It Can Happen Here

Photograph Source: Alan Turkus – CC BY 2.0

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

– Thomas Paine, “The American Crisis,” 1776

There’s another big lie that’s been circulating in America for decades: that it can’t happen here, Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 reference to Nazi Germany as the title of his dystopian novel. But it is happening here, in the view of some scholars. And it may get worse.

These published opinions, some about the possibility of civil war carried out over years of terrorism, bombings and political assassinations, surfaced against the backdrop of the one-year anniversary Thursday of the deadly storming of the Capitol. A white mob egged on by Donald Trump tried to halt the time-honored electoral process of transferring power peacefully to a new president. It was anything but peaceful.

Unlike the turmoil of the 1960s antiwar and civil rights movements, 9/11, the Civil War and British Redcoats during the war of 1812, it marked the first time Americans invaded the citadel of American democracy, the guiding light of their own country. They nearly succeeded in overthrowing the government. All because of that pretend Boston Tea Party patriotism riot based on Trump pursuing his Holy Grail – the presidency – by repeatedly lying that he won reelection.

Probably nothing has divided the nation more since the Civil War than his insistence that Joe Biden stole the election from him even though the former vice president defeated him by 7 million votes.

Not even the heated 1940 election battle between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Republican Wendell Wilkie, over whether the United States should remain neutral during the early days of Hitler’s war in Europe, can top Trump for polarization. (The isolationists, led by Charles A. Lindberg, who flew the first trans-Atlantic flight from Long Island, N.Y., to Paris in May 1927, lost when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.)

Biden, commemorating the first anniversary of the shocking Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol, launched into a long overdue attack against his predecessor from the National Statutory Hall that had been overrun by the American extremists.

“The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Biden said, never naming him. “He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interest, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution. He can’t accept he lost.”

I was glad to hear him finally condemn Trump for the aberration he is to the politics of America. But to what end? It seems unlikely for Biden to sway any of the narcissists’ tens of millions of followers to change their opinion of him, to move from the dark side to reality.

For example, a mere 21 percent of Republicans recognized that Biden beat Trump, according to a recent poll by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. That’s not comforting for Democrats.

It appears social media may be bad for democracy. It made it possible to help round up thousands of Trump backers far and wide to go to Washington for their “savior’s” rally Jan. 6. It’s like when Facebook admitted its platform was responsible for helping to incite violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar in 2017.

Social media needs to be reined in. It can be unhealthy, unruly, untamable.

Trump’s incredible popularity enabled him to capture the Republican Party and to take it rogue, propelled by his lust for attention and power. His party ignored opportunities to get rid of him by twice voting not to convict him of impeachment by the House, supposedly because of the influence he wielded among his tens of millions of adherents.

“Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America, at American democracy,” Biden said in the most sustained denouncement of Trump since he became president.

“I’ll allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of democracy,” he said.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Shumer of New York chimed in from the floor of his chamber. He dubbed Trump “the worst president in modern times.”

“It was Donald Trump’s big lie that soaked our political landscape in kerosene,” he said. “It was Donald Trump’s rally on the Mall that struck the match. And then came the fire.”

And fire it was, the flames being the hundreds of attackers who swept through the building, breaking doors, glass, defecating, entering offices, stealing from desks, fighting Capitol police and injuring about 140 of them and causing the deaths of seven others, including two who had heart attacks.

Then there’s the Republican version of what happened that cold day under gray skies — the lies about nothing-to-see-here, that the storming of the Capitol was carried out by the amorphous leftist antifa, the FBI in disguise as Trump supporters, tourists who merely were meandered through a public building. Anything and anyone but far right white supremacists and nationalists. Pure fiction.

It’s time for moderates in the Republican Party to quit what’s become nothing more than an extremist cult beholden to an unhinged demagogue who cares only for himself, certainly not for his country. And who is someone who bows before dictators, who endorses strongman Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for reelection. That’s what Americans look up to, what they want as a leader?

Those moderates could be heroes who would go down in history as combatants against autocracy. But they don’t have the courage of someone like their House colleague Liz Cheney of Wyoming to, as one voice, condemn their mendacious leader and throw him into the dumpster of history. They could form another political party because America always has relied on the two-party system.

“Our party has to choose,” Cheney recently told CBS’ Face the Nation. “We can either be loyal to Donald Trump or we can be loyal to the Constitution, but we cannot be both.”

“America was lucky that its first modern autocratic president was neither smart nor politically experienced,” wrote Barbara F. Walter in her new book, “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them.” A professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, she is an expert on civil wars worldwide.

And now it’s come to academics like Walker, former generals and the mainstream media who are writing and speaking publicly with increasing alarm about the possibility that the result of America’s hyperpolarization could result in a new assault of brother against brother, that this could go from a cold to a hot civil war.

It wouldn’t be two different armies again, one blue, one gray, when about 680,000 men died during four years of war over slavery. It would be like the guerrilla and terrorist war Catholics and Protestants fought during the Troubles in Northern Ireland beginning in the 1970s.

Civil wars have prologues.

A European policy outfit, International IDEA, characterized America in a report as a “backsliding democracy,” a decline that took hold until the 2018 midterm elections. The turning point came when Trump refused to concede the 2020 election.

But the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol “really raised the alarm bells in a more severe way than before,” Annika Silva-Leander wrote in the report.

That backslide has turned the United States into what Walker described as an “anocracy,” a “dangerous” place to be between democracy and autocracy. The term was coined in 1974 by Northwestern Professor Ted Robert Gurr after collecting data about democratic and autocratic traits among governments worldwide, she wrote.

“We are no longer the world’s oldest continuous democracy,” Walker wrote. “That honor is now held by Switzerland, followed by New Zealand and then Canada.”

It doesn’t mean our politics will devolve into civil war. Much depends on who will lead future American governments. If it’s Trump, we’re done.

Steven Levitsky, co-author of “How Democracies Die,” sees crises ahead. He told David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker:

“We’re not headed to fascism or Putanism, but I do think we could be headed to recurring constitutional crises, periods of competitive authoritarian and minority rule, and episodes of pretty significant violence that could include bombings, assassinations, and rallies where people are killed. In 2020, we saw people being killed on the streets for political reasons. This isn’t apocalypse, but it is a horrendous place to be.”

“For now, one thing is clear:” Walter wrote. “America’s extremists are becoming more organized, more dangerous, and more determined, and they are not going away.”

The story often has been told that a group of citizens approached Benjamin Franklin as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and asked him what kind of government had been created by the delegates.

“A republic, if you can keep it,” he responded. Can we?

Richard C. Gross, a correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor of United Press International at home and abroad, retired as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.