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“Democracy,” wrote Charles Tilly, “does not resemble an oilfield or a garden, but
a lake. A lake,” he continues, can come into being because a mountain stream feeds into a naturally-existing basin, because someone or something dams up the outlet of a large river, because a glacier melts, because an earthquake isolates a segment of the ocean from the main body of water, because people deliberately dig an enormous holeand channel nearby watersheds into it, or for a number of other reasons.
In deliberate contrast to most of the vast literature explaining the conditions for democratization, Tilly concluded that “We have no a priori reason to believe that only one set of circumstances produces and sustains democracy, even if during the last few hundred years’ experience particular circumstances have often nurtured democracy” (ibid). By the same token, as my colleague Jason Frank writes in his Democratic Sublime, “Because the people has no clear form, it could assume multiple and competing forms — not merely an electorate, but also leaders, public opinion, demonstrations, declarations of principle” (p. 4). One of these forms, paradoxically, is undemocracy.
In which part of the democratic “lake” would Tilly have placed the denizens of the assault on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021? This is not an idle question: A few weeks after those events, CNN interviewed Enrique Tarrio, a leader of the Proud Boys, one of the militia groups that led the invasion. In his interview, Tarrio relieved himself of the following opinion, which he claimed was first uttered by Thomas Jefferson: “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny … When the government fears the people … There is liberty.” “All of this mayhem plainly envisioned that those carrying out Defendant’s stated vision — the reawakening of 1776 — would at least attempt to destroy federal government property and force their way inside the building,” a prosecutor’s brief argued (italics added).
The Proud Boys were not the only ones to frame the assault on the Capitol in terms that harkened back to the American revolution. A mother and son team — Eric Gavelek Munchel and Lisa Eisenhart, who were seen together inside the building where Muchel was carrying zip-tie handcuffs, claimed that their participation in the events was “to show that we’re willing to rise up, band together and fight if necessary. Same as our forefathers, who established this country in 1776” (Italics added).
This parallel between an assault on the citadel of American democracy and the country’s Revolution poses a challenge that cannot be ignored: that undemocratic or antidemocratic collective actors can gain traction from the belief that what they are doing is democratic. The first question I want to raise is: “How ought we to define the two meanings of democracy, the rule of law meaning and the anti-elitist meaning?” The second is: “How can we convince Republican “MAGA” voters that the attack on the Capitol was, at best, undemocratic, and, at worst, undermined the very democracy they claim to defend?”
The first thing to establish is that, when we examine the Trumpist assault on the Capitol, we are looking at a social movement. Movements I define as a sustained campaign to advance causes, using repeated performances that advertise these causes, based on the organizations, networks, traditions and solidarities that sustain these activities. Social scientists have usually looked separately at movements from conventional forms of political expression – parties, interest groups, voluntary organizations. They forget that throughout American history, movements have often “anchored” parties, to adopt Daniel Schlozman’s felicitous expression; they have sometimes worked closely with a party, as the industrial workers’ movement did with the New Deal Democrats in the 1930s; and they often turn into parties, as the Know-Nothing movement did when it launched the American Party in the run-up to the civil war. And they sometimes inject the spirit of a movement into a party – as agrarian activists did when they helped to create the Populist Party in the Golden Age.
By these criteria, Donald Trump was the inspirer of a movement-party. Early in his 2016 campaign, as Jennifer Merciera recalls in her prize-winning book, Trump told a New Hampshire audience that “The silent majority is back. We really are in a position we haven’t been in a long time.” Merciera was not alone in seeing Trump as the leader of a movement: “More than other candidates,” wrote Arlie Russell Hochschild, “Donald Trump fits the classic description of a charismatic leader, as Weber defined it….Trump offers himself…as the personal messenger of his followers” (Hochschild 2018).
Survey research tells us more about these believers. Recently, Rachel Blum and Christopher Parker collected data on what they referred to as the “MAGA Movement,” which they characterize as “the people who consider themselves part of the “Make America Great Again” movement.” Half of those surveyed by Blum and Parker were over 65, retired, and earned over $50,000. Though they were not the stereotype of the “white working class,” only one-quarter had a college degree.
Why does it seem important to characterize Trump’s followers as a movement? There are three main reasons for this:
First, unlike typical party activists, whose relation to politics is transactional, movement activists are ideologically committed, and this makes them less concerned with the factual basis of their leader’s pronouncements or with what their opponents are actually doing or saying.
Second, the credulousness of his followers and his gifts as a communicator allowed Trump to call upon them to follow his fraudulent claims between the 2020 election and the insurrection of January 6th. When they were asked a series of questions regarding the 2020 elections and Trump’s claims about them, substantial majorities’ views were in lock-step with the claims of the former president.
Third, because they believed they were acting to overturn a stolen election, those of Trump’s supporters who attacked the Capitol on January 6th. defended the idea that they were real democrats opposing an elite that was trying to steal the election. The fact that their leader was a true authoritarian did not affect their ability to conceive of the attack on the Capitol as the defense of democracy.
