Here is the one freedom the Constitution doesn't ever allow
Over the past year and a half, we've learned an awful lot from Republicans about "freedom." We learned, for instance, that refusing to wear a mask in public places to protect others from a deadly virus was a symbol of such "freedom." We learned that carrying automatic weapons into state capitals to intimidate lawmakers (and by extension, ordinary citizens) into doing whatever a small, gun-toting group of people demanded was also an expression of "freedom." We learned from many vocal parents that shutting down schools and transitioning to online learning to protect children from coming home and infecting their parents and grandparents was a gross infringement on their "freedom."
And finally, we learned from many folks that carrying out a violent assault on our nation's capitol in order to try to nullify a lawful election was another example of "freedom."
In a sense, I agree that all of these things are valid expressions—or critiques—of our freedom. The Constitution that forms the entire basis for this country's existence allows all types of freedoms, no matter how self-destructive or ill-used those freedoms might be. You even have the freedom to commit acts of sedition or treason, as long as you're prepared to face the framework of serious legal consequences for exercising that freedom as provided by that same Constitution.
But there's one freedom the Constitution doesn't allow, because it can't. If this freedom is allowed, the whole rationale for the Constitution—and for this country itself—goes up in a puff of smoke. Jonathan Schell, writing forThe New Yorker as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1973, put it very simply: "In a democracy, we are not free to ignore the truth."
At the time, Schell was referring to the fact that, while the majority of Americans had concluded that President Richard Nixon had committed a grave and serous offense in authorizing what ultimately became known as the Watergate break-in, 10 months after the incident itself, the general public remained unmoved to do something about it … almost to the point of willfully ignoring it.
But Schell pointed out that was simply not a viable option.
The public had not ruled out the possibility that high Administration officials were involved in planning and then in covering up the incident. Rather, a large portion of the public believed these things to be true, but, in a striking reversal of its traditional response to governmental corruption, it did not care to pursue the matter any further. This was, one hopes, the nadir of public opinion as an institution in our national life. When public opinion has lost the will to compel a thorough investigation into the apparent subversion of a Presidential election by officials of the Administration in power, it has been neutralized as a voice in the basic affairs of the Republic.
Schell argued that in a democracy, public opinion cannot be allowed to dictate whether truth itself can be ignored. If public opinion, whether informed or misinformed, tries to do that, it must immediately be disregarded if the country is to continue to exist. In 1973, the irrefutable truth of the matter at hand—in that case, Nixon's perfidy and involvement—had become non-negotiable.
In effect, the public was dragged from willful ignorance by the truth. In Hannah Arendt's words, "truth has a despotic character." The truth is that which compels our minds' assent. And in a democracy certain forms of truth do more than compel our minds' assent; they compel us to act. In a democracy, we are not permitted to seek out the truth about our affairs and then to ignore what we learn. When evidence of murder comes to light, indictments must be brought and a trial held. Our system is arranged to make such action reflexive. We must hold the trial whether we want to or not.
Schell distinguished between voluntary, desirable ideals—such as the idea of decency or compassion—from adherence to this principle of truth.
Decency and compassion belong to the large category of ideals which float above our heads as a reproach to our actual behavior. Truth and justice, on the other hand, are rooted as powerful forces in the heart of our political system. They have shaped and determined the fundamental structures of our institutions. Thus, the system of justice is the mechanism whereby certain forms of truth compel us to act. In a democracy, we are free to do many things, but we are not free to ignore the truth. It holds the system itself, and our individual liberty, hostage. In the end, it is by virtue of this power of truth that our nation consents to march to the tune of a piece of paper—the Constitution.
As explained by author and professor of foreign affairs Mark Danner, writing for the New York Review of Books, with the insurrection of Jan. 6, the two principles that establish legitimacy to our democracy—a government allowed by elections rather than violence, and respect for and honoring the outcome of those elections by the losing party—are now held in disfavor by a substantial percentage of the American electorate. As Danner points out, the last time in history that these principles were abandoned on this scale led directly to the carnage of the Civil War, and they were not re-established for a bitter decade in its aftermath. Even their re-establishment came at a terrible cost, with the defeated southern states instituting nearly a century of racist oppression on their Black citizens in spiteful revenge for their defeat.
Danner's point is that when the country behaves the way it is now, history suggests that the country will not endure in its present form. What Schell wrote about in 1973 was witnessing our system self-correct, as Democrats and Republican agreed that however uncomfortable the facts of Nixon's criminality were, the truth of them could not be ignored. As a result, the nation survived.
But that is not the situation the country faces today, in the wake of Jan. 6. Not at all, in fact.
