In an essay published in the September/October 1997 edition of Foreign Affairs, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote:
[T]he world today is torn in opposite directions. Globalization is in the saddle and rides mankind, but at the same time drives people to seek refuge from its powerful forces beyond their control and comprehension. They retreat into familiar, intelligible, protective units. They crave the politics of identity. The faster the world integrates, the more people will huddle in their religious or ethnic or tribal enclaves.
Those dark words increasingly define the America of Donald Trump. That despondent outlook is the heart that beats within the ethno-nationalist populism that is the Trump Administration’s guiding star. It is a deeply pessimistic, inward-looking, dehumanizing, and divisive worldview. It is the stuff in which illiberalism can take root and, if unchecked, spread in viral fashion.
Already, the nation’s ideals, institutions, and reputation are under significant and growing strain from an Administration whose values are alien to those on which the nation was founded. In just two years, the Trump Administration has engaged in gross human rights abuses by forcibly separating the young children of undocumented immigrants from their parents; it has created an office that would be empowered to denaturalize American citizens; it has widely deployed disinformation and relentlessly attacked the nation’s free press; it has trashed the FBI and Department of Justice while placing Russia’s denial of campaign interference on at least equal footing with the conclusions of the nation’s Intelligence Community; the President even claimed that there were “some very fine people” among the white nationalists who triggered deadly violence in Charlottesville last summer. Now, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) have filed a resolution calling for the impeachment of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who has been overseeing the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election-related interference. Each of these acts is a stark departure from the nation’s founding values. Together, they represent a chilling rejection of those values.
As if in a real world narrative straight out of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” (IMDb) the Republican Party has seemingly undergone a radical transformation into an alien entity. Thought spores from Trump’s ethno-nationalist populist ideology have seemingly germinated, replacing elected official by elected official with copies of politicians who bear the Republican Party label, but hold none of the Party’s traditional principles.
Individual liberty has been set aside by Statism, free trade has been replaced by protectionism, fiscal responsibility has yielded to fiscal profligacy, international allies have fallen out of favor while enemies are now embraced, and peace is no longer sought through strength but pursued through appeasement. The Party of Lincoln that waged war to preserve the Union and end slavery has vanished. The Party of Reagan that sought to advance human liberty and bring an end to the Cold War has ceased to exist.
The Republican Party of Donald Trump is increasingly an angry, empty nihilist movement. Its sole loyalty is to President Trump. In its current condition, its continuing possession of power poses a growing threat to the nation’s purpose, identity, and republican character.
The condition that has befallen the United States under President Trump is not without historical precedent. It is, in large part, a consequence of the convergence of the Great Recession of nearly a decade ago, a vast economic restructuring being driven by technology and the emergence of Artificial Intelligence, and an aging of the nation’s population. All of these developments have created enormous challenges for which meaningful policies have yet to be devised.
One witnessed a similar outcome in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Schlesinger recounted:
[T]he Great Depression came along to expose the pretension that democracy would guarantee prosperity. A third of the way into the century, democracy seemed a helpless thing, spiritless, paralyzed, doomed. Contempt for democracy spread among elites and masses alike: contempt for parliamentary dithering, for “talking-shops,” for liberties of expression and opposition, for bourgeois civility and cowardice, for pragmatic muddling through… There was considerable defeatism in the West.
Under President Trump, the United States is in the early stages of a slide into such defeatism. The Trump Administration, its allies in Congress, and its enablers on Cable TV and Talk Radio are sucking the nation into a self-reinforcing cycle of defeatism, followed by anger, followed by illiberal policy, followed by increased defeatism, and so on. Yet, a terrible ending is not inevitable.
America’s republican system is too strong to be destroyed by a single Administration, no matter how illiberal and no matter how numerous its collaborators in Congress. In their seminal article, “Democracy is Inevitable,” first published in the March-April 1964 edition and republished in the September-October 1990 issue of Harvard Business Review, Philip Slater and Warren G. Bennis wrote:
Democracy… is the only system that can successfully cope with the changing demands of contemporary civilization…
What we have in mind when we use the term “democracy” is not “permissiveness” or “laissez-faire” but a system of values—a climate of beliefs governing behavior—that people are internally compelled to affirm by deeds as well as words. These values include: …Full and free communication, regardless of rank and power… A reliance on consensus rather than on coercion… The idea that influence is based on technical competence and knowledge rather than on the vagaries of personal whims or prerogatives of power.
All of these principles are embedded in the documents that define the nation. The Declaration of Independence’s ‘self-evident truths’; the Constitution’s republican framework, separation of powers, and checks-and-balances; the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment; and, the Constitutional system’s having put the free individual ahead of the state are almost a perfect match for the values Slater and Bennis discussed.
But is it too late? Slater’s and Bennis’ observations argue that it is not:
We underrate the strength of democracy because it creates a general attitude of doubt, skepticism, and modesty. It is only among the authoritarian that we find the dogmatic confidence, the self-righteousness, the intolerance and the cruelty that permit one never to doubt oneself and one’s beliefs.
To bring an end to the current dark chapter in the nation’s life, it will be up to the nation’s citizens to take their country’s destiny into their own hands. That process can begin this November during the mid-term elections.
Then, the American people can begin to throw off the tightening shackles of Trump’s ethno-nationalist populism. To do so, they must ignore the siren song of ethno-nationalist populism’s champions. They must put country ahead of Party, Constitution ahead of Party loyalty, and the national interest ahead of even longstanding political preference.
Time and again, the American people have demonstrated the character, courage, and integrity to change their government, make decisive decisions, and endure tough sacrifices in preserving, renewing, and strengthening nation. Even as the shadow of the Trump Administration’s illiberalism seems to grow darker and more expansive by the day, this time almost certainly will be no different. A people who overcame the Civil War, slavery, Great Depression, World Wars I and II, racial discrimination, and the Cold War can surely overcome the challenge of President Trump and his ethno-nationalist populism.