Forgiveness and Reckoning: Preserving American Democracy in the 21st Century

On January 6, 2021, a mob of frenzied insurrectionists, fueled by the lies of Donald J. Trump and his allies in the Republican Party, stormed the U.S. Capitol building. Their aim, it has become clear, was to overturn the outcome of a free and open election by force of violence. 

Most of us are still processing what happened. It’s going to take a while—certainly months, quite possibly years. But the path forward, whatever shape it ultimately takes, must begin with a clear and honest accounting of what is actually happening in the United States. 

That reality is ugly. Among its many hideous facets: the fact that millions of Americans willing voted for a would-be autocrat, and that one of only two viable political parties in the United States—the Republican Party—has spent the last few decades displaying what can be most charitably described as an increasingly gleeful indifference to representative governance and the rule of law in the United States.

The Voters

Even a slim sampling of real-world Trump supporters and Republican voters will tell you that they are not the monsters they appear to be in popular media. Only the most extreme examples of the breed are ever put on film. For the most part, they are ordinary humans with conservative political preferences. Indeed, many of them are good, admirable people. The sort of folks who will pull over to help a stranger stranded in a blizzard. Class acts, through and through.

They have also shown themselves to be precisely the sort of people who will give power to someone like Adolph Hitler. And, yes, Donald Trump is like Hitler. Like Hitler, he is in the class of leaders fully indifferent to the public good and the rule of law—a deranged demagogue willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants; a power-worshipping menace who sees brute force as a viable political tool. 

Of course, there’s an argument that, in extremis, such a beast—ready to abandon all principle and throw support behind the right kind of monster—lurks in many of us. That’s a big, scary maybe for most. For those who voted for Donald Trump in 2020, it’s a dead certainty. 

But even those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 aren’t without blame. Back then, his nature was already obvious. His entire biography up until that point had been a self-made portrait of greed and selfishness. Politically, he was a screaming ignoramus, completely oblivious to the most basic workings of American government. And, just as a person, his monstrous nature was equally undeniable: a serial adulterer, profligate liar, renowned cheat, and boastful sexual predator. 

Hardly shocking that such a man would adopt an approach to governing more akin to an Idi Amin or Muammar Gaddafi than an Abraham Lincoln or even a Ronald Reagan. Again, these aren’t precise analogies. We’re just grouping like with like. 

So what happened? That, to a significant degree, is an open question. Explanations abound, from anxieties over demographic replacement and cultural change to raw economic distress and the rise of siloed political ecosystems, completely overrun with lies and misinformation. Few of these explanations are mutually exclusive. For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter. None of the concerns that might have motivated a Donald Trump—alone or in combination—is sufficient to justify a vote for the man. At every point, a vote for Donald Trump was a vote against America’s constitutional order, the rule of law, and the ideals behind the American Experiment writ large. 

And this is the first ugly truth with which we must reckon: the men and women who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 abrogated their responsibility as citizens. Maintaining the American system of governance isn’t just a mandate for elected officials—it is a responsibility shared among all voters. Everyone who voted for Donald Trump unambiguously failed in that charge. We must recognize this. Say it out loud and write it into the history books. And then, once all that is done, we need to unreservedly forgive them. 

The Party

In reckoning with the legacy of Donald Trump, we cannot afford to absolve the Republican Party. Their hand-wringing in the wake of January 6’s disgraceful chaos is purely performative. Many of them cheerily spread the lies that incited the violence. Plenty still do. In fact, even after the violence had ceased and the insurrectionists had been expelled, 147 Republicans—that is, the majority of Republicans in congress—still voted against certifying President-elect Biden’s lawful victory.

It is a cold, cutting reminder that Donald Trump didn’t happen by accident. Decades of calculated Republican politics paved the path for his ascension. There is no reason to believe they won’t continue to engage in the same kind of politics once he is gone. 

