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Sliding Toward Post-Truth and Pre-Fascism*

For citizens deeply concerned about the state of American freedom and democratic self-governance after the bulk of the GOP House caucus and a few Republican Senators voted to overturn the legitimate electoral outcomes in two states following the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, two turns since that vote give cause for continuing and even increased alarm. First, all but five Senate Republicans voted to set aside the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump’s instigation of that riot on the grounds, dismissed by a wide array of Constitutional law scholars, that he cannot be tried for offenses committed in office now that he is no longer serving.[1] The politics of this ruse seemed to be about avoiding voting on the question of Trump’s incitement of the mob that attacked the Capitol so as not to roil the share of the Party’s “base” still willing to believe the former president’s false claims that he won the November 3 election. For most of the Republican Senators involved, it was a transparently cynical ploy born of an apparent desire to maintain standing with a deeply misled group of voters, rather than to take steps to disabuse those individuals of their misapprehension.

A second turn that has given many observers pause is the House GOP’s unwillingness to strip freshman Congressperson Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments, despite her history not only of embracing fantasy, including the QAnon conspiracies, but also her untrue and deeply cruel claims that California’s wildfires were started by Jewish lasers, that the Parkland and Sandy Hook school shootings were “false flag” operations, and that Hillary Clinton killed a child. Greene has also embraced a call to murder Democratic party leaders and Trump’s claim that he won the election.[2] Not only did the House Republican Caucus not sanction their new colleague by removing her from her committees, a share gave her a standing ovation when she offered public comments before them concerning her unhinged behavior and statements.[3] Both of these actions suggest, as Richard North Patterson has recently argued, that “the Republicans have become a party of lies, hysteria, extremism, and violence,” or a party willing to embrace those attributes.[4]

The question going forward is whether elected GOP officials can reasonably be expected to moderate this anti-democratic and anti-governance stance or whether they will remain mired in supporting these and other pernicious fantasies, including Trump’s Big Lie concerning the election, out of cynicism, ideology (broadly understood) or desire for political power. While Trump’s second impeachment trial will not begin until the day after this essay is published, it does not appear likely that enough Republican Senators (17 are needed) will vote for his conviction to secure it. This is a very sad sign for their party and for the nation, as it signals, once again, that these lawmakers fear potential retribution from Trump supporters in the next electoral cycle, more than they value the truth or the good of the country. Their vote to acquit Trump on these grounds would suggest that the nation’s most basic principles and institutions can be attacked with impunity and that anyone doing so may proceed on the basis of completely fabricated claims. This is not only a moral tragedy, but also an utter abdication and failure of leadership and democratic responsibility. Even discussing this possibility suggests a profound democratic decline in the GOP and, to the extent its officials are supported in such actions, among a strong share of Americans as well.

It is worth reviewing briefly how matters came to this pass by listing a share of the major arguments or motifs the Republican Party has offered for decades that appear to be animating a solid minority of citizens to support its current brand of outrageous demagoguery and lies:

  • Although it has never occurred, the GOP has argued since at least 1964 that, if elected, Democrats will create “socialism” and deprive individuals of their hard-earned funds and rights thereby. More recently Trump, in an inadvertently revealing trope, argued that electing the Democratic Party would result in the destruction of the nation and the imposition of tyranny.[5]
  • More particularly, the GOP claims that Democrats give public funds, obtained via taxation, to undeserving members of minority groups. These stands have been accompanied by long-term efforts to limit minorities’ access to the ballot box and by a willingness under Trump to scapegoat such groups, and Democrats more generally, for the country’s perceived woes, including COVID-19.[6]
  • GOP leaders insist that virtually any regulation of business is undue because it will deprive individuals of employment that otherwise would be provided. Most recently, this stance has led the Party officially to refuse to acknowledge climate change, despite the current and future costs to the nation of that stance.[7]
  • The Republican party maintains that taxes per se are largely anomalous and will often be wasted by unspecified bureaucrats making undue claims on citizens, even as, among other trends that might be cited, public infrastructure of all stripes has continued to deteriorate, and educational outcomes have also declined during the period this public philosophy has held sway.[8]
  • Republicans argue that providing tax cuts to the wealthiest in society will ensure rising job levels and broad scale prosperity, despite strong evidence to the contrary.[9]

