I stay off Twitter as much as possible these days, but sometimes when there’s a lot going on I dip in to see how people are talking about it, and occasionally I take the opportunity to launch my own little wail into the ether. And so it was that on Friday I tweeted this:
August 28th 202025,866 Retweets101,636 Likes
It blew up. Lots of people expressed agreement with the sentiment. A distressing number of people countered my statement with right-wing fever-swamp talking points about how antifa is organizing a coup so that Joe Biden can impose upon America the Maoism that has always been central to his belief system. But many people also responded with a straightforward skepticism which made me think that a little more elaboration of the idea in the tweet might be useful.
Let me first talk about the substance of the point that America is currently deciding whether to be a white nationalist fascist state or an inclusive democracy. It’s worth mentioning that America has not really been an inclusive democracy for most of its history. The founders limited the franchise to white men and placed all sorts of antimajoritarian constraints on elected officials’ ability to respond to popular will. Until the Civil War, black men and women in America were not only denied the vote, but were treated as less than fully human under the law. And until the Civil Rights Movement and the passage—and enforcement—of the Voting Rights Act, the black men and women granted the right to vote by constitutional amendment could not fully exercise that right. Inclusive democracy in America is a fairly recent development and remains a work in progress.
Since the era of the Civil Rights Movement, America as a whole has become less white while the Republican party has become more white. The increasing whiteness of the GOP was partly the consequence of an explicit political strategy to peel away Democratic votes in the South and the suburbs through what you might call subtle white supremacy (though quite often it was not subtle at all). This meant, at various times, opposition to redistribution (like welfare or public housing), opposition to desegregation (through attacks on busing, for instance, or efforts to weaken government enforcement of antidiscrimination law in housing, employment and other areas), and support for hardline anti-crime policies which, whites understood, would be experienced very differently in black communities than in white ones. No doubt many of the white Americans who found this agenda appealing did not perceive themselves to be embracing white supremacy. But after centuries of intense legal and extralegal oppression of black Americans, there could be no other effect of the above policies than to preserve and in some cases to widen long-standing racial inequalities.
But, America’s changing demographics placed a limit on how long this sort of approach could be successful. As the country became more diverse, Republicans faced a choice. They could seek to broaden their appeal, accepting whatever ideological or policy compromises were necessary to achieve that end. They could accept a slow decline into political irrelevance. Or they could work to limit the political power of non-whites. As recently as the 2000s it wasn’t obvious which strategy would win out. There are plenty of non-white Americans with conservative views, and the party did occasionally make attempts to reach out to them, even as it also pursued policies which made it harder for non-whites to vote and which sought to limit the political power their representatives could wield. But over time the efforts at outreach became ever more superficial and half-hearted. And in 2016, the GOP finally gave up the charade. It did not, however, give up its desire to hold power, and so the fundamentally anti-democratic commitment to limit the political voice of those outside the base has steadily ramped up.
Republicans’ campaign has in part been a rhetorical one. Trump does not pretend to represent all Americans. He demonizes Democrats and places which are governed by or represented by Democrats. He is unable to acknowledge virtuous behavior on the part of people he considers to be inauthentic Americans. This was perhaps most conspicuous where his predecessor was concerned. Whatever one thinks of Barack Obama’s view of the world and policy preferences, he is unquestionably a brilliant man of great integrity who has spent his life working hard for the causes he believes in. Trump could never accept this. He painted Obama as lazy, stupid, a fraud, and he demanded that his followers embrace this obviously false characterization.
At the same time, Trump seems unable to find fault with those he perceives to be on his side. He couldn’t bear to condemn neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. He wishes Ghislaine Maxwell well. He can’t manage to disavow the wild conspiracy theories of QAnon. Trump sees himself as the only legitimate arbiter of what is right and wrong, good and bad, lawful and unlawful. He sees himself as representing only those Americans that he deems to be legitimate and authentic members of the republic: a group which includes avowed white supremacists and various political criminals, but not highly successful, service-minded, American-born people of color.
But the Republican strategy has not merely been rhetorical. Aggressive anti-immigration policy, including efforts to limit legal immigration, serves to limit the country’s ongoing demographic change. Conservatives on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, opening the door to ever more abusive efforts to restrict the voting rights of non-white Americans. Trump rejects the very idea of fair and lawful electoral competition, which is why his campaign has not resisted interventions in American elections on Trump’s behalf by foreign intelligence services, and is why Trump has flouted both legal restrictions and social taboos against using federal government employees and resources for campaign activity. He sought to undermine the operation of the postal service in order to limit people’s ability to vote during a pandemic. And he has argued that the election is certain to be rigged against him, preemptively undermining the legitimacy of a Democratic victory, should that be the outcome of the race.
