Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring a family together. Our American political family is in crisis. The Democrats are running a candidate with what would be record breaking unfavorables, if the Republicans weren’t running a total psychopath.
Donald Trump represents a clear and present danger to the American Republic. Most people know that now. Even the people who are going to vote for him know that he’s unstable. They like his instability. It is frightening that there are so many people who just want to watch the country burn.
But, like the heroic events of Apollo 13, when we beat this guy — if we beat this guy — Trump’s defeat will represent one of the greatest triumphs in America in history. His defeat will be a “successful failure,” a failure in that he’s gotten this far, but a success that we figured out how to land this election safely, without consigning our country to a fiery death.
If you ask any first-year political philosophy student, they will tell you that the two greatest weaknesses to democracy as a form of government are “factions” and “demagogues.”
Factions are a threat because they destroy the common purpose needed to make a country work properly. If people only care about their own communities, and not the nation as a whole, gridlock ensues. Monarchs and dictators get around this problem by themselves becoming the common purpose.
Demagogues are the natural predators of democratic self-government. They appeal to passion instead of reason, feeling instead of fact, and twist the political structures for their own personal glory instead of the good of the people. Again, a monarchy is somewhat insulated from demagoguery; so long as the military is on their side, the leader can appeal to the people however he wants, or not at all. But for democracies, riling up the people to act against their own self-interest is a real problem.
Donald Trump represents both threats. He is the dictionary definition of a demagogue. And his rise to prominence is only possible because the different factions of our country have stopped talking to each other. The right-wing faction operates in a different reality, with its own set of facts, from the center and the left-wing universe. The science faction operates independently from the anti-vaxxer, chemtrail faction. The New York faction can’t even agree with the New Hampshire faction, much less the Texas faction.
Trump, with the help of Fox News, the New York Post, and the Alt-Right blogosphere, picks up on these isolated factions, and deploys them against the common purpose.
But should the common purpose win the day, America will have proven, like no country ever before, that democracy can withstand a direct attack on its Achilles heel. We will show that even in a time of war and fear we will not abandon our principles and our fellowship in favor of a strong man who seeks to tear us apart.
It is worth noting that we have failed this test before. In 1860, we elected a compromising, centrist president whose passion for incremental change was no less than Hillary Clinton’s. And the Southern faction of this country responded with rebellion and war. Slavery could have been destroyed through democratic means, but instead, it took a war. And even the Civil War failed to deliver the clear political commitment that all men and women would be treated as equals. It took another hundred years, and more military force, to achieve legal equality. Social equality is still a battle we fight for today.
The 1860s represent a failure of our politics. So too do the 1930s and 1940s. In response to the twin threats of the Great Depression and the Second World War, America responded by electing a King, endowing him with tremendous executive power, and then kept electing him until he literally died at his desk. The reign of Franklin Roosevelt has more in common with the Roman Senate appointing Julius Caesar dictator than it had with the traditional limit on executive power established by George Washington.
In some ways, the brilliance of our democracy has been our ability to revert back to democracy after we throw it out of the window for a time. When our imperial presidents die, we go back to “normal.” If Trump wins, four or eight years of authoritarian tyranny will likely be followed by eight years of “some guy,” not an Augustus type who seeks to consolidate and normalize dictatorial rule.
But that revision back to democratic principles has been dependent on the strongman leader dying or abdicating power. Thus far, we’ve avoided tyranny not through the ballot box, but through luck and fate.
If Trump loses, we will have done something that we’ve never done before: use the tools of democracy to overcome a direct threat to democracy.
Trump thinks that our diversity is our weakness. We can show him that it is our enduring strength. If political power in this country was only reserved for straight white men, Trump would be unstoppable. But if white men of good will join with women and minorities and gays and lesbians and scientists and priests, Trump cannot win.
“The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” — H.L. Mencken.
We can show the world, forever, that when everybody gets to vote, democracy can not be overthrown by a demagogue making a base appeal to discrete factions. His defeat will be the observable proof of Mencken’s theory.
Donald Trump will let us show democracy at its very best.