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Doubting the naysayers of the American republic

Extreme rhetoric about a threat to the U.S. system of government is misplaced and irresponsible

The scene outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik

Doubting the naysayers of the American republic
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Claims that American democracy is in crisis seem omnipresent today. In the last few weeks alone, three retired generals warned in a Washington Post op-ed that a military coup might well be possible in 2024 if the right candidate does not win the presidency and social chaos ensues. Any attempt to raise questions about mail-in ballots or revise voting rules is greeted with accusations of gerrymandering, racism, and bad faith. And, of course, the horrific actions of the mob on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021, loom large in the popular imagination. Comparisons with Germany’s short-lived Weimar Republic and references to novels such as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America are now virtual clichés among the chattering classes.

Yet the case for a democratic crisis is surely overstated, particularly from the standpoint of the left, the major source of such concerns.

The fact that Donald Trump is no longer president and that the Republicans control neither the Senate nor the House is surely powerful evidence that the United States is not in the grip of some vast right-wing conspiracy. At the very moment where the American system, at least from the perspective of the Democratic Party, seems to be working, it is odd to find so many on the left so worried about the fate of the nation. Might it be that the concerns are less for the fate of the republic and more for the electoral prospects of a party facing a hard reckoning in the midterms? The left has typically portrayed Trump and his supporters as the result of ignorant bigotry taking root. That may well account for some of his popularity. But as my (lifelong socialist) grandfather said of the British Labour Party in later life when (still a socialist) he voted Conservative, the left has abandoned the real poor in favor of the bourgeois identity politics of the comfortable middle-class. That was 35 years ago, and the left has not changed course since then. But, of course, it is always easier to blame one’s failures on the ignorance of the electorate than upon the betrayal of one’s true constituency.

Jan. 6, as despicable as it was, was a display of frustration arising out of social and political impotence. Guns and violence do not always indicate strength and confidence.

Further, to read the events of Jan. 6 as signifying the advent of a new, anti-democratic force in America that is going to shatter our democratic processes and destroy our republic, Weimar-fashion, is to miss two important points. First, Weimar Germany was a fledgling republic in a nation less than 50 years old and already shattered by losses in a war whose scale and horror would have been inconceivable just a decade before. America’s identity and institutions are much more deeply seated in her culture. That does not guarantee that America’s constitutional order cannot be toppled. But it makes such an outcome far more difficult to achieve.

Second, to see the riot of Jan. 6 as the action of a movement marked by strength and confidence is to misread it. The people invading the Capitol that day have no real influence in America where influence counts. They may inhabit fringe websites and give their organizations grandiose, if somewhat silly, names. But they are absent from the ranks of the real influencers in our culture: the media, Hollywood, Big Tech, colleges, law schools. Jan. 6, as despicable as it was, was a display of frustration arising out of social and political impotence. Guns and violence do not always indicate strength and confidence.

None of this is to say that a collapse of the American republic and its constituent institutions is not possible. Rather, it is to argue that the extreme rhetoric about the threat to the American political settlement is misplaced and should be set aside as irresponsible. Indeed, there is a possibility that such rhetoric might even become part of the problem, a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. For it is surely easier to imagine such rhetoric being used to justify some kind of state of emergency wherein normal processes are suspended. COVID has habituated us all to the rhetorical power of “public safety” and “expertise” as a way of foreclosing discussion on public policy. It is not hard to imagine hysteria about threats to the republic fueling a similar scenario in the broader context of civil government.

We have a republic, if we can keep it. And part of that requires a cool-headed understanding of our problem and a responsible use of rhetoric. There is a lesson there for both sides of the American political spectrum.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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