It’s tempting to view Trump as a weird aberration, such that the threat to democracy will recede when he’s gone. But that’s not a tenable position. Republicans at all levels of government worked aggressively before Trump’s election (and also since) to depress minority turnout. With only a very few exceptions, elected Republicans have turned a blind eye to Trump’s flouting of norms and laws. Most of his Republican critics have either fled the party or transformed themselves into brainless Trumpers, leaving only the occasional Mitt Romney to stand up for principle and duty over loyalty to the party leader.
And increasingly, we see a move to legitimize the differential application of the rule of law outside the federal government as well as inside. Police officers have been abusing their privileges and brutalizing and murdering black Americans forever, more or less. But now that everyone has a web-connected video camera in their pocket, white Americans can no longer plausibly deny that this occurs. This has left white America with a choice: to embrace dramatic and fundamental reform of law enforcement, which has been a critical component of the social infrastructure that maintains racial inequality in this country, or to make peace with the commission of extralegal violence against the “wrong sort” of Americans by armed agents of the state. What we’ve learned, over the past few months, is that many people on the right are willing to choose the latter option over the former.
Perhaps more frighteningly, there are signs of a willingness to extend this differential application of the rule of law to armed private citizens, provided they are of the “right sort”. Again, vigilante justice, like police brutality, isn’t remotely a new development in America. But where once suburban white folks could have blithely assumed that the white kid was obviously not the one who started the trouble, abundant video footage now forces us to confront this behavior and fiercely resist it or to accept it as legitimate. And we are learning that there are many Americans around who see the latter as a perfectly acceptable choice.
So look, is it likely that on the day of the election Trump, in a generalissimo’s get-up, sends his brownshirts out to beat up Democratic voters and detain members of the opposition party, before getting his quisling legislature to rubber stamp an Enabling Act? No, it is not, although it is very possible indeed that the president’s supporters will seek to intimidate some Democratic voters into staying away from the polls. But is there a serious risk that Republicans will retain power by subverting the institutions of American democracy, then continue to work to limit the political and civil rights of citizens deemed to be inauthentic Americans by the leader of the party? Well, look around.
Finally, let me add one additional thought about the other parts of the tweet, relating to absurdity and hyperbole. There is a broad group of establishment elites in this country and elsewhere—of which I guess I would have to say that I, as a member of the mainstream media, am a member—among which a sober-minded, moderate, skeptical, even-tempered, centrist, you-get-the-idea sort of approach to processing events is a central piece of one’s identity. It’s a marker of status and an indicator of seriousness of thought to almost reflexively dismiss wilder claims and fringe ideas about the world.
This is frustrating for radicals, but it’s also completely reasonable. Yes, it is partly about in-group signaling and partly a way to distinguish the group from the passionate masses, whose instincts and opinions cannot be trusted. But it is also a way of maintaining intellectual discipline and efficiency. Most radical claims and oddball theories turn out to be nonsense. Most events which seem initially as though they could radically alter the status quo, don’t. So haughtily and instinctually dismissing radical statements is both a useful time-saver and a way of preventing emotion or personal anxiety or other factors from overwhelming reason.
From the perspective of each individual member of this group, making extraordinary claims or signing on to radical points of view is extremely risky. You risk looking a fool, you risk losing influence while the outcome of events is yet to be determined, and many people will still hold you in contempt even if you turn out to be right, because your rightness reminds them of their wrongness. Meanwhile, to remain a member in good standing of the sensible person’s club, all you have to do is behave dismissively in the face of radicalism.
But sometimes, shit actually is messed up. And people in positions of power and influence failing to perceive the real threat of everything going sideways is how a dangerous situation becomes a catastrophically tragic one. So the question becomes: how do you get people to seriously consider the possibility that they’re missing something? How do you overcome their reticence enough to get them to survey the evidence and consider its implications and entertain the idea that a tail-of-the-distribution outcome is a meaningful possibility?
I don’t know the answer. And look, it’s possible that I’ve got this wrong and my tweet will in due course look utterly moronic. But hysteria isn’t something I’ve come to lightly. You don’t end up at The Economist because you have a habit of latching on to the latest radical idea. I don’t enjoy thinking about the fact that people who once considered me to be a thoughtful, careful writer might now see me as just another silly member of the resistance. I do find events around me to be deeply troubling. I worry that events are cascading in a way that becomes ever more difficult to stop. I worry that the moments available to us to chart a different course are running short.
So I feel that I need you all to pause for a second, examine your priors, and look afresh on the world. Not to decide on a whim that you agree with me, or shower me with likes and retweets, or abandon critical thinking. Just to temporarily disable the reflexive disbelief for long enough to weigh the evidence. That’s hard to do. I wrote that my claim sounds absurd because it does indeed sound absurd, and the fact that it sounds absurd will for many people be all the reason they need to dismiss it. And I really just hope that you...won’t.