American authoritarianism has a long history. What can it tell us about Trump and the battle for America’s soul?

By Emma Shortis | 2 July 2024
The Conversation

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

If you select “virtually any date in US history, it would be possible to find the same poisonous ingredients [… that] percolated violently to the surface on January 6th, 2021,” writes journalist and historian Nick Bryant in his new book, The Forever War: America’s Unending Conflict with Itself.

Over two centuries ago, in 1787, Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

The quote has been repurposed by Donald Trump’s supporters: you can even buy a MAGA T-shirt emblazoned with it.

According to Pew, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”

This often leads to the conclusion that Trump, especially, is uniquely unprecedented in US history – as is the particular threat he poses to American democracy. It seems contradictory, but this is both true and untrue.

Trump, and the movement behind him, is both new and old; times are unprecedented but also, to historians of America, frighteningly familiar. Bryant, a historian by training, meticulously makes sense of these contradictions, methodically unpicking the mythology of US history to clearly argue that Trump – and his support – is the product of that history.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly said this election cycle is nothing less than a “battle for the soul of America”, and that this is why he’s compelled to run again, aged 81. But as Bryant so clearly outlines, that battle has been raging for centuries. In the context of its divisions and inherent violence, is it even possible to argue America has one “soul”?

The battle is, and perhaps has always been, over which soul – which version of America – should reign supreme, and who gets to decide. In that sense, the attempted insurrection on January 6 2021 was not a departure from America’s history, but a continuation of it.

“All politics is history. All history is politics,” Bryant writes. And that is the only way, really, to understand modern America and what is at stake in the November elections.

‘Like he had already been embalmed’

The dismal spectacle of the first presidential debate last week – in which democracy did not appear to be a priority, Biden stumbling dramatically and Trump lying constantly – certainly highlighted what is at stake. For Biden and his entire political career, and for US democracy.

Bryant is one of few commentators who saw, early on, what Biden’s age meant – beyond shallow observations that he is just too old to be president.

In one of many illuminating anecdotes, Bryant recalls an image of Biden’s 2021 inauguration ceremony that has stayed with him. In a city overtaken by troops “dressed in full combat fatigues, with M16s, the military version of the AR-15, strapped diagonally across their flak jackets”, all in the expectation of more violent attacks on the democratic process, Bryant is struck by a cardboard cutout of Biden in the lobby of his hotel.

The one-dimensional image of the future president, he writes, made him look like “he had already been embalmed”.

In his definitive article, written in January 2020 when Biden was still the outside candidate for Democratic presidential nominee, Irish writer Fintan O’Toole called him “the most gothic figure in American politics”.

In perhaps some of the more prescient analysis of Biden’s presidency and career, O’Toole observed:

He is haunted by death, not just by the private tragedies his family has endured, but by a larger and more public sense of loss.

That “public sense of loss”, in the immediate sense, is an enduring, collective grief for the “murdered Kennedys” – President John F. Kennedy, assassinated in 1963, and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, killed five years later.

Their mythology endures, and has even been reignited by Biden’s debate performance – worse even, some commentators have claimed, than when a sweating Richard Nixon was obliterated by a made-for-TV JFK in the first televised debate 60 years ago.

The enduring problem of US politics, as Bryant identifies, is that it continually attempts to revive a mythical past, while eschewing the messiness of history. Nowhere is this clearer than in the ever-present mythology of the Kennedys.

It’s reflected directly in this election race too: RFK’s son Robert F. Kennedy Jr is running as an independent candidate for president, attempting to repurpose his uncle’s original campaign for the presidency while his family instead supports Biden.

For Bryant, Biden and the broader myths of US history are focused on “American absolution”, at the expense of addressing the deep, historical divides that keep the US locked in its “forever war”.

Bryant suggests this is something that many who cover modern America, particularly the Trump phenomenon, fail to do.

The first failure, according to Bryant, is a lack of historical understanding. An inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to “properly excavate the past” was, and arguably still is, “an “analytical shortcoming of the media as a whole”. Bryant seems to include himself in this.

But his historical training compels him to do that excavation, making him relatively unusual. He recognises:

Rather than being an aberration, Trump’s victory in 2016 was the culmination of political, sociological, economic, technological and cultural shifts that went back decades. His presidency had almost become historically inescapable.

Bryant’s work of history is as unflinching as it is accessible. It traverses the history of the “imperial presidency”, the “original sin” of enslavement (and how its legacy is enshrined in the living Constitution). It also covers the cyclical white backlash to any non-white or non-majority advancement – or even, often, to the perception such advancement might be possible.

Reading The Forever War, you can sense the inescapable, contradictory nature of US history and power.

