In my writing here on Verdict and elsewhere over the last few years, I have offered assessments of the American political system that are decidedly pessimistic. I have returned again and again to the phrase “dead democracy walking,” arguing that the US’s constitutional system, the rule of law, and thus democracy itself are already in their death throes, and we are merely waiting for the inevitable end to arrive.
I have tried to hold open the possibility that my diagnosis and prognosis could be wrong, hoping that my being realistic does not cause other people to be fatalistic. Some people who have been told that they have only months to live, after all, have experienced miraculous recoveries, which would not have happened without hope and hard work. I dearly wish for that to be the case with American democracy as well.
Even in my most pessimistic writings, I have resisted discussing political violence. I have not always steered completely clear of that possibility, but even when I was predicting in 2019 and 2020 that Donald Trump would try to stay in office after losing the 2020 election, I tried to focus on the nonviolent, legalistic ways in which he might try to subvert democracy. The arguments in what became known as the Eastman memo (a hack job authored by Trump lawyer and disgraced constitutional law professor John Eastman) are among the types of nonviolent political coup strategies that occupied my attention prior to the January 6 insurrection.
In this two-part column, however, I will instead focus explicitly on the reality and threat of political violence in the United States, now and going forward. Today’s Part One will look at the possibility that the US government will become an authoritarian, violent oppressor over the long term. In tomorrow’s Part Two, I will look at the more immediate threats of violence that might—indeed, I will argue that they quite possibly could—become reality in the very near future.
There will be no lighthearted sarcasm in this column, unlike the fun I had last month when writing about anti-debt mania in the US. This is a grim time.
I should add here that although I am writing both parts of this column after the polls closed for the US midterm elections on November 8, I am deliberately sequestering myself so that I do not yet know the results. My arguments today are not contingent on what happened in US electoral politics this week. My arguments tomorrow are in substantial part independent of the midterm results as well, but because I will have allowed myself to read the news by the time Part Two will be published, I will note along the way whether anything about the election outcomes changes the nation’s prospects for political violence in the immediate future.
There Are Other Pessimists Out There!
Having been called an alarmist and worse, I take special note when other scholars or commentators say things that are in the depressing vein that my arguments have been in over the years. Much to my surprise, the historian Michael Beschloss said something during an appearance on Chris Hayes’s prime-time MSNBC show “All In” on November 2 that I thought was both important and absolutely spot-on—and as pessimistic as anything that I have ever written. Hayes was asking Beschloss about the unmistakably dire warnings in a speech that President Biden had delivered earlier that day.
Beschloss’s comments touched on both the long-term and the short-term possibilities of American political violence, so I will be quoting from what he said in both parts of this column. When it comes to today’s topic—long-term violence in US politics—Beschloss offered this warning:
[I]f Biden had gone on the air tonight and said, “Biggest thing we have to worry about is [the] marginal tax rate,” or something like that, well, it is important. But [in] 1858, Lincoln didn’t say [that the] biggest issue is land grant colleges. He said the country can’t survive half-slave or half-free.
[In] 1940, Franklin Roosevelt didn’t say, “The biggest thing I’m worried about is farm policy.” Farm policy was important to him, but what he did say was [that] never before, since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, has America been in such danger.
Joe Biden is saying the same thing tonight. And a historian 50 years from now, if historians are allowed to write in this country and if there are still free publishing houses and a free press—which I’m not certain of—but if that is true, a historian will say, “What was at stake tonight and this week was … whether we will be a democracy in the future, whether our children will be arrested and conceivably killed. We’re on the edge of a brutal authoritarian system, and it could be a week away.”
Leaving aside that last phrase (which I will address in Part Two, because it is about the threat of immediate violence), Beschloss is talking about what could happen after the rule of law ends in the United States. He looks toward a dystopian future in which it might not even be possible for historians or other scholars to continue to do what they do today—write independent, non-propagandistic, and sometimes deeply critical analyses of American leaders and the government’s actions.
He is, in other words, describing a Nineteen Eighty-Four style government that shuts down non-approved sources of information, violently suppresses dissent, and leaves no possibility for people to petition for redress of grievances or to vote the government out of office. In real life, he is referring to oppressive governments like East Germany during the Soviet era (with its infamous Stasi secret police), China’s intolerance of dissent or democracy today, and Vladimir Putin’s brutal and aggressive regime in Russia.
Chris Hayes was struck by the pessimism of Beschloss’s comments and disagreed to a significant degree, which is completely reasonable. What Beschloss said is rarely if ever heard on commercial television, and even though Hayes is also worried about the death of American democracy, he was notably unwilling to agree with Beschloss about the long-term horrors that might await future Americans. I side with Beschloss, but I both want Hayes to be right and believe that he could turn out to have a better crystal ball than I have.
What Michael Beschloss Did Not Say
If there is one certitude about American political commentary in the twenty-first century, it is that every earnest and serious observation will be met with derision and snark. When I searched the internet to find a transcript of the Hayes-Beschloss interview, I happened upon one such exercise in adolescent heckling where an author quoted the interview extensively, not to support it or even to oppose it on substantive grounds, but simply to mock it.
In an extremely short piece, the columnist went to that well not once, but twice. The piece began: “MSNBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss on Wednesday night warned that if Republican candidates win their races next week, American democracy and the free press could end, historians may no longer exist, and ‘our children’ could all die at the hands of a ‘brutal authoritarian system.’” Then, before providing a transcript of the remarks, the heckler added this: “Beschloss joined Hayes to analyze [Biden’s] speech, which he says precedes a midterm that will decide whether the president’s political opponents get to institute a brutal, child-murdering authoritarian dictatorship.”
