11 min read

Will We Be the Next Civilization to Lose Democracy? Plus, Trump’s Trial, Its Meaning, Violence and Agency, and The Allure of Fascism

Will We Be the Next Civilization to Lose Democracy? Plus, Trump’s Trial, Its Meaning, Violence and Agency, and The Allure of Fascism
Jeenah Moon

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Today—I say it with a little sigh—we’re going to talk about Trump’s trial, and then swiftly move on to bigger and better things. I sigh because, well…have we hit peak Trump yet?

The first criminal trial of an American President. But of course it’s much more than that, and that’s very much, I think, the wrong way to understand its significance.

It’s not really Trump who’s on trial. It’s democracy itself. Not just American democracy, but democracy, period. If America, after all, isn’t up to the job of democracy, who or what is?

So let’s begin with a little perspective.

"On its face, 2024 might seem like a triumph for democracy. With more than half the world’s population living in countries where legislative and presidential polls are scheduled, this is the biggest election year ever. But there is little cause for celebration, because all this voting comes at a time when democratic governance itself is on the ballot."

That comes to us from Bronwen Maddox, who’s the Director and Chief Executive of a think tank called Chatham House—perhaps the last sane institution left in a broken Britain. Bronwen is, if anything, understating the case, as figures in such roles have to do, speaking with diplomatic politesse. 

So let me unveil the portrait of a civilization in severe crisis. As we often discuss, democracy’s at just 20% of the world, declining at 10% a decade. Our media, sadly, isn’t much into reality these days, more Taylor Swift, and so this you won’t hear this incredibly disturbing fact many places except those like here. And yet this is the context for Trump’s trial—but it’s also why the trial isn’t really just about Trump.

America’s (Incredibly) Weak Response to Fascist-Authoritarian Meltdown

What do I mean when I say “democracy itself is on trial here?” American institutions have mounted a response to the rise of an authoritarian-fascist wave—but an incredibly weak one so far. One that almost raises the question: is this all the world’s most powerful democracy is capable of?

Some things are evident by their absence. And this trial is that sort of affair. It’s a small-time affair, in the annals of Trump’s abuses of power. It’s left up to New York State to prosecute Trump for hush money. But what hasn’t happened yet is the federal case for trying to…overthrow a democracy. 

That’s been lagging. It’s nowhere in sight. The proceedings and deliberations to even begin the case sort of drag on, half-heartedly, precisely because it appears nobody’s heart is really in this fight. Merrick Garland’s certainly isn’t—he’s the invisible man of the most important even of the early 21st century, which is whether or not democracy itself will prevail and persevere, or whether…

If 90% of a Civilization’s Not Democratic, is It?

The global far right wave will grow and go on, not cresting here. But subsuming democracy entirely. How little democracy is…the end of it? We’re at 20%. If Trump gets re-elected, which is a growing certainty at this point, and we’ll come back to that in a moment, that number drops to 15%. If the far right goes on sweeping the EU, we’re down to 10%. Is a civilization which is just 10% democratic really…democratic…at all?

It’s hard to argue that it is. If 90% of a civilization’s leadership, politics, and societies aren’t democratic, but something else—authoritarian, theocratic, fascist, illiberal, autocratic, pick your poison—it’s…difficult…let me put it nicely…to say that civilization is anything but mostly those things. What it certainly isn’t is democratic anymore.

That’s the trajectory we’re on.

I know you’re heard me say that before, but we need to say it again and again. And again. And…

Because it’s not sinking in. 

Think about the mood surrounding the Trump trial. What is it? People are hardly electrified. They’re sort of…wearily numbed. Maybe bemused for a moment, maybe repelled for a few seconds, and then they go back to shaking their heads. 

Politics is “out of fashion” these days. Facebook’s algorithmically de-promoting it, newspapers cover it less and less, those which cling to existence, anyways, and you get the sense that young people, apart from Gaza, could care less about democracy.

But that’s another way to way: the far right’s won the cultural battle. “Politics is out of fashion” just means “we’re all sick and tired of hearing about it all, and we’re sort of resigned that the future’s going to be less and less free, and there’s not much we can do about it.” 

Politics isn’t aesthetics. And it should never be reduced to mere aesthetics. Certainly not in a democracy. Because that belies what democracy is. The work of self-governance and self-determination, which falls on all our shoulders.