When Trump won the Republican primary in 2016, plenty of people were shocked. With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can see Trump’s victory for what it was: an inevitability. He won the Republican nomination for president in 2016 because he is an open and honest avatar of the ethos Republicans have been preaching with escalating fervor since at least the 1980s. That ethos? Nothing beats raw, rugged self-interest.

This, again, is no surprise. The intellectual roots of modern conservatism are set in harebrained ideologies about the optimality of rational self-interest. In today’s GOP, the idea that the government should get out of the way and let the rich get rich while everyone else squabbles over scraps is fully de rigueur. Turns out, the party that spews devotion to country like it comes cheap really only follows one doctrine: have no allegiance beyond thyself. It’s the slogan Donald Trump has lived by his entire life. 

It’s not a new development. As early as the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea that the United States was falling victim to a glacial socialist coup was beginning to gain traction in conservative intellectual circles. There, the libertarian views of folks like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James M. Buchanan, and Milton Freedman* were increasingly in vogue. What started as suspicion—that things like environmental protection, workplace safety regulation, social security, medicare, minimum wage laws, and public lands management were fundamentally illegitimate uses of government power—gradually blossomed into conviction. 

Not only is this worldview ethically repulsive, it also lacks any solid intellectual footing. In its most pristine and abstract form, this a worldview rooted in demonstrably false ideas, equally detached from any kind of scientific understanding of human behavior and the raw facts of human history as visions of a communist utopia.

Indeed, the communist movements of the early and middle 20th century supply one of the modern GOP’s most illuminating historical parallels. Both are what happen when people forcefully substitute a picture of what reality is actually like with a picture of how they would like it to be. Throughout the twentieth century, many serious, intelligent people bought into communist ideologies and became thoroughly convinced they had found humanity’s best way forward. As a result, they willingly supported authoritarian regimes and participated in unspeakable atrocities. 

Much the same is true of the modern GOP. The ideology is radically different, but its intellectual footings are equally unhinged and the promised utopia just as ill-conceived. Simply spelled out, they believe that humans, freed from the burden of taxation and pursuing their own individual self-interests in a fully deregulated free market, will spontaneously build the best possible society, both in terms of fairness and resource distribution. It is, of course, an insane vision—and a far cry from the Millsian governmental restraint of classical liberalism. And it only gets worse from there, as more extreme members of the Republican Party liberally season their Ayn Randian libertarianism with white nationalism and an incongruent dose of theocratic authoritarianism. 

Since first gaining traction, this radicalism has only spread. Billionaire ideologues like Charles and David Koch organized a vast network of plutocrats and funnelled tens of millions of dollars into deliberate indoctrination campaigns. They used organizations like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Federalist Society to preach the good word of rational self-interest and unfettered capitalism to anyone willing to listen. Meanwhile, they groomed future judges and funded hardline primary challenges to unseat moderate Republicans, building a coalition of converts that has been increasingly successful at putting theory into practice. Public goods have been privatized, regulations rolled back, taxes cut on wealthy Americans and massive corporations, oligarchic influence granted constitutional protections—all with a zealot’s faith that these actions would build the best possible world for everyone.  

Increasingly convinced that taxes and regulations represent a slow walk into Soviet-style tyranny—and that the United States should function as a white, Christian theocracy—Republican politicians, thinkers, and media figures became more and more recalcitrant. During the 1990s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich made treating the opposition like an existential threat—now standard practice in the Republican Party and a direct cause of January 6’s violent insurrection—an official GOP policy. At the same time, entrepreneurs in cable news and political talk radio learned to monetize political grievances by flattering conservative political biases, thereby radicalizing many American conservatives in the process. 

All extremely corrosive to representative governance in the United States. All perfectly consistent with the doctrines of greed and selfishness that form the core of 21st century Republican politics. For decades, with varying degrees of opacity, Republicans have been advancing the argument that the best way forward for America is for each and every American to do whatever they can (barring, prior to January 6, 2021, direct violence to people or property) to secure their own best interests. With straight faces, activists like Grover Norquist—who badgers and cajoles virtually every Republican politician into signing a clownish anti-tax pledge—argue that taxation is equivalent to slavery** and basic entitlements like social security and Medicaid represent an outright pinko assault on individual liberty. 

