Soon-to-be ex-President Donald Trump has proven that even the United States, which has long touted its “city upon a hill” universal appeal, is not immune to authoritarianism. There have been other threats to U.S. democracy, yet none so dangerous as Trump’s Twitter tyranny.
For almost a century, the United States’ leadership in world affairs made it an indisputable “first,” a superpower opposing undemocratic forces elsewhere.
Trump pushed another “America First” to justify his self-serving nationalism — tearing up trade deals and stepping back from global institutions. This slogan, once associated with opponents of the U.S. entering World War II, now illustrates how even this nation can suffer from dictatorial urges.
The United States of America is a far cry from the traditional Hitler- or Stalin-type authoritarianism, characterized by complete state domination over people’s lives. But it is no longer the America of everyone’s dream that won the Cold War — the laissez-faire land of individual freedoms, enhanced efficiency, advanced technology and alluring popular culture.
As early as 380 BC, Plato explained that though democracy is seen as providing protection against absolute power, you can have both: “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.” And in 1835, describing “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed the country’s potential weakness: the tyranny not of a dictator but of a majority that falls for easy answers and seeks excitement and undemanding catchphrases framed as ultimate truths. The “omnipotent” power of the crowd — the uncritical jumping on a bandwagon of other people’s assertions — in America can constrain “freedom of mind,” he wrote, hampering debate and making enemy of opposing opinions.
Now, the crowd-pleasing president has become a vehicle of the extreme entertainment and outrageous claims that de Tocqueville feared could demoralize American democracy. Trump’s tweeting not only caters to simplistic solutions, but also oppresses from the top, just like actual tyrants in traditionally despotic states. His unprecedented efforts to overturn the presidential election are now almost indistinguishable from other fellow autocrats, following the dictatorial scripts of Russia, Turkey or Venezuela.
The United States still has what those others do not: a legal system that is mostly independent from the authority of the executive and legislative branches. With elections now officially certified for President-elect Joe Biden, democracy has prevailed, so far. But each of America’s undemocratic cycles brings it closer to conventional authoritarianism.
In the 1970s, the efforts of Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon to undermine opponents by spying on them resulted in his impeachment trial and resignation. And now Trump, an impeached president, is able to assault democratic elections with the support of almost half of the country.
What if democracy cannot withstand the pressure next time? Trump may or may not be done with politics, but the people who emulate and support him aren’t done with America.
So how can we make sure another Trump doesn’t rise to power? You probably can’t. Russia has tried many times.
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin, an ultimate dictator responsible for millions imprisoned and killed in the Soviet Gulag labor camps. Mikhail Gorbachev continued on with those denunciations during his 1980s perestroika (restructuring). Today, however, the shadow of Stalinism looms large over the strong-armed autocracy of Vladimir Putin.
And here’s where education and intellect comes in. Trump spreading his freewheeling fictions takes full advantage of this culture of willful ignorance. This may sound banal, but education, reading, intellect, and a desire to become informed banishes simple-mindedness.
Knowledge can help prevent taking at face value easily digestible and cliché-affirming soundbites.
In the United States, politics has become a product less dependent on policy than on PR and performance. Yet, politicians should not be defined by clever catch-phrases, but rather by knowledge, professionalism and public service, qualities sorely missing in the last four years of American life.
Education and a desire to become fully informed not only makes us wiser, but allows us to distinguish between facts and fantasy.
Our hope that everyone’s wish for this New Year is to become wiser, to not accept the silly catch-phrases as a substitute for complex policy, to look deeper into issues, and to become a more informed citizen.
Intellectualism should not be frowned upon. The founders that shaped our nation were some of the smartest of their time. It takes careful thinking to navigate the complex issues of the day. Most importantly, intellectualism can be shared by everyone, regardless of background, income, geography, or education.
The ability to think… freely, deeply and rationally, is the greatest gift upon which the human race was endowed.