by Riley Clare Valentine
Wednesday January 6, 2021 the United States Capitol was overrun by a mixed group of people—from white supremacists, fascists, libertarians, populist Trump supporters, and people who felt angry and disenfranchised from the State—we saw this group of people threaten politicians with death and violence. Many Americans sat back, watching insurrectionists swarming the Capitol in horror, but not surprised. Trump’s presidency and Republican politicians’ refusal to disavow his authoritarianism led to this moment. While many Americans are in favor of authoritarianism, traditionally American politics has been a force of quelling popular calls for authoritarianism.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1939 State of the Union Address spoke to these Americans:
I hear some people say, “This is all so complicated. There are certain advantages in a dictatorship. It gets rid of labor trouble, of unemployment, of wasted motion and of having to do your own thinking.”
My answer is, “Yes, but it also gets rid of some other things which we Americans intend very definitely to keep—and we still intend to do our own thinking.”
Roosevelt’s response to these theoretical authoritarians should remind us that democratic ideals are difficult to uphold. Pluralistic democracies necessitate that we have a culture of deliberation, conversation, and understanding. Insofar as we live together, we must be able to understand one another—even if we disagree. Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes might be successful at providing some citizens security, but at a price. Roosevelt lists these—spiritual values; capital confiscation; freedom of religion; fear of associating with wrong neighbors; having children unable to exercise their free will and thought. Democracy requires that we shoulder responsibilities for our neighbors, and this may be heightened taxes and curbs to freedoms. However, these sacrifices ensure that we have a “living and not a dead world.” Even though we may want a different world, if we allow a different world to erupt from authoritarianism, we run the risk that it may a dead world.
Contemporary Republicans seem to have lost Roosevelt’s concern with having a dead world. Republican discourse leans into an outright rejection of democratic ideas necessary for a pluralist democracy. Texas Senator Ted Cruz on January 7th stated that if he had to do it all again, he would still support his objections to the 2020 presidential election results. Throughout the 2020 election, many Republican Senators and Representatives supported and furthered Trump’s claims that the election was “stolen” and when challenged Republicans turned to language of “belief.” Despite a lack of evidence, their “beliefs” in potential election fraud justified an investigation.
Contemporary Republicans deal in authoritarian populism and traffic in fear. They reject claims of normative truth. They reject the importance of deliberation, as the individuals who want to deliberate are the people who we should be skeptical of. Republicans regularly charge Democrats, leftists, and conservatives who disagree with them as harmful to American democracy. Senators such as the Alaskan Republican Lisa Murkowski has been occasionally labeled a “Never-Trumper” for drifting from party lines in her voting record. The backlash to party members who disagree with the Trump administration signals a deep polarization grounded in a racist, xenophobic, sexist, and antisemitic populism.
Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the transition of administration has pushed America into a reckoning with itself and led to America’s heightened political polarization. Roosevelt’s plea to authoritarian Americans that they remember democratic values, is emblematic within Democrats calls for Republicans to reject populism. A journalist following the insurrectionist mob covered the attacks of white mobs on Black people in D.C.—detailing the mob’s violence against Black strangers, and the police arresting individuals who fought back against the mob.
The mob on January 6th is not the first mob of Trump’s presidency. The rise of the white mob during the Trump administration has been consistent—from the images of neo-Nazis holding torches shouting “we will not be replaced,” an antisemitic dog whistle, to the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, and the constant attacks on Black communities we have seen the presence of the white mob. The white mob is described by Victor Luckerson as amorphic. Members of the white mob can show their faces because there will be little to no retribution. If they lose their jobs they can find another. They can rely on community support. The white mob has never disappeared from America, but authoritarian populism brought it to the forefront of white American’s consciousness. Sadly, Republican lawmakers refused to hear their constituents who disagreed, listening solely to the authoritarians.
Roosevelt points out that democratic values require thinking. Americans have a responsibility to think. Aristotle, that noted skeptic of democracy, pointed out that democracies require that citizens have the wisdom to know how to lead, and how to have true opinion. True opinion is developed and understood through deliberation, debate, and developing our collective wisdom as a people.
