The American presidential historian and NBC News commentator Michael Beschloss warned last week—five days before Tuesday’s U.S. midterm elections—that if the Republican Party were to win back control of Congress, it would be a question for Americans “whether we will be a democracy in the future, whether our children will be arrested and conceivably killed.” He concluded, “We’re on the edge of a brutal authoritarian system.” It was a shocking claim, even among those who share Beschloss’s anxieties about the direction Republican politics has taken since Donald Trump’s rise to the American presidency. But it was shocking more for the unexpected and strange specter of children being killed than for the fundamental idea that—as U.S. President Joe Biden put in in a speech Wednesday night—“democracy itself” was at stake in these elections. That idea has been everywhere. How exactly would American democracy have been at stake in a democratic election?
John Jamesen Gould is the editor of The Signal. To Gould, we’re living in a time when there can be very fine margins, in the U.S. and in democratic societies globally, between extreme hyperbole and plain truth. As common as it became leading up to this election to hear in mainstream U.S. media that any Republican victory would be a potentially fatal blow to democracy in America, candidates and parties winning elections simply is democracy. There was a threat to democratic institutions, Gould says, but it was always more distinct—in the number of Republican candidates running on “conspiracy stories” initiated by the former U.S. president Donald Trump about the 2020 election having been “stolen” by Democrats. For Gould, it’s “good news” that those candidates have struggled most among Republicans on the ballot, but it’s also unclear what will happen to the conspiratorial political tendencies they represent—especially given the symbiotic relationship between those tendencies and the increasingly dominant “media ecosystem” Americans and people around the world are now living in.
Eve Valentine: What do you make of the idea that the future of American democracy was at stake this week?
John Jamesen Gould: I think it’s true.
I also think it’s important to remember that the future of democracy is always at stake in a major election—and we can’t always see the most consequential turns in the history of democracy in real time. Sometimes they might be obvious; sometimes they’re not.
We’d probably have to say, too, that a big dread about the future of democracy in America has been a fairly regular theme in Democratic political rhetoric for the last six years or so—ever since all these comparisons started emerging in U.S. media back in 2016 between the United States after Trump’s win and Weimar Germany before the Third Reich.
But it’s true here: A very real current, with very real implications for American democracy, was running through a lot of Republican campaigns this year. Something close to 300 of the party’s candidates on ballots across the U.S. were amplifying President Trump’s fiction about the 2020 U.S. presidential election being “stolen” and therefore illegitimate. No one should need to see a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol to know how fraught that is. And now, in the run-up to the midterm elections, many Republican candidates wouldn’t commit to accepting the results if they were to lose. That’s just serious; the stakes for democracy in any election when a candidate isn’t committed to its outcome are inherently serious.
I can’t say I know how many of these candidates believe what they’ve been saying publicly about stolen elections—I mean, how many are actually caught up in conspiracy thinking about a “regime” behind the Democratic Party that’s denying Republicans rightful victories, versus how many are just political opportunists thinking, Well, here’s something that worked for Trump; that can work for me; let’s do that. Either way, it’s a real danger.
Valentine: A danger that a Republican-controlled Congress could mean the beginning of the end for American democracy?
Gould: No, I’d say a danger specifically that the election of people with open contempt for the rule of law—and who’d understand themselves as being directly rewarded for that contempt with political power—could accelerate the country on a “path to chaos,” as President Biden put it. I think Biden was right about that. There’s a lot of partisan hyperbole and freaking out in American political life these days. But this wasn’t either, in my opinion; it was plain language about a plain threat.
The future of democracy is always at stake in a major election—and we can’t always see the most consequential turns in the history of democracy in real time. Sometimes they might be obvious; sometimes they’re not.
Valentine: With the election results still coming in, it seems the Republicans will win the lower house of the U.S. Congress, if narrowly, and may or may not win the upper house. So the question of Republican control is still up in the air. But it also seems the more extremist Republican candidates you’re referring to—who’ve supported Trump’s conspiracy narrative and who Trump has supported in turn—have done poorly. What do you see there for the stakes for American democracy?
Gould: It’s a good question. There’s been a tendency in a lot of mainstream American media commentary, and certainly among Democrats, to equate any Republican victory in these elections with a threat to democracy. But we have to be specific: Candidates from a party you may not like winning elections isn’t a threat to democracy; it is democracy. Candidates winning elections who otherwise wouldn’t acknowledge their outcome, that’s an instance of democracy being at stake.
So it’s good news that conspiracy-story candidates as a whole haven’t done so well. And you can hear some commentary already about how this may be a leading indicator that Trump’s influence on the Republican electorate may be waning—and so, maybe that his influence in the Republican Party will start to wane … and so, maybe this could be a tentative beginning to the end of this very crazy-feeling era in American life.
But I don’t know. I don’t think a conspiratorial tendency like the one Trump has activated just goes away. It can be meaningfully defeated in politics, in a high-stakes election. But where does it go from there? I’m hopeful, in the long run; I don’t believe this kind of tendency is sustainable over time. But the forces that created it are still here. So I think the question is, how will it adapt?
Valentine: It’s become fairly common to hear Trump opponents use the word fascism to describe this tendency, as you say, that he activated in the politics of the Republican Party and its base. Do you think this tendency is fascism?
Gould: I don’t think it’s fascism, no. I do think the relationship of the Republicans’ new politics to fascism is a question, though; it’s not 100% resolved—and I don’t expect it will be, at least until people can look back on the time we’re living through with some historical distance. For now, my sense would be that it’s important to look at things happening in contemporary life as much as possible on their own terms—and as little as possible in terms of super-provocative historical analogies. I do understand the anxiety, though.
