to capitalize on this, casually making reference to the idea of armed conflict. In August, pushing the Big Lie and right-wing extremism, Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina said, “If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place and that’s bloodshed,” and suggested he was personally willing to take up arms. The Washington Post recently reported that roughly 40 percent of Republicans believe that violent action against the government is sometimes justified.

Opposition to any constraints on second amendment rights have become a critical litmus test for acceptance in the new Republican party, but violent rhetoric against all modern political norms has become commonplace. And one-sided censures of Reps. Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene for threatening violence against sitting members of Congress have not only helped to cement their star status with Trump and the Trumpists, but the punishments have been loudly criticized by party leadership. (Trump had no problem criticizing and canceling Kathy Griffin, a comedian, when she satirically posed with a rubber mask of Donald Trump’s face smeared with ketchup.)

* * * * *

Robert A. Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and expert in political violence, has observed several characteristics of the January 6 insurgents that distinguish them from other political dissidents around the world and throughout history.

First, their median age was nearly 42. This is wildly atypical for such protestors, who more commonly tend to be in their 20s and early 30s. There were also economic anomalies. Over the previous decade, one in four violent extremists arrested by the FBI had been unemployed. But only 7 percent of the January 6 insurgents were jobless, and more than half of the group had a white-collar job or owned their own business.

A law-enforcement officer is attacked at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Photo: Mel D. Cole)

They were also not, by and large, affiliated with known extremist groups. Without a doubt, many did have connections with the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, or the Three Percenters militia, but fully six out of every seven who were charged with crimes had no such ties. According to Pape, “The last time America saw middle-class whites involved in violence was the expansion of the second KKK in the 1920s.” The insurrection has since come to be seen as a recruiting exercise.

Most tellingly, the insurgents were also likely to come from counties where the white share of the population was in decline. For every one-point drop in a county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the likelihood of an insurgent hailing from that county increased by 25 percent. These demographic trends are powerful and not likely to subside, regardless of how uncomfortable they are for many in the white majority. This is fertile ground for Tucker Carlson and others to stoke nativist fears of white replacement.

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I have struggled to bring a clear vision into focus for how to move forward from here. I’ve written about determined optimism and resilience, but I’ve recently been paralyzed by an overwhelming sense of dread.

Protestors t-shirts declare their intent. (Photo: Uncredited)

My biggest concern is the hyper-polarization in our society and the increasingly legitimate fear that our democracy is at risk. Even if you don’t believe our country is on the brink of civil war, it’s not hard to imagine that we are sinking into some sort of dystopian authoritarian future, perhaps similar to Orban’s Hungary, which Trump has openly praised and recently endorsed, democratic on paper yet unfree and unfair in practice.

Hungary got to this point through a series of changes to electoral rules and laws imposed over time that might seem individually defensible but — in combination with corruption, inflammatory populism, and suppression of a free press — are corrosive to a healthy democracy. It simply takes a political party in power that cares less about democracy than about maintaining power and a voting base willing to back the party even as it strengthens its repressive grip.

Why would people support less democracy? Or why people would care so much about certain rights (guns) and seemingly care so little about others (voting)? Most inexplicable, perhaps, why is it so much easier to blame a loss of economic security or status on immigrants and minority groups than on corporations, billionaires, and oligarchs?

I strongly believe that Democratic priorities are the critical priorities for our time, but we don’t have one-party rule — and we don’t even have a large enough majority in Congress (and perhaps even the country) to pass the legislative agenda of this administration without a few Republican willing to cross party lines. This seems unlikely, but as we saw with the Infrastructure Bill, not impossible.

Democrats aren’t good at nuclear politics. In the end, those strategies are ineffectual, self-destructive, and short-sighted. You simply can’t change a culture through means that are antithetical to the core values you espouse.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow after all we’ve been through, but for the Democrats to be successful, they are going to have to reach across the aisle. They have to show people that they can govern, that they aren’t just looking for a different flavor of one-party rule more to their liking. They have to show Americans that government can work for them and that people can actually work together. Because they’ve been able to accomplish so little on their own, they don’t actually have much room to argue that they’ve made much progress toward solving our big problems.

They must immediately pass whatever version of Build Back Better that the Democratic holdouts will accept and move on. They must promptly pass any bipartisan reforms to the 1887 Electoral Count Act. It’s not enough, but it’s something, and it will at least close one path to Trump’s attempted coup.

Progressives fear that these compromises will leave the country with woefully inadequate solutions to our big problems and simultaneously cause Democrats to lose the support of younger voters, minority voters, and others who were energized to vote in the last election. But the reality is, without showing the country that they can govern at all, the Democrats stand to lose so much more. And we will all pay the price. They have to show the country how to save us from ourselves.

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Beau Everett

Imagining a better world, while trying to make sense of the one we’ve got.