In 2020, survival of the world’s oldest democracy is in peril. The challenges of enduring racism in the US has reached a new peak. Three best-selling books address these two crises. We offer commentary and analyses on the issues the authors raise.
The first and largest crisis, of course, is the pandemic. As you know, America is leading the world in COVID-19 causalities—way out of proportion to its population. Economic losses are staggering—rivaling the Great Depression. We can offer no insights here that you have not heard already. We will forgo that issue until 2021. By then we may be able to recap what went wrong and when things realistically might get better.
Yes, the Presidential Election will occur shortly, on November 3rd–but results may not be known immediately and will not be final until December. This article will not be moot in any case, as you will see.
Broken norms abound in two of America’s three branches of government. The rule of law is being challenged and election integrity itself appears at risk. Protests continue against police, accusing them of systemic racism over deaths or abuse of African-Americans.
The three books have much to say on those issues and more. The books are:
- On Tyranny, published in 2017, by Timothy Snyder
- The Decline of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, published 2020, by Anne Applebaum
- Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, 2020, by Eddie Glaude, Jr.
The USA survived a Civil War and other threats to its democratic system over the course of more than 200 years. Other democracies, many of more recent vintage, have failed. Nonetheless, the American republic is not immune from the “seductive lure of authoritarianism.” Through the books below, we will discuss that, and other issues posed in the current administration—racism, violence, fair elections, the rule of law and more.
We will move along from book to book. First, a brief introduction to each. We begin with a synopsis of On Tyranny, followed by The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. The two books are linked in many ways. Lastly, we will present Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.
[Note: Page citations for Twilight and Begin Again are to Kindle—actual locations may vary depending on the font or text size on your viewing device; On Tyranny page cites are to paperback.]
“The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
So says the back cover of Timothy Snyder’s book. Snyder offers twenty lessons (or warnings) from the last century, in short and simple chapters in this easy but powerful book. If we covered them all, we would be replicating the book. We will excerpt some and extend them with our thoughts.
The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism
Applebaum correlates historical examples of Stalinist central Europe and Nazi Germany with more recent illiberal takeovers of various European countries and Brazil. In so doing, she highlights “modern conspiracy theory, nostalgia for a golden past and political polarization.” All of which contribute to the appeal of totalitarian thinking. [Paraphrased and summarized from what Goodreads says about the book.]
Applebaum focuses attention on the Trump administration in the Prairie Fire chapter, with a few comments sprinkled in elsewhere. She suggests, implicitly, that the US under Trump could be a cancer on liberal democracy that is morphing toward authoritarianism. It’s been spreading elsewhere already. If not stamped out after the 2020 election it would be tragic not just in the US but globally, she believes.
Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own
It’s a dense, difficult read—cycling through thematic, rather than chronological periods, of Baldwin’s life (1924-1987). Jimmy, as Glaude often refers to him, was many things: A novelist, poet, essayist, activist and more. His literary skills are renowned. Glaude’s book does not a biographical focus. Rather Baldwin’s experiences and writings are a lens through which the lives and treatment of African-Americans in America, in totality, are shown. For example, as noted in Chapter 7 of the book,
“Begin again is shorthand for something Baldwin commended to the country in the latter part of his career: that we reexamine the fundamental values and commitments that shape our self- understanding, and that we look back to those beginnings not to reaffirm our greatness or to double down on myths that secure our innocence, but to see where we went wrong and how we might reimagine or re- create ourselves in light of who we initially set out to be.” [page 193]
In other words, what Glaude’s book does is attempt to answer the question, “What can we learn from Baldwin’s struggle—how do we begin again.”
Both On Tyranny and The Decline of Democracy probe the risks that democracy is facing today with the rise of populism and nationalism. Begin Again delves more deeply into America’s history and current problems with race than either of the other books.
Commentary and Analysis
Caveat: We generally avoid expressing political opinions on Eagle Peak Press. The views of the authors themselves weigh heavily on America’s 2020 elections. All three find many faults with Donald Trump—it’s clear none would support his reelection in November. Given the risks to America and the seriousness of America’s history of racism, it would be derelict of Eagle Peak Press to remain silent itself. In the words of Daisaku Ikeda, “In the fight between justice and evil, taking a neutral stance and being indifferent is the same as siding with evil.”
On the other hand, we feel it critical that we create value in anything we present in Eagle Peak Annual. The goal is to educate, inform and aid in the resolution of the serious issues facing America as described in the article. In other words, simply finding fault or taking sides in the upcoming election is not sufficient. We must find a way forward past the divisions and barriers among our fellow humans.
Again, in the words of Daisaku Ikeda, “Everything begins with dialogue. Dialogue is the initial step in the creation of value. Dialogue is the starting point and unifying force in all human relationships.” [Ikeda, we must point out, neither endorses nor opposes any political parties or candidates in the US; nor does the organization he founded.]
While readers may differ with our perspectives, we believe our conclusions are based on facts. You may disagree. Please offer your constructive comments one way or another.
As noted above, we will offer commentary and analyses of each book. We will use a short version of each book’s title and/or the author’s name to begin each change in focus.
[Publisher’s Note: where words within a quote are bolded, unless otherwise noted, the emphasis has been added. We will not be using footnotes or endnotes for page citations; all will be noted within the text.]
We start with the risk of authoritarianism and related issues discussed by Applebaum and Snyder. A little history, some definitional elements and then their warnings. Racism comes later, featuring Eddie Glaude but with some back and forth between him and Applebaum—indirectly.
Applebaum and Snyder
Applebaum briefly notes the history of modern-day governing styles dating back to the days of Plato and Aristotle. She uses the examples of monarchy, oligarchy, democracy—and tyranny. With the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Russia’s aristocracy was replaced with Marxism. Which is less a philosophy than a “mechanism for holding power” says Applebaum. She notes that it’s usable along with other ideologies. We will explain what that means in contrast with modern democracy. [page 22]
“Lenin’s one-party state . . . was not merely undemocratic; it was also anticompetitive and antimeritocratic. Places in universities, civil rights jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable: they went to the most loyal.” [page 22]
“in modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by different forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests that determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets. . . . The institutions of the state—the judiciary, the civil service—should be occupied by qualified people. The contests between them should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair outcome.” [page 22]
That’s where the seductive lure of authoritarianism comes into play. Unqualified people who couldn’t make it into positions in democracies were angry and envious. Citing Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: Penguin Classics, 2017), Applebaum says that the dysfunctional illiberal state “ ‘invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.’ ” [at page 23]
The results, not surprisingly, are poor government service. Witness the effects on important federal agencies in Donald Trump’s administration. He, as most news reports and tell-all books claim, demands absolute loyalty. In the case of the CDC, the FDA and other agencies tasked with responding to the coronavirus—senior level appointees have overruled expert scientists in favor of opinions that Trump reportedly forms from Fox TV commentators, social media and unreliable non-scientific sites—who are among his dedicated followers and vice-versa.