It’s a perverse, historically illiterate, and ethically vile perspective, essentially arguing that financial support for public goods is a human rights violation. But these absurd notions—that a government taking money from private citizens to build roads, fund education and national security efforts, and provide a safety net for the vulnerable is morally equivalent to slavery; that government regulations aimed at protecting natural resources and mitigating the harmful byproducts of industry are tyrannical—were common currency in the Republican Party long before Trump tossed his name into the ring as a presidential candidate. In 2016, the Republican electorate simply confirmed that they had bought everything the Grand Old Party had been selling. They just wanted it in an honest package, fully stripped of the appeals to public spiritedness, mutual toleration, respect for democratic norms, and basic human decency you might get from someone like Mitt Romney. Donald Trump was no aberration. He is the living, breathing distillation of everything the Republican Party has preached for at least forty years. 

For most Americans, these ideas are unpalatable. But rather than shape a platform with broader appeal, the Republican Party has instead labored to amplify the obvious structural flaws in the U.S. Constitution that give acreage a voice alongside voters. Just consider: California has a population 68 times larger than Wyoming, but in the electoral college, a citizen in Wyoming has 52 times more representation than a citizen in California. This is a problem the Founding Fathers did not anticipate or appreciate. It benefits Republicans massively, allowing them to secure political influence that grossly exceeds their numbers, such that both of the last two Republican presidents came into power on fewer votes than their opponent (hundreds of thousands for Bush, millions for Trump). Meanwhile, the majority Republicans maintained in the Senate between 2019 and 2021 represented around 20 million fewer voters than the Democratic minority. Elected Republicans cheerily embrace this anti-democratic imbalance, acting as if the framers of American government were not humans but infallible oracles. 

The unfiltered reality here is that the Republican Party has been an open threat to American democracy for quite a long time. This is true even if you set aside their strange embrace of the screamingly obvious design flaws the Founders left in the Constitution and focus only on their recent legislative track record. Over the past two decades, Republicans have worked to make voting harder and harder for people unlikely to vote for them. Meanwhile, they have appointed “originalist” justices to the Supreme Court, who have handed down rulings like Citizens United vs. FEC and McCutchen vs. FEC that give wealthy individuals and corporations increasingly exaggerated influence over the shape of our elections and the legislation they ultimately produce. Throughout 2020, they enthusiastically supported a president who refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power, thereby undermining a cornerstone of representative governance and the rule of law. American democracy has eroded in recent years. The Republican Party—together with the deranged and rapacious carnival barkers in the conservative media echo chamber—has been the chief instrument of that decay. 

Living in the Painful Wake of Truth

Nations that have been gripped by turmoil, instability, violence, and tragedy, sometimes form truth and reconciliation committees. Ultimately, what this amounts to is a process of finding out precisely what went wrong, who did what and why, and then moving past it. In a way, it’s political group therapy. Painful and difficult, but also useful and, often enough, essential, truth and reconciliation committees supply a template for overcoming vast sociopolitical difficulty. 

The United States should establish a formal truth and reconciliation committee. But ordinary citizens need not wait for some official proclamation to start the work. In fact, given the nature of our national emergency, we can afford no delay. We must talk, freely and openly, about the forces that have nearly crippled our capacity to function as a representative democracy.

