If anything seems self-evident, it is that truth is vital in personal relationships and for the advancement of democracy. Historian R.R. Palmer described the founding of the United States as an affirmation of “The People as The Constituent Power.”
From John Adams to Franklin, Jefferson, Dewey and many great philosophers of democracy, it has been emphasized that democracy works when the people (the many) can make informed judgments based on reliable knowledge.
How have we fared during the past four years with the most extreme dissembler in our history pushing misinformation and outright untruths? For Americans who supported parts of Trump’s agenda, can they not see his Orwellian approach to power where “The Ministry of Truth” is actually “The Ministry of Lies”? As a master of branding, Trump’s labels and repetitions are right out of George Orwell’s “1984” horror story.
The former Wall Street Journal Pulitzer columnist, Bret Stephens, left the Republican Party in 2016 because of Trump’s conduct. A few days ago, his essay in the New York Times had this subtitle: “The Conservative Movement Needs a Reckoning – ignorance was strength in ‘1984,’ as shamelessness is virtue to Trump’s GOP.”
This week Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan “worries [because] Trump pushes conspiracy theories of election fraud.” He can’t accept “that he lost a fair election.” Former Republican National Security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster says Trump’s “conduct is wrong, regrettable.”[Some people believe Trump can’t help himself because he has a mental disturbance – that view is held by several of his own relatives].
Another former Republican head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, says “Trump is playing Russian roulette with American democracy and our national security.” He says that Americans should “demand that Trump not undermine confidence in our democracy,” that “Americans should have absolute confidence in the 2020 elections.” He further emphasizes that Trump’s misinformation and lies “are dangerous to the Republican Party, but more so to our country.” He calls on Republican leaders to speak up and say that Trump’s abuses do not represent the Republican Party.
If you want to see scores of Republicans and former Trump supporters who publicly renounce Trump and who announced support for Biden, check the website for the appropriately named “Lincoln Project.”
What does Trump’s conduct now, and during the past four years, say about American democracy? On Nov. 13, a program at Temple Emanuel in Great Neck featured a Nixon impeachment prosecutor, Nick Akerman, who addressed that issue in a probing, insightful analysis.
He concluded that our system ultimately has worked because two major violators of presidential norms were ousted (Nixon by forced resignation and Trump by a decisive voting margin in 2020). In both cases, Akerman contended, it was the informed engagement of the public that saved us from these violators of democracy.
Akerman drew on his experiences as assistant special Watergate prosecutor to explain why it was easier to remove Nixon than Trump; this is a fascinating comparison (worth checking whether Temple Emanuel has a tape of the presentation that you can see). Ultimately, the decisive power in the case of Nixon, said Akerman, was a citizenry increasingly informed with truth, and with what Montesquieu called “le vertu,” the willed initiative.
A quick view of Akerman’s penetrating analysis is that the Watergate special prosecutors had more support from Congress, including principled Republicans, and more latitude for gathering evidence so that not only legislators but the public also gained real data. Also, there was no Fox “Trump network” with which to contend.
In contrast, he says that the Mueller Commission was limited by the failure of Congress to enforce indictments of those who refused to testify, and it was especially blocked by Attorney General Barr, who focused on defending Trump rather than serving American citizens.
Akerman said the DOJ’s view that a sitting President cannot be indicted is not constitutionally supported. He said Trump typically used lawsuits to slow the process and “run out the clock.”
Going forward from Trump, Akerman said we “need to fortify constitutional norms and restore checks and balances.” A special committee should not be set up under the attorney general (Barr’s misquoting Mueller was propagandized as exonerating Trump). Congress also needs to establish expedited processes regarding lawsuits and shorten time for appeals. Keeping the public regularly informed in a timely way empowers citizenship.
In “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality,” authors Isenberg and Burstein focus on John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams. Not only did both men place public service ahead of private profits, but both celebrated honesty and virtue as essential features of a democratic citizenry and especially of candidates for public office.
John Adams emphasized that the most dangerous politicians in a democracy were those who “stoked the infectious emotions of fear and anger.” What is needed for democracy, both John and JQ Adams concluded, is “self-control” and “learned observation,” as well as a cultivation of “the sentiment of sympathy which held society together.”
Historians evaluating Donald Trump are already emphasizing that he should never be forgiven for perpetuating the racist “Birther” lie about Barack Obama as a way to promote his national political ambitions.
In the final question Akerman was asked how public awareness can be fostered so public engagement is based on truth. Akerman emphasized the sustained, attentive quests for reliable evidence and for credible witnesses.
Here, one can interject the analyses of historian Jill Lepore in her book, “These Truths,” and in her “New Yorker” articles, especially, “It was never thus” (April 27, 2018).
Lepore’s essay is worth reading by every American who cares about honesty in politics and the future of our democracy. She cites a little known “fact-checking” during the Nixon impeachment.
In the early 1970s, the special counsel asked the most eminent American historian, C. Vann Woodward, to assemble a group of historians to evaluate how Nixon’s conduct compared to all of the presidents who had preceded him. Their conclusion: Nixon was the worst; “It was never thus.”
Lepore distributed that 1970s evaluation, based on evidence and credible witnesses, to the leading U.S. historians in 2018, including Columbia’s William Leuchtenberg, then in his 90s. They concluded that Trump was worse than Nixon!
Just recently one of the many people who worked for Trump, Gen. McMaster, joined the rising numbers who warn that Trump is “dangerously delegitimizing American democracy.” John Bolton, another former Trump official, states: “Trump continues baseless claims of a stolen election.”
What will it take after loser Trump to restore truth in politics and government? Perhaps a new nonpartisan commission of historians can examine past evidence and witnesses to gauge where Trump has led citizens and the Republican Party astray with his multitudinous lies.
But that may not be necessary. All anyone needs to do is to check the Lincoln Project for Trump’s many lies and the ways he has undermined the Republican Party and the United States.
Even more alarming, on Sunday the acclaimed international analyst, Fareed Zakaria, explored the hated “H” word. In the 1920s, Hitler rallied Germans to autocracy and Nazism with misinformation and untruths that many Germans accepted because they found them “emotionally necessary.”