Let’s consider a warning from On Tyranny.
Snyder In Lesson 5—Remember professional ethics, he warns “It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, . . . Authoritarians need obedient civil servants.” [Page 38] In the case of Trump’s Attorney General William Barr, it appears that he hasn’t forgotten professional ethics–he seems to be ignoring them. As the head of the Justice Department, he is in charge of directing investigations and prosecution of federal crimes. But he is acting more like Trump’s personal attorney in the opinion of most legal experts and political commentators.
Multiple mainstream news sources accuse Barr of destroying the rule of law and the US Justice Department in the process. For example, consider the attempted [at publication, still unresolved] dismissal of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s guilty plea to lying to FBI investigators or the sentence reduction for Roger Stone, the misleading summary of the Mueller report, etc. As a result of Barr’s push to dismiss Flynn’s guilty plea, nearly 2,000 former FBI agents and Department of Justice officials sent a letter demanding Barr resign. He hasn’t, of course.
Barr has supported the claims by Trump that voting by mail is rife with fraud. The mainstream news media and expert sources consistently debunk this assertion. Barr also appears prepared to challenge the election results if Trump loses. Barr is defending Trump in a defamation suit. He did so by asserting that calling someone a liar, who accused him of sexual assault, falls under Trump’s duties as President. Many, if not most, legal commentators say that argument will fail. It did; a Federal District Court dismissed it. No telling if Barr will appeal, but it served the purpose of delaying the proceeding until after the November election.
It’s not just professional ethics problems that Snyder warns about. Barr’s misbehavior clearly falls within the issues about loyalists in authoritarian regimes, raised by Applebaum above. The Trump administration has successfully resisted oversight of virtually all federal agencies—breaking norms, if not constitutional prerogatives of a government with three coequal branches. Should Trump be reelected, there will be no stopping Barr or Trump at imposing draconian dictatorial edicts. On the other hand, Barr may be replaced–Trump is angry with him because Barr wouldn’t indict former President Obama, Joe Biden or perhaps Hillary Clinton–none of which have committed any chargeable offenses. Presumably Trump would seek an even more compliant and loyal AG.
Snyder In Lesson 2 of On Tyranny, he warns that we should “Defend Institutions.” Like a court or a newspaper, for example. “They won’t protect themselves,” Snyder notes. The protections of free speech and a free press are included in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. But that provision is not self-operational. [page 22]
We hear “Fake news!” repeatedly from Donald Trump. These words are his response to any factual reporting he doesn’t like. Or he refers to the press as an “enemy of the people.” Who else does that? Authoritarian leaders—like Hitler and Stalin, from long ago, and autocrats of the modern era like Vladimir Putin.
Yes, Putin does speaks English
Applebaum Noted Lenin’s views of a free press—which has been carried forward in multiple illiberal states:
“He wrote that freedom of the press ‘is a deception.’ He mocked freedom of assembly as a ‘hollow phrase.’ . . . [T]he press could be free, and public institutions could be fair, only once they were controlled by the working class—via the party.” [page 23]
Snyder In Lesson 10, “Believe in Truth,” Snyder says this, “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.“ [page 65]
He goes on to note that Victor Klemperer, German historian on totalitarianism, has observed that “truth dies in four modes.” [page 66]
Snyder applied those four modes to Trump. Although On Tyranny was published in February of 2017, Trump had already sufficiently demonstrated his antipathy to truth, enabling Snyder to describe it. A multitude of reports from news sources and fact checkers confirm that Trump has continued his assault on truth throughout his presidency. [pages 66-68, through the four modes]
“The first mode is open hostility to verifiable reality. . . . One attempt to track his utterances found that 78 percent of his factual claims were false. This proportion is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path to total fiction. Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld.
The second mode is shamanistic incantation. As Klemperer noted, the fascist style depends on ‘endless repetition,’ designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable. . . . At rallies, the repeated chants of ‘Build that wall’ and ‘Lock her up’ did not describe anything that the president had specific plans to do, but their very grandiosity established a connection between him and his audience.”
The next mode is “magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction.” Signs at Trump rallies proclaim, “promises made, promises kept.” To our knowledge, there have been none kept. No wall. No infrastructure. Troops not withdrawn from every war, etc. Well, maybe one—the huge tax cut. But the cut didn’t benefit the middle class as promised–only the top 1%.
Snyder noted this from Klemperer’s writing. “[A]t the end of a war that Germany had lost, an amputated soldier told Klemperer that Hitler ‘has never lied yet. I believe in Hitler’. “ Trump’s followers are so loyal that some appear to be like those soldiers who followed Hitler. At a September Trump rally, supporters clustered closely together without masks, as they commonly do. When queried about the risk by CNN reporter Jim Acosta, one said “the pandemic is a hoax.” The other said, “if I die, I die.” Looks like magical thinking. [We don’t know if their opinion has or will change after Trump and many top officials or supporters have now been infected.]
“The final mode is misplaced faith. It involves the sort of self-deifying claims the president made when he said that ‘I alone can solve it.’ . . . When faith descends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truths of our individual discernment and experience.”
Snyder’s last thought on truth is this: “Post truth is pre-fascism.” [page 71]
Applebaum In the Twilight of Democracy, she weighs in on the same issues of truth with a different vocabulary than Snyder. [pages 37-38]
“From Orwell to Koestler, the European writers of the twentieth century were obsessed with the idea of the Big Lie,” vast ideological constructs that were Communism and fascism. . . . They required forced education, total control of all culture, the politicization of journalism, sports, literature, and the arts. By contrast, the polarizing political movements of twenty-first-century Europe demand much less of their followers. They do not espouse a full-blown ideology, and thus they don’t require violence or terror police.”
Because most of Applebaum’s current journalistic beat is Europe, her conclusions may not apply elsewhere in the world. That said, what she adds dovetails with Snyder’s #10 on truth—even mentioning him:
“Most of them don’t deploy propaganda that conflicts with everyday reality. And yet all of them depend, if not on a Big Lie, then on what the historian Timothy Snyder once told me should be called the Medium-Size Lie. To put it differently, all of them encourage their followers to engage, at least part of the time, with an alternative reality.” [page 38]
That sounds familiar, like what Kellyanne Conway, of Trump’s White House, first described as “alternative facts.” Which, explicated, means lies—like the size of the Trump’s inaugural crowd being larger than that of Obama’s inaugural, as insisted upon by Sean Spicer (Trump’s first press secretary). As noted above in discussion of he pandemic, there is an ongoing recitation of alternative facts—also known as lies, by Trump himself. Everyday reality most people share is replaced with Trump’s alternative reality—that is the universe in which members of the Trump administration and his supporters live.
