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Reflections at a political crossroads
The Wolf Comes Home
“Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome. But there’s gonna be a party when the wolf comes home.” – The Mountain Goats
Myths matter in the life of a nation, the ones rooted in history and the ones more-or-less fabricated in the minds of its citizens. America’s core myths, as well as its actual history, have always been a little martial and a little mad. We are a nation that fought a war for our independence and many more to take the lands between our two shining seas. Our world-beating superpower status came on the backs of two world wars that decimated the old-world powers of Europe and left the United States to wage, successfully, a decades-long battle of statecraft with the Soviet Union. The American myth has often felt a little Roman. The founders embraced Roman imagery. Small nods to the grandeur of Rome populate our national discourse, and Rome and its fall have also served as recurring themes over the last half-century of musing on American decline.
It was the fall not of the Roman Empire but of the Roman Republic that preoccupied the authors of our Constitution. Mike Duncan’s excellent history of the period preceding the actual historical end of the Roman Republic is illuminating on the many ways that the institutions we hold dear today—representative politics, checks and balances, rule of law—bend under repeated assaults by cynical populists and an increasingly disillusioned public. In the century prior to the end of the republic, Duncan highlights
rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarization, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct, the privatization of the military, rampant corruption, endemic social and ethnic prejudice, battles over access to citizenship and voting rights, ongoing military quagmires, the introduction of violence as a political tool, and a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.
As classical historian Mary Beard argues of Caesar’s famous crossing of the Rubicon, “When Sulla turned his army on the city, all but one of his senior officials had refused to follow him. When Caesar did the same, all but one stayed with him. It was an apt symbol of how far scruples had eroded in such a short time.” When Donald Trump crossed his own Rubicon, demanding the overturning of an American election, 139 House Republicans obliged. When the time came to impeach him for inciting a mob against the U.S. Capitol in a final attempt to retain power, only 10 voted with their Democratic colleagues. Of those 10, only 2 survived politically to face general election voters this November.
Rome was always a martial society. And violence plagued the dying days of the republic, with Caesar’s assassination being just the one of many acts of political bloodshed that dotted its closing century. Speaking of this period of rising political violence, Mary Beard observes:
Increasingly, however, Roman weapons were turned not against foreign enemies but against Romans themselves. Never mind any thought of Aeneas’ Trojans; this was the legacy of Romulus and Remus, the fratricidal twins. ‘The blood of innocent Remus,’ as Horace put it in the 30s B.C.E., ‘was taking its revenge.’
Speaking more broadly, the position of Mars as one of—if not perhaps the—most important deity over its history helps to emphasize this. Romulus and Remus were said to be the sons of the god of war, and the idea of Rome was never far from that of bloodshed. Livy leaves us this rather stark quotation:
Now, if any nation ought to be allowed to claim a sacred origin and point back to a divine paternity that nation is Rome. For such is her renown in war that when she chooses to represent Mars as her own and her founder's father, the nations of the world accept the statement with the same equanimity with which they accept her dominion.
American history has also always been marked by the potential for explosive violence, both outward in the form of warfare and inward in myriad expressions of civil conflict and acts of mass murder.
America, too, was founded and then re-founded on fratricidal terms. Our two great identity-shaping conflicts, the Revolution and the Civil War, were deeply fratricidal events—the former much more so than is typically acknowledged in our glossy, patriotic histories.
But if American fervor has often been expressed in convulsions of violence, it has also consistently manifested in our tendency to zealously adopt a range of fanciful beliefs and conspiratorial causes. Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland is a sweeping history of the role of mass delusion in American history. Fantasy, Andersen argues, has always been a feature of the American mind. He traces entrepreneurs, demagogues, and charlatans—from the Fox sisters and P. T. Barnum to Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump—who have benefitted from and even preyed upon this vulnerability. But the throughline is the American predilection for collective fantastical thinking. Again, myths matter, and Andersen notes that the very details we choose to tell about our history emphasize our sense of ourselves as believers, whether in God or in some other, outward thing. He writes:
It’s telling that Americans know and celebrate Plymouth but Jamestown hardly at all. The myth we’ve constructed says that the first nonnative new Americans who mattered were the idealists, the hyper-religious people seeking freedom to believe and act out their passionate, elaborate, all-consuming fantasies. The more run-of-the-mill people seeking a financial payoff, who abandoned their dream once it was defunct? Eh.
