When Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was famously asked what kind of government had been proposed for the new nation. His reply, "A republic, if you can keep it," has greater meaning this Independence Day that it has had for a long, long time. What made Franklin quip about the difficulties of "keeping" it? Franklin, like all the Founders, worried about mob rule, fueled by demagogues who could whip up the emotions of otherwise normal individuals. They worried about the extreme democracy that political philosophers of the time warned might come, should any nation take itself out of the system of Monarchy and the Divine Right of Kings. For if ordinary men could vote, they could also be swayed, and swayed by emotional appeal. The danger would not be too little democracy, but too much.
These things should give every Trump supporter pause. The Founders, who are supposedly revered most by the conservatives in the Republican Party, deliberately steered as far away from direct democracy as they could, while giving citizens both responsibilities and rights. They were students of history, and history up to that time had a lesson to teach about democracy; that it could be used by hot-headed rabble-rousers to create what is politely referred to in political philosophy as "mob rule." Most people miss this when they study, very briefly, about democracy in their 10th grade Civics class, or their freshman class in Government. They only recall that democracy is a good thing, and that it was first used by the Greeks. But that's only half the history.
When the Greeks experimented with full-throated direct democracy, they discovered voters were soon being manipulated by the silver-tongued orators who became expert in whipping up an emotional crowd. They were called Sophists, and to this day "sophistry" is defined by Merriam Webster as "the use of reasoning or arguments that sound correct but are actually false." Sophistry was not a harmless method of arguing. It led to the Athenians making dreadful mistakes that led to the fall of the first democracy. Plato described how the Sophists whipped up the crowd to vote to kill an elderly philosopher named Socrates, who was accused of not being patriotic because he asked questions. Sophists had already used the natural patriotism of the Athenians to talk them into a disastrous war that led to the ruin of their city. Sound familiar? The Founders knew all about sophistry, and so they worried about sustaining a democracy. "A Republic, if you can keep it," said Franklin, knowing full well there are ways to "lose" it.
Donald Trump fancies himself to be acting in ways that the Founding Fathers would approve of, in his crusade to "take back the country." To "make America great again" as if he is bringing us back to our Founding principles. But if anyone deserves the title of Sophist in Chief, it is Donald Trump. I believe the Founders are spinning in their graves at the notion that this man could even become the nominee of one of our two great political parties. The Founders, scared to death of mob rule, devoted to science and rational argument, would have signed up as Never Trump in a heartbeat.
This election season has given us plenty of examples of what mob rule actually looks like. It looks like a Trump rally. Reasoned argument and policy disagreements are replaced by emotional fervor. Once a crowd is whipped up into emotional fever, it doesn't much matter if there are facts or evidence. The only thing of importance is gut feeling, which is celebrated by Trump supporters as being "authentic." Now, "authentic" used to mean "without spin," like someone who was communicating deeply held principles regardless of personal political consequences. But in the hands of Trump, "authentic" has become a synonym for allowing the worst parts of human nature to control politics. Thus, white supremacists love the Trump campaign, because they get to be "authentic," they get to spew forth their toxic racism in public and revel in it.
Of course, it would be wrong to equate Trump's supporters with the white supremacy movement. Some, to use Trump's own phrase, are good people. But they are paying little attention to the best parts of themselves, the parts that are calm and deliberate and not quick to take offense, while they exult in each angry syllable that Trump shoots directly from his hip.
Every preaching populist has used, in one way or another, the idea that they, and they alone, could make their country "great" again. They all begin with a kernel of truth, a genuine grievance. But then, instead of putting forth rational policies for reform, they pivot to raw emotion, to name-calling and mud-throwing, encouraging hatred and anger because it brings raw power, the roar of the crowd. They confirm each other biases and assume that their cause is just without stopping to think much about the consequences. Brexit, anyone?
The real patriots this July are the Never Trump crowd, especially the Republicans who are willing to stand up publicly and oppose the misuse of their party by a dangerous blowhard who knows so little of history, but knows so much about marketing. This November, we can be proud of our history again, and reclaim the mantle of patriotism, all of us, by standing with Never Trump, against emotion and gut feeling, and for deliberation and science and reason. Or we can watch without taking action, while Ben Franklin and the other Founders roll in their graves.