As Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, someone shouted, “What kind of government do we have?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” [Note: The words “republic” and “democracy” both mean government by the people through elected representatives. The terms do not refer to Republicans or Democrats.]
What a bittersweet reply! Sweet, because a government by and for the people, aspiring to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” was, and is, a rare and beautiful thing. Bitter, because Franklin well knew that throughout history tyranny and raw power have time and again crushed such noble experiments in self-government.
Winston Churchill famously observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” What are some of these other forms of government? Autocracy (rule by one person with absolute power), communism, and fascism have all been tried, and in fact still hold sway in many countries.
If America should fail “to keep” our republic, what form of government would take its place? There are those who say America is trending towards fascism, autocratic government characterized by dictatorial rule, nationalism, racism, and suppression of individual rights. The election of Donald Trump was a strong indicator that this tendency is a powerful force in our country. Trump was and is a master at manipulating his followers, stimulating and exploiting a sense of fear and aggrievement, offering himself as the only possible remedy.
It’s important to understand that everything Trump has done is straight out of the autocrat’s playbook: 1. Create an “Us vs. Them” mentality by stigmatizing the “Other,” which can include Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, or any other scapegoat deemed useful. 2. Undermine faith in the press, while spreading lies, conspiracy theories and propaganda. Social media has made this much easier. 3. Undermine faith in elections. 4. Ignore law and custom in order to grab and hold on to power.
However, Trump is not a master magician who can hypnotize a nation into giving up on democracy. He has had abettors at every stage, important people who have signed on, believing it was in their own best interest: corrupt foreign leaders, avaricious businessmen without moral compass, and a radicalized Republican Party.
Jan. 6 really happened, and it was exactly what it appeared to be — a coup attempt intended to thwart a legal election and establish Trump as America’s permanent leader. One hundred and forty-seven Republicans voted to overturn election results.
This was insurrection in every sense and has gone unpunished except for a number of terrorists who breached the Capitol at Trump’s instigation. And many of these have received ridiculously light sentences.
Since Jan. 6, Trump and his followers have continued to broadcast the Big Lie of election fraud, while Republican-led legislatures in various states have enacted voter suppression laws. By their actions and by their refusal to repudiate the hate-filled politics of Trump, Republicans signal that they are on board with the weakening of our democracy and the transition, whether violent or non-violent, to an autocratic form of government.