September 15, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The blindness of American exceptionalism

Our system maintains conditions for authoritarianism's rise.

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White centrist pundits like New York’s Jonathan Chait have an annoying habit of downplaying the authoritarianism that ambushed the American liberal tradition before crashing through democracy’s guardrails down the road to serfdom. They keep failing to see what’s happening with their own eyes. Indeed, they won’t see. They’re too invested in the idea of America being the exception to the tendency of other nations to eat themselves. Yet this exceptionalism cannot be squared with the following truth: No one expects Donald Trump, should he emerge victorious, to win the popular vote.

And I mean no one. Not his rivals, his donors, his supporters, his campaign, not even the president himself. All things being equal—by which I mean if we’re lucky and the president behaves somewhat “normally”—Trump’s only chance of winning reelection is by moving just enough white people in just enough states to eke out an Electoral College win. His victory in that case would be the third time in six cycles the winner of a democratic election was determined by a minority of voters. (That’s compared to the one time that happened between 1789 and 2000.) We can quibble about whether he’s more of a crook than a fascist, but we can’t quibble about this fundamental fact. Our system isn’t preventing authoritarianism. It’s maintaining conditions for its rise.

We must reform our democracy so that a minority determines the winner once every 200 years, not thrice every 20.

Actually, we can’t quibble about the crook-fascist thing either. Quibbling about whether this president is more this (crook) than that (fascist) is just another way white centrist pundits avoid seeing what’s right in front of them. Fact is, the Nazis and other authoritarian regimes were and are breathtakingly corrupt. Corruption is their bag. They can’t be otherwise. Authoritarians do not compete against legitimate political opponents according to an agreed-to set of rules. Politics is an end, not a means. They refuse to be restrained by laws, institutions, and other people. Enemies are not just defeated. They can’t be permitted to fight another day. Enemies must be annihilated.

The president is a clown, to be sure. He’s a clown who’s preternaturally corrupt and metabolically incapable of recognizing the authority of moral, legal or institutional constraints on his appetites. From his brain worms can come things white centrist pundits won’t allow themselves to imagine, because imagining them would mean questioning faith in America as the exception to the world’s evils. The irony is they don’t have to imagine. Trump told Fox’s Jeanine Pirro Monday that he’d declare victory and “put down” any challenge. “Look, it’s called insurrection,” he said. “We just send them in and we do it very easy. I mean it’s very easy. I’d rather not do that because there’s no reason for it, but if we had to we’d do that and put it down within minutes, within minutes. Minneapolis, they were having problems. We sent in the National Guard within a half an hour. That was the end of the problem. It all went away.”

Don’t forget the tip jar!

Nor do we have to imagine what many normal people will do in the face of corruption seeking dominance above all. My friend Greg Sargent wrote that Trump’s cronies “are also corruptly manipulating the levers of your government to [turn lies] into truths, or inflate them into issues that will garner news coverage that helps him in some way, or both.” Greg went on to say: “Because the crush of governmental manipulation to serve Trump’s personal and political ends is so relentless, we often focus only on isolated examples as they skate past. But we need to connect the dots. Taken together, they tell a larger story that is truly staggering in its levels of corruption” (Greg’s italics).

Greg pointed out seven ways the president is corrupting the government for his own reelection purposes, including “rushing coronavirus treatments,” “limiting disclosure of knowledge of Russian sabotage,” and “discrediting vote-by-mail,” and while Greg is right, there’s another way of looking at this. It’s what white centrist pundits fail to see, because seeing it contravenes their cherished beliefs. Leaders don’t actually run things. They need normal people for that, and the fact is, lots of normal people in this government are willing to roll over and give an authoritarian whatever he wants. Anyone maintaining the argument that authoritarianism can’t happen here must contend with the fact that so much authoritarianism is already happening here. It’s time we stopped asking if Trump is trying to place himself above the law. It’s now time to say he succeeded. The question now should be whether he’s going to be punished.

Chait fortunately says, in “The Case for Consequences,” that the president should be punished. Unfortunately, he says fascism is the wrong way to understand him. There’s no reason to separate the two. The world’s fascists were world-historical criminals. Turning criminal behavior into politically legitimate and socially acceptable behavior is, after all, what makes authoritarianism terrifying. It won’t be enough to punish Trump for his crimes. We must reform our political system, too, so that a minority of voters determines the presidential winner once every 200 years, not thrice every 20.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    Why not a system where a minority of voters never determines the winner of a presidential election?

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