The Friday, November 6, 2020 episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon quotes Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s former White House Chief of Staff, as saying that, even if Trump loses the 2020 election (this was the day before Biden won), he will not leave political life. In fact, Mulvaney suggests Trump might run for the White House again in 2024. Jimmy Fallon quips, “Trump might run again in 2024, but that’s only if he gets out early for good behavior.”
The joke brings a much-needed comedic relief to “our long national nightmare,” to borrow from former Pres. Gerald Ford, which has seen international allies abandoned, environmental degradation accelerated, Free Press/Free Speech rights scuttled, courts stacked with judges hand-picked from the hyper-conservative and reactionary group, the Federalist Society, a bungled coronavirus response that led to potentially hundreds of thousands of unnecessary US deaths (at the time of publication), and corruption so wanton and overt that it would shock the consciences of spiritedly-crooked Warren G. Harding, Richard Nixon, and Andrew Jackson. The ousted president himself is embroiled in scandal after scandal, lawsuit after lawsuit, and federal investigation after federal investigation. On January 20, 2021, he’ll enjoy none of the protections he’s claimed during the last four years. By my admittedly biased estimation, Jimmy Fallon is not wrong. Donald J. Trump will likely face criminal charges. While he’ll probably never wear handcuffs or see a prison cell even if convicted, he’ll forever be known as the only former president to be arrested for crimes committed while in office. And he’ll be the only former president arrested for non-traffic-related crimes (Ulysses S. Grant and George W. Bush both have traffic arrests—Grant for speeding and Bush for DUI). But, as I lay out at length below, the country is not well. It is rotten, and, as much as throwing Trump in prison appeals to me, imprisoning Trump will not cure America of its underlying disease.
Below I lay out what I see are the rivers of sociopolitical decay coursing through America’s veins. This rot does not simply vanish with the arrival of an establishment politician who, while certainly capable of putting back together the pieces Trump shattered, will face considerably more obstacles to making sure they don’t break again. In the coming words, I focus on America’s authoritarian tendencies, the American identities that resist inevitable change, the new American judicial tragedy, and a peculiar fear fueling all of the above. Before my conclusion, I end with a discussion on the Great Conspiracy against Donald J. Trump and America. Throughout, I weave the American idea’s deterioration, rather than belaboring the point with a standalone section. In the conclusion, I discuss what America’s future order should look like.
The reason I write this essay is that Biden is no savior. His ascendency, toppling the demagogue before him, has not and will not cure America of its disease unless concrete steps are taken. On November 7, 2020, in his victory speech in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden promised to be the great re-unifier of the broken American populace. He said he’s the President of the People, regardless of party, gender, race, religion, or any other trait (words that echo Trump’s inauguration speech before he vilified unseen, malevolent forces). I hope he’s right, but he’s going to have to be a doctor before administering solidarity. First, cure the disease eating this country alive because ignoring it is what led to Trump-brand authoritarianism in the first place.
In the end, I call for a dialectical and holistic approach to understanding the current American sociopolitical landscape. I strive to lead by example by showcasing a debate between a colleague and me regarding the efficacy of the very ideas I try to convey in this essay.
Total reading time: About 23 minutes. The same length as an episode of New Girl.
What brought authoritarian tendencies to America?
In 2018, I was at Brookhaven National Laboratory, one of only a few political scientists on the campus. I was attending a two-week nuclear safeguards and non-proliferation seminar (and fulfilling duties as an intern). In between lectures, I spoke with some of the other attendees. Most of the attendees were experts in their fields, branches of science that included nuclear physics, nuclear engineering, health physics—the list goes on. When they learned I was a weirdo political scientist, one of them immediately launched into an anti-AOC and anti-Communism tirade, embracing Donald J. Trump as the cure of all of America’s woes. He sounded like my dad. I was used to it. I simply said to him, “I agree that Trump isn’t the problem; he’s a symptom of America’s problem.” The guy happily agreed that, “This guy gets it.”
In other words, it wasn’t Trump that caused the shakeup in Washington, DC. Due to underlying rot in the American sociopolitical fiber, Trump or a Trump-like president was inevitable in many ways. If it wasn’t Trump, it would be someone else. If it wasn’t in 2016, it would be during another election campaign.
