A Dangerous Confederacy of Dunces

In thinking about our present age, I am heartened by the Irish clergyman, sage, and satirist, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who commented upon the morals and politics of his time. Is it all the more ironic that his comments and musings about three-hundred years ago are as pertinent today as ever to our own troubled times? I wish to comment upon his particular essay which was written roughly over a period of twenty-one years and some of it even published posthumously. Of course, I am referring to Jonathan Swift’s well-regarded essay, “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”, (circa 1706-1727). Yet, it should be noted, it is not really an essay in a classical sense either per se but really a string of ideas and thoughts tacked together in the form of sentences giving advice in the form of proverbs.

Please know, therefore, I will not be remiss by commenting on our own political era of contempt, division, and derisiveness, specifically in relation to our current President Donald J. Trump and his recent phone call to the Secretary of State of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger (also a Republican) on January 2nd, 2021, as well as in regard to at least twelve Republican (Grand Ole Party, G.O.P.) Senators and several other G.O.P. U.S. House of Representatives who will try to obstruct the electoral college results of this past presidential election 2020, tomorrow on January 6th. Swift, for his part, may have wished to comment on such buffoonery himself. So, if the reader will indulge me, I will be soliciting the ghost of Jonathan Swift in my analyses of our now enfeebled democracy and the American experiment of our Republic in its present state.

As Swift begins: “We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to love one another” (p. 76). As religious as the United States of America is, how true is that statement? Why are we on the precipice of another U.S. Civil War (1861-1865)? If you think this is untrue, take a closer examination of our political divide. In recent statistics, President-elect Joseph R. Biden won 81,283,098 votes or 51.3 percent of the votes in contrast to President Donald J. Trump who won 74,222,958 votes or 46.8 percent in the presidential election of 2020 according to the Council on Foreign Relations. As a result of the popular vote, Biden won the Electoral College votes as well with 306 to Trump’s 232 (270 are needed to win the presidency). It was by any measure a close election. Not only has President Trump not conceded the election to Biden to date but Trump is still adamantly pushing the notion of the 2020 U.S. presidential election being rigged and stolen from him. This is dangerous on many levels. Moreover, the divisions in our nation seem to follow along media lines, those FOX News listeners and watchers versus the MSNBC and CNN listeners and watchers, generally speaking.

Someone may say, “Well, the U.S. Civil War happened so long ago, how could anything similar happen today?” In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was caned nearly to death by a fellow Congressman, Preston Brooks, a member of the House of Representatives, and a time when representatives were allowed to carry arms into the Congressional chambers. “Yes, but caning in the U.S. Senate?” U.S. Senators and U.S. Congressman cannot carry weapons into the chambers nowadays. Really? Have you heard of Colorado Congresswoman-elect Lauren Boebert, Republican from Rifle, CO. I do not jest either and I will repeat from “Rifle”, Colorado. She wishes to carry her Glock pistol into the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, on Capitol Hill, and around Washington D.C. The future Congresswoman is also a co-owner of “Shooters Grill”, where it states on their website: “We’re armed and ready to feed you”—really? That’s just great.

Honestly, we are at a time in our politics where anything goes. When presidents of the United States of America, U.S. Senators, and U.S. House of Representatives question our democratic process and our democratic elections, all demonstrate, I believe, just how delicate our democracy actually is. How can any U.S. citizen have any confidence about American democracy when the President of the United States calls up Secretaries of State, such as the one in Georgia, and asks Mr. Raffensberger, the Georgian Secretary of State, to find votes to overturn legitimate election results?

While Jonathan Swift famously wrote, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him” (p. 77)—should “not” be interpreted as Donald Trump, nor any of the U.S. Senators or U.S. House of Representatives questioning the Electoral College. They are not geniuses, nor are their actions genius. Rather, such contrarians are in my view a “dangerous confederacy of dunces” against the Republic of the United States of America. No genius need appear either to point this out. Indeed, a mere simpleton may have done so. Even so, I think it is worth clarifying why such a confederacy against our American Republic is so dangerous.

Therefore, it is important to realize why it is near impossible to ignore the present-day follies of our politics because of the impending damage which may be done by President Trump and his sycophants in Congress. As Swift asserts: “There are but three ways for a man to revenge himself of the censure of the world; to despise it, to return the like, or to endeavor to live so as to avoid it. The first of these is usually pretended, the last is almost impossible, the universal practice is the second” (pp. 78-79).

Moreover, it is truly amazing then that all living ten former Secretaries of Defense had felt recently obliged to write an Op-Ed letter to the Washington Post because of an unsubstantiated rumor President Donald Trump has been thinking about using the military and martial law in order to secure a second-term as president, and even evoke the “Insurrection Act”. This is despite the fact that Trump was “not” re-elected. This is despite several failed legal challenges in U.S. courts by the Trump legal team across several states. This is despite hand recounts in the state of Georgia and other legal disputes in other states.

