I am hearing a worried buzz about our republic not holding together, something I have never in my long life encountered before. Some (many?) on the “left” worry about President Trump calling the election invalid and holding onto power. From the “right” comes concerns that those leading and supporting groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter hope to build their protests into insurrection.
Over a beer recently after tennis, I could not help but overhear most of a conversation in the booth next to ours. An intense Trump supporter was loudly expressing such fears of insurrection from the far left. As if to clinch it, he added: “Bill Gates and George Soros are trying to take over the world, you know.” He was serious.
A lively, though civil, verbal brawl ensued in the booth. “How can you believe that?” another asked.
After a while, the Trump loyalist sighed: “You know we should stop this kind of talk. I won’t convince you, and you won’t convince me.”
He added: “You and I just aren’t reading the same things.” And that might have been the best insight of the evening.
Another perspective came recently from an old friend, an Ivy League PhD in political science. He called from his home in D.C., where he is a retired foundation president.
PhD friend expressed alarm about Trump sending federal officials into cities. “It reminds me of Mussolini in Italy, who engineered a violent, fascist coup in that country and ruled for 20 years.”
All of this sounds far-fetched, to me anyway. Maybe it’s because I think I’m from the generally less passionate center of the political spectrum, where all we want is order, harmony, and prosperity. I read mainstream fare like the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, The Economist, and Scientific American. Little call for insurrection on those pages.
The body politic was stretched and strained half a century ago, sparked by the Vietnam War and movements for civil and women’s rights. Since then, social observers have frequently recalled the famous World War I era poem by Yeats, with lines that include: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Here is my take as to why political passions may be reaching a fever pitch:
Trump appeals in part to older, white males who feel they are losing or have lost their footing on the side of the hill of life, which most of us try to ascend, in some fashion. These white males, often inadequately educated for jobs in the information age, are scared by the rise of women, the aggressiveness of minorities, and the sense of being played for chumps by the well-educated elites of finance, technology and science.
These folks are generally not well-versed in the niceties of the democratic processes and the rule of law.
On the left, we have many people of color (plus urban, white liberal sympathizers) who feel the deck has forever been stacked against them. They thought things were maybe getting better, as a result of policies initiated in the 1960s during the Great Society of LBJ.
But the recent, gruesome George Floyd neck-hold death, and similar homicides of Laquon McDonald in Chicago, those in Ferguson, Missouri, and others, have jolted them into thinking, alas, that nothing has really changed. And they are royally pissed, to use an expression I hear in my rural confines.
A look at history shows that master propagandists Goebbels and Mussolini on the right and Robespierre and Lenin on the left all led passionate minorities to takeovers of democratic societies. They were able to do so — and here we need better historians than am I — because indifferent, less passionate majorities, preoccupied with making livings and rearing families, failed to take heed and shout them down early.
The present is different from the past, I think, because of the apparent deep impact of the internet and social media. Digital communications appear to seduce people into sites with like-minded folks, echo chambers that feed and intensify one another’s biases.
All political systems are flawed, because they cannot satisfy the demands of all in diverse societies. Yet the American constitutional republic that became a democracy has lasted longer, and successfully so, than that of any major nation.
The American Center must and can hold. It need be vigilant, ready to rise up as necessary to protect our institutions, democratic processes and the rule of law.