This was not the first time in American history that authoritarianism was in synthesis with democracy. In his stirring account of disfranchisement in early America, David Bateman observed how common it was for opponents of Black voting rights to point out that ours was – and should be – a republic limited to white people. “The story of democratization in nineteenth-century America,” he writes,
is that of the political construction and partial dismantling of the white man’s republic, a discursive and institutional formulation that helped certain political actors define and maintain a political community of value to themselves, its architects, but also to many of their constituents, to whom it offered a space of democratic egalitarianism unprecedented in the modern world (pp. 6-7).
Bateman shows that the ideology of the white man’s republic “endured well beyond the end of the Civil War…as a resonant theme available for reinterpretation and synthesis” (p.7). While in its more extreme variants, it was nothing more than a cover for brute racism, “It has persisted in some localities and discursive communities as a defining feature of a regional culture, as an imagined ideal for the future, or as the endangered inheritance of the past.”
This was the “democratic ideology” that inspired post-bellum demagogues, like the Georgia Populist, Tom Watson, who – after running for Vice President alongside Willam Jennings Bryan in 1896 – returned to Georgia to support whatever legislation was necessary to insure the state against Black domination. This was the kind of political partnership that political theorist Rogers Smith had in mind when he described elite-led efforts to blend racism and democracy. In his book, Civil Ideals, Smith argues that, from the beginning, political parties and movements relied on congenial aspects of “liberal, republican, and ascriptive” racial and gender conceptions that they mixed in different ways “to gain political leverage against their opponents.”
To be sure, demagogues like Watson used the language of democracy as a shield for self-promotion, and this is no different today. But under Trump’s carapace, many of his militants genuinely thought they were defending democracy on January 6th. As James Miller reported two weeks after those events,
most of the activists I saw talking on TV during the uprising of January 6 seemed sincerely to believe that they were only marshaling their collective forces to rescue American democracy….this belief grew out of a profound trust, even a faith, in the utterances of the country’s supreme secular authority, the only government official who can claim that his election represents the will of all the American people – the President of the United States.
Convincing such activists that Trump is a threat to the democracy they claim to support is probably a non-starter. Near majorities of Republicans supported the Capitol invasion after January 6th. In a You-Gov poll immediately after, only 27 percent of Republicans saw it as a threat to democracy, compared to 62 percent of the electorate as a whole. In fact, 45 percent of Republican voters sampled supported what the Capitol rioters did, compared to 21 percent of the electorate.
But Trump’s approval ratings – never very high – have been dropping since then, to a low of 32 percent in a NBC News poll carried out in April 2021. And for the first time since 2019, the same poll showed that a larger number of GOP voters supported the party than the former president. Yet with a majority of congressional Republicans apparently convinced that they cannot afford to transcend Trumpism, for fear that his acolytes will punish them at the polls, the GOP seems to have backed itself into a corner.
What can be done to oppose the voters who believed that the January 6th insurrection was justified? Some observers on the Left think that — empowered by the enormous outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter after the police killing of George Floyd — the time is ripe for an assertion of a multiracial coalition for dramatic social change. This was “a demographic mix that is far more varied than anything we have seen in recent years,” wrote Doug McAdam soon afterwards.
But as has often occurred in American history, a dramatic gain in racial justice has quickly produced a counter-movement in the tradition of the “white man’s republic,” but in a 21st-century register. Only months after appearing to lose its balance after the January 6th insurrection, the GOP hit upon a new way to appeal to racism through orchestrated attacks on “critical race theory.” What began as an obscure academic specialty was whittled down, manipulated, and amplified by Trump’s operatives into a threat to freedom of speech and academic integrity.
This is not to say that liberals, progressives, and radical democrats should abandon the cause of racial justice – as the Republicans did when they abandoned Reconstruction in the 1870s. It is rather to embed the cause of racial equality within a broader commitment to “real” democracy, linked, as Miller writes, “to the rule of law, evidence-based policymaking, and nonviolent dissent.”
Building a coalition around defending democracy will not be easy, and this for two reasons: First, the belief that America is a democracy is so deeply ingrained in the country’s political culture that the current threat is hard to impress on the general public. Second, the disappearance of Donald Trump from the scene deprives the anti-Trump Resistance of its central focal point. The Republicans’ ability to block the appointment of a 9-11 type commission to investigate the causes of the January 6th insurrection illustrates both problems.
If we look abroad for parallels, we need look no further back than last May, in Chile, when a coalition of progressives, liberals, and independents gave overwhelming support to a convention to replace the Pinochet-era constitution that had constrained democracy since the 1980s. They unified a very diverse movement around a democracy frame to overcome the reluctance of the country’s post-Pinochet political parties.
We are at an inflection point in the direction of American democracy. In the wake of precedents set by the Presidency of Donald J. Trump,” writes Miller, “a new world of disquieting political possibilities appeared on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021.” But so has the opportunity to recreate American democracy around a true democracy frame, as the Chileans did in rebuilding their country’s equally flawed democratic system.
Sidney Tarrow is the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement (Oxford, 2018), and the author, most recently, of Movements and Parties: Critical Connections in American Political Development