Here is what these former Secretaries of Defense state: “As former secretaries of defense, we hold a common view of the solemn obligations of the U.S. armed forces and the Defense Department. Each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We did not swear it to an individual or a party. American elections and the peaceful transfers of power that result are hallmarks of our democracy…Recounts and audits have been conducted. Appropriate challenges have been addressed by the courts. Governors have certified the results. And the electoral college has voted. The time for questioning the results has passed; the time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived. As senior Defense Department leaders have noted, ‘there’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election.’ Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.”

It is difficult to act upon rumors and rumors of rumors. So, should we not then seek the truth? As Jonathan Swift argued: “Who can deny that all men are violent lovers of truth, when we see them so positive in their errors; which they will maintain out of their zeal to truth, although they contradict themselves every day of their lives?” (p. 82) Why is it that Trump believes in his own falsehoods and his own lies, particularly how the U.S. presidential election of 2020 was taken away from him unfairly and that there was obvious mass fraud? If you truly believe in your own lies then they become true. They become self-fulfilling prophecies. Trump’s narcissism and lust for power have led him to believe he may strong-arm state governors in overturning the election results and by strong-arming Secretaries of State because obviously the 2020 presidential election was falsified and rigged according to his faulty logic.

Indeed, it is pure vanity on the part of President Trump he won the 2020 presidential election and anything other than a true victory, according to his deficient reasoning, is albeit wrong. Again, as Swift maintains: “There is no vice or folly that requires so much nicety and skill to manage, as vanity; nor any which, by ill management, makes so contemptible a figure” (p. 83). Trump is the ultimate self-serving pompous disseminator of mendacity. What would Swift have made of Donald Trump’s particular kind of narcissistic vanity? Again, as Jonathan Swift once asserted: “Men are contented to be laughed at for their wit, but not for their folly” (p. 82). Yet, I am uncertain if the nasty Tweeting of the current president and his offensive ridiculing and taunting in his bully pulpit speeches are tantamount to witty repartee? I think not.

What is more, Donald Trump has no shame. While Trump was partly impeached for “abuse of power” by the U.S. House of Representatives for trying to bully the government of Ukraine to investigate his political opponent at the time, president-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr., by threatening to withhold allocated funds to Ukraine in the amount of approximately $391 million, now Trump is using the same dirty tactics to threaten the Secretary of State of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, to find non-existent presidential election votes. As Jonathan Swift once iterated: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed” (p. 83).

Here is the part of a telephone transcript of Trump addressing Raffensberger, the Georgia Secretary of State on January 2nd, 2021, about scaring up votes in Georgia, as if you could out them like grouse in a field with dogs: “So what are we going to do here folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break. You know, we have that in spades already. Or we can keep it going but that’s not fair to the voters of Georgia because they’re going to see what happened and they’re going to see what happened.” Again, Trump continues to use scare tactics to get what he wants in very mob boss fashion and in an attempt to meddle with the outcome of the presidential election in Georgia. It is the same abuse of power impeachable offense he used with Ukraine and this time to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in a particular state he lost, Georgia. Here is what prominent government attorney Michael Bromwich on January 3rd stated in a tweet about the president’s exchange with Georgia secretary of state: “The entire call is astonishing. The bullying, the threats, the insults, the credulous embrace of discredited conspiracy theories. Like a crime boss, Trump occasionally says that all he wants is the truth. But he doesn’t—he wants the win. It’s pathetic.”

Additionally, tomorrow, January 6th, 2021, what is supposed to happen is the counting of the Electoral College votes in a joint session of Congress at 1pm Eastern Standard Time (EST). It is presided over by the Vice-President, Mike Pence, or the President of the Senate. In this session, the Vice-President is supposed to hand the sealed certified envelopes of the Electoral College votes to four “tellers”, two Republicans and two Democrats, one from each the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. The tellers then declare the states’ votes. This counting process will continue unimpeded only if there is a recognized objection.

Tomorrow, January 6th, there are supposed to be several objections from Republican members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. As Dareh Gregorian of NBC News reports: “If Trump allies do challenge the vote in all six states targeted this time—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—the vote count could easily go into Thursday.” But nobody is anticipating an outcome other than Joseph R. Biden, Jr. becoming the 46th President and being sworn in on January 20th. It is simply the arrogance of Trump and his Trumpian apparatchiks which hope, or rather expect, for another unforeseen aftermath of all of their electoral interference.

In summarizing my thoughts here, I think it best to end these digressions into our strange politics, perhaps the final years of the American experiment, by discussing what Jonathan Swift has to say about “madness”. After all, I truly believe President Donald J. Trump to be clinically mad in the crazy sense and all of his sycophantic adherents akin to those following the Pied Piper to their own unfortunate demise. And if you do not believe me, consider his niece, Mary Trump’s book: Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (2020).

Hence, ending with Swift’s (1704), “A Digression Concerning Madness”, may be apropos because so much of the recent delusions since November 3rd, 2020, especially in President Trump’s continuous insistence that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged”. Not only is Trump deluding himself but he is trying to delude the American people.

