Exceptional After All

Up until the election of Donald Trump, it was easy for America to tell itself that it was special, that it would never really suffer the crises of liberal government that threaten the rest of the world.  But now it seems that we’re just as susceptible to authoritarianism as the rest of the world.  Or are we?


Over the past few weeks we’ve seen some extraordinary demonstrations of solidarity against the actions of this new administration.  The Women’s March on Washington, with it’s sister marches in almost every major city, was one of the largest collective demonstrations in history.  The executive order banning travel from Muslim countries (save those that Trump has business interests in) caused a huge backlash.  Demonstrations in New York, Boston, Dallas, and elsewhere.  Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates flat out refused to tell the justice department to enforce the order.  Around 900 State Department employees openly dissented the order. John McCain, a member of the administration’s party, continues to vocally criticize the President’s actions and even attempted to mitigate some of the international damage directly after a botched call to Australia.  California Governor Jerry Brown practically dares the White House to attempt enforcement of it’s immigration policies on his watch:

And that’s not a comprehensive list.

Micah White, one of the founders of the Occupy Movement, has been talking about ‘The End of Protest‘ in an attempt to find the solution to Occupy’s lack of direction.  Sure, the Occupy movement seemed to putter out with a whimper, but it’s starting to look like it was just a dress rehearsal.  At the JFK protest, at least, the drums and people’s mic of the Occupy movement were in full force.  The tradition of open criticism of the government and mobilization against it is alive and well.

Most of the major early criticisms of Authoritarianism, whether they be Adorno, Horkheimer, or Solzhenitsyn, don’t diagnose the problem as political.  They all point to an inner sickness of some kind.  Horkheimer diagnoses the problem as a slow distortion of the use of reason over time; from a reason that seeks to discover why we should do things to a reason that seeks only articulates how best to reach any end, without questioning that end’s value.  Adorno focuses on and finds psychological predispositions towards fascism and authoritarianism independent of political climate.  Solzhenitsyn gives it a spiritual dimension: in forgetting God, people turn to brutal absolutism.  As such, they warn that the answer is not political, that only by addressing these inward problems can a nation save itself from the clutches of authoritarianism.

I think they are right, to a degree.  But this recent outpouring of American resistance suggests that, maybe, they’ve accepted one of the symptoms as the diagnosis itself.  For those cultures that fell into authoritarianism completely, of course it must have coincided with the failure of an alternative political movement.  Which means that, on some level, the majority of those opposed to the regime must have felt as though there was some inner sickness, some sin that required purging, or some other justification for what was about to happen even though they knew it was awful.  I don’t want to discount the work of these great minds, but I’m beginning to believe that this inner facing diagnosis is, perhaps, actually the trick of the authoritarian.

There’s always a portion of the population receptive to a strong leader and the opportunity to lash out.  But in order to gain complete control, the authoritarian needs some mechanism to get everyone not predisposed to this behavior to keep their heads down while the brownshirts tear everything apart.  The ‘inner failure’ could be just such a mechanism. By planting the seed of such an inner failure (“Drain the Swamp,” “American Carnage”), the authoritarian psychologically undermines the opposition from mounting a political defense.  Part of winning, then, is rejecting the authoritarian’s message.

If that’s the case, I am very hopeful.  Opponents of the Trump regime seem perfectly confident of America’s inner strength and fearless in their criticism.  This flood of open resistance, while it will not always undo harm, will keep it from becoming the status quo.  This is where we can show the world where America is truly exceptional.

I don’t mean to declare victory as we’ve got a long way to go.  But it is important to acknowledge that we’re doing the right thing.  Let’s take the work of the great critics of authoritarianism as a warning: The real power of the authoritarian comes, in part, when those who would oppose him begin to believe that their country deserves such a leader.  So let’s insist on American Exceptionalism, let’s be the people who shout down every threat to our integrity and our progress as a nation.  May the inner strength of America never falter.