Virginia Tech® home

Tearing at the Sinews of Democratic Legitimacy



Authors as Published

I write on the eve of a significant national election, which may see the Republican Party win control of either or both houses of Congress. While all elections may be said to be important, this one has taken on a special meaning because of the increasing radicalization of the GOP and that Party’s decision once again to press its election campaign based on attacking the Democratic Party rather than offering a policy program of its own. One need not look far for evidence of what this combination of political emptiness and rancor has brought to American politics. Consider:

· Former President Donald Trump’s lawyers recently released a statement condemning New York Judge Arthur Engoron’s decision to order an independent monitor to oversee the Trump Organization to prevent it from transferring its assets without court approval while that entity is under investigation for fraud. They suggested that the judge’s choice was “about seizing control of a successful company,” which by even cursory analysis was clearly not the case. Meanwhile, Trump dubbed Engoron “a puppet judge.” He argued that the decision represented “[c]ommunism come to our shores,” with that unexplained and unsubstantiated assertion offered as sufficient to delegitimate the judge. At a rally in Arizona soon after Engoron issued his decision, Trump went even further, again with no evidence, to argue that, “a radical left lunatic judge in New York City who is totally controlled by my worst enemies in the Democrat Party … started a process of property confiscation that is akin to Venezuela, Cuba, or the old Soviet Union.”1 This wild rhetoric is remarkable for its suggestion that the law cannot regulate any business activity, for positing that any oversight is authoritarian, and for suggesting that withal, all such considerations are the product only of power and partisanship. To state that none of these assertions comports with reality and that they patently undermine the rule of law is only to suggest the obvious. But it is now clear that Trump and the GOP do not care whether their contentions do anything other than encourage their advocates to be angry, to despise those they are prompted to loathe, and to feel self-righteously secure in both of those emotions.

· A radicalized GOP supporter, David De Pape, recently broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home looking to “interrogate her” and when “she lied,” as he assumed she would, to break both of her knees as a way of torturing and punishing her.2 Not finding the Speaker at home, the perpetrator assaulted her husband, Paul Pelosi, with the hammer he had brought along, and cracked his skull, sending him to the hospital. In response to this heinous act, wrought by a self-described believer in the Q-Anon fantasy and Trump’s lie concerning the outcome of the 2020 election alike, most Republican leaders, as Dan Rather has noted, treated the incident in unhinged ways:

how some of the country reacted to this attack, particularly many prominent Republican politicians and their cheerleaders and normalizers in the media, is chilling. It should also be shocking. That many of our fellow Americans are not shocked is a sad validation of how vitriolic right-wing rhetoric has become.  Decrying violence should be a given. But instead, we have seen outrageous conspiracy theories, false equivalence, a general lack of outrage, and even people trying to turn a violent assault into a joke. A joke. It is obviously not a joke. It is the opposite of a joke.3

        The upshot of this current form of Republican Party politics is an open embrace of lies, cruelty, derision, crazed conspiracy mongering and violence not simply against “foreigners and immigrants,” but also against fellow citizens and elected leaders. Indeed, lying is now so commonplace by Trump and GOP party leaders as hardly to occasion a yawn among such officials or their supporters. Increasingly, it appears that the more outrageous and fantastical these assertions, the more likely they are to elicit screams of adulation from the party’s true believers. It is or should be extraordinary when U.S. elected leaders do all they can to debase other citizens and officials as crazed attackers of American governance, as Trump did in reacting to Judge Engoron’s ruling, for example, when those claims serve principally to divert attention from the lies and wrongdoing of the individuals offering them. But increasingly, it is not.

        Only the GOP has elected to attack democratic norms and governance for more than 50 years at an increasing pace and with rising ferocity, and only that party has chosen to throw its lot in with a grotesquely cynical figure who neither cares about governance nor democracy, but who does crave power and the limelight. This situation is dangerous and is becoming more so as the party has driven itself deeper into the morass created by its support of a politics of brazen lies fueled by hate. The party and its leaders are now actively attacking the rule of law, the franchise, and all who might seek to hold its unleashed odium to account, even violently. And, when violence occurs, these individuals accord their endorsement to such actions. For evidence, one need look no further than to their reactions to the assault on the Capitol in January 2021, in which five died, and the attack on Paul Pelosi in recent days.

        It is vital to seek to understand why so many would embrace these obvious lies and fanciful assertions, but that effort should not obscure the implications of what is occurring in this party and its consequences for democratic self-governance and freedom in this country. If Trump and other GOP leaders are successful in fully realizing the viciously vacuous hatred they now actively promote amongst Americans, one may expect more lies and more attempts to undermine and delegitimate any perspective, individual or group, other than those supported or promulgated by GOP leaders. This is the very definition of fascism.

