American Democracy is Fundamental

Vice President Mike Pence speaking to the Republican National Convention from Fort McHenry on August 26, 2020

Last week, Joe Biden said democracy is on the ballot. And the truth is, our economic recovery is on the ballot. Law and order are on the ballot. But so are things far more fundamental and foundational to our country. — Vice President Mike Pence, accepting the Republican nomination for vice president in a speech at the Republican National Committee, August 26, 2020.

Is the vice president of the United States suggesting that there “are things far more fundamental and foundational to our country” than democracy? Perhaps, he merely is guilty of fuzzy thinking, but I cannot interpret his words to mean any thing other than democracy is not “fundamental and foundational.” 

“Rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air!”

Pence’s words would have little import if he were not part of an administration that has demonstrated its willingness to undermine democratic practices and tradition and pursue with zeal authoritarian control of the levers of power. Even the venues top Trump administration officials chose for their speeches bespeak an authoritarian impulse. Pence spoke from Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, revered as the place where Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the War of 1812. Pence commandeered a site with emotional meaning for Americans to deliver a highly partisan speech in pursuit of a second term in office.

President Trump’s acceptance speech represented a blatant use of the White House for partisan political purposes. Note the lack of social distancing at the event.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump delivered their convention speeches from the White House, ignoring that the First Family is only temporarily occupying a residence that belongs to every citizen of this country. Trump appears to believe the White House, the presidency, and entire government of the United States are his personal possessions. He sees nothing wrong with using the White House as a prop to maintain power. Nor does he see anything wrong with leveraging the powers of his office. He conducted a made-for-TV naturalization ceremony at the White House, apparently without telling the new citizens that they were part of a featured segment shown during the Republican National Convention. 

Bolshevik leaders standing atop Lenin’s tomb to celebrate important Soviet holidays or Hitler at Nuremberg greeting cheering throngs of Nazis reveling in his dictatorship knew the importance of national symbols in the pursuit of absolute power. And, so does Trump, who is willing to use as props for partisan ends emblems important to all Americans. It is the stuff of authoritarians, at least as old as Roman triumphs marking the successes of victorious generals.

First Lady Melania Trump’s military-style dress

Also the stuff of authoritarians is the elevation of family. It is no accident that so many Trumps and their spouses or significant others were featured speakers at the Republican National Convention. In the fine tradition of North Korea’s Kim family, Trump seems willing to make the United States a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump family business. Melania Trump’s military-style dress, in olive green with broad shoulders and brass buttons, only reinforced the image of a family reveling in the leader’s cult-of-personality and authoritarian bent. And, in a cult where the leader is exalted above all, there is no need to dwell on issues, which may be the reason behind Republicans neglecting to pass a platform. Who needs to spell out a plan when the leader knows all?

Besides, dwelling on a platform might lead people to think about the state of the nation now, as Trump’s first term in office winds down. It is not a pretty picture, with more than 180,000 Americans dead and millions suffering from job loss, hunger, and the fear of homelessness due to the economic collapse caused by the Trump administration’s failure to deal effectively with the pandemic. Add to that sorry record a nation coming to grips — perhaps — with centuries of systemic racism and wrestling with smoldering unrest in many urban centers. No wonder the Trumpistas do not want to talk about issues.

So they resurrect MAGA, a curious slogan for a president of three-and-a-half years who promised when he first ran for office to “Make America Great Again.” It is a nifty trick to attempt to run as an outsider when you have been on the inside for almost four years. But, it is the only strategy available to a failing and incompetent president.

Emperor Augustus

History is full of examples of suffering peoples willing to trade their liberties for the security of authoritarianism. To cite just two: After a century of unrest and intermittent civil war, Romans in the first century BCE accepted the end of the republic for one-man rule under Augustus. In the last century, Germans traded the chaos of the late Weimar Republic for the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. 

Those were Faustian bargains, to be sure, but each contained a quid pro quo. Romans did get civil peace and an extended empire for several centuries. Germans did get an end to street fighting and the promise of greatness, only to see it end in ashes 12 years later. But, what is the bargain between Trump and his loyal base?

The sad truth is that Trump’s followers are arguably no better off today than four years ago and nothing that Trump promises is likely to improve their lot. The Trump administration is singularly incompetent, unwilling to mount a campaign against the virus, failing to combat the economic downturn, and unable to deliver on core promises such as building the wall. Except, that is, for one part of MAGA: Keeping America White.

At the core of Trump’s appeal, from the time he rode down the elevator at Trump Tower, has been the racist fear that America is changing from a nation dominated by Whites to one in which Whites are no longer a majority. For many, 2045 is doomsday, the year in which the census projects that people of color will be a majority of the population. Twenty-five years is not a long time, hence the urgency to build a border wall and curb immigration felt by those who dread the coming demographic changes. 

King Canute holding back the tides

Urgency there may be, but the Trumpistas will have as much success curbing demographic trends as King Canute had in turning back the tides. And, Trump and his sycophants and loyal followers will find that American democracy — which is indeed on the ballot this November — is alive and well and will thrive in diversity, that is, if we choose to keep this democracy.

Posted August 28, 2020

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