Trump started down this path long before becoming president. “He promoted birtherism, a conspiracy theory whose power was seriously underestimated at the time.” [page 38]
“The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity. It explains away complex phenomena, accounts for chance and accidents, offers the believer the satisfying sense of having special, privileged access to the truth. For those who become the one-party state’s gatekeepers, the repetition of these conspiracy theories also brings another reward: power.” [Page 45-6]
It seems obvious that Applebaum’s view applies not just to one-party states but those functional democracies on a path to being illiberal–and potentially an authoritarian state. As we know, Trump and his followers—including QAnon folks, are enthralled by conspiracy. There are QAnon members who are running for Congress under the Republican banner. Some have the support of Trump in the 2020 election.
This growing cohort of conspirators believe that Democrats and certain celebrities are Satanists and pedophiles. The allegation is that these are monsters who abduct children, molest or torture them and then drink their blood. The QAnon people believe Trump is secretly working to defeat those evildoers. He doesn’t expressly support this notion but he doesn’t deny it either. He does welcome their political support, as his press briefing responses confirm. [Note: Facebook has removed numerous QAnon accounts and banned posts from them.]
Snyder Lesson 6 in On Tyranny warns: Be wary of paramilitaries. [page 42] “When the men with guns . . . start wearing uniforms [in the US, it’s camouflage at protests and rallies] and pictures of a leader [or MAGA hats, banners, etc.], the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.” Well, we are not quite there yet—but it has been difficult at times to determine who is who when federal agents without insignia or name tags are wearing uniforms similar to “militia” groups at the protests following the death of George Floyd.
Applebaum Echoes Snyder’s warning about paramilitaries in an article in The Atlantic magazine, titled, “Trump is Putting on a Show in Portland,” from July 23, 2020, She said “The president is deploying the kind of performative authoritarianism that Vladimir Putin pioneered.” It would be hard to miss the news coverage of the weeks-long protests. She described it as,
“[F]ederal security officers dressed for combat—wearing jungle-camouflage uniforms with unclear markings, carrying heavy weapons, using batons and tear gas—are patrolling the streets, making random arrests, throwing people into unmarked vans. The officers do not come from institutions that specialize in political crowd control. Instead, they come from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Coast Guard. These are people with . . . exactly the wrong sort of experience needed to carry out the delicate task of policing an angry political protest.”
Snyder points out that as a candidate in 2016, Trump “ordered a private security detail to clear opponents from rallies and encouraged the audience itself to remove people who expressed different opinions.” Snyder quotes Trump at one rally as saying, “ ‘Isn’t this more fun than a regular boring rally? To me, it’s fun.’ This kind of mob violence was meant to transform the political atmosphere, and it did.” [page 45]
In 1968, Richard Nixon ran a “law and order,” campaign. It worked for him amidst all the antiwar and other protests—some of which did get violent. Today is quite different. The legitimate protests following the death of George Floyd (mostly in daylight hours) were peaceful. That has been documented in videos and reporting by reputable, nonpartisan news media. The more violent types—who instigate violence from law enforcement, burn or loot, were there after dark.
Federal agents have acted against peaceful protestors during the Trump administration much like the Chicago Police did in 1968. That situation in Chicago came to be known as the “Chicago Police Riot,” in which uniformed police chased unarmed peaceful protestors, news media and innocent bystanders for many blocks–clubbing them with batons.
Violence was one of six topics of the first Presidential Debate on September 29th. During the entire debate, Trump repeatedly interrupted challenger Joe Biden during Biden’s time—in violation of the debate rules. Trump also ignored, most attempts by moderator Chris Wallace to rein him in. Trump dodged a question on whether he denounce white supremacist violence but did say he would urge the “Proud Boys” [a violent white supremacy group] to “Stand back and stand by.”
Days later, Trump did condemn all white supremacists. Nonetheless, it has been argued by many that it is his tacit support, if not encouragement, that has caused the increase in violence by white supremacists. Trump’s own FBI Director, Chris Wray, has identified such groups as the primary source of domestic violence.
Glaude and Applebaum–on race
First, a brief history: Slavery began in America in the early 1600s. Not until 1863, the third year of the American Civil War, did the Emancipation Proclamation end slavery. Racism then began in earnest—openly and continuously despite laws intended to prevent its effects. That leaves aside the one-sided treaties, deaths and forced relocations of the indigenous people the US calls “Native Americans.” [We might deal with that another time, but not in this article].
Glaude Throughout Begin Again, Glaude returns again and again to the core element of “the lie.” The lie is actually a plural, as Glaude says [page 6-7]:
“The lie is more properly several sets of lies with a single purpose. . . If what I have called the “value gap” is the idea that in America white lives have always mattered more than the lives of others, then the lie is a broad and powerful architecture of false assumptions by which the value gap is maintained. . . .
One set of lies debases black people; . . . [they] are essentially inferior, less human than white people, and therefore deserving of their particular station in American life. We see these lies every day in the stereotypes that black people are lazy, dishonest, sexually promiscuous, prone to criminal behavior, and only seeking a handout from big government”
The preamble to America’s Declaration of Independence includes these words: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Declaration had no binding legal effect in the fledgling democracy. It was not included in the US Constitution as adopted. The phrase “all men are created equal” has oft been quoted—and argued about by those who happen not to be born a white male. Those who argue include Glaude.
Glaude says this, pointing out the lies of American history—that the nation is “fundamentally good and innocent, its bad deeds dismissed as mistakes corrected on the way to “a more perfect union.” On closer examination, what one sees are “practices that contradict our most cherished principles. The genocide of native peoples, slavery, racial apartheid, Japanese internment camps, and the subordination of women reveal that our basic creed that “all men are created equal” was a lie, at least in practice. . .” [page 7]
These are not trivial shortcomings, as Glaude goes on to observe.
“But the lie’s most pernicious effect . . . is to malform events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened by reality. . . . [T]he story we have told ourselves about America being a divinely sanctioned nation called to be a beacon of light and a moral force in the world is a lie. The idea of the “Lost Cause” . . . after the Civil War is a lie. The stories . . . of the civil rights movement and racial progress in this country, with Rosa Parks’ courage, Dr. King’s moral vision, . . . Black Power, . . . the election of Barack Obama, are all too often lies.
Taken as a whole . . . the lie is the mechanism that . . . has always allowed, America to avoid facing the truth about its unjust treatment of black people and how it deforms the soul of the country. . .” [page 8]
How much does it deform the nation’s soul? Let’s go back to the beginning of America. Here is what Glaude adds, [pages 8-9]
In his 1964 essay “The White Problem,” published in Robert A. Goodwin’s edited volume 100 Years of Emancipation, Baldwin placed the lie at the heart of the country’s founding.
The people who settled the country had a fatal flaw. They could recognize a man when they saw one. They knew he wasn’t…anything else but a man; but since they were Christian, and since they had already decided that they came here to establish a free country, the only way to justify the role this chattel was playing in one’s life was to say that he was not a man. For if he wasn’t, then no crime had been committed. That lie is the basis of our present trouble.”