I’d say it’s true that the Republican Party’s populist turn under Trump has shared some very broad propensities with fascism, not least in the attempt to reject the reality of a lawful election in 2020—or in the elements of ethnic nationalism and outright racism that Trump, in particular, stoked all along the way.
But I’d see the new breed of Trump-influenced Republican politicians less as new fascists and more as new heirs to one Carl Schmitt. Schmitt was a German intellectual in the early 20th century; he had a major influence on fascism—and ended up a member of the Nazi Party—but his influence goes well beyond fascism as a specific historical thing.
It’s important to look at things happening in contemporary life as much as possible on their own terms—and as little as possible in terms of super-provocative historical analogies.
One of Schmitt’s big ideas was to look at politics—he’d say, “the political”—in terms of a fundamental distinction between friend and enemy. This idea says, politics is essentially about fostering a collective us and a collective them—an us and an other, who’s not us, who’s opposed to us in our collective identity. And this is our enemy. And that, Schmitt thought, is what you had to create politics around. Trump has been really good at that. He’s been really good at this politics of us versus them.
Now, someone who’s really good at the politics of us versus them—and who’s otherwise maybe as unattached in his moral bearings as the former president appears to be—that kind of person might well get very into the idea of being a glorious fascist, if he saw it as a realistic goal. He might well, in his dreams, love the idea of politically mobilizing his society and seizing complete control of it, Mussolini-style. But that doesn’t mean it’s his practical goal.
A real master of the political art of us versus them in America today—a truly effective new-world heir to this idea of Schmitt’s—won’t be interested in replicating a European political regime from 80 or 90 years ago. He’ll be interested in convincing as massive a segment of the American people as he can that everything wrong with their lives is the fault of an enemy, who hates them and who conspires against them relentlessly. And then he’ll be interested in taking that where he can.
Where it all gets very complicated, and almost paradoxical, to me, is where you can see Trump using precisely the idea that he’s a “fascist”—and that his supporters, by extension, represent a “fascist movement”—to strengthen the politics of us versus them. I don’t know that he’s done anything more effective—or more innovative—politically than to get his opponents to decry his supporters as fascists. See, they hate you. They have total contempt for you. They call you “fascists.” You know what that means. It means they’re mobilizing to destroy you.
That’s obviously not a Hitler move. Hitler and his people were perfectly happy to be seen as fascists—because they were fascists; they all thought being a fascist was awesome. But it is a Schmitt move; it’s a new way of activating the politics of us versus them. And in the America of post-2016, it’s worked. It’s part of a repertoire Trump refined, playing left-wing anxiety about him back through his political-messaging channels—and the right-wing media ecosystem aligned with them—to his target audience.
Trump is really good at getting one group of people angry at him—and then using that reaction to get another group of people angry at them. Of course, this is just part of what’s been going on in the politics of the Republican Party these days, but it’s a consequential part.
Where it all gets very complicated, and almost paradoxical, to me, is where you can see Trump using precisely the idea that he’s a “fascist”—and that his supporters, by extension, represent a “fascist movement”—to strengthen the politics of us versus them. I don’t know that he’s done anything more effective—or more innovative—politically than to get his opponents to decry his supporters as fascists.
And it’s in turn part of a really huge problem in the world: It intensifies a kind of social dynamic that’s hard to stop, an almost cyclical dynamic—where rhetorical opposition to Trump that frames him and his supporters as the big, evil other becomes powerful material for Trump in convincing his supporters that they’re facing an existential threat from … a big, evil other. And around it goes.
Donald Trump didn’t invent this social dynamic. He’s just been really good at using it—and with that, he’s been really impressive to others interested in replicating his success, within his party and among populist authoritarians around the world.
Valentine: You say Trump and his style of politics haven’t created this social dynamic but intensified it. What’s created it?
Gould: That’s genuinely one of the most vexing questions facing the world these days, I’d reckon—not just in the U.S. but everywhere.
Globally, we’re living increasingly in polarized political environments that are governed by this social dynamic; but more fundamentally, we’re living increasingly in an integrated media ecosystem—one that’s created by and for global social platforms, high-scale advertising, and data theft, and that depends entirely on this social dynamic. It depends entirely on this social dynamic because it depends entirely on intensive human engagement—on the extended time and fixed attention people give it—and the emotional states that most effectively drive that intensive engagement are fear, anger, hate. They trigger increased levels of dopamine in our brains; our bodies experience that as a reward. And around we go. It’s literally a form of chemical addiction that divides people against one another.
Of course, democratic politics is about conflict. That in itself is a fine thing. Whenever and wherever there’s a democratic election, there’s an appropriate and important opportunity to go at it as a partisan and win something—for the party you support, or the economic or social or moral priorities you care most about, or both. There’s an appropriate and important opportunity to exercise democratic political power—by voting or by participating in political competition in all kinds of other ways. But once you exercise that democratic political power, you go back into democratic society with everyone else. You create and recreate it with everyone else. You’re part of it, day to day, interaction by interaction.
The style of politics optimized for the new media environment, which is Trump’s style of politics, turns democratic conflict into something else—a kind of compulsive object of attention, a kind of misery-inducing form of entertainment. It makes sense that this kind of politics is so heavy on culture-war narratives and so light on policy platforms. And it makes sense that so many media outlets love it. Back in 2016, Les Moonves, who was then the CEO of the corporation that owns the American TV network CBS, said about the ongoing reality show of Trump’s candidacy, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” That’s very cynical, but it’s also ultimately just a very clear description of how the contemporary media ecosystem works. More and more, this ecosystem doesn’t just shape the world we live in; it is the world we live in.
That’s an enormous sustainability issue for human life.