If you are applauding that a Congress reconvened in the ravaged Capitol marks a victory for democracy, think again.
If you believe that the end of the Trump presidency and Joe Biden’s ascension assures a future of decency, you need to recalibrate your expectations.
The wave of populist nationalism sweeping America is only in its infancy. From Texas to Florida to Wisconsin, voter suppression, claims of stolen elections, and cultural backlash will only grow more toxic. Trump and his allies are unrepentant. Amidst the shards of glass and broken doors of our Capitol, 145 members of Congress still proudly stood as God-fearing Christians to disenfranchise the voters of Pennsylvania, undeterred by the assault on democracy they had just witnessed. Patriotic statements and claims of victory cannot hide the truth that American democracy remains threatened at its core.
Defenders of our human and civil rights must deconstruct the logic that underpins this massive assault on democracy. We begin with a wakeup call from history that, until Jan. 6, seemed a preposterous comparison: In 1923, Adolf Hitler staged an assault on the German Weimar Republic in Munich. It failed. He was arrested and humiliated, German leaders proudly claimed that democracy prevailed. In jail, he authored “Mein Kampf,” his blueprint to destroy the Republic. Ten years later, he was chancellor of Nazi Germany.
Our battle to save democracy has only begun.
In 1986, James Carse wrote about life’s “finite” and “infinite” games. He described the liberal democracies of the West as nations engaged in an infinite game in which one side never wins permanently and where the political systems comprise a range of checks and balances that keep the game going: regular and free elections, permanent professional bureaucracies, representative legislatures, local jurisdictions, independent courts, a free press, as well as unspoken norms and behaviors.
There are, of course, winners and losers to be expected in Carse’s infinite game, but the rules are sacrosanct and the game can be played forever, again and again, maintaining social and political equilibrium.
The finite game is different. In the finite game, the other side is portrayed as a demonic treasonous force that must be eradicated. The players of finite games seek to permanently win, ending the game with total victory. They abhor the conventions of liberal democracy because to lose is, to them, to be impotent – a loser. These players are united in their commitment to illiberal democracy.
Such illiberal political movements mobilize a populist fervor that attacks the core features of liberal democracy, like the courts and the free press, honest elections and a multicultural society. They often use religious tropes to inflame. In the finite game, rules are broken for partisan gain, propelling a nationalist patriotism, with claims that liberal democracy undermines American cultural integrity, saps its strength against enemies real or perceived, while demeaning both flag and faith.
Donald Trump, his enablers and successors remain dedicated to destroying the competition, gutting democratic standards and norms, and purging those institutions that seek to uphold them. And they are more dedicated than ever to end the democratic game.
In just the last four years, they promoted political violence and promulgated legislative and executive policies that undermine our institutions. They have used all forms of media to damage faith in what is factual and true. They have demeaned science at a horrible cost of life. They endorse full-throated racism as patriotism and ignore flourishing corruption and cronyism. And they cynically manipulate faith to promote America as a Christian nation. The violent assault in the Capitol that sent our elected representatives cowering is but one more successful move in the finite game of Trump and his followers.
This is how Donald Trump retained the passionate fidelity of 80% of Evangelicals and a solid majority of white Catholics, communities that once stood fervently for humility, chastity, honesty and integrity. Their hopes for a Christian reawakening of America remain paramount, and Trumpian leaders get it, wielding religious identity as a perverse tool to fuel their vicious, populist fervor. There is painful irony that a significant percentage of Orthodox Jews, in endorsing and enabling Trump, end up supporting this very Christian coalition.
As the police backed away, we witnessed how our liberal democracy might die.
One could easily argue that were it not for Covid, Trump would have been reelected president. His followers fill our Congress, occupy Federal agencies, and are found in the judiciary and state capitals. The invasion of the Capitol may have been quickly suppressed, but make no mistake: As the police backed away, we witnessed how our liberal democracy might die, not by foreign invasion, not in a burst of flames, but by the steady erosion of the infinite game that overwhelms our withered defenses. Trump and his minions remain committed to a knockout win in the game at whatever the cost, elections be damned.
And the game has just begun.
David Elcott is the Taub professor of practice at the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU and the author of “Faith, Nationalism and the Future of Liberal Democracy,” soon to be published by Notre Dame Press.