By Robert A. Vella – June 30th 2022

Now that the House Select Committee has begun public hearings on its investigation into the deadly and destructive January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol which attempted to forcibly overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election (see:  House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol), concern for the future of democracy has finally reached the crisis level.  What then-President Donald Trump, his Christo-fascist minions (which have seized control of the Republican Party), the white supremacist group Proud Boys, and the anti-government group Oath Keepers, among other factions, had tried to perpetrate was nothing less than a violent coup d’état;  and, that is precisely the terminology used by the committee on June 9th in its opening statements.

The political class and government bureaucracies, which had for years avoided any such public acknowledgement of the authoritarian threat to democracy growing around the world (which this blog has repeatedly warned about over the past decade), simply couldn’t ignore the obvious any longer.  January 6th was a seminal moment, a hard slap to the face of everyone who had stubbornly held rosy delusions about the deteriorating state of modern civilization.  For example, one high-profile figure who had such a public epiphany was former President Barack Obama who spoke at the 2022 Democracy Summit in Copenhagen on June 10th (see:  My Remarks at the 2022 Copenhagen Democracy Summit).

In his speech, Obama was quite candid and directly addressed both the underlying causes of the authoritarian threat and the necessary steps to save democracy.  He said we must “fight” as if this was a war that must be won (to which I wholeheartedly agree).  Obama detailed the careless mistakes committed by democratic nations over the last few decades that fueled of the fires of populist angst such as the socioeconomic inequalities and resentments which resulted from unrestrained corporate power and globalization.  He also cited the neglect of cultural influences which are critical to how people think as well as the abandonment of civic education which is an essential foundation of democracy (social studies were deemphasized  by the U.S. public school system from the Reagan Administration onwards in favor of teaching skills tailored to employment, see:  Why Teaching Civics in America’s Classrooms Must Be a Trump-Era Priority).  Among several other salient points, Obama stressed the need for democratic institutions to better serve the concerns of the people which would also help to change the common perception of politicians as being exclusively self-interested and/or corrupt.

From a historical viewpoint, this “war” is an evolution of the American Civil War in the U.S. when Southern plantation owners feared that a democratically elected federal government would abolish slavery and by consequence white social dominance, and a continuation of World War II when fascists and Nazis in Europe and imperialists in Japan surged to power to pursue their racist nationalistic policies.  Today, these political forces have expanded their societal scope to include various other ideologies such as the homophobic and theocratic desires of religious sectarianism, the anti-egalitarian fervor of anarcho-capitalism, and the anti-government utopian dream of libertarianism.

Furthermore, additional actors have joined the fray.  The totalitarian nature of China’s ruling Communist Party remains evident even though the nation has been transformed into a socialist market economy similar to the ideology of the now-defunct Neo-Communist Party of the former Soviet Union.  Islamic theocracies and Islamist movements have propagated from the Middle East to South Asia and Africa.  Various autocracies and would-be dictators have sprouted up across the globe including Kim Jong-un in North Korea, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Ali Khamenei in Iran, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Sudan, Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.  For the year 2021, the respected Democracy Index listed 74 nations as “full” or “flawed” democracies (the U.S. is listed as a flawed democracy), 34 as “hybrid” regimes, and 59 as “authoritarian.”  That means that only 44% of the 167 nations listed are legitimately democratic and that 56% are essentially autocratic even though some have a superficial veneer of democracy.  It is also apparent that anti-American sentiment (a.k.a. Ameriphobia) is probably more prevalent now and more widespread than at any time in history which readily crosses most cultural, ideological, and political delineations.

As geopolitical conflicts escalate over social dominance (i.e. who rules), increasingly fierce ideological differences, and dwindling natural resources due to overpopulation and ecological degradation (e.g. climate change), the societal stability necessary for functional democracy will continue to erode.  The evidence is apparent.  Worldwide, democracies are in decline and authoritarian regimes are in ascendancy.  This dynamic directly results from human psychology which, in times of stress, looks to seemingly assertive and resolute strongmen for salvation.  It is a trait that probably served us well in our hunter-gatherer past.  The big problem now is that we are no longer cavemen.

The “fight” Mr. Obama spoke of is key.  It is no longer sufficient for democratic leaders and politicians to assume that the general populace will reject authoritarian movements or that election results will genuinely reflect the will of the people.  Our democratic institutions have deteriorated far too much for that passive approach.  If corrective action isn’t taken soon, the U.S. will likely succumb within a couple of decades or even within a short span of years.  This isn’t hyperbole.  America’s greatest political figures and pundits are openly expressing such concerns on national media.