In the case of the Capitol coup we have thus far ignored the truth. The coup was a crime against the state, and because it unfolded live on television as a grand public spectacle, Americans believe they know the truth about it. But we do not. We do not know what kind of planning preceded the assault and who was involved. We do not know why Pentagon officials for several hours refused to send troops to the Capitol. We do not know what the president was doing as the violence he unleashed was unfolding on Americans' television screens. And much more. We do not know because there has been no thorough public investigation of what happened. Supporters of the former president within the political system have thus far worked hard to block such an investigation.
The result is a metastasizing corruption at the heart of the polity. About the Capitol coup there is no shared reality. Nor is there a shared reality about the integrity of the election or of the legitimacy of the president it produced. To millions of Americans the legitimate president remains Donald Trump. A quarter-millennium of American history offers no precedent for this.
Danner also quotes former CIA analyst Martin Gurri, who emphasizes that all of our focus on Trump himself ignores the weaknesses of our institutions which allowed his destabilizing influence to fester and propagate throughout the American population. As Gurri wrote in his 2018 book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium , "The right level of analysis on Trump isn't Trump at all, but the public that endowed him with a radical direction and temper, and the decadent institutions that proved too weak to stand in his way." In Trump, we witnessed what Danner characterizes as not necessarily the emergence of a traditional autocrat, but rather the triumph and "embodiment-as-leader" of the online troll, the ones who, by perpetually railing against "elites" and stoking regional prejudices have eroded the institutions of former democracies such as Hungary, effectively transforming them into breeding grounds for autocracies.
In the U.S., a country that has never shaken off its strongest cultural impulse, racism, Trump has accomplished this erosion by harnessing the fears and antipathy of millions of Americans towards their fellow Americans of a darker shade of skin, and by exploiting their fears of "replacement" by immigrants. That's why Lachlan Murdoch's Fox News finds such a perfect target in Vice President Kamala Harris, who represents for its audience an amalgamation of everything they've been taught to fear. Fox News' relentless focus on Harris isn't simply an effort to thwart her chances at future election; it's to consolidate and intensify the xenophobic hatred necessary to keep Trump's Big Lie in circulation. Meanwhile, Murdoch is limited, by Biden's unbearable whiteness, to merely mocking his age and implying a decline in mental acuity.
In closing his essay, aptly titled "Reality Rebellion," Danner observes that the road-show aspect of the fraudulent "audit" of votes currently underway in Arizona, as well as similar efforts to sow distrust of valid electoral processes around the country, are all of a piece: namely, a strategy to tie that distrust to a concrete, physical event, no matter how fictitious or fanciful that event is. Danner quotes Special FBI Agent Clinton Watts, who explained on MSNBC how this "alternative reality" is being created for the purpose of stoking potential violence. Watts calls it a "Reality Rebellion," and describes it as: "[E]ssentially trying to create an entire atmosphere, a complete show ... Because if you create an action in the physical world it makes it seem all the more legitimate to use violence and to strike out."
According to Danner, the manifestation of violence is now all but assured as the formerly winking-embrace by the Republican Party of such domestic terrorists organizations as the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and Three Percenters has given way to a more fulsome acceptance; these groups are now coalescing as the necessary paramilitary wing that's characteristic of all fascist movements. With the groundwork for contesting all elections that do not end in their favor being laid, all that is necessary to galvanize the support of millions of Republican voters may be a single spark of violence.
Whatever they might do—kidnapping or assassinating public figures, staging bombings or mass shootings—it would take the efforts of only a handful of determined violent actors to overturn the politics of the country. Such actions would be intended to provoke the security organs of the "deep state" to overreact and make widespread arrests, thereby revealing its repressive character and encouraging more sympathy for the terrorists' cause. This dynamic would further radicalize those whose anger has already been stoked by the delegitimizing rhetoric of the Republican Party. Potential terrorists, perhaps for the first time in this country, have what is vital to make violent actions politically successful: a pool of millions of willing sympathizers.
When such violent acts occur, Danner believes they "will feed the radicalization of Republican policy in a fervid feedback loop."
Danner's point is that the consequences of ignoring the truth, of failing to move forward to fully address and condemn what occurred on Jan. 6, and failing to prosecute and condemn those who funded, planned and inspired it, have already begun to manifest themselves. The strategy evinced by President Biden, which seems to hope to quell such passions simply by demonstrating the virtues and competence of government, cannot possibly make up for that failure.
Our country is facing an unprecedented time, and it it is getting late in the game to stop what Trump and the Republican parties have set into motion. We continue to ignore the truth about these people at our own peril.