The roughly 8,000 individuals in the mob that stormed the Capitol and the many millions who otherwise continue to support Trump and these stands have been lied to for decades, but especially under Trump who offered the public false claims with an unprecedented frequency and of huge proportions—as symbolized by his repeatedly expressed unfounded contention that he won an election that he lost by more than 7 million votes. Together these assertions have convinced many GOP voters that many other Americans are their enemies and that no other party can legitimately wield power because to allow it to do so would entail a loss in their way of life. As Philip Rotner has recently observed concerning the members of the group that desecrated the Capitol and those who have supported or rationalized such actions since,

Exactly what the insurgents fear will be taken away from them is the MacGuffin of our times. Who has it is more important than what it is. For white supremacists, it’s white privilege. For Second Amendment absolutists, it’s guns. For the religious right, it’s God. For the militias, it’s what they call “freedom,” meaning unfettered personal autonomy. For anti-immigration activists, it’s jobs and cultural identity. For Stop the Steal, it’s electoral power. While the precise threat may be defined differently across the various components of the insurgent army, for each group the threat is perceived as existential. Therefore, they consider themselves morally, if not legally, justified to resist with violence.[10]

Importantly, GOP officials, led by Trump for four years, not only countenanced these behaviors, but encouraged them in order to obtain votes and secure power. All of the Manichean choices Rotner highlighted are false and all embrace an implicit authoritarian and anti-democratic stance by delegitimizing the possibility of a loyal opposition. For example, no one is taking away from Evangelicals, or even contemplating taking, the freedom to worship their God as they see fit. Their concern instead is that all should worship as they do. Any other outcome, they interpret as imposing an unacceptable pluralism. Likewise, virtually no Democrat, GOP and Trump rhetoric notwithstanding, has argued that hunters should be denied weapons to pursue their pastime. But the GOP has worked with gun industry advocates for decades to convince those devotees that any regulation of firearms is undue and will surely result in that outcome. In every case, the Republican Party, and Trump most recently, has actively sought to stoke anxieties and fears of difference and to delegitimate anyone who might question their rhetorical flights of fancy and lies.     

All of this has placed the country in a very difficult position. While the Democrats, now emerging as the nation’s lone arbiters of democratic principles, currently control the Congress and Presidency, they hold a very narrow edge in the former and the GOP looks set there to refuse to hold Trump accountable for his seven-month effort to overturn a legal election, which resulted in a violent insurrection in the Capitol. Additionally, Republican elected officials have thus far proven incapable of holding even the most radically seditious of their members accountable for their public embrace of lies and fantasies. Again, this is occurring because the Party has sanctioned or encouraged many of those beliefs, and/or Trump has done so, and its officials likewise chose to let Trump go unchecked throughout his term in office.                                                     

Now, GOP leaders apparently fear releasing the Genie in the bottle they have created—loyal Trump voters willing to give credence to his lies—lest that cancerous power remove them from office as well. At one level, one might wish to celebrate watching these individuals being hoisted with their own petards, but that satisfaction would be pyrrhic, as it is painfully clear that many individuals animated by the social and economic anxieties that Republicans and Trump have stoked are very willing, in the name of their versions of perceived victimhood, to trade their freedom for a rhetoric of false safety and mutually contradictory promises. They have shown themselves similarly willing to abandon all reason in favor of Trumpian— read, a would-be autocrat’s—magical thinking. So, we have a scenario in which GOP officials have helped to shape a “base,” too many of whose members live in an alternate epistemic reality, that those leaders now believe they cannot cross or otherwise will not challenge as they seek to position themselves to gain power in the future.[11]