Applebaum Her focus is not racism, but The Twilight of Democracy does deal with it to an extent in the “Prairie Fire” chapter—which we will get to later. On the other hand, she implicitly praises former President Ronald Reagan, with whom Eddie Glaude takes issue on matters of race. (See counterpoint excerpts from Glaude below).
Here is her reference, “Reagan’s 1989 ‘shining city on a hill’ [farewell] speech, remembered as the peak moment of ‘American Greatness’ and American Exceptionalist’ rhetoric, clearly evoked America’s founding documents and not American geography or an American race.”[page 144]
The text of Reagan’s farewell speech read in part:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.” [from Reagan Archives website]
A pertinent section of Reagan’s 1980 election eve “Vision” (campaign) speech. read in part:
“I have quoted John Winthrop’s words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining “city on a hill,” as were those long ago settlers … These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans.” [from Reagan Archives website]
Glaude In Begin Again, he said this:
“Reagan was exactly the kind of president that allowed white America to be secure in its commitment to the value gap. His smile, his down-home charm, exuded exactly the opposite of the vitriol of loud, southern bigots. Reagan’s was genteel racism and, politically, he knew exactly what he was doing: playing on the fears and hatreds of some white people. . . . In his 1976 campaign . . . he invoked the image of the “welfare queen” who bilked the federal government out of thousands of dollars. [Page 166]
These efforts and the farewell speech—highlighting an inclusive society living in harmony on that “shining city on a hill.” Reagan’s remarks at a county fair in Neshoba County, Mississippi, seem at odds with his Vision Speech. There he declared his support for “states’ rights,” the legal buzzwords for no federal interference in southern states efforts at suppressing the rights of African-Americans. Beyond that, Glaude also referenced the legislative and executive actions that Reagan instituted which also conflict with those noble sentiments that bookend his presidency.
Here’s another excerpt from Begin Again which highlights Glaude’s perspective.
“Reagan’s attack on affirmative action, his calls for constructive engagement with apartheid South Africa, his eventual evisceration of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, all in the name of color blindness, signaled a hard change in the tone and substance of racial politics in the country. Calls for law and order (and the war on drugs it would unleash), demands for smaller government, and pleas for personal responsibility as a replacement for government “welfare programs” became part of an arsenal of code words and dog whistles for white resentment and racist retrenchment.
If Black America knew exactly what Reagan and the Republican Party were doing, so did white America.” [page 164]
Applebaum She discussed the racism of the far right in the “Prairie Fire” chapter highlighting the objections by both those on the left and the right to what was happening with America’s democracy. Here are some examples:
[The] Christian right located its disappointment in what it perceived as the moral depravity, the decadence, the racial mixing, and above all the irreversible secularism of modern America. . . . [Michael] Gerson, an evangelical Christian . . . a former George W. Bush speechwriter. . . [says] ‘a new and better age will not be inaugurated until the Second Coming of Christ, who is the only one capable of cleaning up the mess.’ “ [Page 147-148]
Well, that IS rather extreme. She goes on to cite other evangelicals with similar right-leaning political views, such as Eric Metaxas and Franklin Graham before reaching Patrick Buchanan. Not an evangelical Protestant but a Catholic, who Applebaum points out, “shares the same apocalyptic worldview.” He resigned from the Republican Party in 1999 to run for the presidency under the Reform Party banner. His views are quite a bit more extreme than the evangelicals, as noted in this diatribe that might have inspired Donald Trump, had he read it.
“ ‘In the popular culture of the ‘40s and ‘50s, white men were role models. They were the detectives and cops who ran down gangsters and the heroes who won World War II on the battlefields of Europe and in the islands of the Pacific. The world has been turned upside-down for white children. In our schools the history books have been rewritten and old heroes blotted out, as their statues are taken down and their flags are put away.’ “ [page 149]
In recent times, especially in the Trump era, Confederate statues are being torn down across the southern states. Trump is opposed to that, considering them historic heroes. This, despite the fact that most of them were erected in the early decades of the 20th century more as a reminder to blacks of their place in American history–and today.
Applebaum mentions other Buchanan foibles before noting the history of violence on the “extreme edges of the far right.” She mentions the Ku Klux Klan, Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, Charleston shooter Dylann Roof and many more. All but McVeigh clearly had racist ideals (and anti-Catholic or antisemitic sentiments as well during some years).
Prairie Fire, More Trump—from Applebaum, Glaude, and Snyder
Applebaum Later in the “Prairie Fire” chapter, Applebaum took on the various dissenting factions which found fault with America’s democracy. Those who didn’t see exceptionalism or a shining city on a hill. Some were on the left and some on the right—the extremes of each. Ideological, theological or otherwise.
“The historian Howard Zinn, the author of a history of America that focuses on racism, sexism, and oppression, has gone out of his way to denounce the ‘myths of American exceptionalism.’ Dozens of articles have been published with variations of that same headline in the past two decades.” [page 147]
We already mentioned Michael Gerson, Franklin Graham and other right-wing Christians (in the back and forth with Eddie Glaude, above). What follows is an insight into Donald Trump. She describes the admixture of old Marxist left desires for revolutionary change with the Christian right’s problems with the US.
“By 2016, . . . . Together, they produced the restorative nostalgic campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump. Two years earlier, Trump had railed against American failure, and called for a solution Trotsky would have appreciated: ‘You know what solves [this]? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have…riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.’ “ [Page 152]
As they say on the infomercials, “but wait, there’s more.” The paragraph continues:
“Four years before that, his adviser Steve Bannon, who has openly compared himself to Lenin, spoke menacingly of the need for war: ‘We’re gonna have to have some dark days before we get to the blue sky of morning again in America. We are going to have to take some massive pain. Anybody who thinks we don’t have to take pain is, I believe, fooling you.’ “ [page 152]
Why “Prairie Fire,” for the chapter name? It’s an interesting link from the times of which she was writing–AND to Steve Bannon. It comes from the title of a 1974 manifesto from by the Weather Underground, AKA the Weathermen (originally a subset of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS) for her chapter title. The Weathermen were a radical group that accepted bombing buildings as an option. Applebaum cited a few lines from the manifesto. We will skipped those details for the excerpts above.
Finally, this series of excerpts ends with this.
