Malicious mockery of government has been the coin of the era under Donald Trump. It only took a few incendiary speeches – one from Trump himself – to stir up a confident mob, who, in waging a rebellion in our nation’s capital, expected no real punishment.
The mob wasn’t entirely wrong. Certainly, the fiercest savages will be held accountable. But as long as Trumpism survives, its leaders will shroud themselves in the First Amendment to portray the future as our worst nightmare and the past as perfection. This is the opposite of what the true patriots set out to do in 1787. Despite their many flaws, the founders of our republic were working to build a future of less tyrants and more freedom, instead of a future filled with tyrants that all feared. This is Political Science 101, the course Trump didn’t take.
Trump’s devotion to the past is a powerful thing. The conservative media has been working on this topic for years. Trump has raised the fears of immigrants, women (especially the powerful), minorities, liberals, and even the disabled to a level that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh could never have imagined. The message is simple: Enjoy the horror show, but be sure to pay the orange-haired guy fare to scare the miserables out of you (credit cards accepted).
unit never been
Ezra Klein offers a clearer view of the past in “Why are we polarized?” He explains how the oath’s fawning over the past conceals a unity that never was. Problems such as racism, homophobia and spousal abuse were hidden rather than confronted. Instead of recognizing our divisions, and creating imperfect albeit functional policies, we stuck our heads in the sand. Klein writes: “The alternative to polarization is often not consensus but repression. We don’t argue about problems we don’t discuss. But we don’t solve them either.”
In other words, the white power of the past was perfectly happy with the unit – E Pluribus Unum – as long as they were not disturbed.
Several Minnesota Republicans are on board. At St. Paul’s “Storm the Capitol” rally on January 6, an overwhelmingly white crowd gathered to protest the Biden/Harris victory. Not with facts, but with a wide range of accusations led by Representative Steve Drazkowski, Representative Eric Lucero and Representative Marie Franson. It was a blunt partisan attack on Secretary of State Steve Simon and state judges and Governor Tim Walz.
Representative Glenn Gronhagen turned the partisan blame fest into a historical melodrama in one sentence. He shouted, “This is a culture war over which direction our country will go!” If the speech wasn’t hot enough, event organizer Ally Waterbury exclaimed, “I’ll be one of the first victims, I don’t care!”
That’s what Klein was talking about. Not only are the wishers drawn to the imaginary past, but they also see the future as a battlefield. Like the vociferous Sampson in Romeo and Juliet, Trumpon might also say, “I will show myself a tyrant: when I fight with men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.”
Hyperbolic anger should not be confused with truth. Timothy Snyder warns us “on tyranny” That “Democracies can fall, morals can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing on death pits with guns in their hands. … You submit to tyranny when you let go of the difference between what you want to hear and what is really the case.” Facts matter when it comes to protecting democracy from tyrants.
Protection from tyranny
James Madison was an expert on tyranny.
He created a classification for it. Here, the most obvious form of tyranny comes from an abusive government. In Madison’s days, having a tyrant in the presidency was a real concern. The founders already felt the mistreatment of King George III and did not want to repeat the performance at home. They discouraged future tyrants through constitutional doctrines, such as the separation of powers, checks and balances, representative elections, and the rule of law. Madison and the True Patriots had no illusions about the violence of their history, so they put their lives on the line to make life harder for tyrants and create a better future.
I can only imagine Madison’s disgust at watching Capitol rioters dressed in Patrick Henry costumes while waving Confederate flags and demanding “freedom” like the extras in “Braveheart” because the most authoritarian tyrant in modern history lost the election.
Thankfully, our basic institutions are still intact and still stand in the face of tyranny. Courts verified Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s baseless efforts to nullify the election; Congress passed his second impeachment against Trump; A new leadership was installed on Wednesday. However, our institutions are far from perfect. The issue of black lives arose from actual abuses by law enforcement officers and inequality in criminal sentencing while many lawmakers looked the other way. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police (and everyone before him and after him) exposed a rift deeper in our institutions than any rebellion by willing patriots.
tyranny outside government
The second form of Madison’s tyranny is that exercised by an elite outside government. Rich in privilege, property, position, or race, some people have more wealth and respect than they deserve. This divide between rich and poor continues to grow, matched only by racial gaps in educational success, health care, and policing. Minnesota has nothing to be proud of here. Income inequality has increased in Minnesota over the past decade, with black Minnesota residents suffering the worst. This is also a tyranny that thrives on the old privilege, which feels threatened by a more just future.
The final form of Madison’s tyranny was the mob. We saw a lot of that on January 6th. According to Madison, such a mob might “clog the administration, and may disturb the community. But it will not be able to carry out and conceal its violence under the forms of the Constitution.”
There will be many calls for a return to unity in the coming days and months. It is advisable to ask ourselves whether the push for unity aims only to turn back the clock, or whether we can unite with Madison against all forms of tyranny.
Daryl Downs is Professor of Political Science at Winona State University. He is a past president of the WSU College Association.
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