The events of January 6, 2021 were disgusting, shocking, and disgraceful. The Republican Party, as an institution, played a massive role in causing them—not only spreading malicious fabrications about the security and legitimacy of the 2020 election, but working steadily for decades to undermine public faith in the basic human capacity to use governments as instruments to solve problems and better people’s lives. Indeed, even after a raving mob of conspiracy theorists stormed through the Capitol building, 139 Republicans in the House of Representatives—that is, the majority of them—and 8 in the Senate voted against certifying election results in Pennsylvania and Arizona. Their stated motivations have no basis in reality. These are simply people who have no respect for representative governance or the rule of law. Every atom of pain caused in the January 6 insurrection is on their hands—and the hands of the people who voted for them. 

This moment could hardly be more precarious. But we aren’t going to be able to back off this ledge and move forward absent an honest reckoning with how we got here. The Republican Party and conservative media are directly—and chiefly—to blame for the dismal state of American politics. Meanwhile, millions of our neighbors have shown us that, under the right circumstances, they will send a would-be tyrannt to the White House. 

We have to forgive our neighbors this transgression. Not, to be clear, those who actively took part in an insurrection against American democracy. They should be punished to the fullest extent of the law—and be made subject to whatever social sanctions their friends, family, and employers deem appropriate. But the ordinary Americans who voted for Donald Trump and otherwise went about their lives made a mistake. Provided they can admit as much, they deserve a pass. Complete absolution. 

For Republican leaders and media figures, the situation is far trickier. For decades, the Republican Party has operated in a climate of political hysterics, hoping to build their extremist vision of capitalist utopia.*** The true believers really see democratic governance as an existential threat to their way of life—a slow crawl to some kind of socialist hellscape. But the party of rugged self-interest has also attracted plenty of unprincipled crooks and sycophants—men like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, Duncan Hunter and Lindsey Graham—who don’t seem to believe anything at all—save, of course, that they can and should do whatever they can to gain personal power and profit, irrespective of the consequences. Barring an embarrassingly small handful of exceptions, that is the Republican Party of 2021—a party of gibbering ideological extremists and conspiracy theorists, liberally seasoned with reflexively perfidious and self-interested goons. 

Indeed, despite his pro-democracy rhetoric in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, Senator Mitch McConnell has built a career around defying democratic norms in pursuit of myopic political ends, working with Donald Trump to install ideological zealots—men and women sympathetic to the extreme doctrines outlined above—on courts throughout the nation. In 2016, he blocked President Barack Obama’s constitutionally mandated supreme court appointment, and marked the full sweep of President Obama’s tenure with an open commitment to derail his entire agenda—and, by extension, the will of every American who had voted him into office. It’s possible an insurrection was enough to shake McConnell and cause him to rethink his behavior. It’s also highly unlikely. 

Point being, we would be fools to give the Republican Party a second chance. For years, they have championed a platform rooted in cynical, predatory appeals to people’s worst instincts—superstition, fear, paranoia, greed, self-interest, xenophobia, tribalism, bigotry, religious mania—and watched their brand become less and less attractive to more and more Americans as a result. In response, they have not moderated their views, but instead doubled-down on a strategy of minority rule. Recognizing this, it becomes clear that preserving representative governance and the rule of law in the United States will involve both crushing the Republican Party out of existence and forgiving everyone who ever voted for them. 

*As with Karl Marx, one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. These men were mostly intellectuals. A subset of their ideas spawned extremist political movements. But, as always, one should treat the full scope of the work, character, and lives with a proper mix of curiosity, charity, and context. I hope future generations will do likewise for me if any of my bad ideas inspire a movement that threatens representative governance and the rule of law after I’m dead. 

**Noteworthy here is the simple fact that someone upset about the tax code in one state or country can move to a place they find more amenable to their financial interests. Slaves who decided grinding their bones into dust as a piece of private property—particularly the Black chattel slaves directly insulted by this line of thinking—never had that option. Many of those who tried to take it anyway were brutalized and murdered as a result. 

***Capitalism, to be clear, is not some kind of abject evil. Generally speaking, open markets and economic liberty are a good thing. But the extreme position—that individual humans pursuing their personal interests in a market stripped of everything save the most basic protections on life and property is a route to the best possible society—is absurd.

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