With Republicans still likely to take the House in the New Year, albeit with a smaller majority than they’d hoped, these national fouls are coming home to roost. Because a majority, even a slim majority, still means power. And it still means the power to stall legislation, control committee assignments, launch investigations, and wage war on Biden. The precariousness of the moment is real. We are set to be governed, at least in part, by a party given over to these twin maladies—violence and fantasy. We face the prospect of swearing into offices across the country individuals who were present on January 6. And the agenda of the MAGA hardliners can only be described as fantasy of the purest cut. They surely hope to investigate and even impeach Joe Biden. They plan to discredit the steady, thorough work of the January 6 Committee. They hope to avenge a long list of imagined grievances and prepare for a proper restoration of Republican—and for many, that still means Trumpian—power in 2024.
In A Burned-Over Country
“There can be no revival when Mr. Amen and Mr. Wet-Eyes are not in attendance.” – Charles Grandison Finney
As Andersen and many other writers have observed, America has been particularly prone to mass flights of fancy, from our many religious revivals to the Red Scare to anti-vax movements. There has often, if not always, been something of the zealot in the American approach.
A great number of America’s spiritual and religious revivals can be traced to one long strip of western New York state. This region, stretching from Lake Erie to the Finger Lakes, gave rise to the Second Great Awakening, Joseph Smith, the Fox Sisters, the Oneida community, and more—all phenomena that helped remake American society at one point or another through deep belief in things not seen. This propensity to produce such passionate movements earned the region the descriptive term of “burnt” or “burned-over.”
Today, the whole country feels like a burned-over land. QAnon is perhaps the all-conspiracy of 21st century American life. It appears to touch almost every kind of paranoid fear within the American psyche. Politicians are conspiring with the wealthy to undercut the power of everyday people. Children are being abused and sacrificed. Elections are being stolen. It also carries the basic code of antisemitism, which is itself an ancient hatred that has plagued societies for centuries. In some ways, the political elements of QAnon harken back to one of our earliest political “scares”: freemasonry. The belief in the dastardly machinations of the freemasons was so widespread and strongly held that it gave rise to the country’s first third party, the Anti-Masons, and the burned-over district was a hotbed of anti-Masonic sentiment.
The Big Lie has been discussed ad nauseam at this point, but there is a spiritualist element to it that can sometimes go underappreciated. Thankfully, scholars of Christian nationalism have been raising this alarm. Writing on a Donald Trump rally held this September, Rev. Nathan Empsall of Faithful America observed:
You would be forgiven for confusing it for a religious service. Similar to a creed, Trump shared his litany of election-denial lies that have come to constitute the Republican Party platform…And with the feel of an altar call, the crowd jabbed index fingers in the air while organizers played music that closely resembled the QAnon theme song.
Mike Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, has continued preaching the Big Lie and is doing so in increasingly eschatological tones. Flynn has called the current fight for political power in America “a spiritual war” and concluded one event—fittingly, in Batavia in western New York—by offering an invitation for attendees to be baptized.
But it’s not just the Big Lie and the mass phenomenon of QAnon. A whole constellation of conspiracies and paranoid fears now drive Republican politics. Among these, gender identity has come to be a core focus of this new moral panic.
Parents across America have become convinced that a plot is afoot by gender radicals to maim and mutilate their children. The issue, while sensitive indeed, has become mired in stereotyping both accidental and malicious. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the bizarre belief now circulating among right-wing circles that children are identifying as cats, even demanding things such as litter boxes in the classroom. It’s not unreasonable to attribute some of the misinformation that surrounds the trans debate to simple issue illiteracy among the wider public given the very small minority of people who identify as transgender. But the cat-person, kitty litter story is so ludicrous on its face that it’s hard not to see it as being spread by sheer malice. Some are genuine believers, though. And that’s a testament to both the demonization of trans people and the thoroughly poisoned ecosystem that is today’s right-wing media.
What unites this swamp of hate and bile is that is that every story floating around within it is always turned against liberals, or at least some imagined liberal. They are weaponized drug dreams clouding the minds of Americans in every state and of every station. And it’s a haze that need never end thanks to the infinite buffet of extremist media serving up daily, if not hourly, hits of the good stuff.
