Democracy is a weird form of government. It asks the citizens of a nation — without any regard for their level of education or capacity or anything else — to collectively vote for representatives or laws who or which will then maintain their state. It requires people of vastly different opinions and backgrounds and wildly different priorities to come together and agree upon things which neither really like, but which both can tolerate. Rather than have one preordained person, supposedly imbued with a superb education and exceptional qualities of empathy and benevolence, simply rule by fiat making quick and decisive moves on the world stage immediately affecting billions of people, democracy trudges cautiously onward.
There are a lot of things to fear or criticize about democracy and populist leaders are populists because they are skilled at stirring those fears and criticisms. Why aren’t things going exactly your way? Well, it’s because that group over there is stupid, voting against their own interests, and being coddled by the “elites.” If only you and your interests were valued over those undeserving people over there. Because you’re smart, aren’t you? Of course you are. So clearly, you not getting what you want immediately is unjust and the fault of those other voters who really shouldn’t have the right to vote anyway because they’re not smart, not Americans, not from the correct ideological background, not the right gender, not the right race, not from the appropriate financial strata, but most importantly, not you.
There exists a consistent refrain throughout American political history and realistically throughout world history that only those who are deserving should have access to and benefits from the government and all the problems with the system may be traced to an undeserving underclass which is both conniving and lazy. But who exactly those “deserving,” folks are tends to shift with who you ask. The underclass tends to be more consistent in all renditions of the song — Jews, smart women, LGBTQs, and those with darker skin often will be cast in this role — but regardless of the specifics the unifying theme is that the undeserving underclass is always not you.
In her book How the South Won the Civil War, Heather Cox Richardson historically explains how the damaging culture of racism was maintained, perpetuated, and even expanded and codified. She points out the double standard by which white Americans often claim to be self-sufficient and individualist while receiving government benefits and yet denying those same benefits to people of colour.
The supposed Republican ethos of the modern era is that “real” Americans — roughly translated to ‘you, but not those other people who don’t agree with you,’ — are rugged individualists or even survivalists who far from asking for “government handouts,” will go so far as to be entirely self-sufficient not even requiring the intervention of police, firefighters, or medical services in emergency situations. This is the cowboy or farmer, the reluctant hero in Die Hard or Indiana Jones, or even the Silvester Stallone style hero. Unstated is the reality that these supposed self-sufficient heroes both real and fictional achieve their status or are provided with skills and land through government programs which when available to people of colour often do not carry the same benefits.
The fictional versions of these heroes are further curated and altered to enhance the fiction of the lone and self-sufficient almost anti-governmental figure. The movie versions of both John McClane and Rambo were radically altered from their novel versions with McClane being not a 40-year-old police officer, but a World War II veteran in his late sixties or early seventies. While both versions of Rambo are a Vietnam veteran with PTSD (skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid spoilers for the novel), in the novel his acts of violence are unjustified and highly reactionary due to a failure on the part of the government to provide him with appropriate therapy. Rather than carry on into multiple further machine gun wielding novels at the end, he dies.
But, all this myth building to one side, perhaps the more pertinent question is why did the very Party which, through Lincoln, put down the racist rebellion fomented by the southern states making up the confederacy which had illegally seceded from the Union come to attack the Capitol of the United States with the intent not only of disrupting our democratic process but of actually murdering duly elected lawmakers? How did the Republican Party get to this point. Cox Richardson answers many of these questions particularly in regard to how America as a whole developed this circuitous ethos in her book. But to my mind the best living representation of the hypocrisy, cynicism, and undemocratic nature of what the the Republican Party has become is evidenced by Mitch McConnell.
McConnell embodies the slow rot of autocracy and while historical trends allowed for his malfeasance and greed and while other electoral practices and personalities hold additional responsibility for the rise of Trump and the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Republican Party, McConnell’s influence on politics and his caucus if not directly causative of our present crisis are clearly demonstrative of Republican dereliction of duty and callowness of spirit.
In his newly published memoirs of his Presidency, A Promised Land Barack Obama describes Mitch McConnell as a singularly uncharismatic man, Machiavellian, and uninterested in service to his country. In fact, Obama’s experience regarding McConnell largely originate from McConnell’s absolute intransigence regarding a stimulus bill to save the death spiralling economy. In late 2008 and early 2009 the country was plummeting towards an economic disaster on par with the Great Depression. The only means of ameliorating or averting absolute disaster was a comprehensive stimulus package. Some of this had already been driven by George W. Bush in his outgoing months, and it was well known among all parties including the Republicans that traditional ideology aside there was no sound argument against the passage of a major stimulus bill. Without it the economy of the United States and most world markets was headed for a crash. Without it millions of Americans would lose their jobs, their homes, their retirement savings, and some would go hungry.
