America's Strongman Moment
How did we get to this point?
When Donald Trump famously said he wouldn't lose any votes if he shot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, his comments were interpreted several ways.
Some people laughed it off. Some were alarmed, but they really didn't think he meant it. The mainstream media normalized it. But, to some, it was an alarming and ominous warning.
Authoritarian leaders, and those who aspire to be, frequently use trial balloons to see how far they can push the envelope, according to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. To Ben-Ghiat, that 5th Avenue joke signaled exactly what type of leader Donald Trump planned to be.
And, for the next four years, Trump confirmed her fears time and again.
"Strongmen...require total loyalty, bend democracy around their own needs and use different forms of machismo to interact with their people and with other rulers,” Ben-Ghiat instructs.
Donald Trump and his mentor, Vladimir Putin, each display a form of leadership that revolves around their toxic masculinity. Putin shows off his physique by riding a horse topless, for example. Trump insults opponents, mocks the disabled and convinces half the country that wearing a mask makes them weak.
Trump is hardly unique. He has used the same techniques as many who have preceded him, such as engaging in xenophobia, extreme acts of cruelty and surrounding himself with family and loyalists. These are the hallmarks of the strongman. Problems emerge in times of crisis, when there is nobody around to challenge the leader or tell him hard truths.
For Trump, he has had the added benefit of an obsequious GOP that seems to have lost its zeal for democracy. Republicans initially thought they could use Trump to accomplish their not-so-hidden agenda. Trump delivered for them, but he ended up holding Republicans hostage, to the point where the vast majority are too fearful to even concede the obvious fact that he has lost the 2020 election.
Most Americans are hopeful that Joe Biden can bring back normalcy to DC. But is that possible with the GOP at this point?
Don’t forget, this is the party that has embraced racism, authoritarianism, corruption, violence, sexual harassment, anti-environmentalism and the politicization of a lethal virus that has directly led to a quarter-million American deaths. Is this who we want Biden to work with? If he reaches across the aisle, will they suddenly abandon Trump and their undemocratic values?
This is the moment we decide who we are, not two or four years from now, but today.
Do we want the possibility of another Trump? A strongman who unleashes lawlessness in the name of freedom? Make no mistake, the supporters of authoritarianism are HERE, and they are waiting for an opening.
It’s time to ask who we are and how far we are willing to go. How do we want to be governed, and by who? Visionary leaders such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., appealed to our better angels. We all have demons. Whether we succumb to them is our choice.
It’s the hard choices we are willing to make that will define us. We must question everything, assume nothing, and never go backward or yearn for a past that was not good for everyone. We need to question what we have traditionally viewed as normal.
If we can do all that and embrace honest conversations with our leaders, our communities and ourselves, we may have a chance.
If we can’t, if we aren’t capable of thinking critically, then Donald Trump was never our problem.