It’s my opinion that several non-mutually exclusive forces were at play, many of which liberal politicians simply ignored, hoping the problem would go away on its own. These include the understandable backlash once-dominant actors operationalize during their long and painful descent into obscurity; the institutional rigidity ever-present in the American sociopolitical system, which makes it difficult to change when the system needs changing; the creeping acceptance of new social norms that were once considered abhorrent (LGBT+ issues, for example); and cognitive dissonance processes that make it impossible to accept the changing times.
Taken together, these issues (and probably others—feel free to identify them in the comments) created a tinderbox ready to explode. The only thing that could save America from itself, as they saw it, was an authoritarian-type demagogue like Donald J. Trump.
Ronald Inglehart coined the term “authoritarian reflex” in his 1997 book Modernization and Postmodernization, which argues that the more an individual society takes its existential security for granted, the more open-minded it will be about out-groups, sexual liberation, novel religious or even irreligious ideas, and wealth distribution. In other words, the more secure societies are, the more liberal they become. A couple of generations ago, we might’ve called this the “silent revolution.” It simply happens without anyone really noticing.
On the other hand, the “authoritarian reflex” is a phenomenon that occurs because people are paying attention to these changes. People bonded to tradition in changing societies tend to muster a preponderance of power, despite being thought of as “culturally-backward.” Take, for instance, the ongoing “culturally-backward” reactionary reflexes against abortion and same-sex marriage, which goes all the way to the top echelons of American jurisprudence. In their 2019 book Cultural Backlash, Inglehart and Pippa Norris examine this phenomenon and define the authoritarian reflex as:
a defensive reaction strongest among socially conservative groups feeling threatened by the rapid processes of economic, social, and cultural change, rejecting unconventional social mores and moral norms, and finding reassurance from a collective community of like-minded people, where transgressive strongman leaders express socially incorrect views while defending traditional values and beliefs.Kindle Locations 642-645.
The book tests the authoritarian reflex hypothesis against the sometimes-dramatic rise of populist leaders around the globe over the last decade, including Donald Trump (USA), Marine le Pen (France), Nigel Farage (UK), Geert Wilders (Netherlands), Silvio Berlusconi (Italy), and Viktor Orbán (Hungary). Their research suggests shifts in cultural values tend to be intergenerational, meaning our grandparents are more conservative than us, and their grandparents more conservative than them. The authors note the rise of populism, seemingly against the wills of social conscience, is explained by these intergenerational differences. When the culture effectively labels our elders’ (or any deeply-sincere conservative) sincerely held traditional beliefs about—for example—LGBT+ rights as backwards or bigoted, they are more likely to support candidates that will use strongman tactics to limit LGBT+ rights.
Of course, other things are also at play from my vantage point. Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial 1968 study, Political Order in Changing Societies, argues that political and social institutions can insulate the state from sociopolitical shifts—to a point, which depends on how deeply entrenched these institutions are. In America, these institutions are robust, meaning change is difficult. Huntington’s protégé, Francis Fukuyama, writes in The Origins of Political Order (2011) and Political Order and Political Decay (2014) that as societies shift counter to state institutions, what he calls “political decay,” democratic states become less able to respond to its constituents’ needs. As individual voters feel more and more removed from the political process, traditional forms of liberal democracy will slip into obsolescence, and more authoritarian leaders rise to power to close the gap between the voter and the rulers.
Fukuyama isn’t necessarily writing about the same phenomena as Norris and Inglehart. He doesn’t seem much concerned with expanding gender and sexual liberties or the decline of religion. He doesn’t really notice the “authoritarian reflex” along the lines of cultural norms. But he is deeply troubled by the rise of populist parties in America and Europe. To Fukuyama, these parties suggest the American political system is too intertwined with its institutions. The Tea Party movement, for example, is responding to the perception that nobody in Washington, DC, seems to care about them anymore. Rural America has specific needs that aren’t addressed inside the Beltway. To Fukuyama, Trump’s rise might be less about cultural shifts and more about Middle America’s wrath towards a set of institutions that blinds political elites to Middle America’s evolving woes.
