The Threats to Democracy, Part I

A libertarian friend wrote me recently to urge me to speak out against former President Donald Trump’s threat to democracy. Specifically, he said “There’s been too little classical liberal/libertarian writing on the dangers Trump now poses to our democracy.”

I agree with him. Donald Trump’s refusal to accept his loss in the November 2020 election and his outrageous January 6, 2021 speech to his supporters were, in my view, the low points of his administration. Truth seems to have no value to him independently of how it affects his fortunes.

I think it’s important to estimate, as accurately as possible, the size of the Trump threat. It’s important not to understate it, and it’s as important not to overstate. If we’re in the business of defending democracy, we also need to identify all the major threats. In my view, the threats from the Progressives are greater.

The January 6 Riot

Notice the subtitle. I didn’t say, as many writers do, “The January 6 Insurrection.” What we know is that it was a riot. Many of the participants in the mob that entered the Capitol building did so violently, smashing windows and trying to break down doors. I was telling a close friend that day, who had pointed out that they weren’t as violent as many antifa rioters the previous summer, why I found this riot particularly upsetting. Here’s how I put it: “They’re violently going against one of the few things that works in the federal government: the peaceful transfer of power.” I told her how I had got goose bumps watching C-SPAN on a different January 6, in 2001, when Vice-President Al Gore, the loser, and some would say the sore loser, in the November 2000 election, presided over the counting of the electoral votes that gave the election to his opponent, George W. Bush. Gore, as part of his job and to his credit, insisted that the four Democratic members of the House of Representatives who challenged Bush’s election needed a U.S. Senator to back their particular charges. In each case, the House member admitted that he or she had no U.S. Senator’s backing, and so Gore did what he was supposed to do: moved on. This was American democracy at its finest. (Watch from about the 11:00 point to about the 13:00 point to see how Gore, whom I usual detest, caused me to feel deep patriotic feelings about how the transfer of power works at its best.)

My point is that the January 6 riot was a serious mob action, and its seriousness should not be understated. Many people, in my view, have indeed understated it. They have pointed to the fact that virtually no one in the mob had guns. True. But that doesn’t mean that the members of Congress who feared for their lives knew that at the time. Many of the mob chanted death threats against Vice-President Pence. I don’t know about you, but if a mob were to chant that they wanted me dead and were pushing to get into the room where I was located, I would be pretty scared. And you can kill people without guns.

Was it an insurrection? I’m not sure. The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives as its “full” definition of an insurrection “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” One could certainly regard what happened as a revolt against an established government. Tellingly, though, even though there is a federal law on the books stating the penalty for insurrection, the feds are charging none of the rioters with insurrection.

I would also point out that if what the mob did is, in fact, insurrection, then certainly what many antifa rioters did against established local governments, which was often much more violent, were insurrections also.

At this point, I can imagine some readers accusing me of “whataboutism,” which is defined as “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counteraccusation or raising a different issue.” But I’m not engaging in whataboutism. I’m taking totally seriously the threat posed by the January 6th mob and laying out an implication of seeing that threat as an insurrection. The problem with the charge of whataboutism is that it too often substitutes for thought. “Oh, I’ve cleverly identified what the author is doing, so I don’t have to think about what he’s saying.” So if you don’t want to think about what I’m saying, I invite you to exercise a freedom we all still have: the freedom to quit reading. But if you actually want to think, I invite you to continue reading.

The Continuing Threat from Donald Trump

In case you haven’t noticed, even though Donald Trump is no longer on Twitter, he has not shut up. He still claims that he was robbed of the election. There almost certainly was fraud in the last election. Why would 2020 have been different from pretty much every other presidential election we’ve had? Was there enough fraud to swing the vote to Biden? I haven’t seen clear evidence of that. And notice that it was Republicans in Michigan and Arizona who, after their investigations, announced that Biden had won those two states fair and square.

As I said above, Trump has little regard for the truth. When someone has little regard for the truth, he’s always a threat.

But here’s what I think people leave out that causes them to overstate the threat: Donald Trump, although a smart guy, is intellectually lazy. He doesn’t seem to read, and, given his stated goals, he doesn’t delegate well to achieve those apparent goals. These traits can be good or bad, depending on the goals.

If his goals are bad, I want him to be incompetent at achieving them. If his goals are good, then his incompetence is bad. Take the threat Trump made during his first term to target NBC for its report that he favored a large increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. What did he do about it? Nothing. And as I wrote in a January 2018 article, “if Trump really wanted to follow through on his threatened censorship of television networks, he chose the wrong chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Ajit Pai is one of the most deregulatory officials in the Trump administration.” I also put his threats in perspective by contrasting his fizzling action with that of a mastermind in using government power to squash dissent: Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Here’s what I wrote:

Consider, by contrast, someone who effectively quashed radio criticism of his policies: Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1934, as University of Alabama historian David Beito has noted, President Roosevelt’s FCC put radio stations on a short leash by reducing the license-renewal period from three years to six months. He appointed Herbert L. Pettey as head of the commission. Pettey had been FDR’s radio adviser during his 1932 presidential campaign. Shortly after this licensing change, NBC announced that it would limit broadcasts “contrary to the policies of the United States government.” CBS went further, announcing an end to broadcasts “in any way” critical of “any policy of the Administration.” Who was more effective—the unsophisticated Trump threatening in public, or the warm and fuzzy (but ruthless and strategic) operator behind the scenes, Roosevelt? The record speaks for itself.

But Trump also had made noises during his campaign and early in his administration about reducing U.S. military intervention in other countries’ affairs. How did he go about achieving that goal? By successively appointing two National Security advisers, H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, who favor U.S. government intervention in many countries’ affairs. That’s why he achieved so little of his worthy goal.

There’s one other reason that Donald Trump isn’t as much of a threat as many people fear. He has none of the powerful institutions: the media, the education sector, and corporate America. The first two are vehemently anti-Trump and pro-Progressive and the last is mainly anti-Trump and pro-Progressive.

I’ll examine what I regard as the major threat next.