American democracy and the Big Lie

In November 1918, Germany’s military situation had become hopeless. Support for the Kaiser collapsed, he fled, and a new democratic government came in and signed the armistice ending the war. There was no alternative. But those democrats — including liberals, socialists, and especially Jews — were demonized for it. Blamed for supposedly somehow stabbing Germany’s army in the back.

That was a lie, cynically and knowingly cooked up to serve a political agenda. But it was widely believed by Germans unwilling to accept the humiliation of military defeat. The “stab in the back” myth loomed over the democratic Weimar Republic and corroded its perceived legitimacy; was exploited by Hitler in his rise to power.

This history was discussed recently on NPR. Why? Today America has the “stolen election” myth. The parallels are obvious and scary.

The January 6 insurrectionists cast themselves as battling for democracy, against an election steal. In fact they were accessories to an attempted one.

Trump had long made clear he’d falsely claim fraud to avoid accepting election defeat. But I didn’t realize what legs that lie would acquire. With most Republicans, a third of Americans, believing it as gospel. Like post-WWI Germans, rather than face up to defeat, they prefer to believe a lie that they were cheated of victory.*

The nativist right — for all its patriotism sanctimony — harbors a deep disaffection from the America they actually inhabit. As distinguished from their fantasy country, that they wanted to “make great again.” Actually, make white again, a key focus of their disaffection. And that disaffection is broadened and intensified by the “stolen election” lie. Convincing them that our government is illegitimate, the whole system rotten.

Trump’s trying to overthrow an election and inciting insurrection were crimes enough. But his greater crime was introducing into our body politic this toxic poison of the “stolen election” myth. It will plague us for years to come. Making it all the harder to restore some semblance of — well, not even unity, but just some comity, so we can at least manage to live together.

*        *        *

The age-old fear was democracy degenerating into mob rule. We got a taste on January 6. The other pitfall, seen in many countries, is one voting mistake giving you dictatorship, hard to undo. We’ve now had our own close shave with that as well.

As President Biden declared, our democracy did prevail. Our constitutional system a bulwark against both mobocracy and tyranny. But I keep saying — that’s not ordained by God. Democracy is not just a system but a culture. It cannot be sustained absent a citizenry with baked in democratic values. Which requires understanding those values, and too few Americans today really do.

Those who stormed the Capitol, invoking “the people’s will,” actually had their own understanding of that concept. What they really meant was their will. It wasn’t about who truly got the most votes. Only theirs were legitimate, others not. Especially Black ones. As Isabel Wilkerson suggested in Caste, many Americans want not a democratic country now so much as a white one.

* One more time: while Trumpers cite a raft of supposed “irregularities,” there’s zero evidence for anything that could have changed the outcome. None of Trump’s 60 lawsuits provided any. Even his toady Attorney General Barr agreed. Many election officials involved were Republicans. It all came from a man whose record of lies, if each were a mile, would circle the Earth. And why refuse to believe so lousy a candidate actually lost?

One Response to “American democracy and the Big Lie”

  1. Don Bronkema Says:

    Ante-Bellum, Weimar, Trump myths thrive on pseudo-righteousness.

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