Or does it?

Is Democracy “Women’s Work”? And is Authoritarianism Patriarchy’s Revenge?

A very interesting fact emerged recently. 80% of America’s humdrum workers in the exercise of democracy, it’s sort of election officials, administrators, managers, vote counters, checkers, and so on…are women.

That’s a startling number. For many, many reasons. It raises the question: is democracy “women’s work?” I don’t mean that in a disparaging sense, rather, in the classical feminist one. The first wave of feminists pointed out that the demands of caring for households, emotionally and materially, nurturing, tending, guiding—they fell disproportionately on women.

And it appears that that’s true at a kind of sociopolitical level, too. If women were the ones who took care of the household—and received no credit for it—then it seems as if women, too, are the ones taking care of the house of democracy.

And what are they receiving in return? Violence. Threats. Intimidation. Certainly not anything like a fair income, because this work is incredibly devalued, and so it barely pays much at all. In other words, democracy itself appears to be gendered.

And its downfall, too, looks gendered. It’s hard not to see that the far right is made of…men. Loud, shouting men, of a certain kind, whom you’ll find all over YouTube, encouraging violence against women, even preaching the virtues of sexual slavery, and getting algorithmically promoted as a result, because of course, that algorithm itself just reflects the values of other men, who appear to think all the above isn’t just OK, but healthy, funny, desirable, and good.

Then there are the strongmen. There are a few women, to be sure, like Giorgia Meloni, but the strongman remains a robust way to explain what’s happening to the world, precisely because at the root of democracy’s troubles are a wave of demagogues, who are mostly men, backed by a certain kind of man, advised and counseled by men, and so on.

And all of that brings us right back to Donald Trump. What’s this trial really about? It’s about a sort of gendered violence. Not physical violence, maybe, but hush money, silencing, the removal of agency. From a woman. Because she was a “porn star.” Trump colluded with another man—the head of a tabloid—to literally “kill” her voice and agency and credibility.

And if you expand that picture, remembering that democracy itself is taken care of, as we know now, by women, then of course, laying waste to it is another form of gendered violence. That should make eminent sense, in the bigger picture, because, well, what is democracy? It’s not just “voting”—even Russia has that. It’s the expansion of rights, the enlargement of freedoms, so that everyone in society enjoys fuller and fuller personhood. So they have self-determination and self-determination, and can thus give it back to society, too.

All that is what democracy really is, and it’s why when we analyze if a society is really democratic or not, or just a sham, one of the first things we look at is: do women have rights? How about minorities? How about different social groups, who have been historically abused and marginalized? If they don’t, of course democracy as a process, as a lived experience—it isn’t really there, and the exercise is just an illusion.

What’s on Trial is—and Shamefully Isn’t—Democracy Itself

That begins to highlight what’s on trial here, which is democracy itself. But now I hope that you understand what I mean, which is a subtle and deep thing. 

Democracy in all these respects, which…it seems sometimes…we barely even remember, consider, or think about much anymore. Do people have self-determination and agency? Who and how many? Or are they just things for powerful men to trample on? Even and especially when a crucial election’s at stake? Can their voices be “killed”? Can a strongman rip apart a house of democracy being tended to by the very opposite kinds of people—women, doing this work of nurturing and caring, humble ones, living everyday lives? 

All of this is violence. Make no mistake about it. And that is what’s really on trial here, in a deeper way. Does violence matter, in any of these respects? Should a democracy—or anyone in it—endure these forms of violence, from being silenced, to having their agency removed, to being devalued and intimidated and attacked?

Those are concepts, perhaps, which cut a little too deep for some. They’d like to see all this in an kind of superficial way—a porn star, a tabloid, a bellowing demagogue, ha-ha, what a spectacle. But that spectacle is only there, in this tawdry sense, to conceal the truer truths, which is that…

So far, this is the best American democracy can do to defend itself. That’s chilling. Trump, like I said, hasn’t gone on trial for any of the other, much more severe, and much more visible forms of violence. The physical violence of Jan 6th. The social violence of camps and “family separations.” The political violence of encouraging brutality and harm. So far, American democracy hasn’t been able to defend itself against any of those things, the rule of law seeming to stop working entirely when and where they’re concerned. And so this is what we’re left: a woman, hush money, an election. The harm done was very real, but the rest of the violence, so far, has gone profoundly unaccounted for.

