Agreeing with the common premises of two recent op-eds by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post, “How Democracies Die” and “How Fascism Comes to America,” both focused on the rise of Donald Trump, the question begged by them is how to prevent the process from reaching its ultimate end, an authoritarian police state where essential democratic freedoms are suspended.
Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, attributes the rise of Trump to his ability to offer “an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.
“What he has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic, the popular passions unleashed, the ‘mobocracy,’” Kagan went on. Namely, “The other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms….The unleashing of popular passions (that) would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.”
Indeed, that was the scenario that Plato warned about in The Republic. Pure democracy, or “mob rule,” is a form of “might makes right” that feeds right into tyranny. That informed the Founding Fathers, who carefully crafted a division of powers in the U.S. Constitution to elevate Plato’s notion of a representative republic above that of the mere allegedly-democratic, impulsive “will of the people.”
The Constitution, therefore, sought to lift the power of reason above the brute power of passion, just as Plato advised. Our earliest heroes, like Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Quincy Adams, Clay and Lincoln understood this issue well. They shaped policies, such as the development of a universal, science-based public education and a free press, to counter major influences grounded in demagoguery, deceit, superstition and fear, to educate the nation’s youth against the proverbial snake oil salesman.
It is Joshua Israel of Princeton University, author of a number of major scholarly works on the Enlightenment that provided the context for the American revolution, such as Democratic Enlightenment, who has exposed the rise of modern relativism, so-called Postmodernism, for undermining of our nation’s most important cornerstones of sustainability, universalism and the primacy of reason.
He faulted the late Postmodernist philosopher Michael Foucault for accusing the Enlightenment’s “insistence on the primacy of reason” as being “ultimately just a mask for the exercise of power,” and substituting “moral relativism and the indeterminacy of truth.”
But the Enlightenment, Israel argued, and the U.S. republic and Constitution to which it gave rise were the products of a process that was “concerned with the central place of reason and of experience and experiment in understanding and improving human society.” Such aspirations rejected “anything based on blind authority,” or “blindly accepted from habit and custom,” such as irrational religious dogma.
So, the rebellion against authority for its own sake is what’s at work in an angry public turned mob that will color rage with anti-liberal, anti-compassionate prejudices. It is the egomaniac Trump who has learned how to tap into this and to turn the predominantly white male mob against everything the last eight years in Washington, under the leadership of an African-American president, has meant for them.
How is this countered? How can America resist the conversion from democracy to fascism in 2016 and beyond? It is hard to even suggest a glib answer, but it is found in the notion of the “power of reason.”
It cannot be done by trying to match one Postmodern obscenity with another that advocates a different candidate. No, the style of the opposition to fascism has to be very different. It has to appeal to sanity and reason, to thinking through the consequences of following a pied piper over the abyss, the chimera of the promised freedoms and the reasoned alternatives that all must help shape. It must focus fiery passion against the subversion of our nation by tyranny.