The Insurrection Power
“The slave power, when in control, was a centralizing influence, and all the most considerable encroachments on states' rights were its acts…Slavery in fact required centralization in order to maintain and protect itself, but it required to control the centralized machine; it needed despotic principles of government, but it needed them exclusively for its own use.” – Henry Adams
Across much of the American right, a thoroughgoing belief in the illegitimacy of the opposition now animates politics from city council to the presidency. And it bends everything to its logic. Elections are to be questioned, yes. But so is the basic dignity and humanity of the opponent. No quarter can be given, no sign of softening. But it is more than that. The logic of the insurrection is now the modus operandi of an entire political party, and that party is now the political arm of a madness that is quickly institutionalizing itself across American public life.
What I mean by this is that the Republican Party is now built on a series of propositions about state power and democracy—that is, that they are under attack from a host of enemies arrayed on the other side of the political spectrum—that requires them to continually seek to subvert and abuse state power and democracy. Critically, many of these views are held by only a minority of Americans. Yes, it is a harrowing figure, but it is still a minority. And that means that the candidates most committed to running on the logic of the Big Lie and other, even more radioactive positions can argue their defeats are merely a fait accompli, engineered by an unseen enemy. They have been thwarted and so cannot really lose. Liberals are thieves and vandals who, having sacked American culture, now usurp political power. Through this unhinged sense of victimhood, the party that once preached limited government and personal liberty, is now in the midst of a series of power grabs and excessive applications of governmental authority that threaten to crack the foundations of the republic.
Where such Republicans win—and as these elections have made plain, there is little shortage of such electorates—the logic of the insurrection requires that they turn the power of the state upon their enemies as thoroughly as possible, all in the name of defending freedom and preserving America’s founding principles. Elections must be audited. Opponents must be either stripped of power or investigated. Library books and classroom lesson plans must be banned or censored, and children are used as pawns in proxy culture wars fueled by moral panic. Explosions of stochastic terrorism, such as the assault on Paul Pelosi, are presented as the result of misconduct by Democrats and anti-Trumpists, who dare to call January 6 what it was and have the temerity to suggest years of rhetoric and political advertisements depicting euphemistic and literal violence against their opponents makes Republicans at least somewhat responsible when individuals choose to act on these signals.
The rejection of responsibility for the Capitol assault and the martyrdom of many January 6 defendants are both precisely about this. Republicans who actively supported the overturning of the election have since called the activities of January 6 such things as “a tourist event” and “legitimate political discourse.” Even members who were in the most direct danger now downplay the event. Why? Because they are beholden to the insurrection power, and nearly all of those who are not its enthusiastic advocates are its pigeon-hearted prisoners.
From the start, the attempts to formally investigate the events of January 6 were opposed by Republicans and painted as a partisan witch hunt. Minority Leader McCarthy first attempted to place some of his caucus’s most polemical members on the committee before withdrawing his cooperation altogether and dubbing it an illegitimate endeavor. As the committee has worked, Republicans have continued this line of attack. The Twitter account of House Judiciary Republicans has repeatedly mocked the committee during live hearings and used these as opportunities to undermine the process and amplify talking points that distort and soften the realities of that day.
In this light, Paul Pelosi’s case deserves further attention. Yes, the right has already churned up a muddy pit of conspiracies. But the simpler, underlying reasoning is clear: the opponent is illegitimate and cannot ever be made an object of sympathy. Speaking to supporters in Arizona, Kari Lake joked about the lack of security for the Speaker’s husband. Her audience laughed enthusiastically, and the event moderator burst into such a fit of hilarity that he had to cover his face with his notes. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene took the opportunity to denounce the Democrats’ immigration and crime policies, as her audience booed not Pelosi’s attacker but the man himself. Glenn Youngkin made a passing remark about political violence before saying that Republicans would send Speaker Pelosi home to be with her husband. This line was somewhat confusing since Nancy Pelosi has never in her career been at risk of losing her D+38 district to a GOP challenger.
To call any of this out, to decry it as anti-democratic and illiberal is to find oneself branded with those very terms. This was always the logic of the antebellum slave power, when Southern politicians aggressively wielded their section’s disproportionate political power, bullied their Northern abolitionist colleagues on the floor of Congress, and screeched in the press at any suggestion that they and their wretched institution were anything but the picture of Columbian virtue.
Joanne Freeman’s The Field of Blood is a wonderfully insightful, visceral history of violence in Congress in the decades before the Civil War. And much of it, from the threat of duels and actual duels to street brawls and that penultimate explosion of sectional rage, the caning of Senator Charles Sumner, orbited around the honor codes of Southern men and the gnawing, growing tension over slavery. It was Southerners who used gag orders and fighting words to attempt to silence their Northern opponents and defend their mistress, “the harlot Slavery,” as Sumner said in the fateful speech that prompted South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks to beat him to near death on the Senate floor.