This is obviously little more than infantile jeering, but it is important to understand the key rhetorical move at play, because it clarifies the larger point that Beschloss was making.
It is true, of course, that Beschloss said that democracy and the free press could end and that historians may no longer exist (at least historians who are not mere scribes for the rulers). He is right about that, and the heckler did not even disagree. Instead, the snark was directed at the idea that authoritarian regimes engage in violence—which one might have thought was an unremarkable observation about how autocrats operate.
Most obviously, Beschloss clearly did not say that our children “could all die” at the hands of a dictator. He said that “our children could be arrested and conceivably killed,” which clearly does not predict a future in which all children are killed. Instead, he was saying that brutal authoritarian regimes do arrest and sometimes kill their own citizens, and it is possible that our children will live in such a world.
Which clarifies why the second bit of snark was so dishonest. Beschloss did not say that the future post-democratic American government would be “child-murdering.” Some such regimes do in fact kill the children of their political opponents while they are still children (and a famous Pharaoh killed babies whom he thought might grow up to become his enemies), but that is obviously not at all what Beschloss was warning us about. Again, he was talking about a future that our children will inherit when they become adults—a world in which the US government might have morphed into the kind of murderous regime that we have seen too many times in world history.
Why am I so certain that Beschloss did not mean to say that future Republicans would murder children? A major strand of my scholarship addresses justice between generations, asking what we owe to younger generations—those who are currently children and those that have not yet been born. It is absolutely clear that when a person asks “whether we will be a democracy in the future, whether our children will be arrested and conceivably killed,” he is talking about the extended future after current adults have shuffled off this mortal coil and our by-then-adult children and grandchildren are bequeathed a world not of their own making.
This way of talking about future generations is, by the way, entirely nonpartisan. Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, and liberals all invoke “our children and grandchildren,” not intending to refer to them in their current pre-adult form but as future adults. Many Republican politicians, for example, argue that “we are piling the national debt on the backs of our children and grandchildren,” and similar phrasing. The idea is not that a particular five-year-old is currently legally required to repay government borrowing but that she will one day be responsible as an adult for the decisions that her parents and grandparents made today.
As I have argued many times, the substance of that anti-debt argument is in fact utter nonsense, but the point here is that we need to understand what it means when a person warns about what might happen in the future. We talk about “our children” when we want to talk about future threats, in this case the threat of a hellscape that we might bequeath onto future adults.
What We Should Learn from Beschloss’s Comments
Arguably, the heckler who derided Beschloss’s comments does not deserve this kind of careful response, given that the snark was the product of obvious bad faith. But even content-free deceit can sometimes be illustrative, and pulling it apart is helpful in this case because it allows us to see that the warning in that part of Beschloss’s comments was not about today or next week or next year (although, as I will discuss in Part Two tomorrow, some of it could in fact begin that soon) but about the long-term nature of lost freedom.
We are not, after all, talking about MAGA Republicans limiting themselves to manipulating the US electoral system so that Trump can win a second term in 2024, after which they will respect the Twenty-Second Amendment’s two-term limit and, starting in 2028, allow elections to be free and fair once again. We are instead worried about a permanent loss, a loss that our children and grandchildren will suffer much more than we will, because they could live under a brutal autocracy for generations to come. And we are worried about it because some Republicans are saying out loud—without shame—that their aim is one-party rule.
Will it in fact be brutal? In a recent column, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman notes that Viktor Orban’s Hungary has become many Republicans’ idealized “illiberal democracy,” with Orban himself receiving rock star treatment at American political conferences and from right-wing infotainment sources. Krugman, however, goes on to cite one journalist’s observation that Hungary today might best be described as “soft fascism,” by which he means a one-party state that tolerates no political opposition but that does not engage in the state-sponsored violence and killing that we so often see in that kind of regime.
Even so, Krugman is quick to point out that the strongest supporters of America’s move toward authoritarianism seem to be quite interested in visiting violence and retribution on their opponents. Trump has been stoking violence ever since the first time he told his supporters to “beat the hell” out of protesters, and he has seemed positively gleeful about the idea that some of his detractors—Speaker Nancy Pelosi (and her husband, by proxy, apparently), Dr. Anthony Fauci, and others (“Hang Mike Pence!”)—might meet a violent fate.
It is not as though we in the United States have never seen (and tolerated) state-sponsored political violence. The Jim Crow era was exactly the kind of ugly marriage between official and unofficial violence to keep undesirables in line that many worry about today (especially the LGBTQ+ community, given how strenuously the Republicans have vilified them in recent years).
And we must recall that Jim Crow lasted for many decades, from the late 1800s through the 1960s, across multiple generations. Similarly, China’s regime shows no sign of being toppled by a people’s revolution, nor do other brutal regimes. If the US loses democracy, it will fall on future generations—our children, grandchildren, and maybe even beyond—to get back what we have already begun losing. Even if the American version of one-party rule were to end up going relatively light on the physical oppression, living without freedom is not a legacy that we should want to confer on those generations that follow us.
As I noted at the beginning of this column, however, it might already be too late. In any event, in Part Two tomorrow, I will discuss the more immediate threats of violence facing the US as we embark on the path toward 2024’s possibly pro forma election.