“In a 2010 speech, he [Bannon] even made a direct reference to the Weathermen, referencing Prairie Fire and quoting from the Bob Dylan song that gave them their name:
‘It doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows, and the winds blow off the high plains of this country, through the prairie and lighting a fire that will burn all the way to Washington in November.’ ” [Page 152]
Applebaum spends another page on Trump’s inaugural address, pointing out the inclusion of strains of anti-Americanism that come from both political fringes. Also referenced were the complaints of evangelicals on the country’s moral decay—including problems of crime and drugs. [page 153]
Missing from the inaugural address, she said, were express calls for violence. She found them in a Warsaw speech Trump gave later in 2017. She identified Bannon and Stephen Miller as the authors of the talk on the “Warsaw Uprising.” Polish resistance members died at the hands of Nazis in the uprising, so they had Trump say, “ ‘those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; . . . .’ ” [page 153]
Applebaum “[An] ominous overtone” from the speech implied that “patriots in our generation will have to spill their blood in the coming battle to rescue America from its own decadence and corruption too.“ Not words one might expect from Trump’s own mouth. [page 153]
Snyder In lesson #19, says, “Be a patriot.” A segue from Applebaum’s “ominous overtone.” Set a good example, he urges. He explains what patriotism is NOT-using Donald Trump. We won’t excerpt all his many examples; you will get the idea with fewer. These are from pages 112 and 113 of On Tyranny.
“It is not patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock war heroes and their families. It is not patriotic to discriminate against active-duty members of the armed forces in one’s companies, or to campaign to keep disabled veterans away from one’s property. . . . It is not patriotic to avoid paying taxes, especially when American working families do pay.
It is not patriotic to admire foreign dictators. . . . It is not patriotic to call upon Russia to intervene in an American presidential election. It is not patriotic to cite Russian propaganda at rallies. It is not patriotic to share an adviser with Russian oligarchs. It is not patriotic to solicit foreign policy advice from someone who owns shares in a Russian energy company. . . . It is not patriotic to appoint a national security adviser who has taken money from a Russian propaganda organ. . . . “
The point is NOT that Russia and America must be enemies. The point is that patriotism involves serving your own country.”
He notes that Trump is a nationalist—which is not the same as a patriot. Snyder offers this pithy comment, “A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best.” He cites Orwell, who describes nationalists driven by urges to power but uninterested in the real world. Finally, Snyder describes what being a patriot means. [page 114]
“A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well.”
Based on what we have seen and heard, it seems unlikely Trump has any concern with the real world. Moreover, he clearly has no interest in serving the country. Trump would not likely agree with John F Kennedy’s famous quote—“ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Applebaum In the Prairie Fire chapter, [pages 153-4], she continues with her takedown of Trump.
“Trump has no knowledge of the American story . . . . He has no understanding of or sympathy for the language of the founders, so he cannot be inspired by it. Since he doesn’t believe American democracy is good, he has no interest in an America that aspires to be a model among nations.”
She continues, in the same vein as Snyder, blasting Trump’s admiration for Putin and his moral equivalence demurral to Putin being a killer. Trump implies every country or leader has its killers, including the US. Or that everyone is corrupt. Maybe most people didn’t know all those other American presidents were just as bad. That gave a supporter an OK to vote for Trump. “If everybody is corrupt and always has been, then whatever it takes to win is okay,”
From that rhetorical jumping off point, Applebaum says anti-American extremists—on the far-left or far-right have always made this point. As in,
“American ideals are false, American institutions are fraudulent, American behavior abroad is evil, and the language of the American project—equality, opportunity, justice—is nothing but empty slogans.” [Page 154]
The reality, from their world of conspiracy is that voters are manipulated by secretive businessmen or “deep state” bureaucrats. Whatever it takes to stop them is all right.
“In Prairie Fire, the Weather Underground inveighed against ‘the Justice Department and White House–CIA types.’ Now Trump does the same. ‘You look at the corruption at the top of the F.B.I.—it’s a disgrace, . . . And our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from—but at some point I won’t.’ Later on, he didn’t. . . .
Back in 1986, Jeane Kirkpatrick, . . . Reagan’s UN ambassador, wrote of the danger . . . of moral equivalence that was coming,. . . from the Soviet Union. . . . nuclear warheads were dangerous to democracies, but not nearly as dangerous as this . . . cynicism: ‘To destroy a society,’ she wrote, ‘it is first necessary to delegitimize its basic institutions.’ If you believe that American institutions are no different from their opposite, then there is no reason to defend them.” [Page 155]
Snyder If that seems familiar, we mentioned defending institutions before. It’s lesson#2 from On Tyranny. We mentioned news media then—in conjunction with the frequent epithet from Trump of “fake news!” and “enemy of the people. But there’s courts, labor unions, colleges and other institutions as well.
Applebaum Back to moral equivalence, she continued the quote from Kirkpatrick with this and then moved on to Trump. [Page 156]
“ ‘[I]t is only necessary to deprive the citizens of democratic societies of a sense of shared moral purpose which underlies common identifications and common efforts.’
Trump’s victory in 2016 was the victory of exactly this form of moral equivalence. Instead of representing the shining city on the hill, we are no different from the ‘killers’ of Putin’s Russia. Instead of a nation that leads ‘the citizens of democratic societies,’ we are ‘America First.’ . . . ‘America has no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in Eastern Europe,’ wrote Trump, or his ghostwriter, back in 2000. ‘Their conflicts are not worth American lives.’ “
IF the Atlantic article quoting unnamed sources is true, then Trump believes those who serve or die in the US military are “losers” or “suckers”—including former Senator and Vietnam POW John McCain.” Trump may have spoke those words 20 years ago, but he didn’t mean them.
From here, Applebaum’s critique of Trump gets even more serious. She speaks of Buchanan’s America and Trump’s America as one that is not “exceptional.” One that is united by white skin and protected by a wall. It resembles, she says, “old-fashioned ethnic nationalism of older European nations.” Likewise, America’s despair looks much like Europe’s.[page 157]
Applebaum continues, noting that this perspective of America should be no surprise. It’s always been there. The surprise, she believes, is that the party of Reagan has become Trump’s party and that Republicans have abandoned American idealism. They have adopted, “instead, the rhetoric of despair— a sea change had to take place, not just among the party’s voters, but among the party’s clercs [“clerks” who are political intelligentsia/leaders].
Glaude Unlike Applebaum, he is NOT surprised.
“Trump represented a full-throated reassertion of a particular vision of the country as decidedly white and forever committed to the principles of Reagan and his inheritors. For his supporters, to suggest a different political vision amounted to heresy or revolution. A coalition of forces—Tea Party radicals, Republicans partisans and white suburbia—made Trump possible.” [page 170]
Or, to make clear what the voters looked for, Glaude adds this,
“As with Reagan in 1980, with Trump white America reached for an image—a Hollywood- generated fantasy—on which to project their hatreds and fears. In this sense, Trump is best seen as a child of Reagan.” [page 171]
In fairness, it should be noted that Glaude is focusing specifically on racism rather than autocracy. On the other hand, there is much more to Glaude as well. Along with “the lie,” he returns often to the “after times,” as described below.