        One may also expect that to the extent this trend deepens and consolidates among Republican supporters, they will constitute a vanguard willing to undermine the freedoms of those they are told to dehumanize and hate in the name of their fears, racism, complaints or status insecurities. This trope is familiar throughout U.S. and world history, and it always ends in the same way, with the persecution of targeted groups under the aegis of self-righteous claims of superiority or indignation at the ignominy supposedly inflicted by the derided innocents. Thereafter, those innocents are stripped of their rights and freedoms or worse in the name of cruelly infatuating, demeaning and infantilizing fantasies.

        The trend to a heedless adoption of this sort of tyrannical unreality in the present GOP highlights the enervation in the U.S. polity of two elements essential for democratic self-governance. First, amidst pluralism of condition, ethnicity, religion, race and more, democracy requires that citizens be willing, as the eminent political theorist and philosopher Seyla Benhabib has observed, to accord all others standing to engage with them in a sustained moral conversation:

Put sharply, every person, every moral agent, who has interests and whom my actions can impact and affect in some manner or another is potentially a moral conversation partner with me: I have a moral obligation to justify my actions with reasons to the representatives of this being.  I respect the moral worth of the other by recognizing that I must provide him or her a with a justification for my actions. We are all potential participants in such conversations of justification.4

        Dehumanizing rhetoric, a constant torrent of lies, widespread acceptance of illusory or conspiratorial claims on no evidence, but instead accompanied only by willed hatred, all constitute deliberate and contrived degradations of this necessary norm. It is a shared belief in the democratic community, after all, that enlarges citizens’ potential for the empathetic imagination that will allow each to reap the many benefits of that practice amidst heterogeneity. It is this possibility freely and repeatedly iterated across time that ensures that all in a democratic community are accorded human rights. As the political thinker Hannah Arendt famously noted, its abrogation results, ultimately, in denial of the “right to have rights.”5

        The democratic standing to which Arendt and Benhabib each have pointed “prohibits states from denaturalizing individuals by denying them citizenship rights and state protection.”6 The current GOP leadership is today engaged in a studied and continuing effort to undermine just this legitimacy for targeted individuals and groups—American and foreign alike—and in so doing is endangering the moral and ethical foundation for democratic self-governance itself. As far as I can ascertain and given the fact that they have not shared any substantive agenda for governance other than to disparage their opponents, its leaders appear to be doing so on no basis other than a naked pursuit of popular mobilization in the name of power.

        Democracy not only requires some modicum of reciprocal moral and ethical comity and widespread acceptance of that profound necessity as a sine qua non of an uncoerced and deliberative consideration and enlargement of perspectives, but its effective practice also demands that citizens evidence a measure of disciplined deliberation in their roles as self-governing agents. While citizens need not be omniscient or policy wonks as they evaluate would-be elected officials and their positions, they do need to consider empirical reality when making those judgments and do so in a fair-minded fashion. This requirement of self-governance is constructed on the moral foundation of comity and equality already stipulated and implies what Aristotle labeled prudence or practical wisdom, a reasoned consideration of the issues or concerns and ends and means at stake. Countenancing and even celebrating the vicious assault and deaths of innocents and embracing plain lies and vile conspiracy theories fall far short of this standard. And yet, today’s GOP officials are not only feasting on such a smorgasbord, but also actively encouraging their supporters to endorse and act on such claims. This is a recipe not for reasoned discourse, but for individual and group bullying and tyranny.

        These long-term and accelerating trends in the Republican Party and its officials’ unwillingness to do anything other than encourage them, irrespective of their implications for civil and human rights, the rule of law and the possibilities for self-governance amidst a diverse polity, signal a mounting crisis in our nation and one about which every citizen, irrespective of partisanship, should be deeply alarmed. One may hope that Americans will make choices tomorrow that evidence such awareness.


All original citations appear within Richardson, Heather Cox. Letters From an American, November 3, 2022. Accessed November 3, 2022.

2 The New York Times, “The Facts About the Attack on Paul Pelosi, According to Prosecutors,” The New York Times, November 3, 2022, Accessed November 3, 2022.  

3 Rather, Dan and Elliot Kirschner, “Not a Joke,” Steady, November 2, 2022. Accessed November 2, 2022. See also: Karnie, Annie, Malika Khurana and Stuart A. Thompson, “How Republicans Fed a Misinformation Loop About the Pelosi Attack,” The New York Times, November 5, 2022, Accessed November 5, 2022. 

4 Benhabib, Seyla. Another Cosmopolitanism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 18.

5 Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, new ed. With added preface New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, repr. 1979, [first ed. Was published in 1951; new ed. in 1966], pp. 296-299.

6 Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, p. 25.

Publication Date

November 7, 2022