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Countering Democratic Usurpation



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Two recent high-profile public calls have highlighted an ongoing crisis of empathy and explosion of viciousness across much of the world today, including the United States. The first is World Refugee Day, which the international community observes formally this year on June 20.1 The second occurred on May 30, when Pope Francis issued a powerful statement of his prayer intention for June, calling for an end to torture and in support of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on June 26.2 Together, these two initiatives emphasize the central importance of governments and political and social leaders underscoring the significance of the principle of dignifying all individuals and assuring them the rights and standing innate to their humanity.

        These commemorations are occurring during a period of marked mercilessness toward minorities and the powerless here in the United States. For example, the Republican governors of Florida and Texas have flown and bussed asylum seekers and refugees to other states in clear violation of the law and the rights of those individuals in recent months. They did so as publicity stunts designed to mobilize supporters against those whom they dubbed interlopers.3 Each of these efforts was an exercise in cruelty and each sought to dehumanize those targeted by it. Like these two governors, former President Donald Trump continues to rail against immigration and to cast refugees as undeserving individuals, criminals and worse as he pursues his party’s 2024 presidential nomination.

        All three of these individuals are Republicans and to point to this reality is but to note the popularity of attacking immigration and refugeedom and more generally, minorities of various stripes, with that party’s base. For Trump personally, his open embrace of xenophobic hatred as a part of his political campaign is particularly ironic and hypocritical, since his grandfather emigrated to the United States from Kallstadt, Germany in 1885. The same may be said of Governor Ron De Santis of Florida, now also campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination, whose illiterate great-great grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from Italy in 1917. Both political figures are denying their own heritage as well as this nation’s history as they assail immigrants and refugees as pariahs.

        The Pope’s message calling for the abolition of torture pointed to the wellsprings of callousness within human beings to which these partisan efforts to demonize refugees, immigrants and other minorities seek to appeal:

Torture is not past history. Unfortunately, it is part of our history today. How is it possible that the human capacity for cruelty is so large? There are extremely violent forms of torture. Others are more sophisticated, such as degrading someone, dulling the senses, or mass detentions in conditions so inhumane that they take away the dignity of the person.4

        The two governors’ acts that degraded human beings in callous calls to hate for political gain, together with Trump’s routine rhetoric dehumanizing refugees and immigrants and many native-born Americans, aim to animate that large “human capacity for cruelty” to which Francis pointed. These officials’ actions raise afresh the Pope’s profound question of why human beings possess so vast a reservoir of rancor and ill will. That question might be recast in this instance as a need to examine why so many Republican supporters especially seem so willing to respond to calls for malice against these groups. These actions also raise a companion ethical concern of why GOP leaders would believe it appropriate to lie persistently to appeal to such depravity in the first place.

        Put differently, this phenomenon of attacks on specific groups, a form of tyrannizing on the part of leaders and supporters alike, suggests that apart from the state of the nation’s security and the health of its economy—both hardy and important perennials in our nation’s public conversation—the United States today faces at least two additional vital concerns. First, we must work collectively as a citizenry to understand why a share of Americans are so willing to attack specific minority groups and undermine their civil and human rights and, in the case of their support for Trump, to do so at the behest of a well-known inveterate liar, narcissist and demagogue. Second, we must address a related ethical challenge: why a significant share of our nation’s officials, obliged to support our Constitution, have instead chosen to set that solemn oath aside and offer support for the dehumanization of specific populations, as evidenced by the examples above.

        As a matter of democratic theory, or at least of representational forms of the same, all of our elected leaders should act to ensure that all of this country’s residents enjoy the rights and standing accorded them by the Constitution, treaties and laws. That is, those entrusted with public office should act as bulwarks of rights preservation, rule of law and due process of law and against the potential of mob or mass tyrannizing. The provisions of the 14th amendment oblige officials to ensure the following citizen rights:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.  … [and] No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.5

        As such, governmental leaders should work, as a matter of their responsibilities to the nation and to those they serve, to ensure that all in this country are treated fairly and assured their Constitutional or legal rights. None should be singled out for discrimination on the basis of specific characteristics, whether race, creed, national origin or any other. In fact, however, Trump and many other Republicans today rouse followers by attacking individuals on all of these bases, including gender and even partisanship, in violation of their Constitutional responsibilities. When pressed, most of these nominal leaders seek to justify these actions by suggesting they reflect the will of a majority of their constituents, or of their core supporters. This notion is empty as it abandons their roles and responsibilities as agents assigned a key function as statespersons in the preservation of the Constitution and citizen rights in the name of a plebiscitary politics of the moment. In the present case, that politics has assumed ever more overt forms of racism, chauvinism and misogyny.