In a compelling book published in 2017, Yale University historian Timothy Snyder built on a career studying tyranny to share 20 lessons on that signal topic, derived from experience in the 20th century. While all of those theses are relevant to the survival of democracy, one seems especially apt for the present moment, Believe in Truth. As Snyder suggested:

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.  The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights. You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual—and thus the collapse of any political system that depends on individualism.[12]

Millions of this nation’s citizens have already succumbed to tyranny by this analysis and      Republican Party leaders now confront a critical choice: to follow those individuals down that path and (to continue to encourage them in it) toward the complete degradation or erosion of freedom, or to begin to calibrate their choices, whatever their policy predilections, toward ensuring the fundaments of liberty provided by our Constitution. Rarely are political choices so stark as those facing GOP elected officials in the upcoming Trump impeachment trial. Should they fail the nation by failing to hold the former president accountable for the violence and sedition he deliberately unleashed, voters should remove them from office as soon as feasible. Like many others, I do not wish to contemplate an America whose elected leaders refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of democracy, the rule of law and individual freedom. The coming trial is not alone a trial of Donald Trump, but also of the Republican Party’s leaders, and more deeply, of that party’s soul.  

*With thanks to Timothy Snyder (cited below). This title draws on his evocative phrase: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” (p.71).

Notes

[1] Buchanan, Neil H. “Impeaching a President is Plainly Constitutional,” Justia Verdict, January 28, 2021, https://verdict.justia.com/2021/01/28/impeaching-a-former-president-is-plainly-constitutional?utm_source=verdict-newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2021-01-28&utm_content=text-view-in-browser-1, Accessed January 28, 2021; Fandos, Nicholas. “Most G.O.P Senators Vote Against Holding Impeachment Trial for Trump,” The New York Times, January 27, 2021,  https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/01/26/us/biden-trump-impeachment, Accessed February 4, 2021. 

[2] Patterson, Richard North. “Democrats Must Run Against GOP Extremism,” The Bulwark, February 2, 2021, https://thebulwark.com/democrats-must-run-against-gop-extremism/, Accessed February 2, 2021. 

[3] Edmondson, Catie. “House Exiles Marjorie Taylor Greene From Panels, as Republicans Rally Around Her,” The New York Times, February 5, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/us/politics/marjorie-taylor-greene.html, Accessed February 5, 2021.

[4] Patterson, Richard North, “Democrats Must Run.”

[5] Snyder, Timothy. “The American Abyss,” The New York Times Magazine, January 9, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/magazine/trump-coup.html, Accessed January 9, 2021.

[6] Egan, Lauren. “Trump calls Coronavirus Democrats’ ‘New Hoax,’” NBC News, February 28, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-calls-coronavirus-democrats-new-hoax-n1145721, Accessed February 7, 2021.  

[7] Davenport, Coral and Mark Landler. “Trump Administration  Hardens its Attack on Climate Science,” The New York Times, May 27, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/us/politics/trump-climate-science.html, Accessed February 7, 2021. 

[8] Gleckman, Howard. “Tax Vox: Campaigns, Proposals and Reforms: What the GOP Platform Says About Taxes,” Tax Policy Center, July 19, 2016, https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxvox/what-gop-platform-says-about-taxes, Accessed February 7, 2021.  N.B. The GOP did not offer a national platform in 2020.

[9] Richardson, Heather Cox. How the South Won the War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

[10] Rotner, Phillip as quoted in Richard North Patterson, “Democrats Must Run Against GOP Extremism,” The Bulwark, February 2, 2021, https://thebulwark.com/democrats-must-run-against-gop-extremism/, Accessed February 2, 2021. 

[11] Patterson, Richard North. “The GOP’s ‘Pre-Fascist’ DNA,” The Bulwark, January 26, 2021, https://thebulwark.com/the-gops-pre-fascist-dna/, Accessed January 30, 2021.

[12] Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017, pp. 65-66.

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