There are undoubtedly other contenders. As proposed by Leon Festinger in his 1956 seminal study When Prophesy Fails, cognitive dissonance theory suggests that merely mocking people’s beliefs can cause them to believe them more fervently. When John Stewart relentlessly hounded Trump supporters, those supporters were unlikely to disembark the Trump Train but were instead more likely to donate to or volunteer for the campaign. But that’s an unlikely full explanation for populism in America—let alone in countries like Hungary. Yes, Obama made fun of Trump at his Comedy Central Roast, and, yes, this mockery played at least some small part in Trump’s decision to seek the presidency, but it didn’t create the divergence between Washington and disaffected voter, or between progressivism and conservatism (towards the end, I discuss how this gulf partly emerges from the use of the word “socialism”).
To me, the truth is some combination of all of the above. The authoritarian reflex is the resultant conclusion of older conservatives growing divorced from the liberalization of young Americans, the unmalleability of many of America’s institutions, America’s cultural esprit in big cities that shapes how DC distributes resources, the populist disconnect between DC and much of America’s heartland, and the “audacity” of American liberals to call conservatives racist, misogynist, or otherwise bigoted.
And something has to be done to address each of these issues, or Trump II will reassert America’s authoritarianism.
America has a problem that Trump’s Fall has not solved.
Take a drive through the Deep South. I recently visited New Orleans, a liberal bastion smack dab in the middle of Trump Country. The surrounding parishes and states are filled with people who, for the lack of a better word, worship Donald J. Trump as something in between President of the United States and the literal second coming of Jesus Christ. I spoke to many of these people at gas stations and rest stops. They are incredibly lovely. One cashier gave me tea for free because I was struggling to find my change. Ah, Southern Hospitality! But they are angry. They have serious racial, religious, and gender insensitivities, and calling them out on their “culturally backwards” tendencies makes them double down in wrath. No, these are good people, and, as they see it, they can’t be both good and racist. Therefore, because they’re good, they aren’t racist.
They are incredibly frustrated. These Trump supporters are angry whenever they turn on the television, and society has decided that white fictional male characters have to be recast with black and/or female actors (I personally find it refreshing). And they grow even angrier when they cannot express their frustration without large segments of society ostracizing them and calling for their firing. When confronted with their racism, they, southern Boomers who watched parts of the Civil Rights Movement play out in real-time and who supported desegregation, are aghast! Again, they feel they can’t be racist because they are good people. Karen’s meltdown is the byproduct of confronting these two irreconcilable truths. No, to them, the world has gone crazy, and they’re among the few remaining, along with outgoing President Trump, in possession of racial sanity. The fact that we’ve constructed norms against expressing racially insensitive thoughts just proves to them that it’s us, not them. And because the president shared this view and promised to restore racial sanity by dismantling diversity training programs, they have no choice but to support him. To them, bathroom bills, too, are sanity checks. So are “Religious Freedom” bills meant to protect business owners from society’s judgment. The same goes for anything that attempts to undo health privacy protections afforded to women in Roe v. Wade and HIPAA. Undoing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the legalization of same-sex marriage were measures too far. Essentially, to them, America must be protected from itself.
In addition to feeling socially forgotten, they feel politically disenfranchised. Many conservatives think George W. Bush was a weakling who didn’t understand the needs of the “Silent Majority.” Their wrath boiled because the millennial-era president didn’t do enough to protect IT or factory workers from globalization—the resultant conclusion of Marshallian economics. When the best the GOP could offer in 2008 was an establishment republican, they grimaced, but they had no alternative. But then John McCain chose a populist running mate, legitimizing the Tea Party’s complaints. The movement exploded. When the 2008 experiment failed, Tea Party members didn’t take this as a mortal blow, even after Mitt Romney could not deliver. No, they needed someone with the balls big enough to take on DC. And now that the Trump experiment collapsed—not due to his failures but due to “deep state” actors or fraud or you-name-it—they are even angrier. The movement did not die after the 2020 election. They will latch onto the next populist authoritarian leader they can find. DJT, Jr, perhaps.
And, of course, these are people of honor. If you dishonor them with mockery, cheating, or simply voting out their authoritarian leader, they’ll double down on their beliefs. It’s a gamble, but sometimes, as it did in November 2016, it pays off BIGLY.