If we decide to either not listen or to speak in such a way that others cannot understand us, such as by repeating conspiracy theories as though they are facts, we actively erode the ability for democracy to function. Elected officials who no longer act as a balancing weight to white authoritarian citizens have contributed to a politics in which we no longer understand one another.
If our politicians cannot work together, then why should we the people be expected to? James Madison in Federalist 10 calls representatives “wise citizens.” They will be able to mitigate authoritarian populism with patriotism for everyone’s benefit, and they will do this through dialogue. If wise citizens cannot speak with one another, where does their wisdom go? Does it evaporate? Does it exist? Wisdom, Madison believed, would be the virtue that could balance American politics—preventing the young country from splintering due to political factions. Armed insurrection, for Madison, was a horrifying political outcome that we must try to prevent. Representatives should act as the final stop to violent insurrection. American politics has revolved around the preservation of democracy and the prevention of violent political dissolution. Madison could not conceive of our political world as a possibility. The American republic was meant to prevent the crumbling of democratic norms which we see before us.
Trump’s popularity has brought about a breakdown in political dialogue and a rise in authoritarianism. Biden’s presidency will have a significant challenge before it, but that challenge includes a frank recognition of where we are. Many Americans support domestic authoritarianism. Many politicians support this as well, or at least purport to support authoritarianism to keep their seats. Americans must decide whether or not we will speak with (and for) one another. Republicans will have to decide whether they wish to continue to adhere to Trumpian populism, or whether they will break with party lines and join those who they maligned.
We must decide whether we will quell the immediate surge of anger and disgust and try to understand the other person—in all of themselves. Pluralistic democracies require a shared language. If we fail to hear one another, then we have given up on democracy. If someone refuses to hear us, then preservation of democracy means that we must be able to have someone else to draw on who can have that conversation. It is impossible that all of our conversations will be effective in reaching an understanding. The greatest threat to authoritarianism is mutual intelligibility. The greatest aid to authoritarianism, as Hannah Arendt notes, is simply passing by and not thinking. If we refuse to take the initial step, then we leave America open to authoritarianism.
I am not contending that we give allowances for bigots to voice their bigotry. But when a bigot speaks, it is crucial that someone who they will listen to speaks to them. White supremacy wants the nation to continue as it has been. It does not want change. By taking the step to speak, we initiate change. Authoritarians celebrate the myth of white exceptionalism via the Founding Fathers and a static nation that embodies that whiteness. They see the historical whiteness of our government as proof that America is stable when government positions are held solely by white people. Pluralism and the push for accurate representation pushes against these myths.
By talking and humanizing one another (and ourselves), we disrupt the authoritarianism’s need for an illegitimate foe. We are thinking speaking beings. By virtue of this we innately contain the ability to fight authoritarianism amongst our fellow citizens.
Riley Clare Valentine is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Louisiana State University. Their research focuses on language, neoliberalism, and care ethics. They have been a street medic since Occupy and were trained in Occupy Atlanta. Since then, they traveled to protests across the country as a medic, participated in disaster response, and continue their work as a street medic. Beyond their grassroots organizing, they have also worked on campus changes at LSU for other LGBTQ+ individuals.
 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “State of the Union,” American History, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/franklin-delano-roosevelt/state-of-the-union-1939.php.
 Alex Samuels and Patrick Svitek, “After Riot at the U.S. Capitol Ted Cruz Faces Blowback for his Role in Sowing Doubt in Biden’s Victory,” Texas Tribune, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/01/07/ted-cruz-riot-capitol/.
 Jan-Werner Muller, What is Populism? (Penguin UK, 2017).
 Luke Mogelson, “Among the Insurrectionists,” The Atlantic, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/01/25/among-the-insurrectionists.
 Victor Luckerson, “Living in the White Mob,” The Atlantic, https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/living-in-the-age-of-the-white-mob.
 James Madison, “Federalist 10,” Bill of Rights Institute, https://billofrightsinstitute.org/primary-sources/federalist-no-10.