In Democratic Vistas, [see sample article] Walt Whitman used “after times” in describing the post Civil War period of chaos and disruption. Glaude explained how he took Whitman’s words and applied them to Baldwin’s observations on the failings of the Civil Rights Movement after the 1960s. During both periods, it initially looked like progress might be coming to black Americans but white Americans turned away from change, “often embracing a nostalgic appeal for simpler days, when black people knew their place and weren’t in the streets protesting, in order to justify their refusal to give up the lie.” [page 16]
Glaude brings us up to the present––in the Trump era.
“The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in 2018, in the middle of Donald Trump’s first term. As I have argued, Trump’s election represents our after times; all that he stands for reasserts the lie in the face of demographic shifts and political change represented by Obama’s election and the activism of Black Lives Matter. . . On top of the racist rhetoric, his judicial appointments and his policies around voting rights, healthcare, environmental regulations, immigration law, and education disproportionately harm communities of color. In every way imaginable, Trump has intensified the cold civil war that engulfs the country.” [p 193-4]
With the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as the successor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, Trump has cemented the disruptor label that Applebaum placed on him, as well as confirming the issues noted above by Glaude. Barrett is expected to vote in a majority to reverse a variety of laws extending rights and privileges to women and people of color. She was approved by the GOP controlled Senate by a vote of 52-48, with one Republican voting with all Democrats in opposition.
Applebaum, Glaude and Snyder–What these three, collectively, tell us
Snyder offers warnings—how to avoid a descent into autocracy that Trump seems to be leading America toward, faster and faster. As noted at the outset, On Tyranny is the easiest of the three books to read and comprehend. Written succinctly, the risks are clear and the means to avoid them laid out understandably. That’s not to say the steps are easy or without effort.
Applebaum tells the history of the slide of various short-lived democracies into illiberal states or to autocracy. Historical discussions deal with the last 100 years, rendered through observations about a handful of European governments she is familiar with. America takes up most of one chapter. That is where The Twilight of Democracy becomes most salient—and worrisome for the US. “Prairie Fire “details the dangerous path Trump has set America on–at an accelerating pace to authoritarianism.
Glaude Details the failure of lasting progress in overcoming America’s racism. He sees only a difference in degree from Reagan’s comparatively subtle racism to Trump’s overt and demonstrative racism. Trump is waging a culture war and identity politics—with visions of an America from the 1950s, raising the fear of THEM invading suburban neighborhoods with drugs, poverty and violence.
To what the three authors say, we can add these observations:
America is at a critical juncture, staring into an abyss–and as Nietzsche says, it’s staring back. Both Applebaum and Snyder confirm Donald Trump’s admiration and envy of dictators. He, like those autocrats, wanted nothing more from the presidency than wealth and power. But living the life of a Vladimir Putin would require reelection–which seems to be slipping away from his grasp.
Beyond authoritarianism, America’s history of racism only appeared to be fading away with Barack Obama’s election. It came back in full force with the election of Donald Trump. Then came COVID-19, a pandemic the US hadn’t faced in a 100 years—which Trump and his cadre of loyal but incompetent staff and allies couldn’t handle.
For over 200 years, America’s presidents have served all the people–not just those who voted for them. That changed with the election of Trump. He had no concern for the welfare of the American people—especially those who lived in Democrat-run cities and states. While he pandered to his base—those who voted for him, he did little for them, he just conned them.
Trump is ignorant of America’s history of service by its presidents. He had never before served in any public office. He had run only private corporations–accountable to neither a board of directors nor shareholders. People who voted for him thought he was a successful businessman who would bring that knowledge and skill to the White House. That success was a myth–his businesses failed and his father bailed him out.
But all is not lost–not yet.
Prelude to a Conclusion
Which of the three authors offer a path forward to a better America?
Is there any optimism for repairing racial rifts or avoiding the end of democracy?
Consider the wrap-ups of all three books.
You be the judge–let us know in your comments.
The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism
The final chapter of the book, “The Unending of History,” [likely an allusion to Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay—“The End of History?”] includes this analysis:
“Because all authoritarianisms divide, polarize, and separate people into warring camps, the fight against them requires new coalitions. Together we can make old and misunderstood words like liberalism mean something again; together we can fight back against lies and liars; together, we can rethink what democracy should look like in a digital age.” [page 188]
Applebaum gets points for optimistic methodology—without predictions of success. Examples of such new coalitions she calls for might include the Lincoln Project and other former Republicans. Many of them are engaged in concerted efforts to prevent Trump from being elected. There will likely be many others if Trump and many current supporters are voted out. That is a start, for conservatives, to again support American democracy—instead of an autocracy or oligarchy. The next excerpt covers the caveat to this hope.
“To some, the precariousness of the current moment seems frightening, and yet this uncertainty has always been there. The liberalism of John Stuart mill, Thomas Jefferson, or Vaclav Havel never promised anything permanent. The checks and balances of Western constitutional democracies never guaranteed stability. Liberal democracies always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort, struggle. They always required some tolerance for cacophony and chaos, as well as some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos.
They always acknowledged the possibility of failure—a failure that would change plans, alter lives, break up families. We always knew, or should have known, that history could once again reach into our private lives and rearrange them. We always knew, or should have known, that alternative visions of our nations would try to draw us in. But maybe, picking our way through the darkness, we will find that together we can resist them.” [pages 188-189]
“America has a republic, if you can keep it.” You won’t find these words in Twilight of Democracy, words that were allegedly spoken by Benjamin Franklin long ago. It has kept it–up until now.
Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own
Nearing the end of the final chapter, at page 200 “Begin Again,” Glaude gets to the book’s main point. He identifies the Civil War and Reconstruction as America’s second founding—the first opportunity to begin again. America failed to meet that challenge, which led inexorably to “the black freedom struggle of the mid-twentieth century.” That struggle, Glaude says, is “what scholars call the Second Reconstruction, [that] sought, among other things, to complete what was left of what the historian Eric Foner describes as the unfinished revolution. . . Reconstruction led to the formation of the modern U.S.”
Page 201-2 Glaude continues,
“We should have learned the lesson by now that changing laws or putting our faith in politicians to do the right thing are not enough. We have to rid ourselves, once and for all, of this belief that white people matter more than others, or we’re doomed to repeat the cycles of our ugly history over and over again. . . .
What we need is a third American founding, to begin again without this insidious idea of the value gap that continues to get in the way of a New America. We need an America where ‘becoming white’” is no longer the price of the ticket. . . . my understanding of our history suggests that we will probably fail trying— but I do know that each element is important to any effort toward beginning again. And as Samuel Beckett wrote in his 1983 novella Worstward Ho, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ ”
Fail again, fail better? Where’s the optimism? Read on. You will find it in the conclusion “New America” that follows Chapter Seven. He highlighted an op-ed ‘Our Shame: The Sins of Our Past Laid Bare for All to See.’ It came from the Montgomery Advertiser—founded as the Planters Gazette in 1829. The paper ran it the same day the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum opened. Glaude cited the editorial board’s apology for the paper’s ‘shameful place in the history of these dastardly, murderous deeds’ and noted they “pushed back against some readers who ‘wish we would leave the past in the past.’ “ Page 207
Glaude went further, excerpting this passage from the op-ed [Page 207]:
“ ‘Part of our responsibility as the press is to explore who we are, how we live together and analyze what impacts us. We are supposed to hold people accountable for their wrongs, and not with a wink and a nod. We went along with the 19th and early 20th century lies that African Americans were inferior. We propagated a worldview rooted in racism and the sickening myth of racial superiority.’ “
Intention, hope and determination is what Glaude offers more of as he moves on from Montgomery, Alabama. Maybe it’s not optimism, but perhaps it’s a bit stronger than we got from Applebaum.
