July 22, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
When authoritarians say they’d rather die than give in to an enemy trying to save their lives, we should believe them
Listen to Trump supporters? We have been.
An Editorial Board subscriber asked a question this morning the answer to which I thought would make a good piece today. In response to Wednesday’s column, about what liberals often don’t understand about authoritarianism, Eleanor asked why I said “nothing causes authoritarianism. It has always been here. It will always be here.”
I’m not sure I understand what you mean. This sounds kind of like the Calvinist idea of people being fundamentally sinful and only being salvaged by God’s grace. Except in this case authoritarianism is the original sin and democracy is the grace. Seems like the way you formulate the issue in this piece kind of mimics the stark fatalism of the WEPs. I’m probably making a facile analogy, here, but this is what it seemed like to me. Could you expand on what you meant in this piece?
I can see how my argument might be mistaken for something similar to what’s offered by authoritarian white evangelical Protestants (WEPs). I can see how it might be seen as the same argument! That is, if I did not make room, as the WEPs do not make room, for universal equality. But I do, and that was part of the point of Wednesday’s column.
We should also stop pretending that just because he’s an American, he believes in universal equality. There is no such thing to the authoritarian. There is only “us” against “them.”
Liberals often do not, or cannot, imagine human affairs completely devoid of universal equality. So they look for reasons why some Americans are authoritarian. Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, a quintessential liberal, suggested strongly on Monday that the reason is because they are lonely. No, I said. It’s the reverse. They’re not authoritarian, because they’re lonely. They are lonely, because they’re authoritarian.
I took my assertion another step, though. I said the truth about authoritarianism in the United States is far uglier, scarier and more dangerous to liberty, democracy and the common good than most liberals, but not just liberals, seem to know. “Nothing causes authoritarianism,” I said. “It has always been here. It will always be here.” Looking for a cause is looking at the problem backwards, because even if it were possible to make people feel less lonely, that’s not going to make them any less fascist. The problem has no policy solution, because to the authoritarian, the problem is democracy. “We” can’t coexist with “them.” “Their” presence is our “absence,” and that’s unthinkable. This is war. One of us is going to win. One of us is going to lose. And someone’s going to die.
Sounds terrible, right? How can I say this about other people, other Americans? I get why people like Gary Abernathy, a Post writer, took offense. The disgraced former president’s supporters, Abernathy said this morning, “have every right to be insulted by being accused of believing a ‘big lie,’ and by the implication that they are violent, or traitors, or mindless sheep—racist sheep, of course. They’re fed up not just with the overt insults, but also with more subtle digs … Trump supporters aren’t going away, and those who continue to paint them as the lowest forms of life reveal themselves to be more interested in perpetrating stereotypes and nurturing divisions than in achieving what’s needed for our nation to survive—reaching across our political chasm, respecting our differences and finding common ground where we can.”
How can liberals reach across our political chasm, respect our differences and find common ground where we can? By talking to Trump supporters, Abernathy said, and by listening to them. Indeed, that kind of thing is music to the liberal’s ears.
Thing is, though—we have been listening. David Begnaud, the correspondent for “CBS This Morning,” talked to a Donald Trump supporter. Scott Rowe was recovering from the covid in a Louisiana hospital. Begnaud listened respectfully. He discovered an authoritarian prepared to die for his beliefs. That might sound noble if not for the fact that Scott Rowe was prepared to die to prevent the government from saving his life.
Begnaud: Before you got sick, if you would have had a chance to get the vaccine and prevent this, would you have taken the vaccine?
Begnaud: So you would have gone through this?
Rowe: I would have gone through this. Don’t shove it down my throat. That’s what local, state and federal administration is trying to do. Shove it down your throat.
Begnaud: What are they shoving? The science?
Rowe: No, they’re shoving their agenda. The agenda is to get you vaccinated.
Gary Abernathy is right, morally speaking. We should listen. But he’s wrong, morally speaking, too. We have been listening. When authoritarians say they’d rather die than do what the enemy wants, even if the enemy wants to save the authoritarian’s life, we should believe him, instead of making silly excuses. We should also stop pretending that just because he’s an American, he believes in universal equality. There is no such thing in the authoritarian’s world. There is only “us” against “them.” “They” can’t exist at the same time “we” do. Someone’s gotta go. Even if it’s though death by the covid.
I suppose I am Calvinist in the sense that I believe some people are simply like this. They have zero feeling for empathy, morality or universal equality. But this belief is grounded in something older than John Calvin. Democracy is young. Authoritarianism is ancient. That democracies contain authoritarian attitudes and authoritarian politics isn’t surprising, because democracies like ours contain multitudes. “Nothing causes authoritarianism. It has always been here. It will always be here.” Knowing this shouldn’t make us less vigilant, as if all is lost. It isn’t lost. It should make us more vigilant knowing democracy needs tending. It’s not going to survive on its own.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.