Take the Obergefell vs. Hodges case that legalized same-sex marriage across the US. In the months leading up to the SCOTUS decision, America reached a tipping point where the majority wanted to legally recognize same-sex marriages (this was mainly due to businesses realizing supporting same-sex marriages increased profits, which resulted in a positive feedback loop). Some opinion pieces took this shift as a sign that we might be “finally witnessing the death of Christianity in America.” This was absurd. Losing the culture war does not bar evangelicals from future political participation. Furthermore, our ostracization of the religious right only helped to draw the blueprints for madness, which inspired so many evangelicals to support the only man willing to save them from America.
In other words, to them, the culture is shifting quickly enough that serious problems are developing—so severe, they can throw democracy out of the window if it’s the only way to win the battle. Although the Trumpers identify as good and righteous people, the American culture labels them as racists, sexists, bigots, transphobes, and any number of “SJW” terms. Trumpers and evangelicals must protect the decaying values they’ve been handed down for generations. And they feel like the US isn’t making enough room for Tea Party members and far-right voters. And they’re tired of being made fun of. To them, that’s why Trump is as important as Jesus. And if that isn’t enough, then consider their influence in DC. To borrow an example from Fukuyama, who do you think will get a pothole in front of their driveway fixed the fastest—the dairy farmer from Wisconsin or the Wisconsin Senator residing in the suburbs of Alexandria?
The tragedy of the courts.
Consider this anecdote. I spoke with my dad on the phone several weeks ago before RBG’s passing. Every now and then, he can overcome his pro-Trump biases and admit the president’s failures. He doesn’t seem overly excited, for example, about how Trump has handled the coronavirus crisis. He was also distraught that Trump will be, due to his antics, a one-term president. He has no illusions that Trump has ever been popular in the polls. None of this matters. One of the president’s accomplishments is more important to my dad than all of Trump’s failures—namely, the number of conservative judges the president has appointed. I haven’t spoken to my father about RBG’s passing, but I can assure you, he feels like a lifetime of frustration is going to be undone during the final years of his life due to judicial sympathy for the “culturally backwards.” Although he’s probably saddened that such a vital jurist has died, he’s not going to let this opportunity pass him by. He’s thrilled, despite her death.
When I spoke with him about other issues, he confessed that his beliefs are unpopular. He doesn’t see himself as racist, but he acknowledges that most people do. The same goes for accusations towards him of sexism, Islamophobia, transphobia, etc. He understands that most Americans support Roe v. Wade and do not want to see it undone. But because his personal beliefs are so important to him, and because few support his ideas, he is compelled to force his beliefs about abortion onto others, despite their wills and bodily autonomy. These are not my words—they’re his. And if society won’t accept them, thank God, the judges will.
In other words, to my dad, it’s not a question about representative democracy. He believes in the ideals of the American revolution, Jacksonianism, and the Civil Rights movement, but he feels America has gotten it wrong since Reagan left office. The only way to save the Reaganian Reaction is to support a strongman who goes against the American people’s will. He’s a big fan of Thomas L. Friedman’s “China for a Day” hypothesis, as long as you replace “China” with the word “Dictatorship.” Anyway, Reagan…
Ronald Reagan was so incensed by the 1970s sexual revolution and feminist movements that he sought to focus on the nuclear family as a way to put the liberal genies back in their
cages bottles. The 1980s president also sought to turn back the clock on the Civil Rights Movement by vetoing the 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act (congress overrode his veto). In Reagan’s view, states should have the right to choose to provide full civil rights to minorities; the federal government shouldn’t wield power to force them. The Reagan crackdown on society’s liberal whims fell apart under Clinton’s America. Since then, traditional American values have been in freefall. But the traditional values never went away.
Along comes Trump. The Trump method of the authoritarian reflex is to stack the courts with supporters of the anti-revolution, which Reagan failed to do. How do you take away a woman’s liberty to make medical decisions in private consultation with her doctor? Ensure many judges take their own deeply-held religious convictions more seriously than individual freedom itself. How do you ban abortions? Metaphorically put anti-abortion judges in every women’s clinic in America.