Bryant seeks to understand, too, how that power has been used. From the nation’s founding, he writes, “The question of presidential power was inadequately addressed.” The presidency, he demonstrates in a particularly important analysis, has always had extraordinary powers. These have been tested, stretched and expanded by most of the men who have occupied the White House.

This allowed for the most egregious cases of “abuse” of the powers of the office by presidents such as Andrew Jackson, who oversaw the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, and Nixon, who famously attempted to influence an election outcome. Bryant shows, while skilfully avoiding the temptations of false equivalence, that the “imperial presidency” existed long before Nixon came to office.

Even the most revered of presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, “expanded the powers and prerogatives of the executive branch”. Lincoln raised an army (when that should have been the role of Congress) and negated habeus corpus, allowing the government to hold people indefinitely without charge. This in turn “paved the way for the arrest of as many as 15,000 Americans, some of whom were apprehended simply for singing Confederate songs”.

The presidency, Bryant argues, “was always open to abuse”. The failure to adequately define and constrain presidential power allowed for it. But more than that, the fairly consistent reaction to this abuse – or lack of reaction – shows how “Americans could live with a president who violated the rules, especially if he embodied positiveness and national strength.”

In that sense, Bryant argues with signature flair, “when it comes to authoritarianism in America Trump walked through a half-open door”. And that door may be widening.

Just yesterday, in a decision that is sending shockwaves through US politics, the Supreme Court ruled that former presidents, including Trump, are entitled to some degree of immunity from criminal prosecution. The presidency, as Bryant observes, has always been uncomfortably close to a monarchy. This decision brings it ever closer.

American authoritarianism

The stakes for US democracy keep on rising. The second failure of the media in this regard, Bryant argues, is that it has not quite understood, and perhaps more importantly, not adequately covered, the particular nature of Trump’s “authoritarianism”.

“We were covering an abnormal presidency while trying to abide ourselves by normal rules of journalistic engagement,” writes Bryant. (Of course, others have noted this, too.) This problem led to adverse findings by the BBC’s complaints unit against Bryant himself.

It found his coverage of Trump was “not offset by the limited, and relatively restrained, criticism of the Democrats, Joe Biden and Congress”. In one case, Bryant had simply observed that Trump was engaged in “mind-bending truth-twisting” – something the former president of course did again just last week, in a nationally televised debate watched by 51 million Americans.

The now widely caricatured insistence on “both-sides” coverage led to a perverse situation: “in trying to remain normal, we normalised him”. That is, they reported him as “a rogue president rather than an aspiring autocrat or, as he later became, a fully fledged authoritarian”.

This normalisation, long a point of contention both inside and outside the US, has not shifted – or certainly not enough. At least partly, Bryant argues, this is due to what he labels a “better America bias” held by much of the media, which indulges in the very myth-making Bryant so carefully deconstructs.

The US is, after all, as Biden put it – even as he crashed and burned on stage – “the most admired country in the history of the world”.

For Bryant, the deconstruction of the myth of America is not so much a criticism as an observation. He too found it “journalistically thrilling” to follow “the road to the White House” during election years, he writes. And it is thrilling. In newsrooms across the West, including in Australia, that thrill is professionally as well as personally rewarding: the job of US correspondent is highly sought after.

Bryant’s great contribution is that he clearly shows there is no such thing as that “better America”. In fact, American exceptionalism – the enduring belief, to put it crudely, that the US is the best country in the world – “has blinded it to the ways in which it is unusually bad”.

Terrible, sometimes beautiful

America, does not, as Bryant shows, hold some claim to “unique goodness”. It only is what it is: a terrible, sometimes beautiful mix of a contradictory and violent history. A place forever at war with itself.

Making sense of that is an ongoing political – and often personal – struggle for those of us who follow along, however closely, from the outside. Bryant’s own journey is punctuated by moments of particular intensity in that regard.

Like many of us who have spent time in the US, he was often confronted by the particular horror of school shootings – not least because his own children attended US schools and participated in lockdown drills. “In the back of our minds – and too often in the forefront – was the unsettling thought that our son and daughter’s classrooms could be targeted.”

Though Bryant acknowledges “that might read like hyperbole”, it most certainly is not. Twelve children are killed by gun violence in the US every single day. “Since Columbine in 1999,” Bryant continues, “it has been estimated that more than 356,000 students have experienced firsthand gun violence at school.”

Living with that gut-wrenching fear alongside the apparently unshakeable “better America bias” remains fundamentally inexplicable and irreconcilable. Simultaneously, it explains so much about the America Bryant reveals.

America is haunted by death, to once again return to Fintan O’Toole. It is no wonder Bryant, like so many of us, is compelled to understand it, is drawn continually back to it – while at the same time needing, often, to “get out”.

History, though, is inescapable.

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