Collage with original image by Merja Partanen from Pixabay. - Photo: 2024

This Hair on Fire Moment

By James E. Jennings*

ATLANTA, Georgia | 29 June 2024 (IDN) — Patriot hero Paul Revere risked his life to warn American colonists in 1775 that British troops were coming to impose the monarchy and take away their liberties.  A month earlier Patrick Henry roused patriots in the Virginia Assembly when he shouted, “Give me liberty or…death!”

George Washington wrote his fellow citizens from the snows of Valley Forge begging support, saying that unless there are better provisions for the Continental Army, Britain’s “Schemes for subjugating these States and bringing them under her despotic rule will be unceasing.”

Today many of America’s most thoughtful leaders and the majority of our citizens believe we are at a similarly perilous moment in the life of the Republic. MAGA extremists have taken over the Party of Lincoln and a certified autocrat is poised to win the presidency. So why are people not in emergency mode?

But most Americans yawn when they hear that the pathetically comic Donald Trump might possibly win the election in November. Most predictions are that it will be a close contest with the outcome uncertain, but after President Biden’s weak—not to say disastrous—performance in the TV debate on June 27, it seems likely that the Republican candidate will win.

Why is our hair not on fire? What’s wrong with normal Americans, that we are not passionate about protecting our freedoms?

USA: A tired civilization?

This ho-hum attitude is another sign of the times. We live in an era when anything goes, when values are themselves devalued, even when our most precious possessions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are at risk in an uncertain future.

These are indications of a tired civilization, a jaded population, a “bread and circuses” mentality. Don’t blame Trump. Don’t blame the media. Look in the mirror and you’ll see yourself in this picture.

As a former academic and an international activist for peace, I am alarmed. Why? Because it has all happened before. Simply read about the devolution of Greece into warring factions in the pages of Thucydides and Polybius, or of Rome’s lapse into autocracy and eventually tyranny in the histories of Suetonius and others, and you will be alarmed.

They document the fact that a tired society actually wants autocracy. It prefers “law and order” under a strong, even if rapacious, government, to the present confusing state of affairs. Even if you don’t usually read ancient history, you must certainly remember that the exact scenario they described actually happened again in Germany not so long ago, within living memory.

Whether or not the infamous hustler and artful dodger—and now convicted criminal—Donald Trump becomes President in 2025 is almost beside the point:  Americans want their civic religion of hubristic pride back again whatever the cost.

It is best signified by the meaningless but ominous chant: “USA! USA! USA! The subtext of that “patriotic” outburst is the lust for authoritarian power at home and the world domination that it implies.

Learn from history

The historian Dio Cassius recorded a fascinating exchange in 27 BC between the Roman Emperor Augustus and his advisors on whether democracy or autocracy is the best form of government. Augustus’ best friend Agrippa urged democracy, as in the Republic, allowing the People’s Will to predominate.

Maecenas counseled taking all the power of government into his own hands. Augustus decided to take and keep supreme power, but to make it appear that democracy was still in existence. Gradually the truth became apparent, leading eventually to the despotism of Tiberius and Nero.

The point is not that somebody long ago seized supreme power; that has happened repeatedly in history. No—the reality is that the people—at least a majority of the influential ones—actually desired a kind of kingship rather than a citizen-controlled commonwealth type of government.

After Augustus made a long speech to the Senate, the Senators loudly clamored, “shouting and begging for a monarchial government and urging every argument in its favor, until they forced him, as it was made to appear, to assume autocratic power.”

Actually, the historian wrote, “He was eager to establish the monarchy in very truth (Dio Cassius LIII.11.5).” Once emperor, Augustus even refused the title “Dictator,” because he already possessed unlimited powers superior to that office and did not want to arouse further opposition (Dio Cassius LIV.1.3).

So, he became a kind of super dictator, a king in all except the title, based on the urging of his followers.

The problem is not that the American electorate will choose either Trump or Biden or a third candidate in this particular election in 2024. It is that people in the United States today are not happy, despite living in “the best of times/the worst of times.”

Many citizens, if not most, feel alienated, insecure, disconnected, disempowered, and seek a champion to make things better.  They want an authoritarian to take charge.

Even if a democrat is elected in 2024, the damage to the old American Republic and our institutions—notably Congress and the Supreme Court—has already been done. Witness the Senate’s refusal to convict Trump of certifiably impeachable offenses, and the Supreme Court’s apparent willingness to exempt the presidency from legal accountability under certain laws.

Unless there is a major rollback of existing social, intellectual, and economic conditions and re-establishment of “The Spirit of the Laws,” as Montesquieu and our founding fathers believed, some future Trump will emerge, and rather soon. It is therefore supremely important that you—and the surviving disciples of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln wake up quickly and prevail.

Go to the ballot box and vote for Democracy. If not, our future is guaranteed to fall into the hands of those angry enough to continue tearing down our republican (small r) institutions.

This is a perilous moment. Why is your hair not on fire?

*James E. Jennings, PhD, is President, Conscience International and Executive Director, US Academics for Peace. www.conscienceinternational.org [IDN-InDepthNews]

Collage with original image by Merja Partanen from Pixabay.

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