So, what can be done quickly?  First and foremost, those who have committed crimes in attempts to subvert democracy must be held legally accountable.  Specifically in America, Donald Trump and his henchmen must be prosecuted and disqualified from ever again holding public office.  The rule of law must be sacrosanct and be applied to everyone equally without bias;  otherwise, authoritarians will be emboldened and the public will lose whatever faith it still has in the system.  Second, the populace must be informed of the consequences should democracy fall.  This means that the myriad of civil rights and freedoms which people tend to take for granted would become vulnerable to political oppression.  Repressed societies always become less prosperous with time as the “joy of living” is replaced with a dreary struggle to survive.  Third, governments at all levels, and especially those at the highest level, must act with urgency to restore public trust in democratic governance by implementing the will of the people on the most crucial societal issues.  For example, as congressional Republicans finally and reluctantly agreed to enacting some modest gun control measures (signed into law on June 25, 2022) in the wake of the recent mass slaughter of school children in Uvalde (TX) and black shoppers in Buffalo (NY), the highly partisan right-wing U.S. Supreme Court invalidated state restrictions on concealed handgun permits (announced on June 23, 2022) which will surely exacerbate the already ghastly epidemic of gun violence in America (which far exceeds that of every other developed nation in the world) while also repealing federal abortion rights (announced on June 24, 2022) in an egregiously backward public health ruling reminiscent of the medieval Dark Ages in Europe under an oppressive Catholic Church (note:  at least one conservative Supreme Court justice is considering the repeal of other civil rights, see:  Clarence Thomas calls for Supreme Court to ‘reconsider’ gay marriage, contraception after Roe v. Wade falls).  Such dysfunction, where the three branches of government are at philosophical odds with each other and where one political party would destroy the nation’s constitutional foundations if it is unable to achieve its radical ideological goals, is a metastasizing cancer which is simply not survivable.  Fourth, a legal remedy to the proliferation of violent extremism on social media must be found because such platforms have become the meeting and breeding grounds for racism, homophobia, sectarianism, and anti-government terrorism.  Since the courts have previously authorized federal law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance and other preemptive actions against international terrorism following the 9/11 attacks, a similar strategy could theoretically be pursued against domestic terrorism although it could potentially run afoul of the constitutional rights protecting freedom of speech and association.

These short-term corrections are imperative because the threat to democracy is pressing.  Mr. Obama has addressed many of the long-term solutions in his recent speech, as have I on this blog over the course of many years, which won’t be specifically detailed in this post because it lays beyond the topical subject matter.  From a practical viewpoint, it is prudent to solve the immediate problem first and then focus on the more time-consuming fundamental fixes afterward.

But, what happens if we fail?  The answers are obvious from our history and from what is occurring right now before our very eyes.  Authoritarianism is consumed with the acquisition of political power to enforce obedience and conformity.  Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, 13th Marquess of Groppoli, KCVO, DL., 1834-1902) warned us that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Applying this historically proven precept, what each autocratic regime or rogue dictator would do can be extrapolated from their ideology and from their personal psychologies.  Totalitarianism, whether fascist or communistic, attacks civil liberties and freedoms with great fervor while the former does so under the banner of corporatism and the latter does so under the banner of socialism.  White supremacy – by far the most rampant form of racist ideology – seeks to subjugate, expel, or exterminate all ethnicities outside its exclusive cultural identity with particular animus towards black and brown peoples, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, intellectuals, and all supporters of egalitarianism.  Sectarianism (i.e. theocracy), especially that of the five major religious groups (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism), employs political power to eradicate all social practices it perceives as contradictory to its orthodoxy (e.g. abortion, birth control, and marriage equality) and to punish social behaviors perceived as heretical or heathenistic (e.g. bigamy, blasphemy, heresy, idolatry, sodomy, unnatural marriage, etc.).  Dictators – regardless of how they might have been sanctioned (e.g. royal monarchs or deified emperors) or had seized power illegitimately (e.g. through subterfuge, coercion, or brute force) – are all prone to ruling tyrannically because the combination of ego and power is irresistible to the human psyche.  Megalomaniacs (e.g. Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Donald Trump), the most sociopathic and/or psychopathic of all egomaniacs, are especially dangerous.  What each despot might do in any given case depends on their individual psychology and pathologies, their current state of mind, and the circumstances of the situation.  Rash unpredictable behavior is likely, and extreme cruelty on any scale is not uncommon (e.g. King Henry VIII ordering the execution of his wife Anne Boleyn in 1536, Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936-38 in which over 1 million political opponents and dissidents were killed, and of course the approximately 6 million Jews murdered in The Holocaust by Hitler’s henchmen;  for some psychiatric insight into the current example of Trump, see:  Dr. Lance Dodes: Trump is a dangerous sociopath — but he’s sane enough to stand trial).

What does all this mean to you and I from a selfish perspective?  Well, it means that anyone can be targeted by authoritarian regimes for any reason.  No one is safe, not even those who supported it.  From the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984):

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

So, can democracy be saved?  Yes, if and only if we are properly led by courageous and principled people who have earned their influential social status.  Will enough of them, such as congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) who is Vice Chair of the January 6th Committee, come forward and do what needs to be done?  I do not know, but we should get an answer fairly soon.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, faced with the overwhelming evidence already amassed by the Committee against Trump, et al. (with more sure to come), will be forced to make a momentous and historic decision for the U.S. Department of Justice.  Should it fully prosecute these crimes (i.e. obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, seditious conspiracy, inciting to riot/violence/insurrection, and witness tampering) in adherence to the principle that no one is above the law, or should it decline to prosecute (or meekly prosecute) such high-profile figures (i.e. Donald Trump, Mark Meadows, John Eastman, Rudy Giuliani, Jeffrey Clark, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, and others) by bowing to intangible political considerations for the good of the country?

To say that Garland is on the “hot-seat” is not overstating his predicament.  No sitting or former U.S. president has ever been criminally prosecuted (although, President Ulysses S. Grant was once criminally fined for speeding his horse-drawn carriage in Washington D.C.);  therefore, doing so now would obviously set a significant precedent which could be abused in the future.  However, this risk must be weighed against the much more dangerous risk of allowing the perpetrators of a violent coup d’état to escape justice.  Not only would this further embolden insurrectionists and destroyers of democracy, but it would deal a death blow to the public’s already diminishing confidence in the system of government established by America’s founding fathers as well as to that of the world’s great democracies.  That’s a heavy burden for one man to bear.