Two Views of History and Two Questions

9 mins read
John Trumbull / Public domain

I. Two Views of History

We also understand American history differently. Once upon a time I understood American constitutional history as an ever-expanding sense of who is included in “We the People.”

We started with white land-owning men.

Under Andrew Jackson, we included all white men.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (Civil War Amendments) expanded “We the People” to include black men in theory.

The 19th Amendment included women.

Brown v. Board, and the Civil Rights movement expanded “we the people” to include all ethnicities.

In fact, when I pitched my Making of America series to my publisher, one of my themes was the expanding sense of who is included in “we the people.”

I imagined US history is an arc bending toward greater justice as more people come to be included in “we the people.” I took for granted that the graph looks like this:


Now I understand that other people see American history in the complete opposite way. In the beginning there was almost no federal government. Privileged white men had almost complete personal liberty.

The frontier was a place all white men could grab land. There were very few rules. They could grab people and enslave them. Before modern rape and sexual harassment laws, they could grab women. Before federal agencies and regulations, they could manipulate markets.

The reactionaries see American history like this:

Over the past few years, I’ve revised my thinking. I now understand that the graph looks like this:

We push forward, and the reactionaries push backwards. We build agencies, we create rules for fairness, they hate the agencies and break the rules. It never ends, unless we all give up.

The “again” in Make America Great Again signifies reactionist politics, a desire to go backwards. Given the size and complexity of our government the only way to go backwards is to dismantle and destroy.

I also understand the battle has to be fought in each generation, because the reactionaries are not going away.

It never ends, unless we all give up, at which point we slide into autocracy.

The natural state of things, I’m afraid, is autocracy. Autocracy is easy. People fall in line. They don’t have to think. There is no gridlock because there are no checks and balances.

Democracy, in contrast, is hard work and takes constant vigilance.

Two Questions

Former FBI agent and CNN legal analyst Asha Rangappa read this post (as a Twitter thread), and asked me two questions on Twitter. I will admit I was flattered.

II. Question #1

I don’t think it’s a shame spiral for most of the GOP leadership because I don’t think most of them (McConnell, McCarthy, Nunes, etc.) feel any shame. Chris Christie told Colbert he’s still a “fan” of Trump’s even though he doesn’t approve of everything Trump does (like the lying).

Many of the elected Republican leadership embrace what Trump stands for. I’ll go farther. Many of them embrace what Putin stands for.

Here’s Katie Hopkins (with Coulter) praising Putin:

Romney and Kasich might feel shame—but they still vote GOP and support down ticket Republican candidates, and they clearly have little influence over the party.

The GOP got into this mess in the 1960s when they figured out there weren’t enough traditional conservatives to achieve electoral majorities, so they they invited into their party the KKK, white supremacists, former Confederates, etc.

Since then, minority communities have grown.

The GOP’s problem now is that they can’t appeal to minorities AND coddle the KKK. They have to pick.

The only way for the GOP to get rid of Trump (and his KKK-loving base) without imploding is for Trump to leave willingly. Nixon did. But Trump isn’t the type. He’s vindictive. If anyone turns on him, he will attack that person with a vengeance.

If the GOP does try to abandon Trump, the party will splinter because Trump and his base will turn on whoever crosses them. There isn’t time before the election to enlarge the base by luring moderates and minorities.

Abandoning Trump now guarantees the GOP a bloodbath in November.

The GOP is not willing to do that. (Remember when Democrats embraced Civil Rights in the 1960s, they were willing to lose a few elections in the name of what was right.)

I believe the GOP leadership has figured out that its best shot in November is to hold their minority party together and put everything into the fight. Because the GOP can’t reach out to minority communities and while they’re coddling the KKK, they’re responding to their shrinking numbers by trying to prevent people from voting.

Right wing authoritarians are good at winning elections. They’re willing to cheat. They’re willing to suppress votes through legislation and disinformation campaigns.

And now they have, at their disposal, a modern Internet disinformation warfare arsenal.

They have other advantages, despite shrinking numbers. They fall in line (liberals tend to splinter). Putin has their back. Many Never Trumpers are eager to see the GOP implode so that a true conservative party can arise from the ashes.

But first they have to implode. The quickest way is for them to lose big in November. Then, when they rebuild, they’ll have to figure out how to achieve an electoral majority without Trump, the KKK, and other unsavory members of Trump’s base.

III: Question #2

This one is easier. The answer comes mostly from political psychology.

Short answer: Political psychologist tell us that those with authoritarian dispositions exist on both sides/extremes of the political spectrum.

Sources include this summary, Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality, Karen Stenner, and Hofstadter:

Most scholarship has focused on right wing authoritarians (RWAs) I believe because interest arose after the Nazi regime. Also the current danger to democracy world-wide are RWA uprisings, for example Brazil and Hungary.

Both Hofstadter and Stenner make clear that those with authoritarian (what Hofstadter calls “political paranoia”) exist on both sides / extremes of the political spectrum. Hofstadter mostly described what the paranoid style looks like on the far right wing, but he mentions that it also exists on the far left. Also see Karen Stenner’s website at

Those with authoritarian dispositions dislike nuance and complexity. They look for strong leaders (a classic “strongman”) They’re anti-democratic and don’t like to compromise. (The authoritarian personality was initially called the anti-democratic personality.)

Heightened polarization could give the appearance of movement.

If there’s actual movement, it could be terror of, or reaction to, the fact that the US is tipping dangerously close to oligarchy (Quoting Timothy Snyder) Our current levels of income inequality are approaching what we had in the 1920s, which is a problem because democracy can’t exist with extreme income inequality (a few have too much power).

Originally posted on Musing about Law, Books, and Politics.
Re-posted with permission.

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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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