        In light of the fact that GOP officials are willing to set aside their ethical and moral obligations and to degrade human and civil rights to garner votes and power, the abiding question Pope Francis has raised remains: Why have so many Americans responded positively, even hungrily, to such vacuous and hate-filled rhetoric? As one way to understand this puzzle, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has suggested that support for Trump’s lies, hateful bombast and vitriol can be understood as a willingness among many voters,  

to interpret it at least in part as a perk of success and as confidence’s sufferable sidekick. They’ll vicariously enjoy, and envy, not just the operatic living but also the histrionic boasting. There but for a few hundred million dollars brag I.6

        Bruni has likewise argued that the ugly racist vulgarity explicit in Trump and other Republican leaders’ contentions that other Americans as well as immigrants and refugees should be degraded and dehumanized arises from the fact that such assertions can emerge:

as an asset, not a liability, because as soon as [they are] derided as such — the minute detractors tsk-tsk and curl their lips — it positions a politician in opposition to ‘the elites.’ It turns a man of riches into a man of the people.7

        In this way, the berating of others that disavows one’s oath of office, cruelly dehumanizes those targeted and ultimately undoes the civil and human rights of those so demonized, while being justified solely on grounds of the accretion of power, can receive support. This process of the very rich (in Trump’s case) and those otherwise in positions of power contemptuously garnering the full-throated backing of many individuals in the working class is a product, in Pope Francis’s terms, of the boundless capacity for cruelty innate to humankind. Rather than seek to control or stymie that passion, Trump and other GOP leaders are fanning it with lies in efforts to channel the fear and hatred that fuels it for electoral gain. In so doing, they demonstrate a breathtaking moral bankruptcy of the sort about which Pope Francis also warned in his recent message, and about which Bruni concluded:

If you don’t care about how thoroughly you’re degrading your country, if you’re willing to sacrifice its future on the altar of your own greedy here and now, you can scheme with abandon, lie with conviction and vilify anyone and everyone who gets in your way. Shamelessness is its own reward.8

        Ultimately, this frightening moment in U.S history comes down to a question of whether a sufficient number of citizens will act at the polls to check this shameless and ethically bereft appeal to the worst in humankind and its accompanying degradation of freedom and equality. The record to date concerning this question is mixed. For such to occur, all Americans must be made aware of what is occurring and why and how. In this regard, it should be emphasized that the majority of GOP leaders has not been engaged in a debate concerning policy options on asylum or any of a range of other ostensible concerns those officials have raised as a part of their mobilization strategy. Their efforts instead reflect a continuing attempt to secure an  a priori degradation and dehumanization of specific groups of individuals based on their posited innately dangerous difference(s). That fact demands truth seeking and truth telling to counter it and those devoted to self-governance should be ever vigilant in their pursuit and presentation of the same as an antidote to this proselytization of hate. That effort will likely not prove straightforward as Trump and others in his party work assiduously to elicit cruelty with lies and systematic appeals for oppression. Those calls must be met with care, reason and belief in the possibility that individuals can govern themselves and protect the rights of all, even in the face of sustained efforts to undo the principles that promise that potential. One must hope that the sinews of U.S. democracy can prevail and a share of our citizenry’s appetite and capacity for cruelty can be checked in this instance by deliberation and the general population’s overarching devotion to equality and freedom.


1 United Nations. “World Refugee Day: June 20, 2023,”, Accessed June 17, 2023.  

2 Pope Francis. “For the Abolition of Torture,” The Pope Video June 2023, May 30, 2023,, Accessed June 17, 2023.

3 Sandoval, Edgar, Miriam Jordan, Patricia Mazzei and J. David Goodman. “The Story Behind De Santis’s Migrant Flights to Martha’s Vineyard,” The New York Times, October 2, 2022,, Accessed July 16, 2023; Ramji-Nogales, Jaya, In Weaponizing Asylum Seekers, De Santis and Abbott Unwittingly Demonstrate the Possibility of Safe Transit for Migrants,” Politico, September 30, 2022,, Accessed June 16, 2023; Martin, Arcella and Dianne Solis.  “Gov. Abbott sends letter to U.S. governors calling for fight against Biden asylum rules,” The Dallas Morning News, May 16, 2023,, Accessed June 17, 2023.      

4 Pope Francis. “For the Abolition of Torture.”

5 National Archives, United States Constitution, 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution-civil rights (1868)., Accessed June 19, 2023.  

6 Bruni, Frank. “The Brotherhood of the Philandering Oligarchs,” The New York Times, June 15, 2023,,  Accessed June 15, 2023.

7 Bruni, “The Brotherhood of the Philandering Oligarchs.”

8 Bruni, “The Brotherhood of the Philandering Oligarchs.”

Publication Date

June 19, 2023