The spooky and magical word that poisons everything.
That’s not all. Spooky words fuel the authoritarian tendencies of America.
There’s this false idea out there, pushed vehemently by Trump and his followers, that Communists (under the guise of Socialists) are coming to destroy their ways of life. And you know what? Moderates are listening. After the 2020 Democratic House of Representatives bloodbath, surviving freshman centrist Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger lobbed accusations directly at Congressional progressives:
We have to commit to not saying the words ‘defund the police’ ever again. We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. It does matter, and we have lost good [Congress] members because of that.
She’s not wrong. Regardless of how much any particular person supports progressive movements, words matter. Words like “socialist” and “socialism” spook many Americans—not just MAGA Hat-wearing white men from Montana.
Spanberger is attempting to close the gap between progressive and moderate by calling for mutually positive language.
Look at it this way: Despite America’s ongoing and unknown love affair with vast portions of Marx’s Kapital III, Part 3, America’s citizens fear the word “socialism.” Some fear it so much that they genuinely worry that Biden will turn the US into some sort of socialist paradise that would make Fidel Castro blush. Spanberger acknowledges that the gulf between fiction and reality is irrelevant because it perfectly mimics the shape of fear. How does one go about reducing anxiety? An excellent place to start is by removing the language that induces fear in the first place. Progressives and moderates have a lot in common. They can talk about progressive ideas in ways that don’t frighten off moderates. Progressive ideas survive on their own merits; they die when given the “Socialism” title.
Europe adopted Marx’s ideas in Kapital III after the 1870s global economic crisis. America was late to the game because we feared Socialism and Communism. We waited a full sixty years, and suffered an avoidable Great Depression, before FDR said, paraphrasing Marx, the Free Market is a good idea, so long as it doesn’t run amuck and create disasters. He convinced America that Marx’s socialist ideas, as expressed in Part 3 of Kapital III, are suitable for America. He did it without using the words “socialism” or “Karl Marx” or anything that would inspire anti-liberal fear. And now, America has never turned back from Marx’s ideas in Kapital III. We do not allow an unrestrained Free Market. We make Adam Smith’s invisible hand opaque when necessary. Hell, even Trump “seized the means of production” when he used the Defense Production Act to steer manufacturing to help produce PPE during the coronavirus crisis. And if that’s not enough of an example of Socialism at play in America, consider the CARES Act and Trump’s unemployment insurance extension. It’s socialism, but it uses a different name. Americans embrace socialism if we call it something else.
When we allow candidates to call it socialism (correctly or incorrectly, the latter in the current accusations against Biden), it robs liberal and progressive candidates of moderate voters.
The Great Conspiracy against Donald J. Trump and America.
I title this section, using formal-style title casing, “The Great Conspiracy against Donald J. Trump and America” with hyperbolic intent. But the idea that there is indeed a great conspiracy that successfully overthrew DJT to America’s detriment is not hyperbolic to many. In the days since November 3, 2020, when so many Americans closed their eyes for sleep while the polling numbers showed Trump in the lead in all key states, things have taken a dramatic turn. And despite being warned months ago that, especially due to changes in voting behaviors caused by the coronavirus, early numbers would favor Trump while latter counts would favor Biden, a not inconsiderable number of Americans were shocked when Biden’s numbers surged in the days after the election. Immediately, the conspiracy theories, fueled by arguments from ignorance, flowed. Here is a sample from my personal Facebook feed, redacted to protect privacy. I’d guess these are fairly similar to posts appearing in your Facebook feed.
The general idea here is that Trump couldn’t have lost because, as evidenced by the first post, everyone they knew supported Trump, and that, in the third post, Biden had too great a deficit to overcome on Tuesday night. Even Rudy Giuliani made a bizarre YouTube video where he, with ink-stained hands, made identical arguments. Therefore, the argument is that there is a giant conspiracy to fraudulently usurp the 2020 Presidential Election from Trump. Rigged voting machines, overt fraud anyone can see right in their faces if they simply open their eyes, and people who hate America so much that they are “dead set on getting [Trump] out of office”—the only man that can save America from the conspiracy against it.
