October 17, 2023 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
Fear of a dictator may yield unity
An interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer's Will Bunch.
Yesterday, I said Jim Jordan, as he seeks the job of House speaker, may be the chief, elected spokesman of a school of thought that’s growing popular among the most extreme Republicans. It’s the idea that American democracy has grown so “unstable” that only a strongman can restore it. Jordan is the leading House figure who supported Donald Trump’s failed coup on January 6, 2021. If anyone loves a strongman, it’s him.
As of this writing, Jordan hasn’t quite reached his goal. After today’s first round of voting, he fell short by 17 votes. About 20 Republicans, mostly from swing districts, are still holding out. That number is expected to dwindle, however, as Jordan increases the pressure.
A strongman isn’t needed unless chaos reigns. That’s where Jordan comes in. If he becomes speaker, he’ll almost certainly poison bills intended to keep the government running, arm Ukraine against Russia, protect Israel and anything else that has bipartisan support. He will do what he’s been doing, in other words, which is sabotaging democracy from the inside, fomenting disorder, paving the way for one-man rule.
“Every newsroom needs to understand that history has shown again and again that real journalism is only possible within a democracy, and warning of threats to democracy is not ‘bias’ but an existential mission, for us and for the nation we call home.”
Will Bunch is a national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In a recent piece, he explained the origins of a new term being used to describe the desire for a strongman – “Red Caesarism.” Obviously, that’s Donald Trump. “The die is not cast, not yet,” Bunch wrote. “The majority of Americans do not want to live under a dictatorship, and we have the power to stop this. But America is never going to prevent the ‘Red Caesar’ unless we start talking about it, loudly and right away.”
We need “a robust, life-or-death conversation,” he wrote, “when TV’s cable talkfest signs on at 6 a.m. until the last words at midnight, on the floors of the House and Senate, in newspaper editorial boards and down at the barber shop and in Starbucks — about whether we really want to end this country’s 247-year uneven experiment in democracy, and whether one man should have the power to override elections, jail his enemies, free his friends, and eviscerate federal agencies.”
I started our conversation by asking if the threat posed by Donald Trump today is really any worse than it was eight years ago.
JS: I remember when people talked about Donald Trump in 2016 as the bull needed to break through gridlock. Are we in a different place?
WB: I think so. His 2016 pitch was more along the lines of Washington and Congress and maybe the nation writ large are badly broken and a guy from outside the system – from the world of business and making deals – is what we needed to shake things up. In hindsight, his famous line that “I alone can fix it” was maybe a soft introduction to authoritarianism for the curious. Eight years later, the tone is much, much darker – more about righting wrongs and avenging grievances and slights. His “I am your retribution” line is in line with a core of supporters who now understand that Trump wants to be a dictator who would smite their mutual enemies, and they are OK with that.
JS: A man went to the Wisconsin Statehouse with a pistol (and dog!). He was arrested. He posted bond. He returned later with a semiautomatic rifle. (He was arrested again.) Point is, these people at the bottom of society seem to be hearing signals from the top. Thoughts?
WB: Yes, and there’s a name for it: stochastic terrorism, in which leaders of the far right, but especially Donald Trump, drive up hatred toward specific enemies but also nurture a culture of violence that inevitably leads to the more unhinged followers at the bottom acting out – often with fatal results. I wrote a column centered on a very similar incident in New Mexico, in which a fanatical Trump supporter and believer in the Big Lie of election fraud showed up at a largely Indigenous protest in his MAGA hat, harassed leftwing demonstrators and finally shot and severely wounded one after a scuffle. You will only see more of this as violent language drenches their rhetoric.
JS: I agree with you in that there needs to be a “robust, life-or-death conversation” about imminent fascism, but that runs up against the problem of sheer disbelief. I’m not talking about people already in the tank for the criminal former president. I’m talking about respectable people who care about seeming sensible. Thoughts on that?
WB: One goal of the columns I’ve written over the last year is to make it acceptable, or give people permission, to discuss the possibility of a “post-Constitutional” kind of dictatorship coming to America as early as 2025, if the polls that seem to suggest a narrow Trump victory are not upended. The goal is both to make sure folks are not too discouraged to participate in the 2024 elections but also to think practically in how to stop an authoritarian government – and voting for Joe Biden, despite his flaws, is the only realistic way to do that – and not leave the reservation for a third-party fantasy. The fear of dictatorship – which seems justified – is the way to attain that kind of unity.
JS: Is there a new “silent majority,” only instead of people who are (mostly) secretly racist and want to stop democratic politics, it’s people who are secretly democratic (and maybe a little bit liberal) but can’t be heard above the din of indifference and “Red Caesar” talk?
WB: I think so. It’s the Biden coalition – the people who gave him 7 million more votes than Trump received in 2020. I’ve argued that, at least anecdotally, one reason why the public mood on the economy seems so bad and especially when seen through the prism of the media is that the people who’ve benefited – retail or food-service workers who’ve seen substantial raises, for example – from “Bidenomics” are young or non-white and tend to be more invisible. But the danger for Democrats in 2024 is that this majority frays – that young voters see Biden as old and a bit out of touch or Black and brown working-class voters see Democrats as solely for college-educated voters.
JS: The real elite threat is the very obscenely rich who believe that they won’t be harmed by a dictatorial president. Anti-elitism cuts a lot of ways, including I would presume against the very obscenely rich. Do you see any of that – or is the anti-elitism mostly anti-liberal?
WB: I do think there’s an untapped pool of voters, especially in the industrial heartland, who truly hate all elites, including the billionaire class. But, as you know, the most successful political project of the last half-century has been channeling most working-class resentment – a lot of which is justified – toward the professional and managerial class and related elites in the arts or journalism or academia. These are the people who they’re more likely to contact and who are more likely to spark the feeling they are being looked down on. The challenge for elites is how to expand educational opportunities and even an embrace of learning – a project that would probably take decades to pull off.
JS: You bring up Steve Bannon. For him, there’s no downside to chaos. Trump is the savior. But that requires people to forget the chaos of Trump’s first administration. Now, Americans do have short memories. But the desire for peace can be mobilizing. What do you think?
WB: Absolutely. I’ve learned over a lifetime of watching world politics that dictatorship has survived because autocrats understand that the bulk of people are more concerned with order and stability than the more abstract notion of “freedom.” For example, when Saddam Hussein ran Iraq, you were a lot less likely to get randomly blown up going to the market than after he was deposed. Bannon innately understands this – that the chaos needs to be amped up to much higher levels for more people to crave a dictator to crush their enemies. Unfortunately, as we’re seeing right now in the House, he is almost there.
JS: Our press corps brethren are in a mood to pretend that Trump isn’t terrible. You’ve been in the business a while. Words of wisdom?
WB: Most newsrooms are run by people who – like me – came of age during the Watergate era or at least the immediate post-Watergate era, and they have developed a kind of cult thinking about some probably mistaken ideas about what makes journalism great, including the worship of the infamous “both sides” objectivity that is so easy for bad actors to game. Every newsroom needs to understand that history has shown again and again that real journalism is only possible within a democratic framing, and warning of threats to democracy is not “bias” but an existential mission, for us and for the nation we call home.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.