The most precious commodity in a democracy is truth.
What we have experienced for four years is an experiment in authoritarian politics, which peddles in paranoia, fear, resentment and daily doses of misinformation. If there is a silver lining in the appalling events of last week in our nation’s capital, it’s that America and the Republican Party were delivered the ultimate wake-up call.
The shame and tragedy of the mob-driven insurrection Wednesday on Capitol Hill defy words. It should not be lost on anyone that America has traded in its moral authority and dignity as a democracy in the eyes of a watching world for humiliation and disgrace. But as sickening as the event was, it was not at all surprising. To all who might have forgotten history and who care to pay heed: This is where authoritarianism and demagoguery lead. Yes, they end in violence. Yes, this is tragic, but not the least bit surprising.
The Founding Fathers feared demagogues and mob factions above all else, which is principally why they built in layer after layer of checks and balances. For the past four years, we have been introduced steadily to the unthinkable becoming thinkable, as our democratic institutions have been subjected to an unprecedented stress test.
The shock is how so few people in the Republican Party have been capable of shock. The most benign explanation is that they drink daily from the wells of false information. Many right-wing information outlets have given up on the truth and prefer raw, visceral, ideologically based propaganda — and in fact discourage an interest in facts. This is an insult to the intelligence of people.
The mob attack on the U.S. Capitol was the direct result of a failure of leadership at every level, starting with the president and all of his enablers, up and down the Republican Party, and yes, including Trump’s local cheerleaders. The winking at violent language in the past four-plus years has enabled the rise of a political culture in which a significant minority of Republican voters told pollsters before the election that violence would be justified if their side did not win. It wasn’t all an amusing sideshow, folks — this is a cancer.
The mob attack was a direct result of a failure of truth-telling. Tens of millions of Americans who fell for the myth of massive election fraud have been lied to. Yes, Trump supporter, you have been willfully lied to by politicians who were in possession of the facts but chose to withhold them for cynical, self-serving purposes.
The lie was perpetuated from the top of American politics all the way to the bottom based upon political expediency. Most officials signed on because it made sense politically in the moment, while knowing full well they were part of a scandalous lie that robbed them of any claim they could make to integrity.
Nothing is more insulting or condescending to ordinary voters than being lied to. In the end, once people figure out they’ve been played, the betrayal feeds the all-too-rampant cynicism in our land.
It was entirely reasonable to exhaust all normal procedures for determining whether fraud existed. But evidence of extensive, outcome-altering fraud was not produced. And Trump’s numerous claims of fraud were rejected emphatically by the courts, former U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Trump’s own former election cybersecurity chief, and the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court, six of whom were appointed by Republicans.
Whose authority are we going to accept in such matters? Shouldn’t it be those with the legal and constitutional authority to apply evidence-based principles as they review allegations and make judgments based on existing law?
It became clear early on that the perpetrators of the stolen-election myth lost interest in evidence and instead just embraced emotionally reassuring conspiracy theories, which fame and fortune-seeking opportunists and outright cranks are all too willing to supply.
The path forward
Where do we go from here?
For one, the most fundamental question we must all answer is whether we wish to remain a nation of laws in which no one is above those laws.
Elections happen. One side wins, the other loses, and the losing side accepts its loss with dignity and honor. Or is the law relevant only if our side wins an election? The GOP has long resisted judicial activism, but, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, party leaders showed how far they were willing to go in manipulating and bending the rule of law.
My intention is not to paint Trump supporters with a broad brush, the vast majority of whom are solid, patriotic Americans who supported the president for policy reasons. But the events of last week proved beyond doubt that there is a swirling fanaticism amid us.
Sincere conservatives: Be true to your creed and resist fanaticism in all forms, including among your allies. And stop justifying right-wing extremism by pointing out how much worse your enemies are — the media, the left, the Democrats. You are on a slippery moral slope and should get off of it.
To every self-respecting Trump supporter: Please recover your sense of dignity by declaring your determination to think for yourself and make judgments based on facts and not deception and mental manipulation. Reject the cult of personality. Your job is to keep people in power accountable and, yes, that includes those you think are advancing your interests.
Second, turn off deceptive social media and ideologically driven news sources. The events of the past four or so years would not have occurred had there not been the capacity for social media-driven mass deception. Do not forward deceptive and fraudulent information.
Freedom, which we all profess to love, is not possible without democracy. There are no shortcuts. A mainstream populism has much to offer the country. It can give voice to so many who feel shut out from the American dream, and who believe their country no longer respects them. But it must be a populism that directs all of us back to the moral principles of America’s founding: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the rule of law and a patriotism that celebrates the best of America on behalf of all Americans.
Don Eberly is a former White House aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and the author of books on society and culture. He resides in Lancaster County.