The president, too, has spread these claims—and many others. From the “Russia Hoax” to the “Phony Impeachment” and now to the claim that election observers are being denied access to see what goes on behind the curtain, the sitting President of the United States is no stranger to wild conspiracy theories.
Of course, while these are baseless accusations and completely false, the truth doesn’t matter. Recognizing that the idea of “alternative facts” is a viable solution to the sociopolitical fears many Americans hold is important if we are to figure out how to solve the problem.
A large segment of America believes that Trump holds divine imprimatur, a savior endowed with all the necessary strengths and powers to vanquish the demons, which haunt America’s soul. These demons include fanatical abortion doctors that murder babies post-birth (yes, Trump believes this one, and he believes Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is one of them). Many believe the COVID-19 “plandemic” will magically disappear now that Biden is elected. Others wholeheartedly deem Biden’s threat towards the 2nd Ammendment to be credible. And, the worst demon of all, the “Dark Shadows” group of American political elites that don’t want America to prosper. This group includes John Brennan, Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and, of course, the Clintons. Let’s not forget what allegedly happens in the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria’s non-existent basement.
Where did these ideas come from? In many cases, it’s simpler and safer to assume the out-group has malicious intent than to trust them to cooperate. Also, many ideas come from outside, blunt-force trauma to the American body. I’m talking about international disinformation campaigns aimed at slowly turning America against itself. But whatever its source, the fact is that people believe these superstitions. I mean, Qanon has millions of followers, and its entire premise centers around the false idea that Hillary Clinton (and other Dems) abuse children sexually so they can drink their adrenochrome-rich blood during Satanic rituals. Yes, it’s completely ridiculous, but neither its outlandish claims nor its source has much to do with why people believe it. Going after disinformation on websites won’t help much. Trying to use common sense and basic elementary-level logic won’t change their minds, either. That’s because those are the wrong problems.
The most vital, and most often overlooked, step we can take in political decision-making is making sure we have the right problem. All too often, we’re so caught up in trying to solve the problem correctly that we don’t even realize we’re solving the incorrect problem. Therefore…
Conclusion and discussion.
I sent an early draft of this essay, titled “Why President Biden Should Pardon Donald J. Trump,” to my friend and colleague, Italian political scientist Dr. Maurizio Geri, for his feedback. In the original essay, I use much of the above evidence to explain why pardoning Trump will solve America’s immediate needs by de-escalating the crisis and getting Trump supporters to listen. But Geri took issue with my assertion that, as I wrote in the original introduction,
President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr. should, by COB on Wednesday, January 20, 2021, pardon ousted United States President Donald J. Trump for all high crimes and misdemeanors committed while in office between January 20, 2017, and January 20, 2021.
I lay out my reasoning. Namely,
Pardoning Trump will immediately de-escalate the hyper-partisanship tearing America apart. Conservative Americans—namely Trump’s conservatives—want Biden to forgive the outgoing president. It will send a powerful signal to Trumpers and evangelicals that Joe Biden is willing to work with Republicans and restore his image as a great bipartisan leader. Groups previously hostile to Biden might be glad to hear him out and to give him a shot. For example, Mitch McConnell will sing the pardon’s praises, and he might even see this as an act of good faith. McConnell isn’t known for returning favors across the aisle, but he certainly won’t be willing to help Biden out if the president pursues criminal charges against Trump.
Also, as a Democrat, Biden will have a supportive audience to explain himself to back home. Liberal voters will likely be willing to hear him out and consider his reasoning. Imagine, for example, that you’re a liberal. You love watching Rachel Maddow. One day, in his hypothetical scenario, Maddow says that America rushed to legalize same-sex marriage by the court and that we should’ve allowed the legislatures to work it out. This statement goes against everything you stand for as a liberal (especially because Alabama would never get there on its own), but you’re going to allow Maddow to explain why her position is correct. Now imagine you turn the TV to Fox News and hear Tucker Carlson say the exact same thing verbatim. As a liberal, you’re going to laugh, change the channel, and disregard Carlson completely. When someone from your in-group says something controversial, you’re more likely to consider their position than if someone from the out-group says the same thing word for word.
Biden has the opportunity to score BIGLY points with Trumpers while losing few points with liberals.