Freeman notes that it wasn’t necessarily violence, per se, that drove this dynamic. She writes, “Most congressional bullying wasn’t about bloodlust, although some blood was shed. It was grounded on the gut-wrenching power of public humiliation before colleagues, constituents, and the nation-at-large.” But the place of force itself also cannot be dismissed. Freeman notes that Congressional duelists and bullies “routinely and strategically used threats, insults, and physical force to intimidate opponents out of their objections and potentially their votes. … So regular was Congressional bullying that it was frequently condemned as a ‘system’ of intimidation, beginning as early as the 1820s and continuing through the 1850s.”
Today, the MAGA right truckles to hatemongers and demagogues, base con men and craven opportunists. Republican officials and candidates gleefully mock the assault on the Speaker’s husband and celebrate other acts of partisan malice. The minority leader promises that those in his caucus who were stripped of their committee assignments due to their violent, insurrectionist rhetoric will enjoy plum positions in a new Republican House. And one shouldn’t necessarily take comfort in the proposition that a narrow Republican majority would weaken or even topple McCarthy. Some are already speculating that this could actually further empower the extremists in the party. Various Republicans have indicated their desire to investigate President Biden, his son, and even the corporations who paused their giving to the GOP in the immediate aftermath of the assault on the Capitol. Members of Congress who voted to overturn the election and spurred on the lies that led to the assault on the Capitol brandish weapons in their campaign ads and have even sought to bring them onto the House floor. Everywhere, the insurrection power speciously alleges power grabs, subterfuges, and tyrannies of all kinds. And at each turn it engages in these very abuses, justifying this as necessary to defeat its wicked foes.
The insurrection power, this coupocracy, is as unblushing as it is execrable. Sumner once said, “the slave power dares anything,” and so too does the insurrection power. And just as the logic that undergirded the slave power further corrupted and compromised all that it touched, the insurrection power seeks to bend the world to its contemptible rule.
Sons of Mars
“The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.” – Hannah Arendt
As I said before, America has always been a violent place. I don’t stress this to unduly criticize my own country, only to emphasize the deeply embedded nature of the problem we now face. Charles Sumner and then a nation would bleed as the issue of slavery cracked America in two. But violence was common both before after, both in its state-sanctioned forms of war and police actions and in unlawful ones of organized terror, murder, and, of course, lynching.
We fought a war to gain our independence, and that war was in many ways a first civil war. Historian Holger Hoock has argued that the American Revolution was an event of terrible violence, much of it perpetrated by Americans on other Americans, both in official military combat and in paramilitary and outright terroristic attacks. Local officials and elites were tarred and feathered and even killed. Rivals sought to settle long-running feuds. Whole communities lost their sons to war, while many other families fled the country as the war ended to avoid financial or physical retribution. Hoock writes, “…the Revolution was also violent in ways we don’t remember because they have been downplayed if not written out of the conventional telling altogether.”
Many of those who fought in the Revolution would, naturally, go on to serve as governors, congressmen, cabinet secretaries, and even president. It is true, though, that America has a somewhat complicated relationship with veterans turned political leaders. Washington is revered for having won the Revolutionary War and then, unlike Caesar before him and Napoleon after, refusing to hold onto power. The wars of America’s early years helped produce a number of its future presidents, most notably Andrew Jackson, that despotically-inclined hero of the Battle of New Orleans and famously deadly duelist.
Along with Jackson, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor won the White House on the backs of their military service. Harrison gained fame for his victory against Tecumseh at Tippecanoe when he was also governor of the Indiana Territory. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was a popular campaign song for his 1840 campaign. Taylor achieved his prominence in the Mexican-American War, which gained America nearly all of its modern-day southwest.
Lincoln, famous for prevailing upon the “better angels of our nature,” was a not a veteran but was a wartime president for nearly every day of his time in office. And his legacy was forged as such. The Civil War and subsequent period of Reconstruction has been called a “second founding” by historians like Eric Foner. It was then that we passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to end slavery and first enshrine the principle of multiracial democracy in the Constitution. Presidents Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley were all veterans of that bloody second founding.
The legacy of Civil War and the decades immediately after is also one of failed promises and the transference of racial terror from the state sanctioned institution of slavery to the insurgent terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, founded by former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and other Confederate veterans. But former Confederate soldiers weren’t relegated to operating outside the law. Many would also go on to populate all manner of political office, from the governor’s mansions to Congress—as well as decorating the Capitol’s hallowed halls in the forms of various statues and paintings.
