I felt the calm that came over me when I was listening to CBC interview Eric Foner on CBC today. He is considered the pre-eminent American historian of his generation. His careful historical analysis and many books allow for the long view of the history of the United States. He brings a keen intellect, a wealth of accumulated information and a careful confidence to his analysis of the process of Democracy in the United States.
He began by saying, “When you are president you want to exert power”. The type of individual that runs for office is motivated by the attractions of the office.
Foner reassures his listening audience that the appetite for control is not new. He points to the structuring of the USA so that no single branch of government could voraciously consume human rights. However, there is a difficulty with the system that is evidencing at the present time with President Trump: The checks and balances can be “run around”.
Foner points out that the problem is that currently the US has the same party controlling all three branches of the government. Therefore the checks to the usurpation of rights are not fully operative.
But to those who scream out in terror that this has never happened before and only Trump has created this kind of threat, Foner responds with historical fact.
Grave threats from within have always happened in the White House. In the aftermath of WWI suppression of free speech was the law of the day. And more recently, many alive today can remember the televised live hearings conducted by Eugene MacCarthy as he destroyed citizens lives.
Professor Foner points out that power without compassion is not a one nation issue. Le Pain, Trump, Brexit are people who are aggrieved… these are not populists at all.
He vehemently objects to calling this swing to authoritarianism, right wing reactionism populism.
The original populists were not the 1%. Trump’s government is the government of billionaires. Populists movements were about protecting services to the population not removing care for the citizens.
A movement is growing up around the world out of fear. Around the world there is an appetite for the “strong man on the horse”. It goes back to the tension between belief in democracy and desire for authoritarianism.
He uses the long view of history to state his belief that the more authoritarian Trump becomes, the more likely for push back from the population. He reminds the listener of Maccarthy, George Wallace, Ross Perot…These were other versions of right wing demagogs.
Where is this desire coming from for inclusion, compassion, equality within US history?
Foner reminds the listener that in the 1920’s the US tried to block Italians ( I also thought of black slavery; exclusions of the Chinese; imprisonment of the Japanese as other examples)…
This movement of reacting to Muslims, to those that are not “like us” has happened throughout US history. The dangers are always there. The people mobilized against immigration restriction. Mobilization IS an action that is not new or unexpected within American history.
The price of Democracy is eternal vigilance Foner reminds his audience.
He points out the illogicality of holding two contradictory beliefs at once: ” We are exceptional and everybody should be just like us is what America is saying.”
John Quincy Adams had written, “We don’t go abroad to change other people into ourselves.” America as a policeman was not the vision of the founders of the country.
Chickens have come home to roost from our lack of Democracy. We have a self image which is not a completely accurate portrait. Trump has damaged the moral authority of the United States in the eyes of other nationsl
Tom Paine said clearly, “The US is an asylum for the world.”
People are more aware of the deficit state of contemporary democracy. Political democracy has not been able to solve many problems. There is a serious democracy problem in the world today.
The system was set up by James Madison in order to have a self correcting mechanism. Slavery was abolished at the cost of 3/4 of a million lives. It was not government that changed slavery, it was individual people.
Ordinary people have a right to make judgements about their own government. And ordinary people will show up to adjust the vision of what the national identity is in the world. Democracy is alive because of constant re-visioning and corrections when the ideals of the founding fathers have been forgotten. The nation has done it before and Foner believes the people will speak out and protect the country that was formed to be a sanctuary.
Interview with Eric Foner on CBC today.