Democratic consciousness in America in 2017 — and the urgent need to think and act

There is growing evidence that democratic consciousness in America is no longer what we habitually tend to think it is, and that the Constitution and 230 years of democratic history may not be sufficient to protect America from a slide toward authoritarian rule.

Sinclair Lewis’ counterfactual novel, It Can’t Happen Here, tells the story of a New England newspaper editor who lives through the unthinkable, the rise of a Democratic candidate who riding a wave of populism is elected president in November 1936, and then who after taking office in January 1937 proceeds to establish a fascist dictatorshsip in the United States.

The book, despite some slow chapters in the beginning in which Lewis sets up his characters and scenes, is a marvelous read, offering something like a daily antidote to the constant drama of the U.S. president in The Age of Trump.

The similarities between President Berzelius Windrip in the novel and President Donald Trump are great, particularly in their disregard for the truth, their use of propaganda, and their disdain for democratic values and the rule of law.  Each is also assisted by a brilliant strategist, Lee Sarason in Windrip’s case, and Steve Bannon, a student and admirer of Vladimir Lenin, in Trump’s.

The parallels between Lewis’ fictional president and Donald Trump are not exact, but the book does raise a question critical for the future of democracy: “Could it happen here?

Timothy Snyder, in his brilliant little book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017, also available as an ebook and on audio from Penguin Random House), drawing on his close knowledge of the rise of Adolf Hitler and other authoritarian leaders in Europe in the twentieth century, offers a sharp warning about Trump and the potential rise of an authoritarian government in the United States.

There is a widespread belief that the checks and balances established under the U.S. constitution and 230 years of democratic history will safeguard the Republic  and the American people from any such development.

This belief, however, ignores both the experience of how other authoritarian regimes came to power, and the radical changes in the nature of popular consciousness that have recently taken place, fueled in part by the Internet and social media.

In effect, the belief ignores both the lessons of history and how mass propaganda has been used in the past in other countries, and the new and rapidly-evolving playing field on which democratic struggles are waged today — where a new consciousness characterized by a labile volatility is unanchored by a knowledge of history or books or the regular habit of reading a newspaper in physical form.

Public opinion polls are starting to reveal weaknesses in public support for democratic institutions and the rule of law.

See, e.g.,

David A. Graham, “Do Republicans Actually Want to Postpone the 2020 Election? A new survey highlights a threat to American democracy, but it’s not what it initially appears to be,” The Atlantic, August 11, 2017 (12:56 a,m.).

Yascha Mounk, ” Yes, American Democracy Could Break Down,” Politico, Oct. 22, 2016.

“Trump’s attitude of appeasement toward Russia makes big inroads among Republican voters,” The Trenchant Observer, June 28, 2017.

In view of these trends and the growing weakness of support for democratic values among the population, particularly the young, current attacks on pillars of American democracy should raise alarms.

It is time for thinking men and women to think and grasp the grave nature of recent developments, and to act quickly and forcefully to remove from office those who attack the truth, notions of accountability, and the rule of law.

Moreover, as our madman president takes the world to a nuclear precipice through his threats to the madman president of North Korea, entering an open field rife for misunderstandings and miscalculations that could accidentally lead to a nuclear exchange, we can more readily understand  our desperate need for a calm, skilled, and knowledgeable Commander-in-Chief, who with the welcome advice of expert advisers can restore the nation’s foreign policy to a sane and less dangerous course.

There is not one of us who is not called upon to think and act.  Now.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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