But instead of doing the right thing for the country, instead of honouring his oath of office Mitch McConnell instead whipped his caucus to vote against the stimulus and simultaneously attach political time bombs and feed it poison pills. McConnell did not have an economic point for this. He did not even have the agreement of other Republicans. But he embarked on his absurd mission nonetheless for the political reason that it would damage Obama’s political capital.
McConnell is hardly the first politician or even the first Republican to engage in this type of scorched earth, king-of-the-ashes, bad-faith manoeuvring, and it seems he was emboldened by the nativist attitudes displayed by and towards Sarah Palin in the 2008 campaign. But he is the most relevant contemporary example of the destructive nature of intransigence in politics paired with a willingness to destroy the nation and upend the Constitution as long as it results in a win for your side.
McConnell is not directly and solely responsible for the attack on the Capitol on January 6th. He is not solely responsible for the decay in Republican morality, the rise of Trump, the corruption of elected office, and the decrease in faith in our institutions. But he is one of the few people who — with relative ease and very little personal cost — might have corrected the course of his Party and the country before it descended into crisis and decay. And yet, he did nothing.
Perhaps it can be said that McConnell is at least braver than outgoing Vice President Mike Pence in that he did not immediately abandon his duty and oath of office in the vain hope of future political gain. McConnell has said he will hear the case for the second impeachment rather than immediately dismiss it out of hand as he did the first one. In contrast not only did Mike Pence refuse to invoke the 25th Amendment when called on to do so by a country in danger of the capricious whims of an anti-American white supremacist with access to our nuclear weapons, but he has done absolutely nothing to either neutralize Trump or castigate the terrorists.
But McConnell is also refusing to so much as try to reconvene the Senate so that the impeachment case may be heard. This means that even if ultimately enough Republican Senators during the last dying gasps of their Party, do honour their oaths and put our nation before its enemies, the worst President in US history who has already fomented an attempted coup e’tat in order to install himself as a fascist dictator and upend our democracy and Constitutional Republic will remain in office until the end of his term. The members of the US armed services will not obey an illegal order so try as Trump might he will likely find himself unable to detonate a nuclear warhead or deploy US soldiers against the nation in order to remain in power. But the reason we make our elected officials swear oaths and the reason we have remedies like the 25th Amendment and impeachment are precisely so we do not have to fall back on the better angels of the armed services.
In April of 1865, Abraham Lincoln, the leader of the Republican Party received word of Robert E. Lee’s surrender signalling the end of the Civil War. In a celebratory mood for perhaps the first time during his Presidency Lincoln attended a theatre performance on April 14th, only a month and ten days after his second inauguration, and it was there that his assassin John Wilkes Booth shot and fatally wounded him. This was not the first attempt on Lincoln’s life or first plot against him and Wilkes was working with co-conspirators who were meant to simultaneously assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Johnson, who became President after Lincoln’s death and himself faced impeachment largely for his capitulations to the confederacy including blanket pardons for many involved did not fail in this instance to prosecute the conspirators. Booth had been shot and himself fatally wounded as he attempted to escape arrest on April 26th. His co-conspirators were tried one receiving a six year sentence, three life imprisonment, and four including Mary Surrat, the first woman executed by the US government were sentenced to hang.
Wilkes and his co-conspirators were successful in assassinating the President, but their goal had been to eliminate an entire branch of government. This was a goal shared by the terrorists who attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. In the lead up to the Civil War it was Democrats who were ignoring the health of the Republic to increase their own wealth and power. It was Democrats who inflicted violent and racist attacks in order to ascend and it was a Republican President who had the moral certitude and humility to bring the Civil War to a close. But in the hundred and seventy-five years since the Civil War the Republican Party has slowly become infected with the racist, power-hungry, nativist, pathogen which once infected the Democratic Party. Now it is the Democrats on the right side of history and the Republicans threatening our very Constitutional democracy.
The Democratic Party did ultimately survive the Civil War and eventually through diversification, service, and the promotion of equality and civil rights the Party has thrived. It is therefore not impossible for the Republican Party to recover and eventually regain the moral and ethical fortitude which was formed by and died with Abraham Lincoln. If the Republican party can reject the populist and fascist habits it has formed and honour the nation it was born to there is still a chance it might survive. But the Presidential brackets on the Republican Party are unmissable. If this were fiction it wouldn’t even be subtext. Abraham Lincoln was one of the best if not the best President in US history. And Donald Trump is undeniably the worst.
There is no real Democratic corollate for Donald Trump. James K. Polk may have been as bellicose, Andrew Jackson as nativist, and James Buchanan as indolent, but none of them were all of those things at once. Donald Trump may be the pneumonia or tumour that ultimately causes the death of the Republican Party. But he is not the root cause. Donald Trump is a symptom of a far more virulent morbidity.