“First steps are always important. We have to exhibit the courage and the willingness to take the risk and step out on faith with the hope that our rocky start will give way to more confident strides. The country needs to take such a step. We stand at a critical crossroads with the lie of the American idea in full view. Our after times confront us with a choice, and a decision has to be made. We cannot stand pat where we currently are, or the political superstorms will tear us apart. Either America will turn its back and embrace the value gap as Trumpism demands, or we will risk everything, finally, to become a truly multiracial democracy and the first of its kind in the West. In the past, white America has chosen the safety of its illusions. No matter. We go on, together.”
In the book’s epilogue, Snyder departs from the short, numbered warning chapters and presents standard narrative. He begins with a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The hero is haunted by visions and nightmares by the evil usurper of his father’s throne. “ ‘The time is out of joint,” says Hamlet. ‘O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.’ ” Snyder brings the quote to life, with this comment,
“Our time is certainly out of joint. We have forgotten history for one reason and, if we are not careful, we will neglect it for another. We will have to repair our own sense of time if we wish to renew our commitment to liberty.” [page 117]
So, what does he mean by that?
Snyder sets two competing paradigms for nations going forward–inevitability or eternity. Neither are helpful—both wrong, according to him.
Inevitability, as defined by Snyder, is,
“[T]he sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy. After communism in eastern Europe came to an end in 1989-1991, we imbibed the myth of an ‘end of history.’ [once again, Francis Fukuyama, who may have recanted by now] In doing so, we lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.”[page 118]
The devotees of this theory, Snyder points out, don’t deny history—they just see the present as on a path of “expanding globalization, deepening reason, and growing prosperity.” Well, it doesn’t really work out that way, according to him. Instead, he says, [page 118-9]
“The politics of inevitability is a self-induced intellectual coma. So long as there was a contest between communist and capitalist systems and so long as the memory of fascism and Nazism was alive, Americans had to pay some attention to history and preserve the concepts that allowed them to imagine alternative futures. Yet once we accepted the politics of inevitability, we assumed that history was no longer relevant.” [page 119]
That stilted things, Snyder said. Like politics and policy debate. He said some critics spoke of neoliberalism—the free market system taking over from all others. While other critics claimed the need for disruption—not that anything would really change but that chaos would be absorbed by the “self-regulating system.” Neither neoliberalism or disruption had realistic, beneficial results. [page 120]
The politics of eternity, is a masquerade, Snyder says,
“It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments. . . that were, fact, disastrous. . . Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some external enemy upon the purity of the nation.” [page 121]
National populists are eternity politicians. Their preferred reference point is the era when democratic republics seemed vanquished and their Nazi and Soviet rivals unstoppable: the 1930s.” [page 122]
Snyder cites Brexit as an example of the faulty historical logic and memories of those who would follow politics of eternity. More pointedly, Snyder reminds readers that Trump’s 2016 campaign, “America First” slogan originated with a committee against America’s entry into WWII—specifically against opposing Nazi Germany. [page 122]
He also noted that a Trump advisor “ ‘promised policies that would be ‘as exciting as the 1930s.’ ” Snyder asks, when was that “again” in the MAGA slogan? He suggests it is the same “never” as in “Never again.” Snyder then highlights that same regime changing moment that Applebaum cited—” ‘You know what solves it? When the economy crashes . . . riots to go back where we were used to be when we were great.’ “ That’s the same link to Applebaum, about nostalgia two paragraphs above.
“The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction,” Snyder notes. He concludes that, “If the politics of inevitability is like a coma, the politics of eternity is like hypnosis. We stare at the spinning vortex of cyclical myth until we fall into a trance—and then we do something shocking at someone else’s orders.” [Page 123-4]
Both positions, inevitability and eternity, are “antihistorical,” Snyder says. He worries that “by embracing a the politics of inevitability, we have raised a generation without history.” The risk to the youth is that, “the path of least resistance leads directly from inevitability to eternity.” Will they fall into the trap set by Trump, with his nostalgic appeal to a populist eternity? [page 125-6] Perhaps not—read on, the next two paragraphs.
Snyder offers this,
“It must be hoped that they could, instead become a historical generation, rejecting the traps of inevitability and eternity that older generations have laid before them. One thing is certain: If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some. This is not the end, but a beginning.” [Page 126]
Black Lives Matter protests—during the Trump administration, have been filled with multitudes of Asians, Hispanics, whites and black youths. They ARE learning AND making history.
Our Concluding Thoughts on Hope for America
Division and a slide to authoritarianism has epitomized the Trump administration. Corruption, incompetence and an inability to handle the worst crisis in 100 years as well—the pandemic, is the record of a failed administration. Trump himself caught COVID-19, having misled the public of its risks and potential cures—while knowing full well its deadly prospects.
If things are going well—especially economically, incumbent presidents tend to get reelected in America. Things are going far from well this year–the pandemic has caused the greatest financial crisis in America—and the world, since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Polls show Trump losing, possibly by double digits. Similarly, GOP members of Congress–as well as those Republicans in down ballot races across the US fear losing.
Throughout his administration, Trump has been enabled by Republican members of Congress—especially the Senate, in his malfeasance and resistance to correction by the other branches of government. Even on the brink of an election for Trump and his supporters, few have abandoned him. The GOP and Trump have engaged in countless suits to suppress or make voting difficult. Seems more authoritarian than a principled democratic action.
Because of the pandemic, millions of people are voting by mail in 2020. Others are voting early. While alleging voting by mail to be rife with fraud (untrue), Trump also is calling for a massive number of poll watchers in Democratically controlled cities. The expectation is that their true purpose will be to scare off voters. The Republican Party entered into a consent decree in 1982 not to intimidate Democratic voters. That decree expired only this year. More autocratic behavior.
Finally, there are concerns that some “poll watchers” may be members of armed militia groups or white supremacists based on Trump’s repeated encouragement of such groups. There are worries of violence or intimidation at polling sites. More dictatorial activity.
What hope, then, is there for reconciling America’s partisan and cultural divide? All indications currently are that Trump will lose the election. Democrats may add to their seats in the House and regain control of the Senate.
