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A Second Fire Bell in the Night?

Steve Davies is Distinguished Fellow in History at the John Locke Institute. He is the author of The Wealth Explosion: the Nature and Origins of Modernity.

As the days pass and the minuscule attention span of the contemporary media moves on to the latest sensation, it is easy to forget the scenes we saw at the US Capitol in January and the spectacle the world got to view between the election in November and the inauguration. We should not do so. The aftermath of the US elections and the invasion of the Capitol on 6th January should tell us something about the current state of US politics and its deeper roots as well as lifting a corner of the veil covering several possible futures. None of this is good news for anyone who values the United States and its contribution to world affairs, no matter how reassuring President Biden may be after four years of Donald Trump.

In 1820 Thomas Jefferson described the controversy over Missouri’s admission to the Union, as having the effect of ‘a fire bell in the night’, awakening him and filling him with terror because it had made him aware of questions and divisions that, if not dealt with, would tear the young country apart. As we all know, his foreboding proved well founded. The events of 6th January 2021 were not just a fire bell in the night but also a whole load of flashing lights and sirens. What, though, did they reveal, and will people take notice and do what is needed?

A place to start is by thinking of historical comparisons. This, together with the response to the election results, was a systematic and organised attempt to reverse the outcome of a legal and legitimate election. That is, it was an anti-systemic act, aimed at one of the foundational principles of the American political order. It was directly inspired by the outgoing President and supported by a large number of mainstream politicians. Finally, it was, according to polls, supported by a large minority of the electorate with an even larger proportion agreeing that the election of 2020 was not legitimate.

'The events of 6th January 2021 were

a fire bell in the night.'

Normally I am as averse as anyone to dragging Hitler into political conversations but this is a point where comparisons with Weimar Germany are apt and appropriate. (So too are comparisons with the Roman Republic and Catiline's Conspiracy.) The Beer Hall Putsch was a farcical event but ten years later nobody thought it funny in retrospect. The events of the early 1920s in Germany revealed the degree to which a large part of the German electorate bought into myths such as the so-called ‘stab in the back’ and rejected the legitimacy of the political process if it produced results they did not like.

If you look at the extent, degree, and nature of support for the invasion of the Capitol, as revealed by subsequent polls, what you have in the United States today is a genuine mass popular insurgency. This insurgency rejects any political outcome that it does not like, on the grounds that such a result is impossible. This comes partly from delusions about the nature of contemporary American society and the distribution of opinion within it but it also reflects a powerful notion that only those who subscribe to a particular set of outlooks and views can be thought of as truly American, part of the political community. This is exactly the attitude that was widespread in parts of German society after 1919.

Does this movement have what we might call an ideology, as opposed merely to attitudes or sentiments? The evidence is that it clearly does, even if that ideology has only begun to firm up and become apparent over the last four or five years. It combines nationalism and anti-globalism with several other features, notably a belief in the importance and necessity of a strong and charismatic leader figure, a belief that the world and the US in particular are controlled by a conspiratorial elite with nefarious designs, and finally a notion that the situation requires force to resolve political divisions. This outlook may be called ‘radical populist’ and certainly it has precedents in American history, as for example in the Louisiana of Huey Long, but it obviously has precedents in other parts of the world. Quite simply it is proto-fascist.

Like other examples it has many supporters in law enforcement and the lower to middle ranks of the military. There is a powerful undercurrent of popular culture that is a key element of it. It is easy to blame this on Donald Trump and to see this as a phenomenon that will not survive his passing from the stage. This however is too easy. Trump has been not a cause of this but a catalyst. The sentiments described and the current in popular opinion that espouses them, predated him and have been growing for some time. His campaign and victory in 2016 and his behaviour, not just since the election last November but since the advent of the pandemic, have fed this emergent movement and given it a focus and identity. It will survive him because it grows out of sociological realities and, more importantly, because the last four years have seen the consolidation of an infrastructure and organisation that is now self-sustaining and only needs leadership. There are plenty of people willing to provide that leadership, some of them without Trump’s debilitating and manic narcissism.

There's no need to say anything about Trump and what he did in terms of inciting his supporters or actively seeking to delegitimise the outcome of an election he lost. All of that was entirely predictable and, indeed, was predicted. People who are now shocked at what he did and at what happened are at best revealing themselves as self-deluding and wilfully blind. The reality in many cases is much worse. To return to the comparison with Weimar Germany, Hitler did not come to power by himself. Contrary to a common misperception he did not win a free election - he came close but that is not the same thing.

Hitler got power because of enablers, unprincipled conservatives like Von Papen, Schleicher, and Hugenberg, who thought they could use him to achieve their own ends and defeat the Communists. Many of them paid the ultimate price for their folly and lack of principle, but not before all they held dear was destroyed. It is obvious who their counterparts are. People like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are educated and intelligent people who should know better. They have shown that they are prepared to betray the basic principles of constitutional government to get power for themselves and to achieve what are, in the greater scheme of things, comparatively trivial ends like lower taxes and less regulation. Selling your birthright for a mess of pottage is the perfect way of putting it. They are scum and should become pariahs but sadly they will not because there is now a large constituency that supports them and their apologetics.

'Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley

should know better.'

Finally, just as when Jefferson in 1820 wrote the words to which I alluded, the specific events of November to January highlight structural faults in the current state of American politics that, if not corrected, will lead to disaster. The faults are well known; the problem is what to do, because the way the US system is set up makes structural reform difficult. That was true in 1820 and is even more so now.

To understand what needs to change and how it might be done, despite the constitutional roadblocks, requires the following: thinking about the current state of American politics and society, reflecting upon how - slowly but steadily since at least the early 1990s, or even the 1970s - this situation came about, and recognising how the events of those last few decades derive from deep divisions in American society that go back beyond the Founding Era. This is an urgent matter. When Jefferson heard the warning ‘fire bell’ in 1820 it took a generation before his forebodings were realised. Today, though, I think events will hurtle to their conclusion.


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