Of course, he still has to contend with the progressives who will not be happy at all. They might even be inconsolable, and, admittedly, Biden will lose many points with them—and he already has a progressive deficit. He’ll have to make things up to the progressives in another way, I’m afraid.
I also write that all Trump-era crimes committed by Trump’s associates should be forgiven and that an independent assembly should be established to help America heal. Geri took issue with these conclusions.
First, Geri reminded me of the separation of powers in America. Judicial decisions, he notes, should be reserved for judges and juries. Biden shouldn’t deprive Americans of seeking retribution for graft, bribery, and blackmail. Additionally, many people want to see him in international courts for war crimes (such as the arbitrary assassination of Iranian Sardar Qasem Soleimani, carried out for no other reason than to increase Trump’s approval rating). Denying justice won’t heal America, he notes. He furthermore believes that forcing Trump and associates to stand trial will help to “maintain the rule of law, stability, and justice and could help in this democratic crisis in the West to favor a new social contract with the people.” He agreed with my idea for an independent commission for truth and reconciliation, modeled after the post-Apartheid South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the pardon was a step too far.
Geri’s antithesis to my thesis presents a dialectic among ideas. How do we reconcile the two and still avoid the authoritarian reflex? First, I believe it’s essential to recognize that we need to first get the right problem; only then can we focus on getting the problem right. Will pardoning Trump exacerbate underlying American decay? Will it help? What about putting Trump on trial? Will trials lead to a better America?
I don’t know.
Perhaps, the best that we can hope for is to prosecute any criminal complaints that emerge during the aftermath of Trump’s presidency and then seek to forgive Trump and his transgressor cronies after the fact. Maybe that is where a truth and reconciliation commission is handiest.
In the end, I believe the best synthesis between our dialectical ideas is simply the commission. While I think that Trump should be pardoned to avoid further angering the people who allowed Trump to rise in the first place, anger that could lead to Trump Despotism Part 2, I also need to bear in mind how such a pardon might affect America’s ability to come to terms with other, more universal dialectics.
Many Americans have ideas—many of them religiously-based and that deal with matters of their immortal soul—that run counter to other popular beliefs, such as the secularism of politics. This is most evident in the abortion debate. The “two sides” are arguing about different things. There are not on the same page. On the one hand, evangelicals believe that life begins at conception, and abortion is akin to murder—a sin. And because evangelism compels them to spread their personal beliefs far and wide, it will inevitably end up in political discussion. On the other, we have people who believe women should make medical decisions in their doctors’ private consultations—the whole HIPAA thing. HIPAA and the Bible are irreconcilably in opposition when it comes to pregnancy termination because they approach the topic from different perspectives, one secular and one sectarian. I honestly don’t think we’ll ever solve this specific dialectic, but others are more within reach.
The main point I wish to make is, regardless of if Biden pardons Trump and associates, I believe it’s incredibly crucial for liberals, moving forward, to understand that conservative anger against a rapidly liberalizing world will not go away simply because we vote into office a Democrat. No, Biden’s rise is liable to make matters worse for them and subsequently for us. It’s Biden’s responsibility—and we all share in this responsibility—to figure out ways to de-escalate the dialectical divergence occurring between neighbors. Remember, Trump isn’t the disease; he’s the symptom. Electing Biden reduces America’s fever, but the virus continues to spread and infect cells, unnoticed beneath the surface.
We can come to a consensus about many of the issues listed above. What are the grievances about globalization, the effects of Trump, the decay leading to Trump, 2A, the coronavirus, the future of SCOTUS, and the myriad of conspiracy beliefs? Let’s get the right problems, contrary to the Trump system of just doing whatever feels good at the time, and then we can focus on getting the problems right.
The American ideal is not a lost cause. We don’t have to embrace the authoritarian reflex or strongman leaders to compel order. Liberalization inevitably happens. And this terrifies some. We can move forward by focusing on the issues, which inspire fear and solve them in mutually beneficial ways.
In this conclusion, I lay out a discussion between colleagues who differ on the opinion of a Trump pardon. I do this intentionally. And I hope that you, whoever you are and however you vote, understand why I do this. There are no universal truths—just dialectics requiring discourse to find a synthesis.