Above all, what Trump has done has mostly proven Jonathan Swift to be correct, even though Swift’s foray into understanding madness is too much preoccupied with vapors. Nonetheless, Trump again and again has tried to transform the presidential election of 2020 into his own private insecurities and mad machinations. If everything is rigged, then nothing is true. So, Trump in his redundant madness has made himself useless and superfluous after endless tweeting to no end and by not addressing the realities of the COVID-19 disease in useful ways. And as his usefulness has run out, so has his presidency. As Swift reasoned, there are principally two “branches of madness” and while “some philosophers”…“have mistaken to be different in their causes, over hastily assigning the first to deficiency, and the other to redundance” (p. 69).

In my view, President Donald Trump has displayed both forms of madness, one of deficiency in mind and the other in redundancy of performance. Therefore, may the United States of America experience a better future for the sake of the Republic and the American experiment, which has proven to be delicate and vulnerable to madmen.

***

Postscript

It needs to be said, I did not expect to write a postscript to my essay. Yet, today, we all witnessed the U.S. Congress become overrun by Trumpian hooligans and a Trumpian mindless mob. Nobody could have imagined this. It is an event we are accustomed to seeing in South America or elsewhere in the developing world but NOT here in the United States of America.

In fact, a woman was shot and killed on Capitol Hill today, a Trump supporter, and surprisingly there was not more violence against the angry horde. There were windows broken and other damage done to the Capitol. It was disgusting and horrendous.

Today, January 6th, 2021, was supposed to be an uneventful day on Capitol Hill, a day about the peaceful transfer of power and the counting of Electoral College votes by both chambers of Congress, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. But this counting was stopped. The Vice President, Mike Pence (R), and the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the rest of the leadership of the legislature were removed by the Secret Service to secure locations.

There were Trump apparatchiks with guns on the Hill?! There were Trump rioters in the thousands and idiots walking around the Hall of Statues of the Capitol. They had their cell phones out and they were using statues as photo ops by placing MAGA hats on statues with Trump flags and then some moron was walking around with a confederate flag too.

Why weren’t people being arrested en masse? There were bombs planted around the Capitol today as well.

This was an organized invasion and insurrection.

The protesters believed the president’s numerous lies, namely that voting machines were switched, or thousands of ballots were stolen, or there were phony ballots, or there were 5,000 dead voters on the rolls, and there were no voting observers from either party and on and on and Q-Anon conspiracies. All of these are false claims of election fraud and various U.S. Courts have thrown out such baseless accusations.

Astonishingly, prior to the chaos, I watched Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), try to calm other fellow Republican Senators and fellow Republican U.S. House of Representatives and assuage them from going down a path of no return for our democracy. Moreover, I should say as a disclaimer, I am not a Mitch McConnell fan by any means but I believe in what he said today to the nation. McConnell avowed: “We’re debating a step that has never been taken in American history, whether Congress should overrule the voters and overturn a presidential election. I’ve served thirty-six years in the Senate. This will be the most important vote I will ever cast. President Trump claims the election was stolen. The assertions range from specific local allegations to constitutional arguments to sweeping conspiracy theories. I supported the president’s right to use the legal system, dozens of lawsuits received hearings in courtrooms all across our country. But, over and over, the courts rejected these claims, including all-star judges who the president himself has nominated. Every election we know features some illegality and irregularity, and of course that’s unacceptable. I support strong state voting reforms. Last year’s bizarre pandemic procedures must not become the new norm. But my colleagues nothing proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale that would have tipped the entire election. Nor can public doubt alone justify a radical break when the doubt itself was incited without any evidence. The Constitution gives us here in Congress a limited role. We cannot simply declare ourselves a National Board of Elections on steroids. The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken. They’ve all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our Republic forever. This election was actually not unusually close. Just in recent history, 1976, 2000, and 2004, all were closer than this one. The Electoral College margin is almost identical what it was in 2016. If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We would never see the whole nation accept an election again. Every four years would be a scramble for power at any cost. The Electoral College, which most of us on this side have been defending for years, would cease to exist. Leaving many of our states with no real say at all in choosing a president. The effects would even go beyond the elections. Self-government, my colleagues, requires a shared commitment to the truth and a shared respect for the ground rules of our system. We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate realities with nothing in common except our hostility toward each other and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share.” Bravo Mitch McConnell.

Certainly, President Donald J. Trump has not made matters any better and far from it. As a matter of fact, Trump’s rhetoric is absolutely and without a doubt seditious. In my view, Trump is a treasonous coward. Nonetheless, he persists in his double-speak. As Trump remarked: “I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us… [to the protesters] You have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order…It’s a very tough period of time. There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened where they could take it [the election] away from all of us, from me, from you, from our country.”

All of this, all of this chaos is President Donald J. Trump’s fault. He is a madman. He never deserved to be the president of the United States of America.

Consequently, I wondered today if we were watching the end of our American experiment in democracy?! I also wondered when Donald J. Trump would just go away for good?

Maybe, just maybe there is however a light of hope…

According to the PBS News Hour, lawmakers have decided that sometime this evening to finish the Electoral College vote count and tally and certify the voting ballots in order to ensure the peaceful transfer of power for our Republic.

Maybe, just maybe we will be a better democracy from such unwarranted tests on our Republic and maybe we can step back from the abyss?

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Co-Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015).