The Future of Civilization, and Whether or Not Democracy’s Part of It

And all of that raises questions, troubling ones, about America’s future—and the world’s. 

Trump is currently the front-runner for the next Presidency. Even after all the forms of violence we’ve just discussed.

Does that mean that…that many people approve of it? Probably not. Just the hardcore fringe does. And yet it does mean, or appear to, that many, many people are willing to…what? Overlook it? Minimize it? Forget about it? Trivialize it? All that and more. 

Trump has made violence banal. That is what’s on trial here, too. Is the degeneration of democracy into violence, brutality, hate, spite, “killing”—again, remember, that is what happened to this woman and her voice, and it’s a few steps from there to more “real” forms of it—something that’s just…commonplace? Ordinary? That permeates the air we breathe, like pollution, so much that we sort of sigh when we encounter it, and…look away? 

This was Arendt’s point about the banality of evil. That it became something ordinary, though, of course, it should have been regarded as extraordinary. And that was due to a kind of process: small steps, then giant leaps, in which spite, hate, brutality, and violence became so commonplace, the average person learned to, was taught to, felt they were left with no option with but to…shrug. 

Hey, that’s life. What do you want? That’s what all this is. Just eternal conflict, in which the strong dominate the weak, and take what’s theirs away. They did it to me, after all, and left me broken, left my entire social class ruined. And so why shouldn’t it happen to someone else, in an even worse way? If the strong took away my dignity, livelihood, community, profession, and future—why should that person or that group’s voice, rights, freedoms, even existence be taken away? And why shouldn’t I back it, because, like I said, that’s all life is.

How Fascism Allures—and then Destroys—a Society’s Mind, Heart, and Soul

This is how a society turns fascist. The great philosophical shift which occurs, often going unnoticed, until it’s far too late. People turn pessimistic, in the truest of ways, giving up on the belief that there can be anything more to life, to human existence, than eternal conflict, domination, aggression, and power. When you believe that, of course, things like self-determination and self-governance, let alone cooperation, peace, justice, and truth—they become what you agree should be stamped out, for all, because, of course, that’s what happened to you, so why not someone else, even worse, because that way, at least you get the satisfaction of a kind of cheap revenge.

This process appears to be playing out not just in America, but around the world. People are giving up on democracy in this deepest of ways. On its ontology, if you like, what it says we are, what life is, being is, can be, should be, must be. And instead, they’re beginning to accept an ontology much more like fascism. You can see it most clearly in, perhaps, the way the YouTube influencers we all know about dehumanize women, and call for them to be non-persons, and are met with rapt applause. But of course it’s also the essence of what Trump’s message is. They took everything away from you, so now, take everything away from everyone. Beginning with democracy itself, and ending with…what?

Personhood. Peace. Justice. Truth. Modernity. You know the list, but really stop to reflect on all that for a moment, this process, how it works, and where we are in it.

The average person probably doesn’t know any of that, of course. We accept ontologies, theories of being, subtly, not often overtly. They grip us on an unconscious level, first, soothing our hidden resentments and buried grievances, and in that way, lend us the strength to go on another day. The conscious mind only begins to “ask question.” It’s not until a demagogue comes along, usually, and makes it all explicit—they’re not people, you’re superhumans, the point of life is domination and power, and the purpose of existence is conflict—that the drugged, beaten, half-asleep mind suddenly wakes and understands they’ve had an ontological shift. 

All of that is what’s on trial here. Is America having just such an ontological shift? Some would argue, given it’s sordid history of segregation, that it never really had the other one, the truly democratic one, in which all people were regarded as genuine equals. Certainly, America’s level of development has remained stunted, and social divisions never really healed or mended. But to me, that’s the kernel of truth in this trial. Why democracy itself is on trial. Not just in procedural ways—can it defend itself?—but in much, much weightier and deeper ones. Is it still a way of being that people accept, cherish, treasure, and wish to enact? Is its ontology of equality and peace something that people are ready to enact—or have they fallen for the Biggest Lie of all, that the universe’s purpose is just conflict and life’s point only domination?

These days test all of us. More deeply than most of us know. They’ll echo throughout history. We won’t be the first civilization to lose democracy. But we may well be the next one.

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