Autocrats frequently serve up lies—after all lying can be a useful tactic. Once in the seat of power they can get away with it because they control the levers of government—most importantly the media, national police and military. And importantly they use those levers to either entice or threaten a large segment of the population. Fealty is what they want.
America doesn’t work that way and among other foreign enemies we do not like an assortment of autocrats starting with Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and certainly the Ayatollahs of Iran.
But the January 6th Committee’s initial report demonstrates a democratic soft spot. Primarily, that Presidential power fused with a hardcore base is a very effective weapon. The base allows itself to be used as a high value political chip in multi-candidate primaries.
The reality of politics today is at best disheartening. Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, used city politics to describe the base on the Left: “Progressive politicians have been around long enough running cities that some distinguishing characteristics can be noted. One is they don’t listen to anybody. To stop them you have to fire them. They’re not like normal politicians who have some give, who tack this way and that. Progressive politicians have no doubt, no self-correcting mechanism.” My take: they tend to be all theory and no practice.
On the Right climate change is just unwelcome noise and gun deaths are secondary to an 18th Century constitutional provision about forming a militia to fight foreign enemies. And both sides pay little attention to balancing budgets.
But let me come back to the January 6th Committee report. I will agree with Republicans that the Committee should be more bi-partisan. But since the Minority Leader in the House is subservient to Trump, not the Constitution, it is hard to anticipate a truly investigative approach with Kevin McCarthy’s designees. And certainly, the runup to the January 6th assault on the Capitol demands investigation. This, to me, is not a partisan imperative, it is a truth imperative.
As I have noted before, I have friends across the political spectrum. On the Left there is a view that the Republican Party should be way off in a ditch given that many continue to support Trump. Voters in the Center of the political spectrum move back and forth between Parties based on outcomes, not ideology. Roaring inflation, well let’s vote for the other Party. As long as we have a two-Party system that is the way it will work. Plus, there are characteristics of President Biden’s leadership that a majority of the public does not like—note the polls.
The initial January 6 Committee report was chilling. I didn’t learn a lot, but the work of its investigative staff and interview excerpts of Trump’s family and Attorney General opened a wider lens. What I found particularly problematic was Trump’s assumptions. I found myself more than once wondering what world he had been occupying for four years and what he had learned.
America’s strength is in its Constitution. The Constitution is clear: concentrated power that could lead to autocracy must be avoided. Yet Trump took on the Founder’s distribution of powers with a rag-tag army of several hundred and supporters who got caught up in mob psychology. I guess, since on the 6th he was the Commander-in-Chief, he assumed this outfit could defeat the Capitol police since he did not plan to activate either the National Guard or the active military. Then what?
And he must have assumed notwithstanding his Vice-President Mike Pence’s pledge to do his Constitutional duty that he could bully him into cancelling the election results.
I could go on, but these two Grand Canyon leaps of faith reveal a President emotionally and operationally unhinged. Biden is criticized for showing cognitive decline; Trump showed cognitive collapse.
The next two years will continue to be hyper-partisan. Hopefully 2024 will produce a President who is a real leader and has majority support. But the one thing I am sure of, the 2024 election will move beyond Biden and Trump.
Finally, a shout out to the courageous Republican Representative Liz Cheney. She put her personal safety and career on the line. I close with her words about Republican colleagues in the Congress whose subservience is to Trump and not the Constitution: “Tonight, I say this to our Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.