The conflicts of America’s post-WWII period were quite different from the 19th century ones in both the technology of war and the politics at play. But, as historian Kathleen Belew has written in Bring the War Home, her harrowing account of the white power movement, our wars and our failures at reckoning with the lives touched by them have also generated many of the people who have gone on to populate the racist, extremist movements that have spread like wildfire across the country since the 1980s. Belew tracks the rise of the white power movement as a paramilitary force in America and its co-option of American veterans, with her history culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing. She writes:
This story renders legible the many ways that racial ideology and incessant warfare have underwritten political issues that extend well beyond the fringe. It powerfully reveals how white power rhetoric and activism, time and again, have influenced mainstream U.S. politics and most especially in the aftermath of war.
Our own 21st century wars have produced political leaders in both parties, and its surely to the credit of individuals like Adam Kinzinger, Rubin Gallego, Tammy Duckworth, and the great many like them that they have never forgotten their oaths. But the postwar paths of America’s veterans are not uniform. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have generated a new host of veterans, many of whom have felt forgotten and failed by their government. Others have been radicalized by more sinister impulses. But the radicalization has been widespread, nonetheless. After all, on the wrong side of the mob that day in the Capitol was Ashli Babbit, a retired member of the Air National Guard who was deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other sites in the Middle East and radicalized by QAnon. She was not alone. As Clint Watts pointed out in an op-ed for The Washington Post, “Had troops shown up more quickly to the Capitol, the National Guard most likely would have come face-to-face with fellow soldiers who also served in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
America has always been a fighting country. Wars have shaped us, and internal violence has, too. Today, we are the world’s lone military superpower. But we have a long way to go in achieving peace at home.
The Crap of Romulus
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” - James Baldwin
Liberal democracy is messy. Any government that endeavors toward principles of representation and freedom and away from tyranny is bound to be a messy proposition. Cooperation is hard. Stewarding the institutions of justice and popular sovereignty from one generation to the next is the most difficult relay race in existence.
Is the end near? What is near in the great sweep of history? And who in the present can ever really say? The question is probably not quite the right one, anyway. But the crisis is real. And in our closing reflections, we should focus on another, subtler fantasy that has helped to bring us to this moment: the idea that this would all just eventually go away.
So many of us engaged in this wish casting, and even now a lot of us are in the midst of pronouncing Trump’s demise thanks to a red wave that’s turned out to be more of a wavelet at best. Numerous elected Republicans hoped that “humoring” or even cynically boosting the various lies flying about would buy them time and keep them in office until the madness passed. There are many accounts of Republicans who repeatedly enabled Trump’s assaults on our norms and institutions all while assuring their Democratic colleagues that if they did not then the inevitable primary challenger who would replace them would be far worse. How, exactly, it’s hard to say. What would they do? Vote to overturn a democratic election?
To be sure, many of them succeeded in keeping their jobs. But they have done so at the cost of the country and, as is increasingly clear, their own principles. These lies and derangements are a flesh-eating virus, and not a single politician has yet grabbed hold of them who is not now wasting away to the mere skeletal shape of the person they once were.
The response to the shocking attack on Paul Pelosi has further highlighted this. Perhaps few of us were surprised by the ghoulish responses of people like Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Kari Lake. But the insensitivity of even less headline-seeking Republican politicians has been shocking, particularly in their widespread refusal to stop running the kind of hysterical anti-Pelosi ads that have attacked and dehumanized her for over a decade. Moreover, the insatiable way in which the wider MAGA electorate has eaten up the jeers and lurid conspiracies at Paul Pelosi’s expense speaks to the profound depth of the rot in our society.
Perhaps one failure of ours is to attach too lofty a notion to the republic it is we’re striving to keep. Idealism is essential to democracy in many ways. It helps us to imagine and work toward ever better expressions of our own values. But realism is also a necessary corrective. As Beard writes, “'Cicero once said of Cato, ‘he talks as if he were in the Republic of Plato, when in fact he is in the crap of Romulus’.”
Democracy is people. That is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. I haven’t tried here to engage in academic historicizing. Instead, this essay is a humanist appeal for reflection on the state of things. I don’t have any better or more eloquent conclusion to add to that. Indeed, much of this has probably been clumsy, but I hope it will be forgiven as at least a little bit the result of my own fear and frustration. I leave it at that.