Will those electoral results avoid the worst prognoses of Applebaum and Snyder? Probably. But they won’t cure the political and cultural divides. In fact, they might worsen in the face of anger and anxiety among the supporters of Trump. On the other hand, at least SOME of those Republican members of Congress who are voted out may reexamine their beliefs and their future.
Will conservatives who remain in office—both national as well as state and local governments, give up on racism, voter suppression, gerrymandering and other means of maintaining minority control? White Americans are already a minority in most metropolitan areas. Demographic trends show this happening at the state level sooner or later. And a diverse, multiethnic Democratic party becoming the majority.
But it’s not up to Republicans alone to reduce the conflict and avoid violent assaults from White supremacists. It will take some restraint on the part of Democrats in Congress and throughout the nation in exacting revenge on those who have wronged their members. Difficult as it will undoubtedly be, Those black, brown, Muslim, and others who have suffered will have to temper their anger with positive solutions.
How can that all happen? First, let’s consider some final coincidental or similar words from Timothy Snyder and Eddie Glaude. Then we’ll offer our own, from sources we hold dear.
Glaude: “What we need is a third American founding, to begin again . . .” [page 202]
Snyder: “not the end, but a beginning.” [page 126]
Glaude: “In the past, white America has chosen the safety of its illusions. No matter. We go on, together.” [page 207]
Snyder: Finishing Hamlet’s quote, on the last page (“That ever was I born to set it right”) Nay, come, let’s go together. [page 126]
A third American founding—beginning again. Not the end, a new beginning. Moving on together. Good sentiments. Positive attitudes. Can it happen?
Consider these observations from the Words of Wisdom of Daisaku Ikeda,
There’s no need for us to be held back by the past or how things have been so far. The important thing is what seeds we are sowing now for the future.
A pyramid isn’t built from the top down. The apex is attained only by laying strong foundation stones, one by one. The same is true of achieving a lofty objective. The crucial thing is to lay the first stone, to take the first step.
We all live here, in these United States. We depend on one another producing goods and supplying services. Goods that we wear. That we use in our daily lives. Services at medical facilities, schools, retail stores, repair shops and more. “Can’t we all just get along?” Asked Rodney King in 1992, a victim of police brutality that resulted in costly riots in Los Angeles. Nearly 30 years later, the answer remains uncertain.
Buddhism goes further in considering our mutual dependence. Consider these words by Daisaku Ikeda, from My Dear Friends in America, third edition, p. 345
“No person or thing exists in isolation. Every being functions to create the environment that sustains all other existences. All things are mutually supporting and interrelated, forming a living cosmos, what modern philosophy might term a semantic whole. That is the conceptual framework through which Mahayana Buddhism views the natural universe.”
Those of us at Eagle Peak Press have been practicing Buddhism with the SGI-USA for more than 40 years. We practiced other religions before this one. We have been at weddings, funerals and other ceremonies at numerous denominations. Far and away, the centers of the SGI-USA have the most diverse attendees–race, ethnicity, age, culture, politics, sexual orientation, economic status and more. It IS possible to transcend differences.
Whether you follow the tenets of Buddhism or not, it makes good sense to get along–in recognition of the connections we all do have living in the US. There are some positive signs amidst all the turmoil.
As we noted some paragraphs before, a multiracial group of people young and old protested peacefully for change in response to the death of George Floyd. Many reforms of police and other law enforcement agencies are underway across America—already. We can expect there will be more of them. Again, consider some words from Daisaku Ikeda.
Each form of life supports all others; together they weave the grand web of life. Thus there really is no happiness for oneself alone, no suffering that afflicts only others.
The differences between people need not act as barriers that wound, harm and drive us apart. Rather, these very differences among cultures and civilizations should be valued as manifestations of the richness of our shared creativity.
Meanwhile, there are elections across America on November 3rd. Then what?
Change–much change. Resistance–much resistance. There is always resistance to change–from vested interests and those who were supporters of the losing party. But change is sorely needed. Policy changes. Dealing effectively, for a change, with the still deadly dangerous pandemic. Spurring economic recovery. And healing the divisions of race, class and party.
If Democrats control Congress and the White House, one can expect this:
- new stimulus plans to recover from the effects of COVID-19
- Tax reforms to pay for that stimulus and any new programs initiated in 2021
- Deficit hawks among Republicans will return from their hiatus during the Trump years
- Conflicts will arise over priorities between progressive and moderate Democrats
If Democrats pass massive new programs without any Republican support (as in the passage of the Affordable Care Act), Republicans may regain control of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections. BUT, the GOP will be a different party after election losses in 2020. Acrimony is foreseeable among Republican ranks.
Which brings us back to the American people. Political solutions are not a panacea. Yes, we all hope that the candidates we vote for will keep their promises made on the campaign trail. Promises that suggest if only we did X, Y and Z instead of A, B and C, we all would be happier and more prosperous. We should all know better by now!
Don’t rely on elected officials to do it all! We all need to work together within our shared humanity to make America a better, more prosperous and more just nation. Don’t believe all the stuff that people post on social media–conspiracy theories and nonsense abound there. Verify through fact checking sources, what you do see on such sites. Go beyond the echo chambers of your favorite news sources that tell you what you want to hear. Make new friends among your neighborhood and community.
One last quote from Ikeda,
No matter how long the cold, bleak days of winter may continue, winter always turns to spring. This is the law of the universe and the law of life. As long as we hold on to hope, spring is sure to come.
Timothy Snyder is Levin Professor of History at Yale University, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses. He is also a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1997, where he was a British Marshall Scholar. He has held fellowships in Paris, Vienna, and Warsaw, and an Academy Scholarship at Harvard. He has had many bestsellers, including Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010), which won 12 awards from prestigious historical organizations. He writes and speaks several languages. For more on Snyder.
Anne Applebaum is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, currently a regular writer on The Atlantic, and historian. She is a frequent guest on Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square that airs on CNN. She has lived in Poland and other parts of Europe off and on for the last 30 years. She is a former Washington Post columnist, a former deputy editor of the Spectator magazine, and has lectured all over the world. She has written many books on Eastern Europe and political history. She is married to Radoslaw Sikorski, a Polish politician and writer. For more on Applebaum.
Eddie Glaude, Jr. is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University and Chair of the African American Studies Department. He has written several other books, such as Democracy in Black, before Begin Again. He also is a frequent guest on cable channels. Given the death of George Floyd, resulting worldwide protests and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is much to learn from his book.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018, is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.
We offered several quotes from Daisaku Ikeda in our this article. As those who have read Eagle Peak Quarterlies know, Ikeda, is the leader of the Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist lay organization with over 12 million members in 192 countries and territories around the world. He has engaged in dialogues with many world political, cultural and educational leaders. Ikeda has over 300 honorary degrees from universities around the world. Of his many published works, over 250 books have been translated into many languages. He is recognized as a poet, philosopher educator and humanist.